As humans, we like to believe that life remains constant but in reality, the only constant is change. Sometimes change occurs very slowly, as we see in evolutionary biology. At other times, our world seems to shift all at once, as if saying, “Hello, welcome to your new life!In January, my team at HumanPoint and I set out to write a strategic plan with three areas of focus: growth, growth, and more growth! HumanPoint is my executive coaching firm. We experienced record growth in 2019, so our initial 2020 strategy was to continue our growth focus. We staffed up, opened a second office and accelerated business development. I also got engaged last Thanksgiving and started planning a June wedding. My life was at an all-time high, with everything I have worked for, and wished for, coming true at one time.
On March 15, I felt whiplashed as Covid-19 pulled the emergency brake and our region came to a screeching halt. This sudden shift sent me into a state of shock. I’ve felt sad and disoriented, like I was in a fog, moving in slow motion, not able to focus or to see more than three feet in front of me.
One morning I woke up and realized, “Aha, Amy, you’re going through a grieving process for all your hopes and expectations for the year which now feel dead or indefinitely delayed!” Then I put on my coaching hat, grabbed a pen and paper, and started a self-reflection exercise to re-center myself, gain perspective, and get back on track. I will share this simple exercise with you now.
First, I wrote down on my paper that grief is triggered by a sense of loss, disappointment, and distance from those we love. Under the word “loss,” I listed what I feel that I’ve lost. As I started writing down that list, I immediately shifted to self-criticism – why do I feel bad about my cancelled wedding plans when others have it way worse than me, having lost their loved ones and jobs. They are the ones really suffering, not me. I have it great by comparison…my fridge is full, I have wine, I am fine! I shouldn’t feel grief at all. I tell myself I should feel grateful and happy, not sad.
In essence, my self-reflection exercise had become an exercise in self-criticism. I was telling myself I am “wrong” for feeling bad, and for spending any time reflecting on my feelings. I was categorizing my feelings as “good” or “bad,” and telling myself that only good feelings are allowed right now.
This process reminded me of many conversations I’ve had with my clients over the years. I’m sitting in front of a very successful corporate executive who is telling me how unhappy he is but who cannot understand the reason for his unhappiness. He goes on to tell me everything he has going for him, and how it makes no sense to feel this way. He becomes self-critical of the feelings he’s experiencing. He asks me, “Why am I not happy and satisfied with my life? What is wrong with me?”
I respond that he should replace self-criticism with curiosity. Rather than telling himself how he should or shouldn’t feel, I advise him to reflect on how he feels and to become curious about why he is having these feelings. I then tell him to practice self-compassion, to do things that make him feel better. I prescribe an exercise I named “30-days of selfishness” where, for 30-days, he allows himself time to reflect on his feelings and to do things that make him feel good, that feed his soul. I call it “30-days of selfishness” because people believe they are being selfish if they prioritize themselves. By calling it this, people are given permission to practice self-compassion. This exercise has yielded tremendous results for my clients over the years. They have come out of their fogs, and unstuck themselves after many months of internal struggle.
Once I recognized that I had veered into self-criticism from self-reflection, I was able to correct my course. I continued by writing under “disappointment” what I feel disappointed about; under “distance,” I listed who I feel distanced from. Then, I took each item on the list and reflected why I felt bad about it. I acknowledged it and I released it. I released my 2020 strategic plan and selected three new focus words this year: self–compassion, peace of mind, and caring. I released my wedding, all the pre-wedding festivities, and all the cancelled events with family and friends. I acknowledged each item of loss, releasing each in turn. Around one hour after completing this exercise, I noticed that my mood improved, and I was feeling a sense of peace that had been missing for weeks.
Reflecting on our feelings without judgment, and allowing ourselves to fully feel the weight of our emotions, can help us to process the emotions. Sometimes when we feel an unpleasant emotion like anxiety coming on, approaching us like a dark wave, we try to stop it by converting it to another emotion like anger, or avoiding it by self-medicating. It is much better to allow ourselves to feel it, to become curious about the emotion and actively explore it. By doing so, negative emotions will pass over us like waves in an ocean, not crash into the seawalls we’ve constructed to block them. Self-reflection means giving ourselves permission to just be as we are, without judgment. It empowers us to say, I am enough, as I am.
Strangely enough, this crazy time we find ourselves in is the perfect time to complete 30-days of selfishness, to focus on self-compassion. Postpone self-criticism; engage in self-relection instead. Do something each day that feeds your soul.