the power of provocative questions

Join the YCL community for the #ProvocativeQ challenge, all during the month of July! Click here: to get started with the subscriber-only worksheet and information on how to participate.

One of the most powerful lessons that I’ve learned is this: any time someone tells me something that I really, really dislike hearing, there’s something in what they’ve said that I really, really need to hear.

This started in couples therapy, which my now-husband and I started years before we were ever married. He’d say something I didn’t like hearing, perhaps something as kindly phrased as, “I notice that when you ___________, I feel __________,” that was totally endorsed by our counselor, and I’d think, “What a jerk; He’s just making excuses.”

It didn’t matter how kindly he was delivering his feedback. I was irritated with him for offering any suggestion that my behavior needed to change as part of creating a better relationship.

Really, though? The issue was my own shame. I was so ashamed of my behavior that owning my part and truly taking responsibility for it felt like more pain than I could handle.

To that end, for years most of my self-help work existed on a periphery, on edges. I’d meditate on chakras; I’d recite affirmations; I’d try to manifest goodness; I’d “focus on the positive.”

I was not willing to look at anything that involved me actually taking responsibility for my behavior (because that triggered my shame). I was not willing to hear critical feedback with an open mind (because that triggered my shame).

If it was airy, light, positive, and flowery, I’d meditate on it with discipline.

If someone tried to get me to hear five minutes worth of feedback in which it was clear that my behavior and choices had been unattractive, directly in conflict with my vision for my life, or the like, I could easily justify ten reasons why they were the asshole who was trying to “bring me down” and hurt me.

What We Choose, Instead

This is a common issue that I see in the self-help world, and it’s easy to see why it happens:

If you take a whole lot of people who have spent a whole lot of time either being criticized and berated by others, or criticizing and berating themselves, the world of self-help feels like a relief.

We want chakras and crystals and affirmations more than we want getting really, really, really real about the ways in which we, as adults who no longer live with mom and dad, will go out into the world and choose the circumstances, manipulate the game, and then go back and blame it on mom and dad…over and over.

Doing this a few times indicates a lack of consciousness. Doing this again and again indicates a lack of taking responsibility for one’s life.

For example: when a coach decides to go into business for herself, then bogs herself down with overwhelm, then refuses to actually choose to use any of the numerous tools she’s already invested considerable time and money into learning to alleviate any of the overwhelm that she feels, then throws up her hands and declares that she can’t make her coaching business work…

…she’s making a choice not to take responsibility for her behavior.

The problem is only exacerbated if that coach then goes to a friend or a coach or reads a self-help book, and tells herself, “I just need to breathe, and relax, and be gentle with myself,” and leaves it at that.

I’m aware that all of this is very provocative to say. If you’re imagining someone saying all of this in a voice of condemnation, you’re probably about ready to click elsewhere (so, hey–perhaps notice if that’s the choice you’re making and the “story” you’re attaching to my intentions for this piece).

Here’s the full picture for that coach:

She does need to breathe.
She does need to give herself some time to relax.
She does need to be gentle with herself.

She also probably needs to say to herself, “It’s not surprising that I’ve arrived here, if I evaluate and then take responsibility for my choices. I’ve been taking on too much. I’ve been comparing myself to others. I’ve been buying into a story that the money I make or the number of clients I have determines my worth. I’ve been getting overwhelmed and not taking time for self-care. These are the choices I’ve made. I can take ownership and responsibility for all of this, without making myself into a bad person. These were my choices. I accept the results of my choices and now I’m committed to shifting them.”

The friend, or coach, or book (or blog post) that actually asks you to yes be gentle and kind to yourself, while also not shirking from self-evaluation and taking responsibility for your choices is the resource that truly has your best interests at heart. When we do not try to save people from the consequences of their choices, we are practicing an incredibly courageous form of love.

Provocative Questions

The problem is, self-help gurus and coaches and the like often avoid asking provocative questions. Why? Wanting to be liked; fear of triggering pain; not wanting to come across as judgmental.

Even I have a fear of these things as I write this post.

Yet I really want to ask you some provocative questions, because it’s been my experience that when someone asks them of me, and I sit with them and truly go deep instead of resisting them, I discover something about myself. What I discover about myself is often deeper and richer than zoning out with a few crystal meditations or looking up my horoscope to see how my planets are aligned.

You can sit with provocative questions and go deep, without actually berating yourself. You can just get honest.

Getting honest is time efficient. It’s a relief. (Click to tweet that:

For example: Let’s be real. Most of us whine and complain. People tend not to point it out when we do that, because they…want to be nice. They want to not hurt our feelings. They want to be supportive.

So what if you were asked the provocative question: Are you justifying your whining and complaining?

At first, you might push against that. You might say, “She’s a bitch for saying that to me.” You might deny that you ever whine or complain. You might go behind the person’s back and declare that they don’t support you.

OR, if you sit with it long enough, though, you might feel the gentleness arise: “Well, okay, yeah…so, I’m a human being having a human experience. Sometimes, I whine and complain. Here’s the truth behind the whining and complaining.” Then you might ask consider that this person was asking a question that was hard to hear, but that your reaction to hearing it is…your responsibility.

From there, you might start to ask yourself what is needed, next. You might ask yourself how releasing the justifications for whining and complaining might make your life…better.

July 2014: Provocative Questions

During the month of July, on Twitter ( or the YCL Facebook page ( , I’ll be asking a series of Provocative Questions. It feels a little risky, a little daring, the kind of thing that will get me labeled as a bitch because people will misunderstand the intent.

Yet, these are all questions I’ve either been asked, or asked myself, and they’ve been really fruitful.

I’ll post one a day during the month of July, and your invitation is to participate by actually a.) asking yourself these questions, and b.) blogging a response to these questions.

The invitation is also to see this as a doorway to greater compassion for yourself. Instead of trying to live up to some self-help ideal where you’re endlessly compassionate and living in the light, you might also own the parts of you that can be bitchy, impatient, jealous, or out of integrity.

In owning them, you can embrace them. You don’t ask yourself the hard questions so that you can make life hard. You ask the hard questions so that you can face what you fear, and work with it, instead of against it.

To join:

There are two steps. One, head here: and sign up for the YCL e-letter (current subscribers, you’ll automatically receive everything!). After confirming your opt-in, you’ll get to access the entire YCL library as well as the #ProvocativeQ worksheet only for subscribers.

Second, head here: or here: and follow on either of these social communities to see what the daily #ProvocativeQ question will be.

Provocative Q: Do you avoid anything that makes you uncomfortable?


(Note: Starting in July, I’ll be starting the #ProvocativeQ challenge on Twitter: 30 simple days of challenging yourself to go into the core questions, rustle up some stagnant belief systems, and come out on the other side not doing the same-old, same-old. To join in, get yourself on the YCL E-letter and then pay attention to your inbox!).

A lot of people talk about wanting to change their lives, and no one wants to be someone who is all talk, no action. So consider this provocative question: Do you avoid anything that makes you uncomfortable?

Here’s a great way to tell whether or not you avoid that which makes you uncomfortable:

Think of a life change that you know you’ve really, really wanted to make. Go deep with this. Consider not just “I want to start going to yoga regularly” but get more vulnerable:

“I want to be closer to my husband/partner.”

“I want to start speaking my truth.”

“I want to stop feeling so bad about my body and love it no matter what it looks like.”

And now: What actions have you taken, consistently and daily, for the past seven days, to make this happen?

If you’re like most people, you’re coming up with…nada. Most of us (and yep, I have to pay attention to this, too) want changes, but change feels uncomfortable, so we don’t do the things we need to do in order to make the change happen.

Now–this used to be one of my stumbling blocks–I’d immediately fall upon anyone who pointed this out to me with, “But I don’t know what to do! If I knew what to do, of course I’d change!”

Then someone–my coach-counselor-guru-man, Matthew–started calling bullshit on that one. I did know of things that I could do. I just wasn’t doing them. He said this because he loved me and he cared (and, by the way, he always said it kindly).

For Instance

If you want to be closer to your husband, you can clarify why you’re not close, you can clarify exactly what the relationship could be, you could resolve to tell him one nice thing every single day, you could initiate a date night, you could go to counseling, you could surprise him with an impromptu card.

You could do all of this even if it feels weird and uncomfortable
because you’ve been stuck in a dynamic with him for a long time and aren’t sure how to get out. You could do this even if he rejects every single action you take, because you aren’t doing this to get a result from him–you’re doing it because the change is important to you.

If you want to start speaking your truth, you could identify the most important relationships for doing that, you could speak your truth once daily and build from there, you could clarify where you tend to hide your truth.

If you want to start loving your body no matter what it looks like, you could look in the mirror daily and say loving things; you could read a book that gets to the heart of why we don’t love our bodies (Geneen Roth’s Women, Food & God is a classic); you could practice self-massage; you could get involved with the Curvy Yoga community.

The Discomfort? Still There

You wouldn’t “get out of” the discomfort if you tried any of this. It would feel new, and unfamiliar, and the inner critic voice would come up. (So do you know how to work with that, when it happens?).

With time, you would get more comfortable, and you would be able to tell yourself, “I do what it takes to make the changes that I desire, even when they are uncomfortable.”

That, in and of itself, would be what it looks like to practice courage.

That, in and of itself, would make a difference in how you feel when you look yourself in the mirror–because you’d know that you’re not bullshitting yourself. You have desires for your life, and you put something behind creating them for yourself.

Go ahead and aim for the discomfort.

Point your arrow right at the heart center of it.

A willingness to be uncomfortable in service to your truest desires isn’t just courage in action, it’s the path to them.

To join:

Head to, join the YCL e-letter, and you’ll be getting more information about how to participate starting July 1st! (And in the meantime, you get access to the YCL library of free goodies).


Resisting the voice of fortune-telling perfectionism

One of my greatest challenges has been the voice of “fortune-telling perfectionism.”

There’s your usual voice of perfectionism: Could have done it better.

Then there’s what I call “fortune-telling perfectionism”: If you’d only paid more attention to begin with and strategized about all potential possibilities and prepared for them, then you really could have done it better–in fact, you probably could have avoided XYZ big problem.

So in other words? The fact that you experienced XYZ problem? Totally your fault.

In the minutes after I learned that my daughter was both big in utero, and in a breech position, fortune-telling perfectionism was wildly at work.

The BIG baby

“Your baby is breech,” the nurse said.

My mind took a moment more to compute this. On the one hand, I knew what “breech” meant and my brain could compute that the word “breech” was not a great word, but definitely a better word than horrible words like “stillborn.” So, okay, baby is alive–her head is up and her butt is down instead of head down, so she’s breech, but she’s alive.

The nurse confirmed this. “Oh, yeah, everything’s okay,” she said. “I don’t see anything on the ultrasound that is of concern.”

Then she added, “But you’ve got a BIG baby.”

And with that, things were pretty much set. I was officially Kate, with the breech BIG baby. The BIG baby who was unlikely to turn.

Full-On Strategy

On the drive home, I called my husband. I cried. I immediately got on the internet and started researching: there was acupuncture, moxibustion, chiropractic stuff to align your pelvis, full-tilt inversions where you were practically upside down.

There were things you could DO.

That momentarily made me feel better. There were things I could DO! All I’d need to do is DO all of The Things!

Then that all started to fall apart, because…well, shit. I had thought I already HAD been doing all of The Things.

My entire pregnancy, I had prided myself, rather self-righteously, on not using pregnancy as an excuse to over-eat nor to kick back, “take it easy,” and never exercise.

In fact, my eating habits had actually never changed–I never felt hungry enough to “eat for two.” In the first trimester, I had craved bacon on several occasions and indulged, but my weight gain had been completely normal, gradual, and consistent with a boring, routine pregnancy.

Furthermore? I was taking 3-mile walks several times a week with my husband, with the first 1/3 of this 3-mile walk looping up the steepest hill in our neighborhood. Prior to getting pregnant, I used to do run intervals on this hill, and now I power walked it, determined to have a fit pregnancy, especially after I read (because oh, how I read and thumb-nailed and bookmarked and underlined and read some more) that women who exercised during pregnancy tended towards fewer complications, shorter deliveries, and–hey, no arguments, here–babies with a higher I.Q.

And really, I exercised because I’m one of those weirdos who likes to exercise, and if I couldn’t continue to train for a half-Ironman (which I’d been doing before getting pregnant) then a sweaty, cardio-thumping uphill walk that had been ok’d by my practitioner was just the ticket.

Fortune-Telling Perfectionism At Work

I thought I had done enough fortune-telling to plan for all possibilities–to make it perfect.

I had planned for a natural birth. I had arranged to work with a midwife and had purposefully sought one out who was older and who had been delivering babies since before all of the technology. I had bought the Hypnobirthing book and CD. I had read about all the stages of labor. I had identified the yoga poses most likely to open my hips and pelvis. I had watched Orgasmic Birth and The Business of Being Born and even the extended Business of Being Born AND I had read Ina May Gaskin’s acclaimed Guide to Childbirth AND her book on breast-feeding. I knew what Pitocin was and I was prepared to refuse it.

I was crystal clear that I would never have a c-section unless it was medically necessary after a heroic attempt at natural labor, and I was even prepared to bring with me, to the hospital, a list of things that the doctor would have to point out to prove that it really was medically necessary.

But–now that I was Kate with the breech BIG baby, the voice of “you should have planned for this” kicked in.

There were some times where I’d had chocolate or piece of cake after dinner (gluten- and dairy-free dinners of salads, lean meats, cooked vegetables, home-made bone broth soups and stews, quinoa…).

Now, perfectionism kicked in: I should have planned for “What if the baby was a BIG baby” and never eaten those things; my diet should have been perfect.

There were times where I’d skipped going on my 3-mile walk. I was trying to get my business tucked away so that I could be 100% available to Kid Courage when she arrived.

The voice of fortune-telling perfectionism sighed heavily and pointed out that I should never have skipped those walks. If I hadn’t skipped those walks, maybe I would have gained just slightly less weight and the baby wouldn’t be a breech BIG baby.

The baby being BIG was, of course, all my fault.

You Can’t Win at that Game

Oh, and!–the biggest thing I’d done wrong was that I should have checked out the whole breech thing, sooner.

It had never, in a million years, occurred to me that I might need to have a c-section because of a breech baby. But it should have should have should have, said the voice.

The voice of fortune-telling perfectionism said that somehow, I should have directly and specifically asked: “Did the baby turn?” I should have somehow known to ask that question, and asked it early.

Now What?

Again, you can’t win the game of fortune-telling perfectionism. After a few days of trying to Do All of The Things, grieving the loss of a “birth experience,” and avoiding reading anything about c-sections in the hopes that this would mean I’d never have to have one, I felt emotionally wrecked.

There are a whole host of different interventions and things that you can try in these cases; I don’t want to debate them, here, or get on a soapbox about hospital policies around breech births, or exchange email debates with someone about how I could have had a natural breech pregnancy and it’s okay and on and on…

That’s not why I’m writing this (and believe me, I debated all possibilities). I’m sharing this because the game of fortune-telling perfectionism hit so, so hard. Its message:

Somehow, you should have known better and planned better.

I wasn’t winning at that game. I saw one alternative: I could give up the game, entirely.

Letting Go

I talked to a few trusted people about c-sections. Uniformly, they all expressed the same things that I was feeling: sadness and regret that they had not had the hoped for birth experiences that they’d fantasized about. However, they added, once the whole thing was over and done with, the magnitude of baby in arms had pretty much erased how much they cared about the delivery method.

Turns out, holding the love of your life in your arms pretty much trumps a 40-minute procedure where you’re numb from the tits, down.

I also ended up finding out that my mother was 9 pounds at birth; my niece was 8.5; that my sister knew of a friend who had gained exactly as much weight as me and delivered only a 6-pound baby.

So, maybe this wasn’t “my fault.” Maybe I hadn’t “done this to myself” by “not being careful enough” about my weight.

So I went within, and asked myself: Kate, what’s up, here?

What was up was that I was really attached to a fantasy.

I say that I was attached to a fantasy because the truth was, I couldn’t know with any absolute certainty that one method of delivery was necessarily going to be better for me or the baby, than another.

After all, there were plenty of traumatic “natural birth” stories out there. There were plenty of people who had volunteered their unsolicited advice throughout my pregnancy: GIRLFRIEND, GET THE EPIDURAL. These women seemed to feel about their natural birth experiences the way I feel about vegan cheese: It’s bullshit; don’t believe them when they say it’s okay.

(P.S. I have mad love for vegans–just not for vegan cheese).

Birth is a tricky, controversial thing. I knew that I didn’t want to be part of that paradigm of unnecessary c-sections.

At the same time, there was absolutely no way for me to “fortune-tell” through this one.

Here’s what I did know: I needed to make a decision, and I wanted that decision to be rooted in trusting myself and trusting my daughter. If she wasn’t flipping, it was for a reason. I couldn’t know the reason, but I felt certain that in her own way, she did.

And so, I scheduled the c-section.

Much to my surprise, once I had it scheduled, I felt the strangest sense of relief.

When I surrendered to the idea that I’d done the best I could with what I had, I’d tried DOing all of The Things and they hadn’t worked, releasing the fantasy that there was “some perfect way out there” in which these things were to be done, and most importantly, trusting my daughter…I felt much more peace.

I felt at peace not because I’d arrived at the “perfect” decision. I arrived at peace because that’s what happens any time we move into a space of acceptance of “what-is.” That’s the peace that’s available when we detach from the fantasy and attachment to a specific outcome.

And not surprisingly, peace was exactly what I got with my birth experience.

(Next up: The Birth Story).