Category Archives: Lessons learned

Travel mantras

Today I will head home from my work visit to Mexico City.

It is good time to write out some of my travel mantras, as reminders to myself to enjoy the journey.

That’s the first one, actually: Enjoy the journey.

Here’s another one I like: Remember, everyone is fighting their own battles. There are struggles we may not see, that may affect others’ behavior.

The best one, when stress or anxiety come up is: Breathe, just breathe. It is all okay.

When I am practicing mindful awareness of my surroundings, I also like to remind myself of all that I am grateful for: the opportunity to travel, a kind word or smile I may receive as a gift from a stranger, and a life in which I am privileged to see into the window of other cultures as part of my work.

What’s your favorite travel mantra? 

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

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Out of hiding

short-and-sassy-front.jpg

Yup, it’s me.

I took the plunge yesterday and went much shorter on the hair. My stylist told me it takes a strong woman to pull off short hair effectively. I like that. I am going to rock the short hair. It is a symbolic way for me to “signal” the changes to my work colleagues, since I will be seeing several on my team next week in Belgium.

I have decided to come out of “hiding” here on the blog as well, since I aim to integrate the work and personal worlds I inhabit, gradually, at a pace that works for me.

About 8 years ago, I was going through another big life transition and was not as attentive or focused at work as I strive to be. I felt burned out and my boss was blithely dumping more work onto an already full plate. I had no sense of boundaries or how to say no. I had not yet learned how to communicate my distress effectively, to ask for help or to push back.

In addition to that, I had moved out of the home where I had been living for a few years with my partner and his children (part-time, as they also spent time with their mother). I had not yet grieved the loss of that life, even though my soul was relieved that I had left.

Perceiving my lack of commitment and energy for a few weeks during my move, my boss asked me what was wrong and suspected there was something outside of work bothering me. In fact there was, and I explained to her (in a vague way) what was going on. Instead of having empathy and giving me some understanding about my need to heal, she put me on a performance improvement plan.

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This is WAY shorter than I have worn my hair in about 2 decades.

For those who do not know, this is code for “you’d better shape up and get into gear or you will get fired.” The letter she gave to me outlined the ways in which I needed to improve my work within 90 days or I may be terminated. It was a shock to me. I was also bitter about the fact that she seemed to use the personal information I shared with her against me.

Looking back there are many other ways to interpret her actions. But it was the time I began walling off parts of my professional life from my personal life, as much as I could. I had been “hiding” my a.d.d. from her as well, even though I had seen it as an asset to the position, my flexibility in catching whatever was tossed my way, up to a point.

I gathered my energy, went to see an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor at my workplace, and tried to figure out how I was going to make this work. He helped me see that I was suffering from a minor depression and that I needed to take more proactive steps to communicate with my boss on the work overload. He explained that managers at this workplace like it when employees come to them with potential solutions, not just problems.

He helped me figure out more effective ways to communicate, rather than the passive-aggressive (i.e. Minnesotan) tactic I had been using to push back. He also referred me to the book The Chemistry of Joy, by Dr. Henry Emmons, which helped me proactively manage my depression through both Western and Eastern wisdom. Wow, am I ever grateful for his support and help.

I worked my ass off to get out of the PIP. Even though my boss was not yet thrilled with my work, she said I had improved substantially. It was not until the year after that, when we hired a second person to help with the growing workload, that she really appreciated my skills. It was really hard to find someone who knew clinical research and who was also bilingual! We were not just a dime a dozen. She began treating me differently and better, appreciating my unique constellation of skills.

For the past three years I have held (and rocked) the manager position that she left when she opted to go to a different department. I am a better boss because of that experience, even though it was hellish at the time. I want to come “out of hiding” with my struggles because I want others to know you can get through tough times and come out on the other side. It is important to find support, and to realize you are not alone.

You will get through it, and you will develop amazing resilience in the process. Peace and love, readers.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your One Thing?

Yesterday I took an opportunity during my monthly operations meeting to present to my team a concept I had discovered that intrigues me, from The One Thing by Gary Keller.

In preparing for the presentation, I realized that I can indulge my love for teaching and training in my current job. It was totally fun to prepare, and I enjoyed challenging my team with a new idea. It was a bit of a risk, and I had not discussed it with my director first. But he has been open to my creative streak, and when I finished (in about 20 minutes) he actually came up with the perfect picture to capture the idea of what we do now, versus what we might prefer to do.

one man band

“One man band” – photo taken in March 2018 by my boss

What is perfect about the photo is that it showed empathy for the struggle of my teammates, and it illustrated the point I had made during the presentation.

The basic idea of the book is that we need to work on ONE thing at a time, sequentially rather than simultaneously to achieve extraordinary results. When we multi-task or spin in a list of to-do’s that has no main priority, we dilute the focus and the quality of our work. So the book has a number of suggestions for how we drill down from our “someday goal” to a 5-year, then one year, monthly, weekly and daily goal.

We are asked to use a focusing question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

This can be applied to goals at work, in relationships, goals for your physical health, personal life, money and business. You use it both on a temporal level: “what’s the one thing this week, or today or in this moment…” Then you plan time blocks on a daily basis so you get your one thing done first, before you slide off into more shallow work, like answering emails, attending meetings and other tasks.

Nothing should distract you from your one thing until it is done. Those time blocks can be protected. This is similar to the concept of Deep Work, by Cal Newport.

After I concluded, I asked the team: How can we apply the concept of “The One Thing” to the work we do every day? A couple of them had some ideas, and one had a great example. One thought it would be very hard to do this in the world we live in now, which was when my boss pulled out that great photo. We often feel like “one man bands” in our group, serving so many business units.

I believe the concept has merit, and though we a.d.d.-oid folks struggle with doing just one thing at a time, and many need to have shorter “time blocks” than the average person, I know when I do it well, I generate amazing results. I like to think of my one thing right now as my morning writing practice. When I do it, I feel a nice surge of energy, and that makes the rest of my day more productive as well.

What’s your ONE THING? Or if you prefer a more focused question: What’s your One Thing today?

Happy Friday, amigos!

 

Hating your body into submission?

Best to stop that now. It does NOT work!

Some of us spent way too many of our adolescent years, and perhaps 20’s and beyond hating our bodies. It is not hard to understand why this occurred:

Check out every media publication in the world (practically) that shows women should be thin, beautiful, coiffed, manicured. AND: all of this should occur with the least amount of perceptible effort possible.

Seriously?!?

Body shaming is an epic tradition, especially for western cultures. It is a sad and pathetic tradition and we need to end it now. Why?

For one: it does not serve anyone (except advertisers and people trying to sell you something). Taking care of our bodies properly requires that we love ourselves, and have compassion for ourselves. They are doing the best they can to keep us alive, including storing fat for the lean times. Our ancestors did not always have food to eat on a daily basis, which is why humans (and many other creatures) are adept at storing extra calories in the form of fat.

When you think about it, we have the evolution process to thank for the fact that, if we were short of food, we would be able to survive a remarkably long time just tapping our fat stores. But do we ever give thanks for this handy little phenomenon? Not likely. In the modern world, food is around us. Evolution has not caught up with that reality.

For years as a runner, I used extra mileage to sometimes “punish” myself for bad behavior, i.e. eating chocolate or having some kind of treat forbidden by my diet. I love running but this approach really was not healthy for me, and led to chronic injuries. I was always running from something, and usually it was from feeling any painful feelings, just sitting with the sensations in my body and observing them.

It was not until I started practicing meditation and yoga more regularly and learning to sit with those feelings of discomfort sometimes. Rather than “escaping myself” I learned to come back to myself and to feel compassion and forgiveness for myself. Our bodies do the best they can for us, and meanwhile, they only want us to take care of them.

We can drink plenty of water and get plenty of fresh air. We can eat plenty of healthy vegetables, along with healthy fats and proteins to keep our brains and bodies in balance. We can avoid sugar and flour, highly processed powdered substances that create unnatural insulin releases into the body. We can get plenty of sleep. We can work out to improve endurance and strength, but know resting is equally important to build healthy tissue.

When we love our bodies, we treat them with care and respect. When we take the time to be grateful for what they do for us every day, we tend to pay closer attention, and to ask them what they need, instead of mindlessly shoving down what the advertisers are peddling.

If you hate your body and think this will help you lose weight, I implore you to reconsider. Loving your precious body, the instrument you were granted to live in while on this earth is the way you can best serve it.

Treating your body with kindness and respect is the best way to get more energy, vitality and health. Give it a try. It might surprise you by rewarding you with a more natural weight without the struggle.

 

Lies we tell ourselves

Last week after my coaching session, I began considering my the original motivations for entering into this process. One big one is that I want to make a career change this year. Another one is that I want more alignment and intimacy in my relationships, including my relationship with myself.

I have been doing a lot of work on this areas in the past couple of years, and I am proud of the progress I have made. But there are always more layers to peel back, it seems, and I was kind of shocked to catch myself in a lie that I’d been telling to myself, and also speaking out loud.

The lie was “my job is killing me and I may need to leave it.” In truth, my job is not killing me. My job is paying me good money. The tasks I am responsible for are becoming less palatable to me, that is true. But it is MY THOUGHTS about the job that are causing pain, not the job itself. When I admit that to myself, I feel less desperate and graspy about finding something new. And I dig deeper to find the sources of that pain, and unearth a more true set of facts that are driving my unhappiness about the current reality.

It occurred to me though: how did I not catch that lie to myself before? One of the homework assignments I am working on with my coach is to review my “Mary the Martyr” voice in my head that plays sometimes when I am making decisions. In working on the dreaming assignment, I realized I was a little “blocked” at even coming up with dreams in some areas. I had a whole list of things I am supposed to do, supposed to want. All those (probably parental figure) voices say to: “you should be grateful for what you have. Wanting more is greedy.”

But wanting more is what we do as humans. For me, it is not always in the material sense. I want more in the sense that I want satisfaction and fulfillment in the work I do. My husband and I eventually want to buy a house. I want to go on that 1-year anniversary honeymoon that we started planning last year. I never stopped wanting that, but I put in on a shelf thinking “I need to do the responsible thing” instead of getting what I want.

What I was doing was probably channeling all of those “good girl” admonitions I learned my whole life, rather than being honest about what I really want this year. I’d also created some internal and relationship drama about needing to find a new job by this fall in order to put off this goal that I’d dismissed as frivolous and unimportant. But when I considered the reality of the desire, and wanting to do this with my husband as an experience we plan and do together, I re-assessed the timeline with regard to job change.

Granted, there are always short-term and long-term goals we have in our lives. Sometimes we have to put off the short term goals because a longer term priority will benefit us in the long run. But when I am honest with myself about how my thoughts interfere with my desires sometimes, it can release a lot of energy.

Last Thursday, as I dug deeper into those thoughts and beliefs that were causing me pain, I realized I have control of some of those thoughts. I can release them, though not without awareness and intention. I started considering other “lies” I may be telling myself, to keep myself from experiencing disappointment, or doing what is expected of me, rather than doing what I believe is right, more aligned with the truth.

Having integrity within ourselves is a powerful source of energy. We are weighed down by the stories we tell ourselves and the excuses we make for our behavior that may not be honest. When we question some of those “usual story-lines” we may realize they are not actually true! They are just habitual thoughts, when, once examined, can be pruned out of our consciousness to make room for more joy and peace.

What about you? You don’t have to tell us all, of course. This is between you and yourself. Are there any lies you are telling yourself that do not serve you? 

 

 

 

What are you making it mean?

One of the things I have discovered as I have developed a daily practice of meditation is that my mind does not sit still very willingly.

I used to confuse meditation with the idea that you must empty your mind of thoughts. Maybe some well-trained and long-practiced gurus can do this, but I am not at that level. What I *can* do however, is pay attention to my thoughts. If I use a mantra for meditation, like “ease of being” or pay attention to the breath, or scan the body, I inevitably get distracted, and my mind starts doing what it does so well, thinking and churning away.

But then I realize I have gone away from the intention for that practice, gently bring the mind back, and begin again. In the beginning, I think I used to get annoyed with myself – how did I get distracted so easily and so quickly?!? The more I learned and studied I realized that it was much better to view this with compassion. As Jon Kabat-Zinn would say: it’s not a problem, or a mistake that you got distracted. This is just what minds do. When you notice you have gone off, just bring it back. That is the very essence of the practice.

Wow. What a relief. I’m not doing it wrong. Dan Harris, wrote 10% Happier, uses the metaphor that meditation is like a “bicep curl” for the brain. The process of bringing the mind back, many many times, is what helps you grow in the practice, and to develop mastery over your mind.

As I developed in my practice, I began to see places where my mind would create and invent stories upon hearing communication from someone else. And my mind is inventive about this, thought it has a very story-lines it seems to prefer. For example, if I heard a benign comment from my husband about something that struck me in an emotional way, I would stew about it, and use it to feel bad.

But if I used the approach, recommended by coaches and therapists to echo back what I had heard (“you plan to go cut some wood after work”), and said, “what I’m making that mean is that you want some time away from me, you are tired of spending time with me.” Typically that is not what he meant at all, and he would correct the invented story that was running through my head. By saying it out loud, and declaring my interpretation, I was able to clarify that HE did not mean that, my own mind was inventing a story that was creating hurt. 

So have learned to do this more often in general, not always out loud, depending on the context. But sometimes I will examine a particular comment or issue that is bothering me, and ask myself “What am I making it mean?” to allow myself to stop and take some distance, realize that my mind is programmed to make sense of the world, and so often jumps to whatever conclusion fits its usual story-line. When I question that thought, I realize that might not be the case at all. The objective facts or circumstance presented itself and my mind took the next “logical” step, which may not be logical at all.

Our minds are pretty sneaky, and we sometimes buy into these stories as though they are reality. These stories create an emotional state, and if they are habitual, we typically forget to question them. But it is worth stopping now and then, examining them, asking ourselves if we really know that thought is true. Or is it just a projection? Is it just a story-line that we have thought so many times, we believe it to be true?

We then understand that these thoughts are optional, and we may learn to let go of them more easily, to hold them lightly instead of tightly. There is so much freedom in that, and so much less drama. What are you making it mean?

 

Inside Out

What if everything you thought you knew was wrong? 

What if you woke up tomorrow and you saw the world in a completely different way? For example, what if you learned that reality is in your imagination, that you generate your world. It is not some objective truth “out there” but rather constructed by your inner world, and projected outward.

Kind of a radical idea, no?

And yet, what cognitive scientists and linguists like George Lakoff tell us, human beings use mental frames to explain their reality. We can observe facts or circumstances in the world, and when they do not fit our frameworks, our way of explaining the world, we simply dismiss them as exceptions. We cling very strongly to our beliefs about how the world works, and this helps us to live and make decisions.

Sometimes our beliefs are actually wrong. Beliefs are really just thoughts we keep thinking over and over again. They may come from what we were taught growing up. They may be reinforced by societal programming. They begin to seem like reality because maybe everyone around us holds the same beliefs.

It can feel very threatening when we begin to question our beliefs. There is a biological reason for this. Our brains like to be efficient and avoid pain. So we develop neural pathways that serve as “shortcuts” that help us make choices and decisions about the world. This way we don’t have to evaluate all of our more automated activities, like driving to work, or walking down the hallway. These are automatic skills we develop and practice all the time.

It is a healthy to question our beliefs now and then, and it has radically changed my own life. When I realized that beliefs are a choice, and I can consciously choose new beliefs, my head kind of exploded.

First you have to be conscious of your beliefs. I will use food as an example, because it is easy to understand. I spent most of my adult life, until about 3 years ago in fact, believing that consuming fat in my diet would make me fat or keep me fat. It is easy to understand how I would form such a belief: nearly all the dietary guidelines recommend a low fat diet. The food industry has perpetuated the idea that sugar is fine for us, but we should consume “x” as part of a low-fat heart-healthy diet.

Imagine my amazement when instead of battling my body and brain’s natural inclination to consume fat, I began to add much more of it to my diet. I switched from skim milk to whole milk (gradually of course, going to 1%, 2% and then whole). I started using butter and olive oil liberally in my cooking. I went bananas for avocados (which I have always loved, but thought I should limit because of fat content).

As it turns out, over the past 18 months, I have lost 20 pounds on a high-fat diet. The loss has been sustainable and easy to maintain. At the same time, I cut way back on sugar and flour, because those powdered substances did not make my body feel good, when I started paying close attention. I defied all the conventional wisdom on eating three meals and several snacks a day to avoid low blood sugar.

Snacks really are an emotional event, they are not required for survival. They are not necessary for people in places where food is abundant and obesity runs rampant. Our bodies are well-adapted to periods without food, and our ancestors fasted regularly. Once we add back natural fats to our diet and ditch the foods that give us unnatural insulin spikes (flour, sugar and processed foods) we actually start becoming fat-adapted. Our bodies use ketosis to burn fat stores for energy, rather than just blood sugars.

Imagine my amazement, and my anger, when I realized there is a belief perpetuated that keeps so many people struggling with their weight. Sadly, there are public policies that perpetuate this incorrect belief and help perpetuate obesity and illness in our population. It is not about calories in and out, it is about insulin resistance.

But back to beliefs: what if I had not questioned this conventional wisdom, and had just accepted it as truth? The belief did not serve me. It actually was causing harm to my body and brain health. When I listened to my body, and paid attention to what made me feel more vital and energetic, I began to understand.

So lately I have been exploring other beliefs: what if money is not hard to earn? What if I am capable of certain things I never imagined? What if the ideas I learned by example in my culture were just plain misguided? Do these beliefs serve me? What if I adopted a new belief on that particular front?

Wow. It nearly makes my head explode, to consider about the possibilities. I am working right now on questioning my beliefs about money. I am sure to share what I learn in future posts.

But I challenge you also: What do you accept as true in your life that may not be serving you? Are there some beliefs that need cleaning out in your life? Consider the possibilities. I dare you.

 

 

 

Simple Abundance

This morning I was trying to find the charger for my smart phone, and I had a small ’bout of de-clutter urgency. I get these now and then (though my husband may say not nearly often enough). So I was going through a few stacks of items, trying to figure out what room I inadvertently must have set down the cord.

simple abundance

A book caught my eye from the pile on my nightstand that I had pulled out from my big bookshelf recently, by Sarah Ban Breathnach entitled Simple Abundance, and it had been a going-away present from a group of coworkers back in 2000. I had decided to quit working for a bank after two years as a project coordinator, and was heading back to school. My intention to work in the social service field, or for a nonprofit. (I did not realize yet that life had something different in store for me).

Inside the front cover, they had all written very lovely things, and it brought tears to my eyes to remember them. Some of my favorites:

“Good luck with everything! Follow what you believe in. I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to work with you – you are a special person.”

“Best of luck in all your future endeavors. You are a wonderful, kind person and deserve all the happiness you find.”

“Good luck with your plans to return to school and enter the social service field. You will make a big contribution wherever you go.”

I share these not to brag about what a great person I am (though I do claim that I can work with almost anyone, and I tend to get along with people in every workplace). I share this because I worked with that team for only 2 years when I first moved to Minnesota. I had gotten a temp job placement for a bank in Downtown Minneapolis, only a 20 minute walk from our little garden-level apartment.

The job itself was actually pretty boring to me and largely administrative, but after I had been there for a couple of months, I received an offer for a permanent position. Since I wanted health care benefits and I liked the idea of some stability while I was figuring out what to do next, I accepted the position. In the meantime I had applied to grad school because it was fairly clear to me that bachelor’s degree in Psychobiology was not really enough to get me a “science” job.

Also, it can be hard to make friends in Minnesota! School has always been an easier way for me to meet people with whom I have things in common than the workplace. Even though I had family in Bemidji, I did not really know anyone in the Twin Cities. My spouse at the time had moved with me to the Twin Cities shortly after my grandmother had heart surgery. It seemed a good time for me to be closer to family after 6 years away (4 years at Swarthmore for  college and 2 years in the Bay Area of California). My parents lived in Wisconsin and grandma lived in northern MN, so we split the distance.

After living in San Francisco for two years, we decided we could not afford to keep up with the lifestyles of our mostly engineer and I.T. geek friends: they liked to go out a lot and we were going into debt trying to keep up. Rents were high and we did not have the kinds of jobs that could compete with the high cost of living there.

After arriving with maxed out credit cards and no jobs, we had to figure out what was next. We did not know what type of work we would find, but temp jobs in offices had always been plentiful in the 90’s, so I had little doubt I could find SOMETHING. When you’re in your early 20’s and a recent college graduate, I believe it does not matter that much what you do. Just get some work, learn some skills on the job and figure it out along the way. It helps if you know what you LIKE to do, and if you know that, by all means: do that!

But if there are a lot of things you like to do, and your biggest priority is not having to move back in with your parents because you prefer your independence, just find SOMETHING not too awful, and work hard at it. Develop a reputation for being reliable and getting things done. Pay attention to those internal signals you get when you need to move on, and those moments of joy which help you find a better path for you. If you have kind coworkers and a healthy work environment, life will really be okay, even if you have not yet figured out your larger story or mission.

Reading those kind words from the gift book from 18 years ago, I realize that I have always made friends wherever I go. I am kind, and I am approachable and things just tend to work out for me. There have been difficult times, and tough choices, but I realize this is the meaning of simple abundance: what you have in this moment is enough. When you have people around you that you love, and that love you, you will always have enough. Recognizing the great abundance around you and within you is your treasure.