February 7th 2019 will be the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. It’s been on my mind, as is often the case with significant anniversaries.
So I made this video which captures something of the backstory. View it here
February 7th 2019 will be the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. It’s been on my mind, as is often the case with significant anniversaries.
So I made this video which captures something of the backstory. View it here
You’d probably start by asking exactly what I meant. Perhaps you’d consult Wikipedia or maybe Google, which, after a little digging would offer you the following pragmatic description from www.talentism.com:
Think of a playbook like a detailed reference guide stored and accessed in your unconscious brain. When you get new information, become confused, run into trouble, or try to achieve a goal, you turn to your playbook to tell you what to do. Actual playbooks are common in sports, where coaches will document their plans for a game. When a new situation presents itself, the coach turns to the playbook to figure out what to do.
So, what’s in your Playbook? And do you think it’s serving you well? And specifically, do you operate from a Playbook based on fear or one grounded in love?
If self-awareness is your thing, the chances are you might try some answers to those questions, but for many, their Playbook functions mostly on autopilot. Like breathing, it operates without their conscious intervention, offering up familiar choices and responses time after time.
When you get to know someone well, you can sometimes glimpse the nature of their personal Playbook. You can start to predict their reactions to situations and challenges with a degree of certainty and make observations about the level of fear or love that seems to drive their choices. Often a someone else’s Playbook is much easier to read than our own.
While we are often told that fear is a bad thing it’s not always true. Fear can keep you alive – it’s natures survival mechanism designed to alert you in life-threatening situations. We should be glad it’s there so we can get the Hell Out of Dodge When Shit Happens. The problems start when we allow fear to dominate our Playbook strategies. Because while fear can protect you, too much fear can shrink your life.
If you are considering the nature of your own Playbook, it might help you to look at your life objectively. Is it where you hoped it would be? Has your life evolved or become more limited in nature? Have your decisions and choices reflected a desire to grow and expand or to avoid risk, err on the side of caution and maintain the status quo? Too much fear will act as a brake on your choices instead of taking a chance, accepting a new opportunity or allowing yourself to pursue your dreams, fear will counsel avoidance, tell you to opt for safety, urge you to stick to what you know and always ask for permission.
While we all experience fear to some degree, it will always be a more limiting theme in our Playbook than love. Love represents opportunity and connection. It inspires, generates curiosity and gratitude in life and represents all that it possible. It urges you to think outside the box, to embrace compassion, tolerance and curiosity.
If you think you might need to change your Playbook, you will need to examine its contents and edit out what’s not working for you. While this is often the task of a lifetime, even small changes can liberate you from frustration and begin to open new pathways. A colleague of mine recently changed the way she approached difficult conversations with others. Instead of mentally preparing her defences with the perfect rebuttal, she chose instead to listen carefully to what the other person was saying until they finished. Instead of instantly disagreeing with that persons view, she decided that curiosity might be a more productive path and simply asked why they felt that way? Her reward for changing her unconscious response has been fewer arguments and much speedier compromises. Changing her Playbook is paying off in terms of improved relationships and less stress.
Improving self-awareness is an important part of re-creating the contents of your Playbook and there are many ways to develop this essential capability from mindfulness through to the more traditional-needs based or preference-based personality models. As a corporate consultant and change coach, I’ve worked with a number of toolsets over the years to help people understand themselves and change the way they communicate, lead and manage others.
These days, I also partner with horses to help people develop the kind of rapid self-awareness that seems unlikely unless you have experienced it for yourself. While theoretical models can help people understand what drives their choices and behaviours, and so what may provide the foundations for their personal Playbook, a horse gives us immediate insight into the in-the-moment consequences of our Playbook strategies.
But whatever your chosen pathway, just remember that while you may not be able to change the direction of the wind, you can adjust your sails and still reach your destination. Life will always present challenges and opportunities but only you can adapt and evolve your Playbook to ensure that you thrive.
If you’d like to change your Playbook and explore how horses can help you deepen your self awareness and make change, please email email@example.com or check out our upcoming workshops.
When we are in the grip of one of life’s transitions, when someone is pushing our buttons or when something unexpected turns up, it’s tempting to grab control and try to force an outcome to fit our own agenda. After all, sitting with vulnerability, anger, frustration, disappointment and a myriad of other emotions can be deeply uncomfortable. And it’s important to be in control, right? It’s important to be moving the chess pieces in our own universe rather than let events hold the upper hand?
But there can be problems with this approach:
If you are a planner or list-maker by nature, you will be even more tempted to put structure, timeframes and boundaries into whatever uncertainty is around you. And while planning is essential at times, it’s can be counter-productive when used as an initial knee-jerk reaction to feeling vulnerable.
So, what can you do when you feel out of control of events and people? How should you handle those sometimes deeply unsettling feelings of uncertainty?
1) Cultivate your curiosity. Consider how your life might change for the better if you allowed a change or event to unfold a little before you try to force it into a certain shape. Is it possible that this change might bring you more opportunities or options if you allowed some time for it to develop? In what way could you explore the possibilities of this change, transition or event to better understand its positive potential for you?
2) Engage active distraction. Your emotions provide you with great guidance – they indicate when you are happy and peaceful and when you are feeling anxious and vulnerable. Instead of leaping to try to control the unknown, how could you distract yourself? What circuit breakers can you employ to allow things to progress a little before you decide to leap into action? For some people this might be exercise or meditation or the movies, for others it might be a chat with a good friend, a walk in the countryside or cooking creatively. The idea is to choose something which lifts you out of the urgent need to control or fix a situation. Choose something which either requires you to focus or which provides plenty of stimulation. You need to shift your attention away from what is and see the broader world around you. The rule of thumb is to move into action only when you are feeling good, rather than from a position of anxiety.
3) Accept what is. This is a hard one for many of us but acceptance can provide a clear pathway to feeling peaceful. When you step back and look at a situation from a broader perspective, you may quickly realise that there is little you can do to control it anyway. Accepting things as they are allows you to more easily consider what might be possible, rather than spending endless time worrying or feeling frustrated or angry. Imagine all the time and effort you spend swimming against a strong tide, when it’s likely that the tide will sweep you towards the beach anyway. It’s simpler just to surf the waves into shore.
4) Trust your intuition. It knows when you should allow events to unfold and when you really need to act. Your intuition is your inner guidance that normally makes suggestions seconds before your brain gets in the way to try to run the show. It may often contradict your brain but its guidance shouldn’t be dismissed instantly. It has our best interests at heart, while our brain can sometimes be serving our frightened ego.
5) Remember the well-worn advice – you cannot control how others behave, you can only control your own response to them. While it’s not always easy to change how you feel or your own practiced behaviours, it is possible and more likely if you have a real desire to experience your life differently. If you are consumed by the outrageous or offensive behaviour of someone at home or work, try focussing on something that is working in your life. It could be your fabulous garden, or your footy team or simply the joy of being around your children and animals. Explore all the positives and enjoy the feeling of relief that there are good things in your life as well as frustrations. Wallow in the good feelings before you turn your mind back to resolving more challenging issues. It will allow you to step back enough to look relationships with more perspective. It will also allow you the emotional space to engage your intuition and increase the likelihood of finding different solutions to seemingly deadlocked situations.
6) Choose to be happy rather than to be right. Can you let go of the need to be right, to control the beginning the middle and the end? If you had the choice between being right or being happy, what would you choose? What has happened to you in the past when you have chosen the need to be right, to have the last word, over the need to be happy?
Managing your urge to control every unfolding situation can be life-changing. It can also provide emotional relief when anxiety and worry has left you feeling frazzled. This isn’t about advocating inaction – far from it. It’s about planning and acting from a place of considered perspective, from informed choice and from thoughtfulness. It’s about knowing that you haven’t acted out of fear or frustration but from feelings of inspiration and hopefulness.
It’s often only when we want to make deliberate changes in our lives, that we begin to understand the true impact of limiting beliefs on our life experience. And while it’s logically quite obvious that what you believe will have some effect on what happens to you, this fact frequently manages to fly under the radar.
When we make changes, we’re often so focussed on the doing part, that we don’t pay much attention to the subconscious programs that determine how we think and ultimately feel about what’s happening. And yet it’s our beliefs that drive our perspective, our thoughts, our feelings and what we end up doing and experiencing in our lives. They can also drive behaviour patterns that sabotage our best intentions and ultimately determine whether we succeed at making deliberate changes or not.
Let me explain this more clearly by telling you about a belief that has driven my behaviour for a large part of my life. It’s also one of the more unhelpful and damaging beliefs I could continue to hold right now.
When I was around fourteen years old, like many girls of my age, my waking world revolved around horses. They were my grand passion – I read horsey books, I had horsey figurines and dolls, my bedroom walls were covered in posters of horses, I watched horsey movies and dreamt of a future filled with my four-legged friends – riding, competing and working with horses. Since I had been riding since about the age of six and was lucky enough to have my own horse at the time, all this seemed pretty natural from my youthful and innocent standpoint. Honestly, I just couldn’t see a future without horses. It all made sense and it’s fair to say that I had little idea of the conflict my particular passion would cause in our family and the associated limiting belief I would then take on for a lifetime.
When the time came for me to select subjects at school in preparation for future qualifications, the discussion at home turned to what I planned to do after school. It was good to talk about what I was drawn to and I eagerly shared my dreams and plans. Once exams were done I wanted to leave school and start working directly with horses. In my mind this meant starting as a working pupil at a riding school, learning to teach and then hopefully getting some riding and teaching qualifications in a few years’ time. It all seemed obvious and perfect to me but I had no idea just how much my parents would disagree.
In their minds, horses were a hobby, not a route to financial stability. They could not see a stable future for me in the horse world, one where I would be able to be independent and support myself financially. Both my parents were teachers and so in their world, school was followed by university to get a degree and hopefully a good job, not into a poorly paid apprenticeship at a local riding school.
The resulting clash of desires shocked me to the core, most especially because I had imagined that what I wanted for my life mattered the most. It felt very debilitating at the time and I was ill equipped to deal with this major difference of opinion. When I tried to discuss what I really wanted and how it might be possible, I was told I would get little family support if I took that path. My parents made it clear that the only acceptable choice was to go to university and that I needed to choose school subjects that would line up with that choice. I felt deeply unhappy. I also felt completely squashed.
Eventually the tense atmosphere at home combined with the prospect of losing my family’s support were too much for me and I gave in, choosing suitable school subjects that would take me through my various school examinations and into a Bachelor of Science degree at a good university.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that my parents were simply trying to do the right thing for me from their perspective. They wanted me to be able to care for myself and make enough money to chart my way in life, once they were not around to help. From their life experience and the perspective of their generation, they genuinely believed that getting a degree would give me a head start and provide me with opportunities that I could not comprehend at the time. They firmly believed that none of this would be possible if I chose to move straight into working with horses.
They were right in some ways. Had I not accepted the path they wanted for me all those years ago, I may well not have acquired the skills I have now, travelled as much or benefitted from the wealth and abundance I was then able to generate. I might not have been in the position I am in now to make consciously different choices about my life. So I do fully recognise and appreciate their guidance in many ways.
On the other hand, perhaps all those things would also have been possible from a start working with horses. Perhaps, with a different perspective – one that acknowledged the drive and energy and creativity that following a passion brings to the table – all those things would eventually have been possible for me. Unfortunately, that kind of a perspective would have required my parents to hold a quite different belief to the one they held at the time.
And so at the age of fourteen I took on an enduring and especially limiting belief that goes something like this – “Working with horses will never support me financially. I can’t get a good well-paying job working with horses. My love of horses has to remain a hobby only”. I took on this belief and have continued to believe it despite plenty of evidence to the contrary both in my local horse industry and internationally. It has stopped me from exploring working more closely with horses for many, many years – too many. It has held me back and continues to eat away at the foundations of my new pathway.
And this is precisely how limiting beliefs control our lives – they sit in our subconscious minds and operate on autopilot, under the surface, controlling our thoughts, feelings and behaviours on a daily basis. Because they are subconscious, they can remain largely in the dark and unchallenged through much of our lives. They are the programs that operate without our deliberate thought and unless they are replaced with healthier, more life-affirming beliefs, will continue to shrink our experience of life for as long as we maintain them.
Our limiting beliefs can arise from many sources but we acquire a number of them in our childhood and adolescence from family, friends and those close to us and the remainder from the fruits of our own experience. They are more powerful than a thought because we have, in some way, repeatedly accepted them to be true. They have become a guideline we live by and rarely challenge, even when they aren’t borne out to be true when shown the light of day. Becoming aware of those beliefs which are not helping us would seem to be the first part of the process of changing them. But once we are aware of an unhelpful belief, how do we change it for something more life-affirming? Is it even possible and how will you know you’ve succeeded?
At this point in my life, I’m choosing to replace my limiting beliefs. Since there are quite a few that I’ve acquired over the years, this could be something of a process! But I’ll start with the one I used as an example – my limiting belief about working with horses. Now that I’m aware that it continues to sabotage my thinking and commitment, I need to find a new, more life-affirming belief to replace it. What’s more, I need to find a way to believe my new belief more than the old one, even when it seems as if the evidence hasn’t fully shown up in my personal experience just yet.
In his 2008 book The Spontaneous Healing of Belief: Shattering the Paradigm of False Limits, Gregg Braden writes “We tend to experience in life what we identify with in our beliefs”. He also suggests that to create change and new experiences in our lives we need to start living with the outcome in mind “The prime rule of reality is that we must become in our lives what we choose to experience in the world”. It’s clear then, that before I create my new belief, I need to focus on the outcome I’m looking for from my new belief – what do I want to think, feel and experience as a result of my new belief operating daily and consistently, firstly in my conscious, and then in my subconscious mind?
Well, I’d like to feel optimistic when I think about my work with horses. I’d like to feel excited at the potential to learn with and from horses. I also want to feel a daily sense of anticipation and enjoyment about the learning I can offer to others by working with horses as my partners. I want to feel that my life can be perfectly financially abundant working with horses and that there are no limits to the opportunity for this to manifest.
I want to feel all these things but in the wanting of them, it does suggest a lack – that I don’t yet feel them to be true. In order for this to be more than just aspirational, I’m going to have to find a way to frame my new belief which suggests I am living with the outcome in mind but which also feels believable.
After some moments, I pick up a blue felt tip pen and write “Horses bring emotional, spiritual and financial abundance into my life”. I then circle the whole phrase in red and cut it out. I immediately pin it to my cork board where I can see it daily when I use my laptop. For me, this newly-phrased belief is general enough that I can both remember it and start the process of feeling it to be true. Now that I can see it, the work of transforming the written statement into a real belief begins. So how do I make this happen?
In the past, when I have created goals or plans, I have always chosen to make them visible. I usually write them down and pin them up where I can see them and it’s been amazing to witness how much impact this simple act has then had on the realisation of those goals. When I review my progress some months after pinning up the goals or activities, it’s common for me to find that the majority of items have been completed without much conscious attention on my part. There seems to be something about the process of committing them to paper and making them visible that helps me retain a focus without much effort.
If a belief is “only a thought that you keep thinking” (Abraham Hicks, The Vortex) then I need plenty of opportunities to keep thinking about my new belief and this is one of the best ways I know. However, I do need this thought to be more than just an affirmation created in the hope that things might change. An affirmation is not a belief. A belief is something I feel, in my heart, to be true and which will guide my thoughts, feelings and actions both consciously and sub-consciously. If I am constantly looking at my new belief statement and not really believing it’s true, then the statement remains aspirational and won’t change anything.
To feel that it’s true, I’m going to have to look for some evidence to support it. And this is why I’ve created a new belief statement that’s meets two key criteria – 1) it’s general enough for me to be able to easily find something to support it and 2) it feels good when I think about it. If I’m serious about making this change, I’m going to have to find something, however small, in support of my new belief on a regular basis. For me, there’s no point creating a new belief which constantly feels out of reach because it will ultimately change nothing.
So here I am, embarking on the process of creating of a new belief to replace my old, limiting view of this aspect of my life. How will I know if it’s worked? Gregg Braden comments that “We tend to experience in life what we identify with in our beliefs”. Applying simple logic, if am successful at changing my belief to something more life-affirming, and I allow myself to feel good about that belief regularly, then the evidence should start turning up in my reality – emotional, spiritual and financial abundance through my horses should become my predominant life experience.
And now that I am aware of my previous limiting belief and fully conscious of the new belief I have created, I will more easily be able to catch myself thinking any thoughts that might not line up with my new belief before they chronically undermine what I’ve set out to do.
When it’s time to practice my new belief in action, I need only look to my herd of horses for help. Walking out into the paddock one Spring morning, I stop and decide just to hang out with them all for a while. It’s nice to be around them without any expectation.
The first to come and say hello is Chex, the newest member of the herd and a such a friendly soul. He quickly puts his nose to my ear, breathes out, moves onto lick my face and then begins to nibble my hair. This quiet inspection continues for a while until he playfully grabs the hood of my coats and pulls it up smartly. Laughing I wave him away and wander over to check in with Ed.
Ed spends a good five minutes yawning until I catch the yawning bug and join in. When we’re done, he softly chews my sleeve, holds my hand between his lips and generally plays with my hands and clothes. I’m rather touched by his careful attention and stand with him serenely until he’s had enough and moves off for a sleep.
All this time Walker has been watching us out of the corner of his eye while supervising Chex. He has less desire for me to make a fuss of him this morning and so I scratch the underside of his neck. Once he’s had enough, he licks my hand a couple of time, rubs his itchy face against my jacket and wanders off to move George away from the water trough.
As George moves off for a few steps, I notice that he still has something of a sore foot for which he is receiving treatment, and so I go to sympathise. He seems to appreciate the gesture and nickers at me softly. I scratch his nose and wait for him to check my face out in return. George is very tactile and loves to puts his nose close to my face and into my hair, chew my sleeves and receive the occasional kiss on the nose in return.
It’s so peaceful to just relax with them all and enjoy the moment. I feel content, relaxed and able to be myself. And it’s a perfect way to start to feel good and grateful for many things I enjoy in my life. I remind myself of my new “horses bring abundance” belief and find that there is little effort needed to find supporting evidence this morning – it’s right here around me.
This is how I start to feel myself into my new belief – I allow it to be experienced in my body so that it can lodge itself in my heart and eventually inform my thoughts and actions without so much conscious effort. I’m not sure how long this will take but I know that the more I feel my new belief to be true by looking for examples in my life, the quicker my life will present me with experiences that validate my new belief.
Changing a limiting belief for something more life affirming may be one of the most challenging tasks we can take on, since that limiting belief has often been running in our subconscious with little supervision for a long time. Looking at our lives and at the quality of our life experiences gives us many clues to the types of beliefs we may have adopted and some idea of which need the most urgent change. Looking at the things we find difficult or avoid also provides us with other clues. Leaving a limiting belief to continue its negative influence on your thoughts, feelings and actions will almost certainly hamper your chances of making successful changes; becoming aware of and addressing them may be one of the most important steps on the pathway of successful deliberate change.
When people ask what they can learn from horses, it’s often from the standpoint of a human looking critically at an animal which would seem to be so very far below them in both intellect and consciousness.
Which is why the following piece of horse wisdom is so compelling and helps explain why we really should pay more attention to our equine partners.
Our white Andalusian mare Katarina was such a paradox. Her beautiful face with its huge liquid brown eyes was framed with an abundant mane which fell wildly over her neck and eyes and seemed to scream out to be touched. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she did not want. Most people found this out the hard way – as they reached out to stroke her nose or touch her neck, her normal reaction set in like permafrost. Flattening her ears and pulling back abruptly, she indicated clearly that your invasion of her personal space was uninvited and unwelcome. If you missed the hint, she swiftly reinforced her wishes with a sharp nip or even bared teeth if you were especially slow.
When Katarina first came to live with us she was quite difficult to catch and get close to and so I fed her outside while continually trying to handle and groom her a little more each day. I didn’t try to catch her at first and so each time she would walk away once she had had enough of me, often leaving the remains of her food uneaten.
Emotionally, it was tough stuff – I felt frustrated, disappointed and re-buffed. I just wanted to connect with her so that I could look after her. I was being sympathetic and welcoming so why couldn’t she see this? Katarina, on the other hand, seemed completely unconcerned with my feelings.
This process continued for some weeks until I decided that a new approach was needed and resolved to coax her into the stables to eat her dinner. If I could get her into a stable, I reasoned, then I could catch her, groom her properly and attend to her feet. This turned out to be good decision as she wasn’t keen to be on her own and so followed Walker happily into the barn and into her stable. It was from this point onwards that I began to understand Katarina a little better, even though I can see now that she was always quite clear on who she was from the moment she arrived.
Contrary to my plans, trying to do anything much with Katarina when she was eating in her stable also turned out to be a bad idea. After a day at work and four horses to look after, all I wanted to do in my evenings was get everyone fed, groomed and rugged ready for the night so that I could collapse onto the sofa with my dinner. I needed Katarina to do things my way and straightaway. But after months of dodging her teeth and her bad temper, I finally realised that my way wasn’t working for either of us.
Katarina basically hated her skin being touched and especially disliked it when I wasn’t present enough to go slowly and take my time. Even then, it was only just about bearable and rarely pleasurable for her. After consultations with vets and therapists, we concluded that she was in some considerable pain from a foot she had partially twisted as a foal. Thankfully, this was something I could help with and so after experimenting, we found that a mixture of main stream painkillers, herbal medicine and corrective shoeing helped to make her more comfortable.
Once she seemed to be in less pain, I assumed that her attitude to contact might also improve. But while she seemed happier in herself, she became even clearer in her desire to keep people at a manageable distance. Sitting companionably with her in the paddock one morning some two years after she first arrived to live with us, something about the truth of Katarina finally dawned on me. As I pondered her sometimes aloof, grumpy and unfriendly attitude, I began to see that I was actually missing the underlying message.
In her determination to interact with people on her terms, she was actually delivering a masterclass in effective boundary setting. What’s more she was delivering it repeatedly and consistently to anyone who didn’t properly respect her physical and emotional boundaries. Funnily enough, these were often the very people who struggled to set them in their own lives. By doing what needed to be done for her own comfort and peace of mind, she was showing me exactly what needed to be done in my own life. How frustrating it must have been for her as she kept repeating the lesson and patiently waited for me to catch on.
When I finally started to appreciate her fearless talent for boundary setting, we got on much more effectively and I began to see how important it was in creating not just emotional and physical space but also in allowing her to be exactly who she was. She was able to be authentic every day precisely because she maintained her boundaries. She never apologised for needing her space and claiming it. She was always consistent in what she needed and did not primarily care about how others felt about this – that was their problem not hers. For Katarina, the result of this effective boundary setting was peace, calm, comfort and the ability to influence when and how people interacted with her.
Lots of us need more physical and emotional space than we’re given or ask for, simply to make sense of our competing priorities. But most of us get used to operating without that space and so struggle to make much headway. If we are initiating a deliberate change, being unable to set boundaries effectively can completely derail what we are trying to do. The continual lack of space takes a toll on us which can eventually show up as unresolved feelings of anger and sometimes apathy. As we strive to make overdue changes, we can feel stifled by the people and circumstances that surround us.
Our world applauds self-sacrifice and putting others first and so it’s quite hard to find a clear way forward through the conflicting demands of self and others. Often we end up lost in the frustration and guilt of meeting neither requirement very well. This is where Katarina’s wisdom steps in and directs us to take care of our own needs first so that by achieving a sense of balance and calm within ourselves, we can more effectively fit the jigsaw pieces of our life together.
This might mean saying “no thank you” or “not now” or “not this week” or setting a physical boundary of “here and no further”. It may mean taking time and space for yourself or refusing to let others tell you who you are, how to be or what to do.
This might be hard initially if you have normally put your needs after those of others; they may struggle to accept this change in approach by someone who is normally so accommodating. But once you’ve taken the first step of stating your needs and politely asking for those needs to be respected, it’s important to hold your ground. Empathise if you must, but be consistent and firm and in time people will adapt and come to respect you as someone who states what they need and follows through.
Katarina passed away just over a year ago now. She is greatly missed by all of us but her wisdom endures powerfully. Our horses continue to teach Katarina’s boundary setting wisdom in all our workshops since it has proven to be such an important skill to create space for creativity, authenticity and change.
When the infrastructure of my life went up in smoke – literally – over seven years ago, my trajectory altered abruptly. It was a sudden, unexpected and traumatic change.
I learnt that when change is that abrupt, almost the only choice left to me was how I chose to think and feel about what had just happened, as almost everything else was out of my control. As it turns out, it was a very powerful lesson and one which allowed me to embrace that particular change as a new way forward and a pathway to different opportunities and choices.
But there is something very final and emphatic about the aftermath of a devastating bushfire. There is no denial, no bargaining to be done. What was once there – a home, belongings and a whole way of life – is gone in minutes. And while you can theoretically re-build and go back, in truth, things will never really be the same again. Your old life lies in ashes and there is little choice but to move forward into a changed future.
The impact of sudden unexpected change can be debilitating as well as liberating. I lived through and documented the emotional rollercoaster of the year that followed the bushfire in my book The Flipside of Misfortune. So I don’t for one moment play down the difficulty of handling such an enormous upheaval. However, sitting here at my desk on a late winters day, I’m wondering if it’s easier to deal with a change which is thrust upon you unexpectedly or to initiate difficult changes yourself?
Acknowledging what needs to change in our lives is the first step on the journey of transformation. When we begin to feel deeply uncomfortable about some aspect of our lives, it’s usually a sign that something about the way we are being or living has reached its use by date.
But getting unstuck from a situation means making an end to something so that there is space for new ideas, thoughts, beliefs, directions, situations and relationships to come in. And making an end to something inevitably means change which is where it can get hard for those of us who find the accompanying feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability to be almost overwhelming.
I’m in the middle of a deliberate change right now. A couple of months ago I finished up my safe and comfortable job with a client I had been working with for almost 4 years. I did this so that I could concentrate fully on my own business – something which had been receiving only a small part of my attention for far too long. Since I was working on contract, there was no payout, no holiday leave to cash in, nothing due from either side to conclude the arrangement. I walked away and left good colleagues and friends, a safe and friendly environment and the security of regular paid work. It was a mutually grateful parting with good wishes on either side and although it was only two months ago, it already seems like a lifetime in the past.
There a very old, calm part of me that just knows I have to do this – whatever the outcome – because it’s a part of who I am and why I’m here. But that deep knowing is regularly ambushed by feelings of fear and vulnerability and occasionally by quite agonising self-doubt which was not so much a part of my initial journey after the bushfire.
So I’m discovering that the first act of any deliberate change – getting unstuck and making an end to what was – is a process, not an event. Making a conscious end to something doesn’t means that things are automatically changed – while you might be able to make a physical break with a situation, it doesn’t always follow that you’ve let it go. I find myself searching for symbolic ways to tell both myself and the universe that Things Are Different Now. That I don’t intend to put things back the way they were and so I’m going to be fully invested in this new pathway. And yet my old patterns of thinking intrude and try to take over in precisely those moments which would best lend themselves to a new way of being.
As I search for balance in this uncertain transition, my mind urges me to pack my day with activity, to lose myself in doing so that I can insulate myself against the discomfort. Intuitively I know that the turbulent swirl of uncertainty in my head is mostly noise and that my priority is to stay balanced and let things unfold. But my ego feels threatened and crowds my thoughts with all the old doubts that still seem to exert a surprising amount of power. What if you try, it asks, and it still doesn’t work out? What if you fail? What then?
Actually it’s (un)helpfully pointing out the main difference this time around – the fact that I’m driving this deliberate act of change. I’m choosing this change of direction. I’m the one making an end to one pathway and actively choosing to live parts of my as yet unlived life. I’m ending something when I don’t technically have to, and which for many years has represented safety, security and familiarity in my life. I’m doing this to follow my inspiration and to open myself up to the potential of a new choice. This time there’s no bushfire driving me out – it’s my judgement, my self-belief and my ability to deliver on my dreams that is on the line.
And herein lies the rub. While it took courage and resilience to manage the aftermath of a bushfire, there were few real expectations of me around that change. There was no recipe to follow, no real tried and trusted way, no test at the end. People were happy just to see me recovering and getting back on my feet. And so I just felt my way forward, applying common sense and at times, downright stubbornness to get me through. I had help and support, I made mistakes but no one was really keeping score.
But this new deliberate change is less about my physical survival and much more about the survival of my sense of who I am. And if I’m putting Who I Am on the line – if I’m risking my hopes and dreams – no wonder I’m feeling anxious and no wonder I’ve stayed safe and stuck for so long.
I look out of the window and the sun is still high in the sky, unperturbed and shining. A small breeze moves the branches of nearby gums and I wonder how to deal with the emotional reality of this choice I’ve made. How do I calm my worried ego? How do I reassure the vital, inner me that wants to emerge and shine in the warmth of this sun and share her positivity with others? How do I trust that this will all work out when I have no idea if it will or what it will look like? How do I sift through the fears and vulnerabilities and frustrations to determine how to think and feel about the future so that I can start to create one?
I have a renewed sense of awe and respect for all those innovators, creators and entrepreneurs who have gone before me. All those who have put themselves on the line to try something new, say something to others or create something from their sense of self. All of that required spadesful of risk, courage and belief. It also required trust – in oneself and in a universe that might just be persuaded to cooperate on this grand new adventure. I wonder how many of them found this process of making an end to their old lives, easy? How many of them stopped their old day jobs or changed the direction of their lives and instantly felt comfortable and at peace with all that followed? Not many I’m guessing.
The physical change may in fact be the easiest part of this whole process but making the associated mental and emotional changes is more fluid and much harder to navigate. I have to find ways to make peace with my worries so that I create enough space and time to allow the bones of my change to properly form. By finding ways to acknowledge those doubts and fears, I can stay true to myself – stay congruent – and allow them to become a part of the process, rather than something I suppress and which trips me up later.
Much of the challenge of deliberate change would seem to lie in how we manage ourselves – and specifically our emotions – as part of the process. It’s much less about what we are doing and far more about who we are being from moment to moment. For example, I could choose to suppress my feelings of fear and vulnerability and pack my day with tasks and activities but if I carry on this way, the chances are that my unacknowledged feelings will simply escalate until emotions ambush me again, eroding my confidence and sense of stability by stealth. Ignoring how I feel won’t ultimately help me – it will just make it more likely that I will eventually listen to the voices of self-doubt and give up on this change. And I suspect that this is what happens to many of us as we try to make long overdue changes in our lives. We begin with optimism and positivity which slowly drains away from us as we increasingly listen to our doubts and fears. Eventually, tired, sad and frustrated we often return to the familiarity of our old ways just to get some peace and to feel less vulnerable.
But there is another way – I could choose the pathway of emotionally intelligent change. I could choose to acknowledge and examine those emotions a bit more clearly, understanding and acting on them as information rather than allowing them to unnerve me to the point that they send me scurrying back to the familiarity of what was, before I have really given my dreams a chance.
Picking up a pen and grabbing a pad, I start to work through the foremost of my worries:
As far as I can see, I’m not being chased by a tiger or about to be run over by a bus. So while I may feel anxious about the future, I’m not in any immediate danger. I’m not frightened for my safety so I don’t need to run away.
So if I’m not out scared for my safety, then I’m probably just feeling very vulnerable and that’s normal given the circumstances. I can forgive myself for feeling vulnerable and I can also use this emotion to help me consider that this change might feel difficult right now but also has the potential to open up new possibilities, opportunities and pleasures. Perhaps it’s even something of a signpost? An indication of a challenge I need to take for my own growth and benefit? Perhaps I just need to sit in with this uncomfortable feeling because it just might have something to show me over time. Plus, as I know from my experience with the bushfire, I can always ask for help.
If I gave up now and ran back to my day job, how would I feel? How would I feel if I looked at this great golden opportunity and let my self-doubt and fear of failure chase me off? Defeated I think. Plus, I would probably never forgive myself for not grabbing this moment and giving it a go.
And what is failure anyway? Who gets to judge it? If I’m setting my own goals, then the only person who determines success or failure is me. I will probably make mistakes and you know what, I’ll going to use them as just more information rather than as a way to beat myself up.
And finally (for now), as I’m on a roll, what might happen if I managed to drop all my resistance to this change? If I asked all my concerns and doubts and worries to wait peacefully to one side so that I can really get on with this new path? I can always go consult them if I need to but it’s not like I really need their advice regularly as I know most of it off by heart already. Can we all shake hands and agree to take a break from each other for the time being? I’m eager to breathe the clear air and the feel the flow of energy that comes from shaking off the past.
Feeling deeply, uncomfortably vulnerable can be a big part of any transformation. It can derail both personal and professional changes so easily and yet it’s such a useful emotion which is packed with information – it tells us to pay attention to what’s on the horizon, to consider just how life could evolve to benefit us, if we could just allow it to unfold without panicking. Developing a tolerance for vulnerability allows us to bring more of ourselves forward and by admitting that we can be frail at times, we enable others to connect with and form trusting relationships more easily.
Becoming emotionally adept at deliberate change could just make the difference between getting properly unstuck or dwelling in the murky twilight zone of never properly letting go of the past. Besides, suppressing our thoughts and emotions around change just doesn’t seem smart since it increases our stress levels and reduces our ability to think clearly and creatively.
While many us of are now aware of the concept and importance of emotional intelligence, actively accessing and learning to work with emotions on a daily basis is not taught routinely either at school or work. In fact, the opposite is often true as we are encouraged not to ‘become emotional’ or not to ‘take something too personally’. We are encouraged to intellectually understand emotions as something that ‘happens’ to us and others when we go through change, but there’s very limited practical advice about how to work with them as a normal and useful part of the transition. Sometimes it seems as if we can talk about emotions neutrally but allowing ourselves to actually feel them, understand their message and act on that information can be infinitely more challenging
Getting properly unstuck and making long overdue changes is going to be emotional at times. And it’s time that we did more than just acknowledge it or try to suppress it – it’s time that we welcomed it in and worked with its many useful and practical messages as signposts on the pathway to our changed lives.
Much later, walking down the laneway towards my stables in the late afternoon, my gaze is drawn as always to my horses grazing lazily in the sunshine. They are peaceful and sleepy, waiting for their dinner and for the quiet of the evening. Horses are inherently emotional creatures, able to read body language, emotion and intent quite accurately at a distance. In fact, their ability to read and act on emotions and intent has kept them safe as a species from predators for thousands of years. These emotionally intelligent masters are able to feel, understand and act on emotions quickly and simply before returning to grazing once danger has passed. They have acquired an ability to access and act on emotion that many humans struggle with daily and I am blessed to have these partners in change to help me on my journey forward.
As I approach, Walker lifts his head and stares at me curiously. He is the leader of this herd and was with me on the day that deadly bushfires turned both our lives upside down. Somehow he survived and has thrived through all the changes since. And as he looks at me now, I realise how far we have both come since that day in February 2009. The old part of me sighs inwardly and I finally begin to look forward to this new – and this time deliberate – change.
For more information on using emotions as information, please see Linda Kohanov’s emotional message chart, from her book The Power of the Herd (New World Library, 2013). It can be downloaded from www.eponaquest.com.