Wisdom for Times of Anxiety (with bonus playist just for fun)

The following was sent to my email subscribers this morning. To receive articles like these in your inbox, twice a month (at most), click here.

A coach colleague recently recommended the wisdom of psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, who does a lot of work around anxiety. I caught an interview with him on the Anxiety Coaches podcast, which is a decent resource for people who struggle in this way. (There are a TON of episodes.) 

In his interview on the podcast, Hanson offered a mental trick for dealing with anxious moments. As I’ve pondered it and worked with it myself, I’ve come to appreciate it as one of those simple-but-not-easy things: Let Be, Let Go, and Let In. 

Let Go and Let In both made immediate sense to me. When we’re anxious or stressed, to the extent that we can, we should Let Go of the self-defeating thoughts or behaviors that aren’t serving us. Hanson is gracious in his guidance on this one: not everything can be let go of in the moment. Don’t worry about that. We should simply see if there is something, however small, that we can release. (As I like to say, quoting Anne Lamott, “Everything I ever let go of has claw marks on it.”)

Similarly, Let In seemed intuitive enough: when we let go, we create space to let in various positive thoughts and behaviors. What helps us feel calm and centered? Breathing? A walk? Talking with a friend? Laughter? Hopeful words? Welcome those things in, Hanson says, and they can help shift us away from acute anxiety. And even if they’re not effective in the moment, they help us build habits so maybe next time, the positive behavior can defuse the anxiety before it takes over.

Sadness-with-Bing-Bong.png

It was Hanson’s first step, Let Be, that was the new revelation for me. Before we can Let Go or Let In, we need to acknowledge where we are and receive it non-judgmentally. “Observe [your experience] and accept it for what it is, even if it’s painful,” he writes

Recently I was talking with someone who had gotten tightly coiled into their own anxiety. I found myself (gently) arguing with what seemed to me like a completely irrational series of thoughts. Of course, at the time I never would have called it arguing. I was “bearing witness to the truth!” or “holding hope when they could not!” or whatever flowery language we use when justifying ourselves for trying to fix someone.

It will not surprise you to know that my assurances did nothing to calm my friend. In fact, they seemed to make things worse. Finally I said quietly, “OK, you’re right. Sounds pretty bad.” 

I wish I could say I was pulling a Hanson and letting it be, when in reality I was simply frustrated and fresh out of arguments. But wonder of wonders, the person visibly relaxed, as if relieved that what they perceived really washappening in their head, and it really was pretty bad. And fairly quickly, they were able to come to a different, slightly more centered place. 

Let Be, Let Go, Let In. 
I’m a believer!

I'd love to hear what this stuff evokes for you.

And just because it’s fun, I put together a three-song playlist on Spotify to help reinforce Hanson’s idea, and to give you a little soundtrack to try this out yourself. See if you can guess what the songs are before you click through—it should be a pretty easy quiz… 

Onward,
MaryAnn

I'm currently booking speaking engagements for fall 2019 and beyond. To find out more, or to see if I'll be coming your way, check out my Events page.

Image is from the movie Inside Out. Sadness was pretty good at "letting be" with Bing Bong. 

The Comparison Trap

IMG_8026.JPG

On a recent Saturday I had the chance to fill in for a running coach friend, overseeing a training group she’s been leading. These were mostly new runners, some of whom are training for their first 5K or 10K, out for their weekend group run and looking for guidance and encouragement. I mainly coach individuals, so it was great (and a little daunting) to stretch my skills and try something new. 

I ended up sticking with the brand-new runners—as in, this was their second week of training: run 90 seconds, walk 2 minutes, repeat for 25 minutes. It was gratifying to go at their pace, remembering a time when that was really, reallydifficult for me—as it was for them that day—and reflecting on just how far I’ve come. (Marathon #4 in four weeks!) Who knows where this process will lead them, but it was joyous to contemplate what’s ahead of them, and hold out hope that they will gain as much strength and empowerment from their journey as I have from mine. Or, perhaps, that they tap into that strength and empowerment in other ways.

The next day, those lofty happy feelings came crashing back to earth when I read a Facebook humblebrag from another runner who ran her very first 5K the day before… and placed in her age group.

Sigh. 

After almost eight years of running, I’ve seen great personal progress, but remain stubbornly on the slow side of average. And on my good days, I’ve made my peace with it. Talk to a runner long enough, and pace will usually come up in conversation, but often it’s the least interesting part of a run. How you felt, what you saw, the peace of mind, the pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, or even pushing yourself—these are the measures of a good run. Getting out there is what matters most... and if you’d told the seventh grade me, who gasped and seethed her way through the mile in PE class, that one day she would voluntarily do mile repeats at the track—at 5 a.m.—you would have gotten a big eye roll.

On my worse days, though, the comparison trap grabs me in its sharp, unforgiving jaws, holding me in place as the voices of Not Enough ring out: You’ve been at this for so long. Why aren’t you faster? You’re not a real runner.

Later that same weekend, my 10 year old, James, decided to put together one of the Raingutter Regatta boat kits we had left over from Cub Scouts. Margaret, always up for arts and crafts, joined him. Now, what you need to know about James is that he always opts out of the Raingutter Regatta. Hard to say exactly why, but I think our tender-hearted kid, who marches to a different drummer, doesn’t really care for this event, in which children go head to head in competition for the best boat, along with all the trash-talking that goes with it (however good-natured that chiding might be). 

IMG_8067.JPG

So I was touched by this spontaneous act of creation. It wasn’t about designing the best boat and winning the race. It was simply about having some fun on a Sunday afternoon: no evaluation, no benchmarks. 

Our world has an abundant supply of yardsticks, and no end of volunteers to wield them with perverse glee. Some of us are better at disregarding those evaluations than others, and social media sure doesn’t help. I don’t blame the new runner who dominated her age group; she should be happy and proud! My reaction wasn’t about her; it was about me: a sign that I need some self-care, some perspective, some kindness toward myself. Goals are great, but radical self-acceptance is some of the best fuel out there to help achieve them. (And if you don’t achieve them, you’re still beloved of God. Whew!)

Yesterday this Anne Lamott quote came my way: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” The comparison trap is most potent in an atmosphere of scarcity: for one person to win, another must lose; their good fortune is my misfortune. But the trap also snaps tight around us when our expectations are out of whack—when we’re too focused on “should,” when we grasp at unattainable and punishing ideals rather than loving what is.

You are a wonderful work in progress… and you are already who you are meant to be, right now. And so am I.

This reflection was sent to my email newsletter; subscribe to receive articles such as this, twice a month, right in your inbox.

The Art of Coaching Improvisationally

“The five minutes before the coaching conversation begins are the most important five minutes of the whole encounter.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 8.01.00 AM.png

I remember hearing this in coach training and feeling surprised. Surely the wrap-up is most critical, I thought to myself, in which actions steps are articulated and clarified. Or, the initial check-in, which sets the stage for everything that is to come. As a coach, I now see the wisdom of this instruction. If I come into the appointment distracted and scattered, I cannot be of service. In my pre-conversation time, I try to center myself, prepare to listen deeply without agenda, and most of all, trust the process and my role in it. There’s always a bit of nervous excitement, too, because I have no idea what will happen and where we’ll end up at the conclusion of our conversation.

Interestingly, that anticipatory energy is exactly what I feel when preparing to walk out on a stage to do improv comedy.

READ THE REST at Coaching World, the blog of the International Coach Federation (ICF).

When the World is Overwhelming

Greetings from St. Louis and the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, a biennial meeting of pastors, elders, young adults, advisory delegates and more, who will deliberate and make decisions about the church, its mission and its future. I’m here on behalf of NEXT Church, talking up our coaching initiative, and offering free coaching sessions for people throughout the week. Some people are feeling stuck in their lives or ministries; others just want to debrief the events of this week. It’s always a holy task, this ministry of deep listening and asking important questions. 

The decisions made at GA include plenty of picayune insider stuff about the Presbyterian Church’s governance and structure. But we will also take stands and make statements addressing a number of issues facing our world, hopefully in ways that lift up justice and liberation. Yesterday we marched en masse to the St. Louis City Justice Center, carrying $47,000 to bail some 36 people out of jail. These are folks who are simply awaiting trial, but because they are too poor to afford bail, they are languishing in jail. 

img_2216.jpg

It was inspiring to put faith into action, and to do something public and specific to set captives free. 
It also feels like not nearly enough. 

It’s surreal to observe committee meetings and have conversations in hotel lobbies and a fancy convention center, knowing there are children along our southern border who have no idea when or whether they will see their parents again. News broke just last night of so-called “tender age” shelters for infants and toddlers. It is projected that some 30,000 children could fall victim to the family separation policy before the end of the summer. There are various proposals floating around Congress to end the practice, and as I write this, there are reports that the president will be signing a statement to that effect. Time will tell.

Immigration is a tough, tangled issue, befuddling countless presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat. But as a Christian, this one isn’t hard. Jesus said in Matthew 25, “that which you did to the least of these, you did to me.” And he didn’t stutter. 

Many people I talk to are numb right now—the onslaught of news feels relentless, and it’s hard to even figure out what’s accurate, let alone what to do about it. And the actions of an informed citizen—writing a letter, casting a vote—feel so paltry in the wake of political forces that are much bigger than all of us. 

In the midst of this numbness, I keep thinking about an interview I heard with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, the creative team behind the musical Hamilton. They were reflecting on the early days of working on Hamilton—writing, editing, and refining it—and how overwhelming it seemed. They adopted a motto, co-opted from Jerome Robbins when Fiddler on the Roof was in previews in Detroit. Things were not going well for the fledgling production. Kail says:

There’s this moment when Fiddler is really struggling, and Austin Pendleton, a young actor at this point, said, “What are we doing to do?” and Robbins said, “Ten things a day.” 

Just do the thing. Do the stuff that’s in front of you: “What can we accomplish today?” So we would come in after a show, and Lin and I would talk to each other… and we’d say OK, what can we accomplish at this time. And you just start chipping away.

 

static.playbill.jpg

In my experience as a coach, many clients know where they want to go, but they’re paralyzed with the tremendous size of the task. So we work together on the principle of “ten things a day”—small, bite-sized pieces that slowly but surely move us forward. It's a way of staying present to today's work instead of tomorrow's results, which we can never control.

We live in chaotic, perilous times. Regardless of your particular convictions and beliefs, numbing out is a luxury we cannot afford. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. At times, the “something” is to pull back and rest—but always in the service of a deeper engagement, one small act at a time.

What might be today’s “ten things” to help bring about the world for which you hope?
Five things?
One thing?

Onward,
MaryAnn

This reflection was sent to my email newsletter; subscribe to receive articles such as this, twice a month, right in your inbox.

Monday Runday: Houston Marathon Recap & Race Review

This is incredibly long--epic races deserve an epic recap--so I've organized it into sections for better scan-ability. How We Got Here: The Grudge Match

I signed up almost three years ago for the 2016 Houston Marathon, excited to run through my hometown. Then I developed a stress fracture and had to cancel. I’ve since completed every major race I had to defer that year, including the Marine Corps Marathon, but this was the last piece of the puzzle—the final grudge match.

Houston is a relatively flat and fast course, with great support, so I’ve been training hard for a big personal best. My previous marathon PR was at Marine Corps in 2016. It was only my second marathon, and it was hhhhhhhhhot that day. So I had a lot of room for improvement, especially if conditions broke my way.

After Hurricane Harvey I was even more excited to run in the Bayou City. I didn’t register for the race as an official charity runner, but I did sign up to raise money for the Houston Food Bank, which was and is instrumental in supporting people impacted by Harvey. I raised almost $700, and it’s not too late to contribute.

Taper Town Be Crazy

My running friends know I’m an obsessive weather-stalker before a race. Houston’s weather is a complete crap shoot in January—it can be 70 and muggy or perfect PR conditions. Amazingly, all the weather models began to coalesce around the latter—race start in the 30s, warming to about 50. I was super excited, but that meant no excuses not to go for broke. I remembered one of my favorite mantras: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Taper madness began last Tuesday after a race-pace run, a workout I’ve done eleventy times this training cycle without incident. Soon after I finished, my leg started aching at the exact spot of my injury 2 1/2 years ago. I felt it while walking, climbing and descending stairs, and sometimes, just when sitting.

The taper must have a way of knowing what our most vulnerable spots are. Intellectually, I know it’s very rare to reinjure a stress fracture site, especially during taper when your training volume is way down. But of all the aches and pains that could have flared up, this is the one that would throw the most doubt into my race preparation. Last time I felt that ache, it meant a 3 month-break from running and starting completely over. In consultation with my coach and friend Lena Steiner, I decided to rest the leg for the remainder of the week—no running, nor exercise of any kind really. The next time I would run was Sunday at marathon start.

My leg ached off and on all week, driving me nuts. I had several pity parties, and one big bout of imposter syndrome (“Why did you ever think you could do this? You come this far, only to whiff it in the last few days? You’ll never be a ‘real’ runner.”)

Like I said, Taper Town be crazy.

I woke up Friday morning and decided I had to “go until no.” If the injury flared up during the marathon, I would immediately walk off the course, because no race is worth what I went through last time. On the other hand, it might be the race of a lifetime. It was PR or DNF and nothing in between.

In retrospect, the injury scare invited me to “hold it lightly,” tune into my body, and embrace the mystery of not knowing what would happen. And also appreciate the simple joy of running. I get to do this.

So… I readied myself:

(I got a LOT of “Go ‘Stros!!!” in that outfit. Excellent life choice on my part.

Race Day

Mom had come into town, along with my daughters, and they were an amazing pit crew, assisted by my brother, who lives in Houston. Mom dropped me at the race 90 minutes before start—plenty of time to visit the portapotty 2-3 times, as is my custom. *cough* It did mean an early alarm though:

I’ve always been very motivated by music, but I’m racing headphone-free now, and I love it. I was a little worried I’d get bored by myself during a whole marathon, but it turned out to be fine. Instead I used the music to get pumped up ahead of time. I sat on the floor for about an hour beforehand, channeling my inner Michael Phelps:

OK not really, but I was FOCUSED. My last song before turning in my gear:

Around this time, Robert sent me just the GIF I needed:

And then it was time to go to the corral! The corrals at Houston are huge, and were so crowded that a bunch of us jumped a temporary fence so we wouldn’t have to go all the way to the back and fight our way upstream.

And then it was go time!

 

The Race Itself: A Run Down Memory Lane

The marathon course starts downtown and goes through some of Houston’s most beautiful (and swanky) neighborhoods. That makes for a picturesque race. But it’s hard to convey just what a trip down memory lane this was for me personally. We ran by countless old haunts, most notably Rice University (with the Marching Owl Band to entertain us), the house Robert and I shared when we first got married, my elementary school, our family’s church growing up, the street I grew up on, and within a block of the church where Robert and I got married and where I was ordained as a minister nine years later.

Needless to say, yesterday was an experience I will cherish forever.

I started out slightly slower than race pace, just to get warmed up and also to test the leg. Within a half mile it became clear that it would be totally fine, but it wasn’t until mile 2 that I really embraced that yes, I needed to run 26.2 miles now. (I thought of that Aaron Burr line in Hamilton when he deadpans, “OK so, we’re doing this.”)

The crowds and the landmarks kept me entertained, and I really felt good and strong and happy. Robert was tracking me and would send texts at key moments, which I could read on my Garmin without fumbling with the phone (great feature). Every time I touched a timing mat I got excited because I knew I’d hear from him soon. My race pace was hard, but felt sustainable—so glad I’d practiced it so much.

I saw my family three times. I saw Mom and Margaret at mile 9 at Rice Village, and Margaret gave me the baby from our king cake this weekend, for luck. Then at mile 14, near the Galleria, they showed up again to switch out fuel belts with me, so I could continue drinking my Nuun electrolyte without fumbling with tablets and refills at water stations. Huge support, especially since it was chilly enough that my fingers were stiff. I then saw them one more time, with Caroline and my brother, at mile 21.

Around mile 18, we turned onto Memorial Drive for the long winding trek back to downtown. Mile 18 of a marathon is no Club Med vacation even in the best of circumstances, but several additional things happened:

  • The rollers started. They weren’t bad, just unrelenting.
  • Headwind.
  • MAMD was all out of significant landmarks to bask in.

In addition to the gradual rollers, there were some more significant elevation shifts—not like Virginia’s finest, but enough to feel it. And instead of traditional hills, they were underpasses, which means you go down and THEN up. That’s just mean. As a result of all this, miles 21-25 were 20-30 seconds slower than my average pace up to that point, and it took a lot of concentration not to slow even further.

Mentally, I had several mantras I cycled through:

  • Sky above, earth beneath, fire within. A phrase I picked up at the Richmond half.
  • One good _________. [one good mile, minute, 30 seconds, whatever]. Helped me stay in the moment.
  • Trust your training. An oldie but goodie.
  • Execute. Weird mantra, but a reminder to stick to my race plan.
  • Keep doing this. Rather blunt and inelegant I admit, but I picked this one up late in the race, when I was tempted to slow down. It was my reminder not to get fancy or change things up, just to keep doing exactly what I was doing, which I knew I could do because… I was doing it. (Marathon logic.)
  • Pace yourself, push yourself. My reminder to find the balance between keeping the pace strong but not overreaching and flaming out.
  • Around mile 24 I saw a sign that said, Focus, breathe, believe. I have no doubt the woman who held it was a runner herself, because that was the perfect mantra to carry me through the last couple of miles.

Crossing the finish line is never the elated experience for me that it seems to be for others. I think I’m so in the zone that it feels surreal. That was true in Houston. It wasn’t until I got through the chute and was able to sit down, stretch, and see the texts from Lena and Robert that it all flooded in.