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.
I have been known to joke that at the ripe old age of 41 I do not feel any different from when I was 21, and in some ways that is true. In others, I am happy to say, it is not: I am definitely more confident and self-possessed now, and less concerned with what others think of me. So while the changes to my physical self that result from the passing years might be somewhat unwelcome, they are a fairly small price to pay for the huge advantages of wisdom accrued and perspective gained.
Indeed, I have often thought that as we move through life, one of our aims should be to acquire as much wisdom and insight as we can, compiling our own Desiderata or, if you are also around my age and grew up in the UK, you may remember Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen song (“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it”). In my years of coaching and extensive reading in the personal development genre, I feel like I have acquired more than my fair share of advice. Richard Carlson, Martin Seligman, Edith Eger, William Bridges – to name but a few – have all contributed to my understanding of the world and myself, and helped me negotiate life with greater ease, peace and grace. However, no nugget of wisdom from a book has ever been able to rival those offered by my nearest and dearest. Most often, it is their voices I hear whispering words of wisdom in times of trouble.
Recently, it is a little gem of my husband’s that has been keeping me on track: don’t listen to yourself when you’re tired. While it seems intuitive, this simple idea actually distils several important notions that can really help deal with an intrusive inner monologue and what I call “2 a.m. thoughts” – the dark thoughts that descend sometimes and make everything seem bad and wrong. Fully grasping its wisdom is key to harnessing its power!
The triple threat to good sense: Tired/Hungry/Cold
The first important point my husband has spent years reminding me is that no one thinks straight when they are tired, hungry or cold. When I’m tired, everything seems like an uphill climb and problems are insurmountable. When I’m hungry, life feels like an emergency (the real emergency being that I need to eat!). When I’m cold, I can’t focus on anything other than getting warm. This may seem blindingly obvious but it’s a circular problem – the very state that’s stopping you from thinking straight also stops you from realising that you’re not thinking straight.
When you become a parent, it is especially important to remember this as you spend most of your time tired and also a lot of time putting someone else’s needs before your own. As a result, you are usually tired, and often also hungry (I’ll eat once I get the baby down) and/or cold (kids love going to the park – even in the depths of winter!).
So, point number one is that when you are tired, hungry or cold, it is not the right time to analyse an issue, brainstorm solutions to a problem, or think through a major life decision. If I start down the road of thinking when “T/H/C”, my husband always reminds me just to set aside my thoughts for when I’m in a better place physically and – much as it pains me to say it since it seems to set a dangerous precedent – I have to admit he is right.
Listening to yourself is a choice
The second interesting thing about this advice is the notion that we have a choice about whether or not (or when) we listen to our own thoughts. We are all familiar with that little voice inside our head that maintains a non-stop monologue about everything from what we think of ourselves, others and the world around to our views on what’s being said on the news, a star’s choice of Oscar gown, or an advert on the side of a bus… It’s like a radio DJ curating our mental soundtrack. However, the difference with a DJ is that we reserve the right to turn off the radio, while we often give free rein to the voice inside our head. If we heard a load of rubbish expressed on the TV we’d mutter “Come off it!” and quickly bring up Netflix to watch something sensible and calming like Squid Game. But we have a tendency to feel obliged to listen to ourselves, even if what is being expressed is unkind, judgemental, critical, unreasonable, lacking in evidence, or quite simply untrue. When we realise that we have a choice about how much we listen to our own thoughts, it’s like we finally locate our own mental volume or off-switch. Suddenly, we can choose whether to give credence to our own thoughts or instead to turn down the volume or change the radio station entirely.
Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true
The obvious extension of giving ourselves the right not to listen to our own inner monologue is the realisation that our thoughts are not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. How is it that you can go to bed feeling chirpy and wake up feeling like the world is against you? Your situation has not changed overnight, but your inner monologue and analysis of your life is radically different. Your thoughts have become negative, dragging your emotions down with them. But not every thought we think is true. Realising and internalising this is hugely liberating. When negative thoughts pop into your head, you have the option to assess them for accuracy before believing them and letting them affect your mood or behaviour.
So, in the spirit of Luhrmann’s Sunscreen: “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, it would be never listen to your own thoughts when you’re tired, hungry or cold.” And always remember that your thoughts are just thoughts, not the Gospel truth. You have a choice about whether or not to believe them – and indeed, whether to listen to them at all.
If you want support taking stock of your life and working out where to put your energy, holistic coaching with an experienced professional can help you figure out which thoughts are worth listening to and how you want the soundtrack of your life to be. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.