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For far too long, I was mostly consumed with how to “be a better person.” It was what I would have said to you if you sat with me for a long time over steaming cups of tea and we peeled back the layers, one after another: I just want to be a better person.
Better than what? someone was finally brave enough to ask me, and I said: Better than this.
What’s better than this? this brave person asked me, and that’s when I saw what they saw, and how I was feeding the hungry ghosts of “not enough.”
I thought I needed to be a better person because at my core, who I was, wasn’t enough.
* * *
“But wait,” many a client and workshop participant has asked. “If the point of this work is to accept myself, how can I accept myself, if I’m…trying to be a better person?”
I delight in this question, as I always delight in questions where embedded within the question, is the answer. “That’s right,” I say. “How can you accept yourself, if you’re trying to be a better person?”
“Well, I want to accept myself,” they say. “But, I also want to be a better person.”
“Interesting. Why?” I ask.
“Because…I’d be really sad, if this was, you know…it,” they say.
* * *
Lately I have been partial to describing my work as being about “the and.” I help people to be with both, with whatever is on both sides of “the and.”
Courage and fear.
Commitment and waffling.
Creation and destruction.
Resting and hustling.
I believe that being with “the and” is the only way that we ever arrive at wholeness. We do it through dismantling the logic that would prop up one way of being as the road to being a better person and dismissing the rest. We do it through practicing being with both, even when it’s uncomfortable.
* * *
The desire to be a better person is fundamentally predicated on the belief that something is wrong with you. That’s why it always fails. It’s not just semantics. The choice of “better” is at the heart of the disconnect.
Instead of asking ourselves how to be better people, I think this is a more helpful question: “How can I change the things in my life that I know aren’t working, while also accepting my imperfections?”
Here’s what I know about change: the paradox is that when we start to be fully with the things that we don’t like, the things that we don’t like start to change.
Let’s say that I have a habit of getting sarcastic and critical with someone. The “be a better person” approach might entail remembering the 1-2-3 rules for how to be at conflict resolution or trying to talk myself out of being annoyed by the person’s behavior. Chances are that with that approach, I’ll be successful half the time, and the other half of the time, I’ll end up biting my tongue long enough that I eventually can’t hold myself back anymore—and then I end up snapping at someone.
The approach of shifting while being with yourself, as you are, is about attention. When I am being fully with my sarcasm or the times when I offer someone biting criticism—and I do mean fully, truly, wholly with that experience—I’ll notice that it’s actually painful, for me, to be this way with another human being. It’s painful to be listening to someone and judging them. It’s painful to be thinking of angry comebacks.
If you’re always trying to be better, you put yourself in the position of striving for the courage while stamping out the fear, striving for the creation, stamping out the destruction. It’s exhausting. That’s where all your energy goes.
It becomes impossible to shift something from a place of genuine respect for the self when you’ve already set up the condition that only the “better” option is really acceptable.
Instead, we need to start being okay with “the and.” Yes, courage and fear live within you. Yes, commitment and waffling live within you.
In fact, it’s possible that they always will. This life, in all its imperfection, might be “it.” So then what?
Here’s where I arrived, and where you might arrive, as well: Well, if the things that are hard to be with might always be around, I might as well figure out how to live a good life, alongside them. Hopefully I can do that with some grace, because I have been the first person to meet my soul without conditions.
As of writing this post, it’s been a full 30 days of not drinking alcohol. And before that, it had been nearly 3 years since I’d gone 30 days without a drink of alcohol, which is how I knew that something was up with how I was using alcohol and that I needed to examine that. I have, in the parlance of the day, “an issue.”
But I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood about what I’m saying when I say that there’s an issue. Let me explain.
Here’s what happens when you start talking about issues with drinking, in our society: people imagine Meg Ryan’s character from When a Man Loves a Woman. We do this thing where our standard for, “You have a problem” is drinking Vodka straight from a bottle, slapping your child across the face, and crashing through glass in the shower when you pass out.
This means that a lot of people who actually have an issue with drinking think that they don’t have an issue with drinking. The culture creates this image of what “issues with drinking” look like, and it’s fairly extreme. Also, I live in actual California “wine country.” Wine is everywhere, and pretty much everyone is drinking, and drinking wine every night with dinner is considered Epicurean, not an “having an issue.”
And, of course, I do work in the personal growth field. Stories abound of life coaches who finally fess up to pretending to have had their lives in some kind of order, all the while selling books and courses and programs and coaching with “answers” for people, but it turns out that inside, they were a mess.
This “You have it together, or you don’t” stuff is again, just more of the binary stuff. As a culture, we like to neatly divide people into good or bad camps. I don’t think I’m in a camp. I think two things are true: one, that I’m a life coach who has her life and her insides in some good amount of order, and that how I was using alcohol became an issue.
But I digress. Here’s what I know about my own issue with alcohol (specifically, a love affair with wine).
Back in 2012, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and corresponding with that, in 2013, I was diagnosed with infertility. After years of being a never doing drugs, always exercising-and-meditating, doing-all-the-disease-prevention-things kind of person, I was diagnosed with an illness where literally, some parts of my body had gone haywire and were attacking healthy parts of my body. After extensive fertility testing and two rounds of fertility treatments, the doc delivered some very bad news that made the possibility of having a baby seem extremely bleak.
There were several tools that I turned to, to navigate that time and space. I turned to accessing the body, and meditating. I turned to conscious crying and catharsis through actively experiencing my grief. I turned to listening to my inner critic and questioning the limiting stories it proposed, as well as reframing them.
And, without even really thinking about it, I also turned to wine. My husband and I began eating out, more and more often, and in wine country, that meant having wine. We were both really into the ritual of it: hard day, looking forward to going out, choosing a new place, chatting with the servers that we came to know better and better the more we ate out, trying new wines as the servers offered a “pour” of various blends, seeing if we could actually taste the “notes of berry” that were in one wine versus the “strong tannins” that were in another. We’d day trip to wineries—again, meeting new people or going with friends, trying new wines, and so on.
This behavior seemed entirely normal and consistent with what everyone around us was doing. And, what I realize only in hindsight, is that on some (unconscious) level, I was drinking to blunt the feelings that I had about illness, and maybe a little bit to rebel—after all those years of trying to be uber-healthy, this hadn’t really gotten me anywhere, had it? So I might as well have a little fun.
Then, I unexpectedly became pregnant without medical intervention. I stopped drinking while pregnant. Then the Baby arrived, and we couldn’t really go out to dinner the way we used to. That’s when we started purchasing bottles of wine and keeping them in the house.
And that, right there, is when the scales tipped. Because there is this simple fact about alcohol: it is an addictive substance (just like caffeine, just like sugar, and of course, wine is many parts sugar).
Particularly when you link an addictive substance with how you cope with stress (hello, new baby!) or a reward (baby is finally asleep? Time to relax with some wine!), you are basically creating the conditions for a dependency issue with the substance.
If you take someone who doesn’t drink coffee, and you have them drink enough of it every day for a long enough period, they will develop a chemical craving for coffee. Same goes for sugar.
Same goes, it turns out, for wine. Drink it often enough, for long enough, and you will develop a chemical craving for it that can live right alongside all the other things that you do in your life that have nothing to do with alcohol.
That’s what I started to realize had happened, with me.
This is the part where I lay it out, really plain-and-simple: I am a strong, courageous, incredibly resilient person who regularly turns to a series of powerful tools to handle life’s challenges and to feel more joyful on a regular basis.
I have not been “pretending” to be this person. I am this person. I’m a rockstar coach and facilitator, a half-Ironman triathlete and writer. Overall, highly driven, perceptive, and clued-in about my own behavior patterns.
And equally as true, is this: in some parts due to the culture that normalizes nightly drinking and in some parts due to the simple fact that alcohol is addictive (like caffeine, like sugar), I started to develop a slow, subtle dependence on wine.
I failed to really notice this, for awhile. Because I thought that people who had “issues” with alcohol were people who were:
a.) falling down drunk,
b.) not paying their bills or functioning with work or their lives,
c.) routinely blacking out or hung over,
and because I was neither a, b, nor c, I thought that it wasn’t really possible that I could have an issue. After all, I’d never in my life had an issue with substance use. In college, I only ever drank at parties. To this day, I’ve never even smoked pot.
So every single day, I would wake up and had no desire for alcohol. Often, I’d grocery shop in the afternoon, before picking up my daughter from daycare, and I’d breeze past the wine section thinking Nah, no wine, tonight. Then, nearly every single night, once the baby (who was now a toddler) was asleep, myself or my husband would step out to grab a bottle of wine.
We’d split the bottle of wine, and for a lightweight like me, anything more than one glass of wine is officially “too much.” Yet I liked relaxing and watching something on Netflix or talking about our day while having a few glasses of wine with our dinner, so I drank a few glasses. I liked being silly and a bit tipsy. I liked the ritual. I liked that there was this thing to look forward to, even if my toddler was having a meltdown. I liked how the stress of the day would slide away and get fuzzy.
And then the more often we were doing this, the more I didn’t particularly like drinking, but felt compelled to because if I didn’t drink, I felt super tense and agitated and stressed. Something switched and not drinking ended up causing feelings of stress. I’d use some of my tools for handling stress—meditation or creative outlets or exercise or questioning my limiting internal narratives—but the thing I really wanted to do was have that bottle of wine.
During 2016, a few things arose that necessitated hiring attorneys and writing some very big checks. In the midst of days when I might receive unpredictable emails that would throw my day off, there was always that evening ritual, with wine.
Once again, I wasn’t thinking consciously about this. I wasn’t thinking, “Ah! Yes! Wine to cope with stress!”
Wine is everywhere; it is attractively arranged at displays in my local Safeway. It was just something I did, something that evolved over time, and something it seemed everyone did. So we had wine with dinner, to wind down the night. What’s the issue?
Little by little, however, I did start thinking more consciously about this. “When did drinking wine become my favorite stress-reduction strategy?” I asked myself.
I started noticing that I was a little bummed whenever we reached the bottom of the bottle. I started noticing that I was waking up more frequently in the middle of the night (so in other words, alcohol was disrupting my sleep). I started noticing that it embarrassed me a bit to check my checking account and see just how many $10 charges there were for our local corner store. I started noticing that sometimes, I wanted to start our little wine ritual earlier and earlier in the evening, and didn’t want to wait until after our daughter was asleep. I started noticing that I was distinctly uncomfortable when our two-year-old knew what a glass of wine was, pointing to it and saying, “Wine!”
Basically, I started noticing that wine was this thing that I spent more time thinking about than I wanted to. Even if I wasn’t falling-down drunk, unraveling my life, or blacking out or hung over, it had occurred to me that something seemed amiss.
So, I decided to set some rules: Just the weekends. Just one glass a night. No more wine in the house; just at restaurants. Okay, back to just on the weekends. Okay, if I drink during the week, just one glass a night. Okay, if I have more than one glass a night, just while I get through this extra stressful time with the lawyers and the writing of big checks.
See how that went? I was blowing past basically every rule that I was setting for myself. And again, I was doing that only in the evenings while living a strong, courageous, resilient and powerful life during the day, day-to-day.
Life was compartmentalized between those two places, except for one tiny-big thing:
Now, even when I wanted to stop, I felt compelled to drink, every evening. I reeeeeeallllllyyyyy wanted to. Then I’d rationalize (“What’s the big deal with a few glasses of wine?”). Even when I told myself I wouldn’t drink, I’d end up having wine or somehow it always just “seemed to happen.”
I was paying attention. And it seemed to me that something was amiss if I was telling myself I wanted to live one way, right up until a certain hour of the day, when all of those values and ideas seemed to go out the window.
Somehow, I ran across the Hip Sobriety website. I began reading. Holly, founder of Hip Sobriety, recommends a book called This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. And then there was this blog post by Aidan Rowley, which I could very much relate to, on “Drinking Words.”
In particular, I read This Naked Mind with fascination. While I had never drank the same volume as the author, the patterns were exactly the same. Reading about Rowley’s experience, was also interesting—because of the similarities. Turns out that my story with drinking? Not so very unique. Why? Because chemical dependency ain’t so very unique. Once again:
Give someone enough sugar, every day, day after day, and they will crave sugar—particularly if you tie that sugar in any way to rewards or dealing with stress.
Give someone enough coffee, every day, day after day, and they will crave caffeine—particularly if you tie that caffeine in any way to ritual (hello, waking up in the morning).
Give someone enough alcohol, every day, day after day, and they will crave alcohol—particularly if, as was my case, it is tied to rewards, dealing with stress, AND a comforting nightly routine, all mixed into one.
It’s not about a moral failing of character. It’s only a tiny bit about willpower. It’s basic brain chemistry and conditioning. We like to think we’re above all that, but for the most part, humans just aren’t.
So, it’s been 30 days without alcohol. I wanted some space and time to examine my relationship with it. It was only through not drinking wine that I could see clearly how I was using wine.
And, if I am honest? While the cognitive and logical part of my brain says, “No way!” to a glass of wine, the cravings part of my brain is like, “Man, a glass of wine would be aces to go with this blog post.”
So for me, I think that untangling from a pattern that I now see very, very clearly, is just a day-to-day thing. I don’t write any of this to pretend as if I am any kind of authoritative voice on the subject of chemical dependency (the website and book I’ve linked, above, are far better resources on that subject). I don’t desire to get into any debates about AA versus cognitive conditioning or whether or not anyone is an alcoholic.
I write about this because it was reading about the experiences of others that helped me to get some clarity on how I was using alcohol and wine, and how to bring myself back to my own integrity with it (which, for the time being, means not drinking anything, period).
I notice a few new things, 30 days later: I’m sleeping better and waking up with more energy. I like that I don’t have any low-grade shame when looking at my bank account, now that there aren’t those charges for wine on the bank statement. I like that I don’t have a nagging fear of, “Uh, am I normalizing drinking in front of my daughter?” by having wine in front of her, because I’m not drinking.
I like noticing that the internal debate about wine—how much, when, under what circumstances, etc., has just lifted. I’m not drinking. There we go. No debate. Nothing to think through. Nothing to question.
Most of all, I like noticing that the same tools I used to buffer stress and amplify my joy, have taken center stage, again. More heart-to-heart talks, creativity, writing, reading, and down time. I’m signed up for another half-Ironman and I’m getting back into my training groove. These things get to have a bigger space in my life than drinking wine, which means that really, I—the realest and most courageous version of myself—have taken center stage in my life, again.
When people talk about how to create better habits , I think they’re really meaning: how can I stop doing the stuff that doesn’t really make my life better, and start doing the things that DO make my life better? And how can I make that regular and consistent?
To create better habits , you’ve got to know what it is that you deeply desire because that motivation informs how much you’ll pay attention to each part of the habit-formation process. When you really want the change because you’re clear on what you desire, you’ll bring more presence to the process of change. Habit-formation that’s based in fear, or in trying to change something about your life because you’re afraid that if you don’t change it disaster will ensue is a lot less fun (and less effective).
(If you’re not already a YCL subscriber, you can get started with creating better habits using the Shift Plan, a guide for getting clear about what you want to shift that takes into account your deepest desires.)
Habits run on a cue-routine-reward loop. They inform nearly half of our behavior, every day, behavioral scientists tell us–and not just whether or not we remember to floss or exercise. Our habitual responses to our jobs, the people around us, how we respond to stress, and more are influencing our lives at a deep level. Changing habits or creating better habits means, quite literally, changing your life.
To create courageous habits, you’ve got to start recognizing the cue-routine-reward loop.
Recognize the cue and feelings of fear that happen in the body.
Recognize when you go into routines, or what I call fear routines.
Recognize the rewards that are short-term, versus long-term. When you’re afraid of taking a big risk, so you procrastinate? You’re feeling a fear cue, responding with a fear routine, and getting a short-term risk or temporarily alleviating the pressure.
If you want to become more courageous in your life, you can create courageous habits, a default response to the fear that everyone encounters when they go after the things in life that matter, most.
To develop more courageous habits, start looking at what area of your life you’d like to be more courageous in—perhaps in your relationships, speaking your mind with social justice and getting into activism, or with creative expression as you write the book you’ve always wanted to write—and from there, make a point of examining the habits that inform how you react to your partner, when you speak up vs when you don’t, or how you avoid your creative expression.
Isolate the fear cues. What are they? How do they show up in your body? Do they tend to show up more under certain circumstances?
Understand your typical fear routines. I see four common fear routines: Perfectionism, sabotage, martyrism, and extreme skepticism and doubt. Everyone uses these fear routines sometimes, and all of us have one that we tend to use more than the others.
Last, understand the rewards you truly seek–not the temporary alleviation of stress because you backed down on going after your big dream, but the rewards of building resilience and seeing yourself take action as you step forward to go after what you want.
Whether you want to change something tangible or something personal to your way of being, thinking about how to create better habits starts with thinking about what you desire and then looking at the habits that surround that desire.
(And when you’re ready to learn about how to make new habits stick, I’ve got you covered there, too).