Do you ever feel like your life consists of simply keeping all the plates spinning? I know I do.
On good days, I look at all the crockery I’ve got under full rotary control and smile smugly. On other days, it can feel like I’m just barely keeping the plates from crashing down like a porcelain house of cards. Like recently, when my son’s teacher emailed one Wednesday evening to inform us she would be off sick until the end of the week. I found myself cancelling three appointments for the next day then looking after my three-year-old while completing writing assignments with unmoveable deadlines by working in a tag-team shift system with my husband, and schlepping my little boy into central Paris when I went for a medical check-up I’d booked months before and was not about to push back.
I was having a moan discussion with my husband about this feeling of chasing my tail when it occurred to me that my feelings of overwhelm were in part due to the metaphor I was using and, as a result, the story I was telling myself about my life. What if I wasn’t spinning plates, in fact? What if my narrative were different?
The stuff of life
The other realisation I came to while whining talking to my husband was that harking back to simpler days when I all I had to manage was school, friends and a few hobbies was pointless. Life is no longer easy; perhaps it never was. So many of us yearn for a simpler life, by which we mean one that is pared down and stripped back to the essential. A million wellbeing magazines and articles tell us that slowing down, doing less and BEING more are the answers to all our ailments. And it’s true that during the recent lockdowns the lack of places to go and people to see was actually something of a relief to many of us. However, while I definitely felt the pressure to DO and SEE and GO ease off under lockdown, I wouldn’t want to live that way all the time. Because isn’t some degree of plate-spinning in fact the very stuff of life? I don’t mean breathless rushing, double-booking and overworked stress, but the juggling we do to ensure the kids get to school, do homework, eat well, see friends and take part in hobbies; to plan holidays, weekends away, day trips and evenings out; to engage with our work fully and carve out fulfilling careers; to see friends, take care of our health and stimulate our minds. While it often feels like all these to-do items are weighing me down, keeping me busy, and causing brain-ache, they are all activities I have chosen for myself at some point. And they are not going away (nor would I want them to), so why bemoan the spinning plates? Why not simply bin them and find a new metaphor?
The story I’m telling myself is…
In her filmed talk “The Call to Courage”, the higher being that is Brené Brown shared how she uses the phrase “The story I’m telling myself is…” to defuse arguments with her husband. She offers it up as a way of expressing one’s own interpretation of behaviour or events that might not be accurate or real but which is “the story I’m telling myself”. It occurs to me that we are constantly telling ourselves stories about our lives. And the literary devices we use – like metaphors and similes, to which I am particularly partial – are not just descriptive but prescriptive. They don’t just express what we feel, they can create it. So, each time I picture myself in a circus ring with a big red nose on frantically spinning plates, my mental image stresses me out. So what if I changed the story I’m telling myself? What if I imagine myself as a strong and sturdy oak tree holding its branches high and supporting its lush foliage with grace and ease? My chest releases and I can breathe a little easier. The tree bends in the storm, but is flexible enough not to be broken. Sometimes it drops a few leaves, but nothing catastrophic occurs, and new ones grow. Occasionally a bird lands on a bough, adding a little extra weight, but the tree knows it’s just temporary and that it can survive. If we push my metaphor to the extreme (and why wouldn’t we?), the tree also knows when it’s able to carry more leaves and when it’s the right moment to shed a few and take a break.
What a difference that image makes! Suddenly the story I’m telling myself is one of capability, strength and stability as opposed to panicking, rushing and flirting with failure. It’s about me making a choice which leaves I allow to grow on my branches, as opposed to dancing to the tune of some sadistic ringmaster. One story empowers and calms me, the other robs me of agency – and sleep. In the end, I still have the same to-do list, and I haven’t used any self-help hacks to boost my productivity, prioritise and prune my relationships, or learn to delegate. I’ve simply changed the story I’m telling myself, throwing all those plates to the ground like I’m in a touristy Green restaurant and choosing a new metaphor that works for my peace of mind, not against it.
So, what would happen if you went all “choose your own adventure” on some of the stories you’re telling yourself? How might changing the way you imagine and describe yourself and your life offer you greater control, strength, flexibility, self-respect, peace, joy and energy? What new story will you choose to tell yourself today?
If some of the stories you’re telling yourself are keeping you stuck or no longer serving you, why not take some time to work out a new narrative with an experienced and empathetic coach who can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.