Mindshift to Rebalance Your Life

Today, many of us are living life in the fast lane. Between jobs, the stress of the economy, uncertainty about the future, taking care of our families, and being part of our communities, never has there been a time when we needed to live consciously and choicefully as much as we do today.

I spent 25 years of my career working in Wall Street firms. When I wasn’t traveling from coast to coast, I was commuting into New York City. While at Morgan Stanley, I had two offices – one downtown and one in Purchase New York. Yikes! I’m also a mom and at the time my children were all in elementary and middle schools. While I maintained this pace week after week, a slow and silent assault was being made on my physical and psychological energies.

This assault took the form of stress. In its subtlety, it takes many forms that are gradually layered upon our minds and bodies as we deprive our systems of what they need to operate optimally. For me, it started with just being tired all the time. Now, being tired didn’t begin with work. It actually began when I had children. Perhaps you remember that first year with a new baby in your life? Then, comes babies two and three and your sleep schedule is altered for quite a few years! When my children were sleeping through the night, 5 straight hours of sleep became a good night’s rest. During the day, I had a constant injection of caffeine – any form would do – coffee, tea, sodas. I often experienced insomnia caused from jet lag, or the normal worries of work and family life, and maybe all the well-stocked caffeine in my system.

Because of both its subtlety and my being used to the feeling, stress hormones ran easily in my body. I was hyper-alert and fight, flight, freeze were always within reach. Think about your own pace. When you lie down at night, can you feel your heart racing? Or, maybe you even notice this during the day? Do you find yourself getting into disagreements and later regret what you said? Or, are you going through life like a robot on auto pilot? There is tremendous research about the terrible physical effects that the constant drip of stress hormones has on our bodies, but often we’ve become so conditioned to their effects that we’re unaware that we’re being run by them.

So here I was: tired, stressed, traveling, and juggling work and family, the next thing that suffered was my exercise routine. I have battled my weight my entire life and have learned that in order to maintain a healthy number on the scale, I need a regular cardio and weights workout in addition to my yoga practice (I only brought in yoga a couple of years ago). In my thirties I loved indoor and outdoor cycling but this took time. Even when my feet were on the ground, I often found myself “behind” on email and family chores. So I “prioritized” and put my work out to the bottom of the list. And, then, up went the weight until I hit that OMG number and moved my workout up the list. But it was completely reactionary. Meanwhile, my stress assault was intensifying. I was stressing about getting to the gym or stressing about what I needed to be doing when I was at the gym. But the vicious cycle didn’t end here.

Eventually, I got cranky – cranky with my husband, cranky with my kids, and short with my team. I remember saying I “didn’t have time to think”. Ihit the wall three times in my career meaning I woke up one day so fatigued, full of caffeine, and running on stress hormones that my system just stopped and I was forced to slow down and find a way to recuperate while somehow maintaining my life.

OK, take a deep breath. I’m getting stressed just remembering and writing about this vicious cycle.

There are a couple things going on here that I’d like to point out. First, we humans are creatures of habit. Habits such as stress responses become automatic and deeply entrenched through repetition. I realized that in order to have the balanced life I so desired, my mindset was in need of a major overhaul. As long as I held the belief that having a successful career meant a I must work at certain status, for a specific income level, and for a specific number of hours AND that I could be supermom and also attend to all the needs of my family – I was not likely to change. I needed to redefine career and family success and keepMyself in the mix of what needed attending.

Doing the inner work to understand the habits of our mind and become choiceful about our responses is something we can learn. Here are some practices you can begin today:

The Practice of Witnessing

Witnessing is the ability to observe thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and energy – all the activity that goes on inside of you. Witnessing is paying attention to your inner world as you do when you’re aware of your surroundings. Here’s a practice from Mary NurrieStearns to cultivate this capacity:

  • Look around where you are right now. Notice the colors and shapes. Examine something closely, noticing its colors, textures, shapes.
  • Now put your attention on yourself. Rub two fingers together and feel what that’s like. Pause and breathe. Note the sensation of your buttocks on your chair. Pause and breathe. Now perceive the sensation of your heart’s beating.
  • Put your attention on your environment again. Look at the colors, shapes, and textures that surround you.
  • Move your attention inside again. Notice the sensations of the bottoms of your feet on the floor.
  • Gaze at your hands and notice the sensation of energy pulsing through them.

Notice that there’s no judgment in witnessing; it’s pure noticing. It’s one thing to notice, but far more developmental to notice that you’re noticing. In this practice, you were conscious that you were witnessing.

The Practice of Conscious Breathing

When your breathing relaxes so does your body. Take a moment now and just notice your breathing without trying to change it. Is it deep in your belly? Or like, many of us today, is your breathing rapid and high in your chest?   Conscious breathing triggers the relaxation response. A powerful practice is simply noticing your breath because when you witness your breath, you don’t pay attention to your thinking.

  • Find a comfortable seat where you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes. You may want to set a timer for however long you practice this so you won’t be worried about time.
  • Become aware of your breath: breath coming in, breath going out, breath coming in, and breath out.
  • Try it again: breath coming, breath going out.
  • When you actually slow down and practice, you feel calmer

The Practice of Observing Your Thinking

A writing practice that I recommend for many of my clients is something Chris Argryis introduced: Left Column/Right Column and can be done even when you’re at work.   Often we have an internal dialogue that is taking place when we’re in a meeting or conversation with someone else. To become aware of our tacit assumptions, which govern our conversation and contribute to blocking our purpose in real-life situations, we can develop a way of observing and talking about those tacit assumptions more effectively.

Frequently we carry on inner dialogues with ourselves. These private conversations are a by-product of our past experiences and mental models. During our conversations with others, known as public conversations, we filter this private conversation and only make public that which we assume will be accepted by the other or will assist us in getting what we want. On the surface, this appears to be a very diplomatic way of communicating with others.   After all, if we say what is truly on our minds, we may make things worse by upsetting people or making ourselves vulnerable.

The problem is that if we keep all our private conversations private, or as Argryis calls it, our Left Hand Column, we may be preventing ourselves and others from learning and makingbalanced decisions.   Give this a try:

  1. Think of a conversation you have had in the last month or so in which you had a lot of left hand column thoughts during the conversation. Typically these are conversations you walk away from dissatisfied. They can be between you and one other person or involving you and a group. Here are some examples if you need them:
    – You cannot reach an agreement with a close associate;
    – You believe you have been assigned an unfair share of the work;
    – You believe someone else is not pulling his or her weight;
    – You believe you are being accused unjustly.
  2. On a piece of paper that is divided into two columns, use the right hand column to write down what you and the other person(s) said (or what you imagine you and they would say). The dialogue might go on for several pages. Leave the left had column blank until you have finished.
  3. Now in the left hand column, write out what you were thinking and telling yourself, but not saying.
  4. You can learn a great deal just from the act of writing out a case, putting it away for a week, and then looking at it again. The case becomes an artifact, through which you can examine you own thinking, as if you were looking at the thinking of someone else.
  5. Use your writing to answer as many of the questions you can at this time:

– What has really led me to think and feel this way?
– What was my intention? What was I trying to accomplish?
– Did I achieve the results I intended?
– How might have my comments contributed to the difficulty?
– Why didn’t I say what was in my left hand column?
– What assumptions am I making about the other person or people?
– What were the costs of operating this way? What were the payoffs?
– What prevented me from acting differently?
– How can I use my left-hand column as a resource to improve communications?

  1. What did you learn from the process? What changes in the way you communicate might you make? How could you practically improve your communication skills?

I have had a wonderful career and continue to thrive when doing what I love. I am fortunate to a have supportive husband and children, and to have found great teachers and coaches. Remember the Chinese proverb, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear”?Today, when I begin to fall back into my own habit of overdoing, I have skills I didn’t have 20 years ago to rebalance my life.

This blog was originally written July 2013.


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