practicing courageous living (even when life is tough)

A few years ago, when I was a professor teaching full-time at the college level, I was handed a last-minute class after a professor was going to be out sick for the first month of the semester.

Predictably, thinking of me as more of a “sub” than a permanent fixture, the students were pretty awful. They rebelled against even the most basic of classroom structures, things that I never had issues with in my regularly scheduled classes–things like attendance. They questioned me on every paper topic, every grade. Some of them belligerently debated with me during class discussions, trying to find little ways to make me look stupid in front of the class.

By mid-term, the other professor wasn’t coming back, which meant that I was now the instructor of record for the class for the remaining months of the semester, and I was emotionally wasted and would cry the night before I had to go in to teach because these students–man, they were truly that bad. At the time, I badly needed the money and that was the only reason I had accepted the classes, but these students were so awful that I was close to bailing and suffering the consequences.

And then I did something–something that would forever alter how I would approach hard things in life and how I would practice courageous living.

Choosing the Gift

This was the choice I made: I asked myself what gift I might possibly be able to get out of teaching this class.

I was clear that the money was not the motivating factor; I was at the point where I’d rather have credit card debt than go in another day.

Then it occurred to me: I very much wanted to be a mother, and I knew that if I ever became a mom, there were going to be moments when my own kid was going to really, really challenge me.

These students, with their rudeness and manipulation, were offering me an excellent opportunity to practice unconditional love–that is, if I was willing to do the work of shifting my mindset and seeing it that way.

So, I tried it out. The next time a student was rude, I took a deep breath, and responded kindly (but firmly, and with healthy boundaries) from a place of what I believed to be unconditional love. I chose not to judge. I chose not to see the student as a “bad” person.

Not For Pollyanna

Prior to this experience, I had always considered such approaches to be the flighty, out of touch with reality responses of those “Pollyanna types.”

I was pretty convinced that people who chose to do this were Faker McFakersons who were trying to force themselves to believe something that they didn’t really believe.

To my amazement, however, something shifted within me when I made a conscious choice to look for what I sincerely wanted as a gift, in a situation that was hard.

It was one of those times where I realized just how powerful it was to consciously choose how I wanted to walk the world–all of the time spent learning and practicing the tools of courageous living were really paying off.

And, Now–

Now I am a momma. My daughter is a pretty typical newborn, which is to say: she cries when she wants something or is hungry or uncomfortable, and much of my day-to-day is based on how well her gastrointestinal system is functioning. If she is gassy or constipated, the work of attending to her is constant (and if not, blissfully, she alternates between feeding and sleeping and makes those cute little contended newborn grunts and coos).

There was a day, recently, that was epically awful. Hours upon hours of intermittent crying; I had consulted the doctor, who had determined what was up and that it was not serious, and I had administered a doctor-approved treatment and it was literally just a matter of waiting for that treatment to take effect.

Meaning: there was no quick fix, and she was feeling all of it, moment-to-moment, moment-to-moment.

Every time she started to cry again, I felt a wave of anxiety go through my body. “No, please, no,” I thought. After several hours, I felt I couldn’t stand to hear her cry, one more time (and I also felt guilty about that).

So I stopped, and I asked myself what I could do.

The one thing that I felt I could do was this: be with her through this. Use this as a space where she might be in discomfort, but she was not going to be alone in her discomfort.

In the moment that I aligned with that, a fierceness for my child arose: Momma was here, all the way.

Furthermore, I decided, I was not going to go into a mentality of thinking that my daughter should be feeling any differently than she was feeling. I was not going to stay in the place of, “Why isn’t she calming down, yet?” or “I wish she’d stop crying.”

I decided that I would practice total acceptance of her feelings, without stepping even a pinky toe into the land of thinking her feelings needed to be different than they were (all so that life would be more convenient for me).

In other words, acceptance.

That was a long, long, long day. When my husband got home from work, I handed the baby off to him for comfort and went up to my office and decompressed by consciously crying it out for ten minutes.

Then I went back downstairs and together, we worked as a team to help her through.

Presence

What parenthood is teaching me about myself is the continual practice of presence.

That sounds really deep and meaningful and Zen, as if I’ve got it all figured out and just blissfully practice presence all day, so I feel the need to add the qualifier that I am being taught this by life; I am deeply in the experience of it. I am hardly a master. I have days where life feels nothing like presence and I want to completely lose my shit, which for me would look like getting very irritable, depressed, or resentful towards everyone around me and very victim-ey in my thinking (“Life will always be this way; I’m trapped.”)

What I’m saying is that presence itself is an ongoing, moment-to-moment practice, not something that any of us can tick off of the to-do list as “figured out.”

It’s practicing presence to the concept of self-care. What do I need to do, to be available for my child? Sometimes I fail at this and look at the clock and realize that I skipped lunch and now I’m grumpy and flagging and impatient; time for some presence. Sometimes she goes down for a nap and I get busy trying to take care of the next thing; presence and self-care would call for ten slow, deep breaths.

It’s presence to her needs. Our daughter seems to be one of those babies who does really, really well in a quiet house with simple interaction–and she really, really hates a lot of stimulation. Yet of course, everyone wants to see the new baby, hold the new baby, wake the baby from a nap so that they can see her in action.

I learned the hard way that saying “yes” to the needs of others means that she’ll be grumpy and unable to sleep for hours afterwards–and I’ll be the one dealing with the aftermath of that. Presence means doing the hard work to say “no” to scenarios where there will be a lot of stimulation, but that’s what presence requires: prioritizing her needs over the needs of others.

That’s why I say that this is about a personal practice of presence:

  • Am I willing to be with my child, no matter what she feels, without going into a mentality that she “should” feel differently?
  • Am I willing to drop the Egoic “mother as martyr” image and make sure that I take the time to check in with myself and see what I need–water, nourishment, rest, help?
  • Am I willing to step into doing what I sincerely think is best for her, even if it disappoints others, and risk judgement?

Powerful Choices

I often say that courage is not something you have; it’s something you choose to practice.

I believe that it’s courageous to be in the middle of something epically hard and decide to take just ten long, deep breaths. That might seem too simple to be a legitimately courageous choice, but the simplicity shouldn’t mask the courage.

Any time we choose to slow down, to choose the simple solution over the flashy one, and to go deeply into what love requires, we are practicing courage.

Deep breaths, nourishment, dropping the need to be “all of it” for someone else, releasing attachment to someone else’s feelings–all of these are practices in courage.

They aren’t as flashy as doing some big, epic thing that gets a lot of attention, but they make all the difference in the world in a real, meaningful way in your day-to-day.

Why it’s worth it to do things your way

I hit a business milestone in 2012: I made more money from my business than I had made at my salaried job.

(Note: I’m often asked, “How long did that take?” Answer: I ran my business as a side-hobby starting in 2006. I went full-time with it in late 2009).

Then I hit another business milestone in 2013: I again made more money from my business than I had made at my salaried job, which I considered a milestone because it proved that the first year wasn’t just a fluke.

Furthermore, in 2013 I did this while only working as much or as little as I wanted to. In fact, I went on vacation from work during the months of June, July and August and again in October and again for much of December.

Something else happened in 2013 that hit me profoundly, however: my salaried employer was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and shutting down.

Why was that so profound? Because ten years earlier, I’d thought that the only way I’d ever be able to support myself was through being employed by someone else, in climbing some kind of career ladder, something with guaranteed benefits and long-term “stability.”

The Rules Really Have Changed

You really don’t have to have a salaried, 9-5 job. You can do things your way. It is absolutely possible to start your own business and make enough money, even more than enough money, to support yourself. (Note: I’m talking about money in this particular post because it’s such a sticking point for so many people. I hope it also goes without saying that in choosing to work for myself, I’ve also been able to live from a place of fulfillment. Money isn’t the only end-game!).

In fact, as time would prove in my case, it has massively paid off to have done the work of creating something of my own design. The old, salaried job that seemed to have so many guarantees? Maybe not. It, too, was subject to the axiom that “nothing in life is guaranteed.”

But Here’s What Hasn’t Changed

Doing things “your way” does not mean that you can circumvent the hard work. In fact, the work actually gets harder. It is harder to walk the path of everything being on your shoulders, depending on you and your creativity and ingenuity. Truth: if you don’t have an offering that people want, and if you don’t develop the marketing skill-set so that people can see how it meets their needs, the business is not going to go anywhere.

Doing things “your way” means that sometimes, things suck and you’ve just got to hike up your panties and deal. When you get sick, there is no temp replacement. When you put time into a product launch and it flops, there is no recouping those lost expenses (and before you go into comparisons, thinking that the super-smart biz types out there don’t have product launch flops, think again. I have totally had flops!).

Doing things “your way” still means finding practical solutions for things…like health insurance. I’ve built my business while continuing to work two nights a week at a salaried job so that I could still have health insurance. It’s only with the advent of Obamacare that purchasing health insurance has been an option.

Doing things “your way” means that at some point, you’ve got to stop the D-I-Y mentality and start really investing in your business–that means that you have to stop scoffing at how expensive one-on-one consulting sessions are (they are the only thing that has ever propelled my business forward). If you want people to pay you well, you’ve got to invest in paying others who have successfully walked this path before you.

Doing things “your way” means that you have to stop making excuses–for example, statistically, any newsletter that gets an open rate of more than 30% is doing really, really well. My weekly Coaching Blueprint e-letter gets an open rate of 30% on up to 45%.

That means–let’s just be straightforward and real, here--that while that kind of an open rate is AMAZING, more than half of the people who subscribe to this newsletter might talk the talk of wanting to develop their business, but they certainly aren’t walking the walk by opening that newsletter each week and implementing the strategies that are shared, completely for free. When someone isn’t taking advantage of help that they could get for free? Something is up with that.

Doing things “your way” means that when overwhelm hits, especially if you are a life coach or in a helping profession, you’ve got to walk your talk and start implementing all of the tools that you would offer to clients. It’s not enough to wistfully think, “Gosh, I wish I could treat myself the way I ask my clients to treat themselves.”

Nope, nope, nope. Energy matters, here. Your clients can sniff out someone who’s bluffing. If you aren’t living your vision, people aren’t always able to articulate that they can tell that something is inauthentic, but on some level, they can tell. They feel it.

You Can Live the Dream

You can stop dreaming big, and start living big. You can have everything you’ve ever wanted.

It actually IS going to be as great as you thought it would be as the fulfillment of your dreams starts to show up in ways big and small. I am puffed up with pride about what my business has created, and even more thrilling to me is that as I develop what used to be a small side hobby into an actual company, I’m moving into employing others who then get to do work that they enjoy, sharing in the vision. As one person put it: “Kate, I love getting to be part of your economy.”

It’s worth it to do things your own way–just understand that this doesn’t mean it won’t be work or that it will never feel really, really hard. There’s always going to be some kind of work. “Hard” is often synonymous with fear.

One Last Thing

If you bemoan doing the work, pay careful attention to that.

Sometimes, people like the idea of working for themselves far more than they like the actual work.

When something really matters to you, you’ll make the time for it. You’ll find some way to get it done–you won’t bemoan what it takes to get there. You’ll see a tenacity arise within you that others see and feel, and if you’ve ever wondered how it is that some people seem to naturally have others gravitate to help them, that’s it–other people pick up on that passion, and it’s magnetic.

If you are spending more time talking about how hard it is than you are working to find solutions as challenges arise, you’re either stuck in a pattern and could use some support in changing that, or you probably aren’t really doing something that truly calls to your heart.

When you truly love something, you just can’t NOT do it.

A life full of things that you couldn’t imagine not doing? A very good life, indeed.

Life is showing you more of who you already are

I once heard someone say that people think that having a lot more money will solve all of their problems, but really all it will do is show you more of who you already are. If you are already an arrogant person, for instance, having more money will amplify that arrogance. If you’re already a generous person, having more money will amplify that generosity.

Since the birth of our daughter, I keep thinking that really, everything in life is this way.

Everything in life, all the stuff “out there,” just shows us more of who we already are.

For instance, when I’m lacking sleep, what shows up for me is different than what shows up for my husband. We have different responses to the stress that lack of sleep brings; it’s just stirring up more of what’s already in the pot of our psyches and more of who we already are.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that other people’s behavior, or the amount of money or time that we have (or sleep!) is really what’s behind our choices.

It’s easy to say, “If they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t behave this way” or “If my parents hadn’t raised me the way they had, I wouldn’t choose XYZ, today” or “If I had more money (or time, or sleep), then I’d be more (patient, generous, compassionate, etc.”

But really, the proof of who we already are is showing up in our day-to-day choices, right here and right now. I’m thinking now of a dinner experience I had where someone who didn’t have a lot of money approached me beforehand with cash and insisted, absolutely insisted, on covering my meal; when we were actually at the restaurant, other people who had quite a lot of money were irritated when the waitress hesitated to split the bill among our large party.

The person with less money made choices that indicated that she didn’t feel she had less money; her choices, despite her cash flow, were a reflection of who she already was. Likewise, with the other dinner guests.

We think that how we feel about our lives is really about the circumstances of our lives, when the truth is that how we feel about our lives is really about the Stories we tell about what’s happening, and who we are in response to that.

I adore my daughter. It is hard for me to be away from her. And yet at the same time, especially when it takes hours of rocking and swaying and movement just for her to go down for a nap, I have thoughts like, “Life would be easier if she would just go to sleep, already.”

The truth, of course, is that life already is easy. I have a healthy baby girl and I get the honor and privilege of raising a human being. It is something that I wanted and longed for and never regret. The moments when I think that something needs to change has nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me.

In other words, life is just showing me more of who I already am in my boredom or my lack of presence or my habitual response when I’m feeling tired. All of it comes up and arises, and if it weren’t coming up because I have a new baby, it would come up because of a frustration in my business or with another person or in response to a sports injury or the next time I hit a money snag.

There are moments in taking care of an infant where I feel really lost and broken; I can’t figure out what she needs and I notice that I’m attached to having an answer for her and being the Super Mommy who logically manages to assess the situation and determine how to best provide for her.

In those moments, life is showing me my own brokenness: my own wounds and longing for someone else to provide answers for me and caretake for me, my own assumptions that this is what love looks like, my projections that her crying means something dire.

If you want to know what life is trying to show you, here are a few questions to ask yourself, particularly next time you feel challenged:

  • What must I believe about myself, others, or the world, in order to think that things should be different, right now?
  • Can I really know that if things were different right now, anything would be better? Can I honestly, truly, 100% know that for absolute certain? (Hint: No, you can’t. Play with that one.)
  • If this weren’t a trigger for me right now, what else would be?
  • How is this trigger, in this moment, similar to other triggers? In other words, can I find the place where I project this same story or belief system onto different content?

There is grace and courage in examining your habitual responses to life and noticing that what they all have in common is one thing: you. Life is not happening to you; it is just showing you more of who you already are.