Every morning and evening, after I’ve fed Lily, my cat, I leave the house and walk 100 metres across the garden to the garage. I open the garage door and walk to the bin store in the corner and put the empty cat food pouch in the bin.
Every morning and evening, after I’ve fed Lily, my cat, I look down at the empty cat food pouch in my hand and think, “I can’t be fucking arsed to walk 100 metres across the garden to the garage, to then have to open the garage door and walk to the bin store in the corner and put the empty cat food pouch in the bin.”
And yet I do.
I can’t ever really be arsed to put my dirty plates and cutlery straight into the dishwasher.
And yet I do.
I’d much prefer to just leave them in the sink.
I can’t ever really be arsed to cook.
And yet I do.
I’d much prefer to just bung a pizza in the oven.
I can’t ever really be arsed to file away the bills and documents that fill up the tray on my office desk.
And yet I do it.
I choose to put the cat food punch straight in the bin in the garage, because the other option is to put the empty cat food pouch in the bin under the kitchen sink. Where it sits for a few days and rots, and I end up having to disinfect the entire bin.
I choose to put my dirty plates and cutlery straight into the dishwasher, because the other option is to just leave them to pile up. And then at the end of the day, I want to cry at the Mount Everest of crusty crockery I have to sort through.
I choose to cook, because the other option is to just bung an 800 calorie frozen pizza in the oven each night. And then I feel like absolute shit a few hours later and wish I hadn’t.
I choose to file the documents straight away, because the other option is to keep shoving more and more documents in the “to file” tray and well, I just know I’ll never ever ever ever do it.
I’m standing in the living room of the old, rambling farmhouse we’ve just finished renovating. One hand on my hip, the other cupping my chin with my thumb and index finger, I hesitantly scan the room. “Are there just way too many types of wood in this room?” I ask my mother-in-law. She is standing to the right of me and watches, as I nod towards the oak wooden beams and then the pine floor and then the walnut coffee table and then the new dining chairs with the ash legs.
“No”, she replies in her direct and confident German way. “When we walk in the woods, there are so many different types of trees, and yet we don’t think there are too many types, do we? We just enjoy the trees.”
We just enjoy the trees.
She’s a wise woman, my mother-in-law.
I’ve spent nearly every day of the summer here in Germany walking in the woods. Sometimes with dear friends who came to visit—walking shoulder to shoulder as we put the world to rights—and sometimes I walked alone, lost in thought, dreaming and planning and pondering.
I thought so much about my mother-in-law’s wisdom about the trees. And each day, as I followed the long dirt-track trails through the woods, I spent a lot of time observing the trees. I began to notice just how different each tree was from the other. Some were tall and spindly with moss stretching all the way up their giant trunks. Some were small and squat with interesting shaped leaves. Some were streamlined—almost like they’d been planted with a mathematical ruler. And some grew chaotically, weaving their branches through neighbouring trees, making it hard for me to figure out just where one tree started and the other ended.
As I wandered and wondered, I began to notice exactly what my mother-in-law had described; that I did not compare one tree to another or even think much about each tree other than “Oh, that’s a tree!” I appreciated and enjoyed each tree exactly as it was, no matter how tall, small, wonky, spindly, odd-looking or overbearing. I did not compare the birch trees with the oak trees or the spruces with the beech trees or the trees I did not know the names of with the other trees I did not know the names of. I did not think “There are just far too many types of trees in this wood, all the trees should look the same and be the same.”
Wouldn’t it be great if we thought about each other in the same way?
I sobbed so hard that evening as I lay in my hospital bed. The pain was unreal. The nurses tried all sorts of different varieties and doses of painkillers, but nothing seemed to help.
I shared a room in the hospital with a 70-year old woman who had had knee surgery 2 weeks before. In her thick, German accent, she told me lots of stories about her life. Her ex-husband had been a very “bad man” to her, and one day, in the middle of the night, she snuck out with her two very small children and left. She never saw him again. She’d never had a relationship since. “Lots of male friends” she said, “but never a relationship.” She used to be a nurse. She held my hand as I cried that night and told me that I wouldn’t be in so much pain the next day. She was right.
I’m home now and doing a lot of sitting around with my foot elevated. I had a check-up with my doctor and he said my ankle is healing well. He also gave me a prescription for more painkillers and thrombosis injections that I must give myself each day.
I have a pretty big fear of needles and injections. I always have, and so the idea of giving myself an injection every day for the next month was terrifying. I bartered and pleaded with the doctor, asking him about statistics of thrombosis and whether it was really going to be likely that it would happen to me. He laughed and shook his head and explained that I had to have the injections. I sat there in his office and sulked like a 3 year old child.
Later that day, I spent the afternoon watching YouTube videos of people explaining and demonstrating how to self-administer injections One woman explained that if you put an icepack on your belly 20 minutes before giving yourself the injection, it can really help with the pain.
So that’s what I decided to do.
I dug an icepack out of the freezer and tucked it into the waistband of my jeans to cool the area I would inject. And then I waited. Nervously. Pacing on my crutches around the kitchen. Clock watching. The very thought of piercing my skin with a needle and causing myself pain was such a fucked-up concept in my head. Despite the cooling effect of the icepack on my body, I started to sweat.
After 5 minutes or so, the freeze of the icepack started to sting my stomach. It was a mild discomfort at first, but very quickly and sharply, it started to become pretty uncomfortable. I kept the icepack there though. I could handle the discomfort and the pain.
20 minutes was up.
I now had to give myself the injection.
“Just whack it in like a dart” was the advice from my partner, Kristin. Horrified, I grabbed my laptop, locked myself in my office, opened up Youtube and followed the gentle how-to-give-yourself-an-injection advice from this wonderful woman <https://lizgoodchild.us6.list-manage.com/track/click?u=ede380f8185e8e05d16f69aa3&id=6553701bd4&e=9e729374fd>. Shaking, I followed her instructions to the letter, took a deep breath and watched, in a wash of total horror and incredulousness, as the needle slowly pierced my skin by my very own hand.
Just as she’d promised. I felt no pain. Nothing. And yet each day since then, in the moments before I give myself the injection, the same fear from the day before and the day before that and the day before that, rises in me and I experience the fear all over again.
I fear the pain of the injection.
And yet interestingly, the actual pain comes from the icepack.
Which I happily tolerate despite the agonising discomfort it brings.
I’m sitting at my kitchen table eating avocado on toast with chilli flakes and lemon juice on top.
I gesture towards my partner, Kristin, who is standing a few metres from where I’m sat and I say, “Please can you pass me my blue cup, you know the one with the pattern on?”
My blue cup with a pattern on is my favourite cup of all time. It’s massive. It holds probably twice the amount of liquid that your average cup holds. If you’re a client of mine, you’ll probably know this cup because I generally drink herbal tea from it most coaching sessions.
Anyway, so, I ask Kristin to pass me the blue cup with a pattern on.
She nods her head and reaches for it and then says, “You do know this cup is not blue, right? It’s black.”
“No!” I scoff, “It’s blue. For sure!”
Kristin walks towards me with my blue cup with a pattern on and holds it right in front of my face. “See, it’s black!” she says.
I inspect it closely. I get up from the table and hold it under a light.
The cup is black with a pattern on.
I was so sure it was blue. So sure. 100% sure. I would-have-put-money-on-it sure.
And yet I was wrong.
Sometimes, the things we think and even know to be true—about people, situations, experiences from the past and anticipations about the future—are not actually true at all.
We just don’t see it. Because we’re so sure, 100% sure, put-money-on-it sure that we’re right. There’s really no reason to think otherwise.
Not last Saturday but the one before that, the residents of Hawaii were informed by text message that a ballistic missile was heading their way.
45 minutes later, they were subsequently informed that the initial warning had been a mistake and that it was safe to come out from shelter.
15 minutes after receiving this particular news, the website, Pornhub, an online platform for, you guessed it, watching porn, noticed that their page views surged +48% above typical levels.
It seems that the relief from the anxiety of believing they were going to be blown to smithereens, caused quite a few Hawaiians to go and seek, well, a little more relief.
We all do this, right? I mean, we don’t all watch porn, of course, but us humans do tend to seek relief from our emotions, often in food or drugs or shopping for things we don’t need or over-working or alcohol or gossiping or exercise.
Buddhists call this relief-seeking behaviour, shenpa.
Shenpa is the itch you just have to scratch. It’s viciously flipping off the lorry driver that just cut you up or downing 3 large glasses of Rioja when you’ve had a bad day at work. Shenpa is the constant seeking of reassurance from others or the drag of a cigarette when we feel anxiety creeping. It’s opening your mouth and saying something cruel in the heat of the moment, even though there’s another voice in your mind suggesting you stay silent.
Shenpa is the restlessness and agitation that arises in us from a strong, perhaps uncomfortable emotion. It’s the all-too-vivid experience of being hooked on an emotion, and disappearing into a vortex of relief-seeking behaviours and habits as a result.
I must admit, shenpa feels fucking lovely in the moment. It temporarily paves the path for us to escape our current reality and suffering and bullshit. It tends to numb and comfort and soothe in a twisted, self-righteous kind of way.
But it never ends well. Unless you’re watching porn to escape your emotions that is, and then, I suppose, there’s generally a pretty good ending….
I have been practicing not escaping my emotions for years now, especially the ones that bring up a lot of discomfort for me, like uncertainty and anxiety and fear.
This practicing has involved a lot of meditation and mindfulness and learning to notice my emotions and observing how I tend to want to escape from them when they arise. As my favourite teacher, Pema Chödrön—a Buddhist nun who is partial to the odd swear word from time-to-time—once wrote, “We use all kinds of ways to escape. All addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”
This is what I have learned about the ways I tend to escape:
When I am feeling sad or lonely, I notice just how much I feel the urge to eat pizza and potato croquettes and chocolate.
When I am feeling anxious, I notice just how much I fantasise about drinking wine (even though I gave up drinking alcohol at the end of 2016).
When I feel angry or irritated by something or someone, I notice just how much I feel the urge to complain and whine to anyone who will listen to seek some kind of validation that I am right.
When I feel worried or unsure about something, I notice just how much I feel the urge to reach for my phone and start Googling and looking for an answer even though I probably already know the answer.
When I feel nervous, I notice just how much I feel the urge to zombie-like scroll through Facebook or watch stupid videos about ghosts on YouTube.
When I feel uncertain, I notice just how much I ruminate. I think and think and think until I feel like my brain is going to implode.
When I feel scared, I notice just how much I feel the urge to quit, give-up or emotionally shut down.
When I feel frustrated, I notice just how much I shift my focus to blaming other people and things outside of me.
I pretty much do anything to not feel what I am feeling.
I am desperate to zone out or think my way out of the feeling.
And yet instead, for all these years now, I’ve been learning to just simply sit with my feelings.
Which makes it sound easy, doesn’t it? Just “simply” sitting with my feelings.
(It has not been easy at all.)
But as I research and read and delve deeper into Buddhist practices and mindfulness and the huge benefits of meditation, the more I am realising that most of my unhelpful or unhealthy habits and behaviours stem from my strong and very human resistance to feeling my feelings all the way through.
So feeling my feelings is what I’ve been learning to ‘do’ for quite a long time now.
And it’s been hard and very, very, very uncomfortable and I have mostly wanted to climb out of my own skin, to be honest, but somewhere, somehow, in the midst of all the staying present with my feelings, I have noticed that I have started to become much calmer and more curious and content than ever before.
It’s difficult to describe what happens, actually, but in all the focusing and noticing and observing of whatever emotion I am experiencing, I have somehow learnt to not respond so much to my urges. I don’t manage this all the time, of course. I still semi-regularly find myself in the freezer section of my local supermarket staring at pizzas or lost in a rabbit-hole vortex of video-after-ghost-video on YouTube, but I have become far more observant of my emotions and the knock-on behaviours they often stir up. I guess Buddhists would say that I am learning to be less-attached to my emotions so that I don’t feel so tormented and entangled in them like I used to.
This practice is something I help my clients with too, especially when they feel overwhelmed with ALL THE FEELINGS. I encourage them to be curious about their emotions and to observe them from different perspectives. I ask them, “How would you describe the anxiety you’re experiencing to an alien from outer space who has no concept of emotions?” or “Can you sit, even for just 90 seconds and allow the anger in you to rise without acting out or trying to make it go away? What happens then?”
I remind them that it’s a life-time practice. Because it is. Nothing happens overnight and it takes a considerable amount of dedication and patience to even slightly begin to tame our wild minds and inner 2-year olds.
But it’s worth it. And it’s pretty simple (yet also so, so hard) to do.
It takes courage too, I think. To just sit with your emotions. It feels—for me at least—a little like sitting in a room with a hungry tiger* and just sitting there with the fear. The urge to get up and run for the door can be incredibly overwhelming and uncomfortable.
I guess this is why, in so many ways, it’s far easier to just shout at your kid or the dog when you’re feeling irritable. Or, when you’re feeling scared out of your mind, to just reach for your laptop and watch porn, like half of Hawaii seemed to do a few Saturdays ago.
Anything to bring quick, mindless and easy relief, right?
*If you do ever find yourself in a room with a hungry tiger, I would not advise you to just sit there with the fear. I am not a tiger expert, but I cannot imagine this would end well at all.
The other evening, a dear friend of mine text me with, as she called it, a wording question. She’d been invited to a party, you see, by someone from her work who she doesn’t like very much, and was struggling to articulate how to RSVP with a “Thanks but no thanks” yet still be polite. In her text to me she said, “I don’t want to say I’m unable to come but should I make an excuse? I don’t know how to combine politeness and integrity!”
I text her back and suggested she write: “Thanks for the invite, however I won’t be able to come”.
With the holidays coming up, you too might be struggling a bit with the sudden blitz of festive party invites and family gatherings to go to. Maybe you’re feeling that you have to be part of the office ‘Secret Santa’, when really, you just think it’s stupid spending a tenner on a pointless gift for Andy in Accounts—who you barely even know—and yet you’re feeling the pressure and don’t want to say no.
I struggled for years with this. I would go to parties I didn’t want to go to and chip in for gifts I didn’t want to chip in for and smile and nod along and say “Yes, that’s fine!” when actually, it wasn’t fine, it was crippling.
It’s difficult to say “no”, isn’t it? Because when you say “no”, people might judge you and dislike you and think you’re not very fun and a party pooper.
Talking of party poopers, I decided to leave a party at 10.15pm last weekend, mostly because I was really tired and also because I am a raging introvert and don’t really like parties. It took me close to half an hour to actually leave though, because as I said goodbye to everyone, I was fire-hosed with “Don’t go!” “Just stay, for one more hour!” “But the party hasn’t even started yet!” and “Oh come on, don’t be boring!”
I left anyway. Despite the peer pressure to stay. Despite the nagging voice in my head that said, “Well, what if you are really boring and now everyone hates you and thinks you’re weird?”
The truth is, they might now think I am really boring. They also might hate me and think that I am weird.
I can just about tolerate this though. Because a) I know I cannot control or do anything about what other people think of me, and b) I am not obligated to do anything I don’t want to.
And the same is true for you.
You don’t have to go to the party. You too can say, “Thanks for the invite, however I won’t be able to come”.
You don’t have to spend every single Christmas with your parents and that weird old Aunt you only see once a year.
You don’t even have to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever festivity you think you have to celebrate! You might think it’s all a bit daft and commercialised and you can’t be bothered with all the faff. (A few years ago, before my kiddo arrived in the world, I chose to spend Christmas day on my own. I ordered a takeaway curry from my favourite Indian restaurant and watched Will and Grace re-runs all day long. It really was bliss).
You don’t need permission from anyone.
But if for some reason you feel like you do, here it is:
You can say “No”. Or “No, thank you” to the parties and the invites and the Secret Santa and the hours and hours and hours you feel you must spend with your family over Christmas when really, your family drive you slightly bonkers and each year you’re already tearing your hair out before your mum has even served up the trifle and everyone’s got a bit pissed and opinionated on Baileys.
You can say “No.”
You don’t always need a reason. You definitely don’t need an excuse.
You’re allowed to say “No” because that’s what feels right and the best thing for you*.
Over and out.
*This also applies throughout the rest of the year, not just at Christmas.
“I can’t see anything wrong with the bones in your ankle, the problem is definitely in your calf muscle” he added, standing up from his desk and gesturing me towards the door. My allocated 10 minutes with him were up. “It’ll be a quick operation, we’ll cut some tissue away from your calf muscle, then, once you’ve recovered, you’ll hopefully be able to run properly again. Just let me know what you want to do.”
I eyed him warily, “I’ll be in touch”, I replied and politely shook his hand as I left his office.
I did not have that operation.
I knew that there was something wrong with a bone in my ankle, not my calf. I could feel it kind of jamming up against another bone each time I ran. It wasn’t painful as much as uncomfortable, but I knew it wasn’t supposed to feel that way.
A few more years passed. A merry-go-round of appointments with physiotherapists and manual therapists and doctors and experts even more x-rays prevailed. No-one could pin-point the exact problem in my ankle, even though I described in detail what I was feeling. I even showed a physiotherapist what I thought was happening, on a foot skeleton model in his office, and yet he just smiled at me and told me to do the exercises he’d set me.
I did them, diligently. He knew better than me, right?
Still, nothing changed.
Several weeks ago, growing tired of getting nowhere, and fast, I demanded another x-ray on my ankle, nearly 4 years to the date since my ankle injury. My doctor—an awesome guy who is also a runner, so he gets my frustration—referred me to the best foot and ankle specialist in the area.
“Here we go again”, I thought. “Another x-ray. Another office. Another conversation where I’m not listened to.”
And yet this time, it was different.
The x-ray showed exactly what I’ve been saying for years. A bone is out of place in my ankle, and it jams up against another bone. I could see it with my own eyes. And the specialist could also see it. She pointed it out to me.
I cried right there in the fancy office of the best foot and ankle specialist in the area.
I cried partly because I was relieved—I’d resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably never run a marathon ever again, and now? Maybe that’s not the case. But mostly, I cried because I was thankful. Thankful that I’d demanded and pushed relentlessly to get an answer, and that I’d trusted my own body—and my own mind—despite being told countlessly that I was wrong.
In January, I’m having an operation on my ankle. I met with the surgeon yesterday, and he said he’s 99% sure I’ll be able to run marathons again, which, if you know me, you’ll understand just how much this means to me.
In a world full of ‘expert’ advice, you don’t have to take someone else’s word for it, you know. You can trust your own.
There’s a drawer in my kitchen under the sink, that’s broken.
It’s not broken enough for it to be unusable, but it kind of falls off its runners when you pull it out too far.
It’s been like that for a few months now and I’ve masterfully figured out a way to carefully open the drawer without it falling off the runners all the time.
I think my partner has also figured this out too because I see her opening it in a different, but equally careful way.
It’s funny though, because neither of us have mentioned the broken drawer to each other.
Not a word. Not a peep.
We’ve just got on with opening it in our own way, accepting that the drawer is broken and yet not actually doing anything about fixing it, or, in our case, discussing it.
This happens in life too, right? It’s not just DIY stuff. It happens at work and with friends and in marriages and also in our own heads.
Something breaks down, something stops working the way it used to, something needs more effort than before, something needs a little more support or patience or a new perspective or approach.
And instead of communicating that to others (or even ourself), we say nothing.
Not a word, not a peep.
We just continue doing the same thing as before, or we spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy working out ways to skirt around the problem, without spending any time or energy on how to actually fix it……
My Dad and sister came to stay with me here in Germany last week.
They had booked themselves on the same flight from London Luton, so that they could travel together, despite the fact that my Dad does not live in London.
He lives in Manchester, you see. And so, on the morning of the flight, he travelled by train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston.
He planned his journey very carefully so that he had a lot of time to get from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston to London Luton airport. He figured that if there was a delay of some sort, he’d factored in a big enough buffer to still arrive with plenty of time to spare.
This was not the case.
The train he was on stopped dead, only an hour or so into his journey.
It did not move for nearly an hour and a half while the train company dealt with “An Incident”.
Time ticked away. My Dad did a lot of sweating and panicking. So did my sister and I as we text back and forth, trying to figure out what he should do and how we could help him.
I stress hoovered my entire house while I waited for updates. I Googled hotels in London and checked flights for the next day. I ate my way through a packet of vegan cookies that I’d bought as a gift for my sister (sorry, sis).
Time kept ticking.
It all got a bit more fraught. And then a bit more.
In the end, the train company decided it was best to let everyone off at the nearest train station than continue to make them sit there on a hot, sweaty train.
And so my Dad took a very expensive taxi straight to London Luton airport.
He figured that this way, he might just be able to make the flight by the skin of his teeth.
The taxi driver drove very fast.
While he was travelling in the very fast taxi, my sister—who was already at the airport—found out that the plane had been delayed.
This bought my Dad extra time and he made the flight. Hooray!
Thank goodness the flight was delayed!…
says no-one ever….
…..other than me, my Dad and my sister that day.
On any other day, a day when the train had arrived exactly on time, that delayed flight would have been THE WORST, right? It would have been SO ANNOYING and SO FRUSTRATING and HOW DARE THE FLIGHT BE DELAYED, WE’LL GET THERE LATE NOW.
But on this particular day, that same delayed flight was THE BEST THING EVER!
Funny, isn’t it? Because that delayed flight was just a delayed flight.
Everything else that happened came as result of our thinking about the delayed flight and what we made it mean.
He likes to run into his bedroom and open his giant encyclopaedia of tractors and tell me what kind of tractor brand he’s looking at. Each night before bed, I read passages to him from the encyclopaedia and his little face is full of delight and curiosity and focus as I tell him about all the different types of tractors from all over the world and what they do and what they are used for.
He’s a total tractor nerd and I love him for it.
He’s also a total pain in the arse at times.
He wants to watch tractor videos all day long on YouTube, you see.
And I’m the terrible parent who says no.
He loses his shit when I say no.
He cries and shouts and throws himself on the floor and is pretty much inconsolable.
His little brain just wants tractors now, now, now and all he can hear from me is no, no, no.
I don’t like saying no to him.
There’s a big part of me that wants to give him everything he wants, to say yes to every request of his.
But I know best. (At least I think I do). I don’t believe it’s helpful or healthy for him to sit on the sofa all day long staring at a screen. It’s surely better for him to be outside flying his kite and running around and climbing things and exploring the exciting world around him.
And so I’m the asshole who spoils the fun for him. I put my foot down. I don’t give in. No matter how loud he screams and protests. I say to him, “I can see you’re mad right now, and that’s ok. When you’ve finished shouting, come and find me, I’ll be in the living room.”
And then I leave him to it.
After 5 minutes, he waddles in all sniffly and shaky shoulders and climbs into my arms. I kiss him on the top of his head and then we decide what we’re going to do for the rest of the afternoon (other than watching tractor videos on YouTube).
I’m gentle with him but firm.
I have to be like this with myself too. I have an inner 2-year old you see. And my inner 2-year old also wants to sit on the sofa watching YouTube videos all day long every day. She also wants to eat junk food and never do any exercise and to go to bed super late and do whatever she wants, whenever she wants.
And I have to put my foot down with myself too.
I do not like this. My inner 2-year old cries and shouts and throws herself on the floor and is pretty much inconsolable.
My inner 2-year old wants everything now, now, now and all she can hear from the rational, adult part of my brain is no, no, no.
I don’t like saying no to myself.
There’s a big part of me that wants to give my inner 2-year old everything she wants, to say yes to every request. Yes to ALL the junk food! Yes to ZERO exercise! Yes to watching EVERY SINGLE Casey Neistat video on YouTube EVER! Yes to slobbing around and procrastinating and doing nothing!
But I also know what’s best for me. I know that I feel so much more alive and energised and awake when I eat healthy food and move my body and write and get outside and meditate and all the other shit that’s good for me that my inner 2-year old hate and resists.
And so I put my foot down. I don’t give in. I have to parent myself as well as my kid.