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There were all of the good things, lined up neatly in rows: There was my husband, Italian and creative and endlessly compassionate—when I think of him, I often think, “he is a beautiful human being”—and our delicious, healthy, fresh baby girl. There was my self-made business that had, some months, grossed more in a month than I had made in an entire year. There were the friends, the invitations, the exciting things on the horizon. And what tipped everything was this: the half-million dollar home in California that we bought, our dream home right out of the gate, in the town where we wanted to live and with the groovy original 1975 architecture that matched all of our midcentury modern furniture.
I had sat down and—this is the only correct and true word—curated my life. I had asked myself what it was that I truly wanted, and it had all come to fruition. Marriage, motherhood, mortgage. And with it, came a low-grade, gritchety, nagging sense of unfulfillment that began shortly after signing the papers on the house and moving.
I’d start crying. Or complaining. Or both, within the same hour.
Not prone to pathologizing emotions, I didn’t think too much of this, at first. I think that crying is normal. I think that complaining comes up when we want to be heard or when we’ve got too much pent-up emotional stuff and we’re trying to vent it out, in some way. I think that no one is perfect and that living an authentic life means feeling the authentic emotions—so I cried, I complained.
For months, it would be better. For months, it would be worse. I upped the ante on all of my personal tools and practices. I read more self-help books than I read fiction, and then switched back to more fiction (and then back to self-help). I took digital sabbaticals. I worked less, I worked more. I distanced myself from friendships in an effort to go internal and just be with myself. I reached out to all of my friends in an effort to stretch into more social support.
And I cried. And I complained.
In some ways, neither of these things were problems. I’d be writing, and tears would come up, so I’d cry. Then I’d be over it, and I’d move on with the rest of my day. Or I’d complain to someone and that little venting of the complaints would ease my mind a bit—I was being heard, witnessed—and then I’d be okay.
I drew cards, consulted oracles and energy workers, reworked my diet, considered a new coach or therapist, volunteered more so that I could get out of my own head and into using some of my privilege for something other than my own (narcissistic! selfish! I told myself in my difficult moments) crying and complaining.
For months at a time, it got better. I’d prematurely celebrate—I made it through!
For months at a time, it got worse. Some annoyance and judgement of myself crept in. I began crying and complaining about the fact that I had such difficulty with crying and complaining.
I’d sit, access the body, meditate, pray to my spirit guides, listen without attachment to the fears of my critic, reframe limiting stories, reach out and create community, read about habit-formation, go solitary. I’d reign myself in, I’d let myself all hang out.
And then? This amazing thing happened. I got a book deal! For days after the news, I was on cloud nine, maybe on cloud nine million. I was so happy that I couldn’t imagine crying-and-complaining ever coming again for another visit.
Nope. Back it came. I worked on my book, and when I talked to people in my inner circle, I cried or complained. Then I stopped, then I started, then I stopped, then I started.
Until finally, the knot unspooled itself, and I came to understand: Kate, you are hiding out from your life .
Everything about the pattern was suddenly clear: Whenever life got good, I started crying and complaining.
I did that because I had spent so long in the trenches of crying and complaining and wishing that life would get good, that these crying-complaining trenches had become familiar and safe.
If it has occurred to you that I just sound inordinately privileged and that you would never, ever squander such blessings–well, you’d only be pointing out something I was acutely aware of. I didn’t grow up with this kind of access. I grew up with holes in my shoes, food insecure, always acutely aware of how dire finances could get. Things could be emotionally unstable at home, as well. The child in me that had lived through that had spent so long scanning her environment for What Was Wrong and Wishing It Could Be Better that she didn’t know how to just be when life was good and all the wishing (and work) had become reality.
She didn’t know how to be when she grossed more in a month than she’d earned in a year at a salaried job.
She didn’t know how to be when she was crying and complaining so much, and yet her husband looked at her with total love and faith and belief and said, “I think you’re on the cusp of a breakthrough.”
She didn’t know how to be when she was walking the halls of the beautiful house, finding a new little nook or scratch or thing to love.
She didn’t know how to be when she cried in front of a friend and the friend looked at her with total love and faith and belief and said, “You’re going to find your way through.”
She didn’t know how to be when she watched her child grow.
She didn’t know how to be when she watched women going after their own dreams and finding true connection and celebrating themselves.
That child in me, that still lived in the adult in me, just didn’t know how to be.
So, she defaulted to the way that she did know to be: crying (because life is sad) and complaining (because life is hard).
She expressed the two emotions that were never, ever allowed when she was growing up.
Danielle LaPorte said, “I’ve bought my own house, with money that came from my own ideas,” and that statement sent a shiver through me—because that, too, is me. I, too, have built a business with my own ideas and those ideas have funded a pretty incredible life. To hit that level of success kicked off more crying and complaining than I’d ever seen from myself.
In the Big Leap, what I’m describing here would be called an “Upper Limit” problem. When you’ve reached the upper limit of what you can imagine for yourself, you sabotage it and take a few steps back or you get really complacent and stagnant, because it’s too much to imagine more. You’ve reached an “upper limit.” Fear is in the driver’s seat.
I’d thought that my crying and complaining were legitimate. After all, wasn’t I such an empath? And didn’t someone need to speak up about the issues the world faces? I intentionally and actively practice allowing difficult emotions, rather than avoiding them, placating them, or attacking them. It makes sense that I would have allowed so much crying and complaining to take place, even as I sometimes judged myself for the experience.
From the perspective of my soul’s evolution, of course, crying and complaining were absolutely legitimate, and even necessary. They were part of the process.
Also from the perspective of my soul’s evolution: after walking through those years of crying and complaining, I have seen something deeper and more real, and I can’t go back to seeing things in the old way, anymore.
Crying and complaining was a way of processing old pain that also became a way of hiding out from my life and the joy that is available.
And now, I see—which is not to say that I’ll never cry or complain, again, but rather, that when those things come up for me, I’m going to be aware of why they’re coming up. I’ll be equipped to ask, “Where are you hiding out from your life , Kate? Where are you hiding out from your life’s joy, and defaulting to crying and complaining because they are familiar?”
Everything in life requires nuance. If you recognize yourself in these words—these words that I write because in the midst of my own process, I never saw anyone else writing so nakedly about this—maybe you need the time to cry and complain (or whatever your version of hiding out from your life happens to be). Hiding out is part of the process of “coming out of hiding.” You don’t just leap straight to “coming out of hiding” without spending some time hiding out from your life .
I think the only reason my own knot unspooled is because I stayed with what I was feeling when I was hiding out, over and over, while reminding myself that I am not what I feel.
People talk about “authenticity” and wanting to “live authentic lives” but what they are usually referring to is (a fantasy of) infinite happiness.
I have lived a different kind of “authentic life.” I have lived a relentlessly authentic life because I was willing to be with the crying and complaining. To be honest, it took a shit-ton of courage to continue to explore it with presence. I was frequently frustrated with myself, and particularly with how long I felt it was taking for me to get anywhere. I was sometimes exhausted by just how aware I was of my internal landscape.
So if you recognize yourself: Carry on, warrior, with presence.
Check in and see: is turning over the pain, so well-worn by now, a form of hiding out?
Notice where it’s a necessary process on your path.
Notice where it’s time to let go.
When something is ready to transform, it transforms. Once you see clearly, you won’t be able to un-see. It will be painful. It will be beautiful.
It will be both, and it will be clean and good.
1. Understand that probably, you really don’t want to break your “bad” habits. This is an important thing to know if you think you want to break bad habits : probably, on some level, you really want to stay on the couch (exercise? ugh!) and keep drinking (sobriety? ugh!) or that some part of you is still caught up in “negative thinking” or old patterns for an infinite number of reasons.
To break bad habits would require change, and almost no one wants change. So first things first? Understand that to break bad habits you’re going to need to acknowledge that change will be required, and might be difficult.
2. That is, almost no one wants change until the pain gets to be too much—so one way to break bad habits is to honestly assess the present or to forecast the future.
If you honestly assess the present, are you deeply suffering due to the habits that are in place? For example: perhaps you notice that you’ve got a habit of thinking you’re not enough, and it’s the habitual place you return to, every time you are embarking on a new project. You think that you want to change that habit but really (back to point #1) most people also don’t want to change. It’s more comfortable to shy away from taking a risk by telling yourself that you’re “not enough” than it is to do the work to change—that is, unless you really deeply acknowledge how painful it is in the present to miss all those opportunities because you have this bad habit of telling yourself that you’re “not enough.”
You could also go deeply into your future forecast of regret because you tell yourself that you’re “not enough.” The recognition of what is inevitable if you keep the bad habits around can be enough to prompt you to get serious about changing your life.
3. In other words, you can do what I call “telling the truth-truth-truth.” To tell the truth-truth-truth, the very real truth, the down-to-the-core-truth, is always scary and deeply courageous. It is also the doorway to everything that you actually want in your life.
4. Speaking of the things you want in your life? You can also break bad habits by forecasting into the future with all the things that you want, that are light-filled, joy-filled, courage-filled. This is your courageous life , and the great gift is that you’ve been given these lungs that breathe air and that, more often than not, there’s at least some kind of choice available to you. I’d never tell someone who lacks access to basic human rights to just spout some pithy positive affirmations, but I’d definitely tell them not to give up on seeing where choices are available, whenever they are available (and, by the way, I’d ask, “How can I help?”). My point: you probably have lots of choices that you don’t take advantage of. What are those? And how can you break the bad habit of not seeing or acknowledging those choices?
5. Focus less on how to break bad habits , and more on how to create better habits. Imagine, if you will, this metaphor for your life: let’s say that you have an ugly green chair. It’s a million years old, ugly, the cat has peed on it, and you’ve tried to resuscitate it several times but really, the thing is falling apart.
You tell yourself, “I don’t have the time to figure out what to replace it with, right now—I’ll wait, next year will work better.” You tell yourself, “I don’t have the money to replace it, right now.” You tell yourself, “Maybe the chair isn’t so bad; maybe I don’t need to get rid of it, after all.” Maybe you ask ten of your friends what THEY think you should do with the ugly green chair. Meanwhile, that shitty chair keeps sitting in your house.
And then, one day? You finally get so tired of looking at it and smelling it that you decide that it’s time for a change. So, you take it to the upholsterer to get re-done, or you haul it to the curb to go to the dump. Either way, what happens when you walk back into your house is that there is this new space where the ugly green chair used to be. Your brain starts turning with what you want to put there, instead. Also? You need somewhere to sit, so you’d better get to taking action.
There’s an ugly green chair, somewhere in your life. Maybe it’s your habit of making excuses for the soul-sucking job (“It’s not the right year to change careers,” “I don’t have the money to change careers,” “Maybe this job really isn’t so bad…”) or maybe it’s your habit of thinking that you’re not enough when you try to go after your dreams.
The ugly green chair is the bad habit that you want to break, but breaking bad habits means empty space. Spaciousness is great—and—you probably need something to replace it with. So how about a better habit? Creating better habits is more effective. Instead of completely changing careers, try moving to a different company in the same industry while you figure the rest out. Instead of trying to forever banish negative thinking, try to reframe limiting stories that you tell about yourself.
So really, you could sum this up as:
– Be real about the fact that change is difficult (and that’s okay).
– Be real about how the current “bad” habits are not, in fact, okay. Stop settling for the status quo.
– Be real about your desires for something more for your life. Tap into your Most Courageous Self, and dream into that space.
– Focus less on trying to break bad habits and more on trying to create better habits, the habits that make it easier for your most courageous self to emerge.
What we are used to, when it comes to courage, is pushing: pushing to get to the “next level.” Pushing to create your “big thing.” Pushing to grow, to achieve, to be a better version of yourself than the version that you were, last year. Innovate, innovate, innovate—and never be happy with the “status quo.” To simply tread water, to stay in your comfort zone and be where you are without trying to get to a better place, is for suckers (or so they say).
And…reality requires more nuance.
Yes, there are times where we need to push and fight for every step of our growth; growth is uncomfortable and without the push, we’ll live stagnant lives. These are the times when we need confronting with kindness, the person or internal advocate who will say, “Don’t sell yourself short; this is hard but you need to forge ahead, anyway. DO NOT GIVE UP.”
Other times, we need to practice the courage to allow ourselves to simply tread water. Sometimes, it’s fear that’s driving us to hustle more, hustle harder. It becomes a fear-based choice to push-push-push. All that pushing leads to being at war with yourself.
So how do you know the difference between when you need to push and when you need to simply…be?
Primarily, you’ll learn through time and discernment, through accessing the body to observe what you feel, and through attention to the repeated patterns. You start noticing that, say, every time your career really starts getting hot, you get overwhelmed and feel the need to take a long break. Or every time things finally relax in your relationship, you feel a strong urge to pick a fight. Or it might hit you that when you want to leave a situation, you have a tendency to make the circumstances and everyone in them “wrong,” so as to justify your leaving—and that this creates unnecessary drama and heartache.
But speaking as someone who has struggled with practicing the courage to simply tread water and be where I am? The biggest sign that I’m in need of it is the degree to which I’ll resist doing just that.
It’s easy to spot the resistance when it comes up for me: at those times, if I look at my life I will see all the places where I’m hustling and none of the places where I’m willing to practice the principle of “just be where you are .”
Maybe you can relate?
If you examine your own hustle-hustle, you’re likely to find some spot of pain that you’ve been trying to avoid. There’s some pain of not feeling good enough, some place of feeling lost and confused. (Hustle-hustle is a great way to avoid needing to feel those feelings.)
Sometimes, you will need to let it be enough that you are simply living, simply existing. Be where you are . Breathe where you are.
Sure, courage can be found in the hustle and push for something bigger and bolder.
It can also be found in those times when we are simply treading water, trying to be where we are because that is in fact, the boldest move we could make at that moment.
* * *
As I write this, I am thinking of the people I have known: the people who are trying to tread water as they birth new babies, or keep mental illness from taking over their lives, or bury people they love, or survive a divorce, or get sober, or figure out what to do as they’ve lost their financial footing, or make it day-to-day with a special needs child who is the love of your life but also the exhaustion of your life, or process a trauma, or reel from rejection after putting all their efforts behind a big dream.
I am thinking of you, if you are in the midst of that, and how there are messages coming at you—a million miles an hour, it might seem!—to hustle and dream bigger and go-go-go. And meanwhile, you’re feeling like you can just barely manage to take the wheel.
There are two things that are true, at these moments:
One, it is true that you will need to have the hard conversations with yourself, at some point. You will need to dig deep and ask yourself, “What am I going to commit to—what’s it going to take—for me to grow past this?”
And two, that moment might not be right now. If you have needed the permission to just tread water and make it moment-to-moment in the space you are in, I hope you’ll give it to yourself, right here and now.
This, too, is courage.