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.
- Lower your expectations
Too often we put so much pressure on ourselves to have (and ensure others have) the perfect Christmas or New Year’s Eve that we end up stressed, frazzled and disappointed. What would it be like actively to set a lower expectation for your family this year? What if you were define a “good Christmas” as simply sharing a meal with your family (whether it’s a Nigellaesque feast, an overcooked turkey, or emergency take-away); enjoying some time off work to play with your kids (even if they squabble a bit); and finding a few hours to read a book (even if you have to get up a bit early to get that quiet time).
- Know where your responsibility stops
You are not responsible for ensuring your family has a good time. Read that again. Sure, you might be in charge of food, or you might be the one who deals with the kids’ presents, and those are definitely responsibilities with a capital R but, in the end, whether or not people enjoy the effort you make is up to them. You can lead a horse to the eggnog but you cannot make it drink…
- Get a little grateful
It’s so easy to let the season go by in a rush of wrapping up work, getting things done, paying visits, shopping, and attending events without stopping to appreciate all the gifts it offers. Over the holidays, take a moment at the end of every day to feel gratitude for all you have, even if – in fact, especially if – you currently feel like moving to a desert island at the earliest opportunity. Take a moment to, if possible, step outside, look up at the stars and genuinely count your blessings. When you go back inside, you’ll be able to see the noisy kids, grumpy father-in-law, slightly wonky tree, and rather cramped sitting room through very different eyes.
1. First, separate tasks into categories – personal, professional, family, admin… Then list the tasks, adding a status against each one. I use a star to signify that I have to perform an action. When I am waiting on someone else to complete their part before I can do mine, I write something like “pending Sophie” next to it. Or I might write “email sent, chase on X date”. That way, I know that right now, I can only really attack the starred items. The rest are pending. This automatically makes my scope for action a little less large.
2. Add a red mark of some kind next to tasks that are particularly urgent or time sensitive. If your list is digital, move these to the top. Emergencies notwithstanding, I feel best when I get through at least one item from each list every day. That way I never feel like I’m neglecting work in favour of admin or letting family stuff slip as I tend to clients’ needs. I get a pleasant “keeping all the balls in the air” feeling.
3. Apply the 10-minute rule. If you have any tasks on your list that will take under 10 minutes, do those straight away. Your to-do list just got shorter – and this sense of achievement will motivate you to move on to some of the thornier items. The light feeling I get from crossing off a bunch of small nagging tasks makes it easier to focus on a bigger task that requires time and concentration.
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth. Well, not quite; I’m certainly nowhere near Hamlet’s level of sadness and introspection, but I have found myself somewhat on the grumpy side recently. You know, that state where everything seems like a big deal, nothing strikes you as terribly funny, and life just feels like hard work.
The makings of such a mood can come from any quarter – professional setbacks, disappointments in friendships, money problems. For me, it’s been due to feelings of bog-standard overwhelm. I am coming up to the sixth month of my first pregnancy, and my husband and I are currently looking to buy a house and move just outside of Paris. Not bad when it comes to life-changing decisions, huh? Add to that our full-time jobs, families, friends, my writing and coaching, and it all seems like a mountain from which even the fearless Bear Grylls would run screaming.
The inconvenient truth
And the thing is, there’s not really much to be done about overwhelm. You can roll your sleeves up, make a plan, start a list, make a plan B, and discuss options with your partner ad nauseam, and those actions are practical and wise. But they’re not always enough to quiet the nagging little voice that pipes up at 2am and whispers some variant on, “It won’t all be ok; you shan’t get through this; you cannot manage”.
It is my firm belief that the only thing to do in those situations is to GAG oneself. No, we’re not getting into 50 Shades territory here; GAG stands for “Get A Grip”. It’s an old expression that sounds rather shocking nowadays, doesn’t it? In an age that favours self-examination even to the point of self-torture over the old “buck up” attitude, exhorting someone to simply get a grip seems callous. But I maintain that sometimes it’s the only way.
It’s like a mental self-slap. A reminder that we really are dealing with first-world issues, here. My husband is fond of asking me to imagine how I would feel if the things overwhelming me weren’t happening – if I weren’t able to have children, if we couldn’t envisage getting a bigger home, if I didn’t have employment, friends that want my time, family who need me… The simple answer is: I’d feel pretty rubbish (he can be infuriatingly right at times)!
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes a problem really is a problem and needs talking through and solving, but it’s often just a proliferation of activity, obligations and, well, life that puts us in a tail spin. That’s when a self-shake and a firm “For God’s sake, Jo, Get. A. Grip.” works wonders for me.
Do try this at home
GAGging works best when performed using a specific accent. I occasionally hear a plummy-voiced Malory Towers- type Sports Mistress barking at me. You may prefer an American drill sergeant or even an exasperated version of yourself. Sometimes I like to hear my Scottish grandmother’s voice softly burring, “Now, now, dear, you know I love you, but do try to get a grip for goodness sake”. She never said anything of the kind to me, but somehow the vision of this strong, no-nonsense yet kind and loving woman works every time.
GAGging is also best achieved when used entirely on its own. No extra pep talk, no list of “examples of times when it has all been ok in the past as so will be this time too”, no reasoning or cajoling. Just a mental “No Entry” sign that brooks no argument.
It’s not easy at first, but if you GAG each time you head back down the road of ovewhelm, it eventually comes more quickly and more naturally. Give it a try. I’m interested to know how it works for you!
Originally published on Running in Heels.