Help Yourself First

This week has been a timely reminder for me to help myself before I help others, a concept I am still working on in my life.

The word selfish brings negative connotations as someone who always puts their needs and wants before others. That’s not what I’m saying. A long time ago, a wise woman planted a seed of an idea in my mind. The idea of being self-full.

Imagine a cup, a beautiful chalice that you fill with your energy. Every day you only have so much to pour out of the cup. And every night when you sleep, the energy in the cup magically refills.

There’s only so much time and energy that any person has to do the things they want to do. Sometimes that looks like playing video games, sometimes that looks like creating a blog post, sometimes that looks like learning to play the ukelele. None of these things are necessarily more or less important, but often they get pushed to the side so we can give our time and energy to other things.

Unfortunately, sometimes we give out more of our chalice to others than we mean to, or than we want to. This can be in the form of taking on extra work, chores or commitments. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but if left unchecked we can become resentful and eventually burn out. And then, we genuinely can’t help anyone. 

As we get older and more mature, it seems like many of the things holding us back are the necessary parts of being a functional adult. We stay stuck in our routines, our jobs, even relationships because they keep us comfortable. What we don’t see is that they can also build a network of excuses that keeps us playing small and holding us back from achieving what our hearts really desire.

For a long time, I believed that working = money = the ability to provide a roof over of my head and food in my belly. It seemed pretty obvious that working a 9-5 or was a necessary evil. I say evil because I was really just pouring in all my energy in return for a paycheck so that I could continue to pay to live.

I poured out the remaining dregs of my chalice into my relationships, thinking they would love me more and I would surely be happier. After all, humans are social animals by design. Oh, how wrong I was.

In my opinion, these are usually the two most time-demanding areas of life. But if all of our time and energy is poured into these areas, how do we get more?

Start by admitting that you are human. You can not bend time, nor the words or actions of another. You have only 24 hours in a day and once they are spent, they will be gone forever.
Next, look at what is possible. You have 24 whole hours in a day, and you get to choose how you spend them! Really! If your job is making you miserable and it drains your energy and feels like it is sucking out your soul, then quit. You have a choice to stay or leave, and if you choose to stay then you can also choose to look for the good and positive parts of your day.

If you are in a relationship with someone- romantic, friend, family member- and it doesn’t make you feel good, then speak up. Tell them that you don’t like it when they treat you like this, or you don’t feel comfortable when they behave in a certain way. If there is anyone in your life who dulls your shine and isn’t even willing to have a conversation with you about how and why and what can be done instead, then they simply don’t deserve to see it, so you can go ahead and take your glorious little self elsewhere and not feel guilty about it.
When you truly believe on a head and a heart level that you deserve to keep your cup full for yourself, you can begin to say no to the things you don’t want and yes to the things you do want. Little by little, you can stop pouring out your chalice for others and keep it full for yourself. When it is overflowing, other people and demands can come into your life, but only when you feel self-full.

By caring for yourself first, you are actively preventing burnout. If you burn out, you can’t help anyone. The more time you make for random acts of kindness, the more you will begin to see the benefits in every area of your life.

Be like water

Recently I have been studying 道德經 Dao de Jing also known as The Way of the Dao. This is the book that underwrites the philosophy of Taoism, which is not so much a religion as a way of life. I will leave the scholars, philosophists and historians continue to argue over the original date, author, and translations. What really interests me is the concept of the interpretations, in particular, one by Stephen Mitchell which can be found online here.

One particular passage I want to comment on today is Chapter 8 and how that can remain relevant in the professional development industry today. According to part one of this verse, the most supreme goodness or excellence is to be like water, which effortlessly nourishes and benefits all life while harming none. It can flow from the highest mountain to the deepest pit where no one would go. Therefore it is like the Dao.

Let’s think about that for a minute. While we search for the greatest, best version of ourselves do we stop to nourish the lives around us? Do others really benefit from your existence, or do they receive more harm? How do your words or silence affect those closest to you? What about your actions and inactions? When you strive to become a better person, do you even consider others or is the journey all about you? How about the flow of your life, when you are at a high point in life does it change the way you acknowledge or think about others compared to when you have fallen in the pit of despair? Does being in alignment with water, which doesn’t even think or have desires of its own, hold interest for you?

Self reflection and labelling

Taking time to reflect is probably the single most important Adulting Tool you will ever use. Seriously! How can you possibly know that you are growing and improving if you don’t look back to see if today was better than yesterday?? I know some people are parents or busy executives or whatever other excuses you want to throw at me. Hell yeah I said excuse!

Self-reflection can be done anywhere at any time by anyone, it is and forever will be 100% free, and YOU are the one in complete control.

I want you to take a minute to reflect on your thoughts about stereotypes and labels. We, humans, are pretty damn quick to put these on ourselves and other people, without really thinking about the consequences. What really happens when we allow people to do this to us?

Dreamer. Lazy. Ugly. Fat. Skinny. Old. Young. Too tall. Too short. Not pretty enough. Not smart enough. Not good enough. Should be better. Should work harder. Should be married and have kids.

We’ve all been labelled or stereotyped, but if you took any of these labels to heart, how heavy did your shoulders feel as you read them?

Now imagine if each of these were a brick you had to carry and you walked around with them all day and left them on overnight. How would you feel when you woke up? At the end of the next day? At the end of the week?

When you don’t practice self-reflection you simply don’t take off the bricks. When you don’t take off the bricks, they have a tendency to weigh you down and crush your heart. This can isolate you and can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, even suicidal thoughts. These imaginary bricks literally have the power to take a life.

When you do practise self-reflection, you see the bricks and you laugh. You dance them off and know that no matter what anyone else tries to say or do, you are in control of your mind. This inspires and attracts other people to your light.

If it’s been a hot minute since you had a second to yourself and you have genuinely forgotten how to, look in the mirror and ask one simple question- Am I happy being who I am?

Sure you can ask yourself a string of other questions but it’s not necessary. If you recognise you are not happy being who you are, you can usually identify why, and from there you can start making changes right now.

Maybe you see you are still wearing your bricks. Maybe you see you threw some bricks at someone today. Maybe you see that you smiled at someone and made one of their bricks fall off today.

You are the only person who gets to choose your life. Choose well.

Accountability – The Secret Sauce to Achieving Your Goals

Being accountable simply means being held responsible or answerable for your actions. This could be from an external source like a government, an employer, or a partner; or it could be more personal, like a goal that you set for yourself. Seems pretty straightforward right.

So why do so many people struggle with their goals? We’ve all been there, stuffed to the gills after the holiday season, determined that from January 1st we’re going to stop eating and start working out. Yet, come February 1st we’re lifting cheeseburgers instead of weights and joking about how we’ll start that diet next week.

I would argue that most people have good intentions, most of the time. We really do want to quit smoking because we know it’s bad for us. But logically knowing that won’t stop a nicotine addiction, a habit that has been formed over multiple years and ingrained as a personality trait in our very identity. Sure, going cold turkey has been successful for some people but it doesn’t work for everyone. Especially without some support and ongoing accountability- both internal and external.

In 2019 I successfully quit smoking. I spent months umming and ahhing, wanting to quit but struggling with the nicotine addiction, the social aspect and the routine habits. It was as much a mental challenge for me as it was a physical one. I knew that I didn’t want to be a smoker, to have that as a plague on my identity, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could quit so that I could encourage and support my future clients who might be going through the same struggles.

I started with awareness, becoming more conscious of when and why I was smoking. When I realised that a lot of my smoking was social, I actively took myself out of those situations. When I realised that it was a part of my routine, I found another activity to replace it. When I realised that it was the nicotine that I craved and that I was being a cranky bitch without it, I allowed myself to cut back slowly and I looked at how much less I was smoking than when I started. Yes, it took me a few months to go from being a smoker to entering into a smokefree life, and yes at times I felt like a vegetarian vampire. But I knew that the change was going to be a lasting part of my identity, so building a strong mental foundation when I felt sensitive was a big part of what ultimately led to my success. That belief was what inspired my internal accountability. Sure I could still smoke when no one was looking, but it wouldn’t help me change my status and that was always the intention behind the action.

By the end of 2019, I had a few people approach me about quitting smoking. As of February 2020, some have been successful in their ambition, some aren’t there yet, and some gave up on the goal (and themselves) entirely. The difference between these groups is that the first group recognised the value of accountability from the get-go. They set their milestones, they set their action steps, and they held themselves accountable by creating external accountability through sharing and even inspiring others.

The second group is still working towards their awareness and the mental attitudes they hold. They still have some excuses, some habits and some aspects of their lives they can’t change overnight, but they know that is ok. This group is focusing on making positive shifts for a permanent solution. They are not just quitting smoking, but rewiring their whole lives to be smokefree. Developing new thought patterns is not a simple adjustment, and (re)learning to be kind to oneself during this transition is absolutely key.

The third group are still struggling with their mental attitudes. They are the self-saboteurs, the ones who try to go cold turkey on day one so that they can fail on day two and say “I told you so, it was too hard so I can’t do it” without really trying. These are the people who really just want someone else to blame, they won’t take responsibility for their actions or beliefs and inevitably they won’t succeed because it doesn’t mean enough to them. I’m not saying that won’t ever change, but right now is just not the time for them to succeed because they won’t try to see how they are holding themselves back.

My clients have taught me that the different beliefs they hold about their identities are what makes them more, or less, willing to succeed in their goals. Those who can openly admit their successes and failures are able to make the mental shifts that are required to accomplish their desired outcomes.

What you believe, you can achieve. I believe that no matter the goal there are only four steps to winning. Start with awareness, follow with action, reflect with kindness and succeed with accountability.