“Dear Cristin” is Executive Coach Cristin Downs directly answering a reader, client, or student question. There will be expletives. Submit your question here.
A client recently was giving herself a hard time. She wasn’t progressing as quickly as she wanted to be. She felt like she had clarity on what she wanted but couldn’t get her actions to match her desires. But she had also been going through a very difficult rough patch, work wise, relationship wise, physically, furry friend wise. And since it’s 2021, there’s also a pandemic. Honestly, it’s a shit show for the world and specifically for her, and Lordy, I have been there. And fairly recently. I sometimes think if I knew everything that was going to come at me in 2018 to 2020 ish, I would have probably… I don’t know. Definitely cried. I would have been incapacitated by terror. But that’s not how it works, right, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we just keep going, one step after the other, sometimes two steps back, and somehow we keep moving. And sometimes the only thing we’re moving through is time. Sometimes our bodies and our brains are in a jar of peanut butter. Yet time marches on.
And I think because of that, sometimes we can forget how much we’re going through when we look at each instance by itself. But that’s not how trauma or grief or sleep deprivation works. That shit is cumulative and you cannot look at events individually. Compound factors.
OR there is a very real possibility that we judge ourselves based on old metrics, rules, or even old childhood or family patterns around being strong or taking one for the team – as in your family – or whatever story you’re currently playing out. You might be reading from an old script about how you are supposed to be.
So I suggested to my beautiful client that she give herself a bit of grace after everything she’s been going through.
And she said, okay, give myself grace, that sounds reasonable. But what does it actually look like? What do I actually do to give myself grace?
That, my rockstars, that very excellent question is what we’re going to dive into today.
You can be told a thousand times to give yourself grace, but if you don’t know what that flipping means, practically, it’s just another cute kitschy Target item you have to dust. I’ll preface everything I suggest here with a caveat – this will differ for each person. I’m going to cover the types of things to consider, and how it has worked for me and my current and past clients. But everything I talk about, always, will differ per person. There will be things that you will out and out reject, and that is absolutely amazing. Knowing what won’t work is so flipping useful. And anyone whomever tells you there is ONE singular way to do something is giving you a big clue that it’s time to run in the opposite direction.
We’re going to cover 3 points:
1) People pleasing and how it fills your time.
2) Committing to actions because of how you think you should be.
3) Believing you need to do something a certain way for it to be done at your level of expectations.
First and foremost, I allow myself to do less which very often allows me to do more of what I actually need to do. But it doesn’t have to, that’s just often a byproduct of doing less.
A lot of people, especially anyone who identifies as a woman, connect their self worth with how people feel about them, which results in a ton of people pleasing. It’s hard to knock that out of your head. Mine was a happy accident.
What happened was, I had a baby. I had a hard time with the milk making, and I had to go back to work at 6 weeks because AMERICA and there was little to no sleeping and there was so much eating and pumping. Seriously, I was Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven, I had to eat so much to make milk for my giant baby. When I look back on that first year of my son’s life, I am always surprised I survived. That’s a summary of my activities – work long hours, pretend at work to not have a baby, eat, feed baby, rock baby, wonder how people had second babies. People pleasing had no time in that schedule. Of course, at first, I attempted to maintain my previous level of people pleasing, but it was not physically possible – both related to my exhaustion and the laws of physics. I said yes to a few too many people in those first months, and it resulted in lots of crying and messing things up, and I realized I need to stop. But I didn’t know how to stop. I came up with this idea that I would create a list in my phone, in Evernote, and it had 5 spots. Every time I said yes to helping someone, it took a spot. Even if that item was months away, say like performing a wedding ceremony – yes, I am a Reverend – it took a spot. I felt like there was emotional labor and thought as soon as I said yes, and the task needed space on the list. Once the 5 spots were gone, they were gone, and then I had to start saying… NO. At first, I tried to explain the 5 spots concept, but then I just said, I wish I could but no. Sometimes, people were fine. Sometimes people cheered, yes, say no. And sometimes people stopped being friends with me or associates of mine.
This very simple list saved my life. And eventually, over time, I no longer needed the list. I somehow began to understand that 1) people didn’t need me to do things for them for them to love me, and 2) how to prioritize my time on what I wanted to do and what would fill me up.
Are you a people pleaser? Does this story feel like you? Where are you making decisions based on how you think other people will feel? I hope this doesn’t catch you off guard, but you don’t even know if that perception of feeling is even true. You might be completely wrong. It’s why you have to deeply connect to you – what you want to do, how you want to feel, and why. If you stopped doing things for other people, how much less would you be doing?
Second point to consider is saying yes or no to things that you think you should be able to do – or not do – because of the kind of person you tell yourself you are. And that person would absolutely do! Or never ever do! whatever the heck is in front of you.
For example, I have a client who finds her extended family exhausting. She loves them, absolutely, they mean the world to her. But they exhaust her and stress her out beyond all measure. She loses her cool, she loses her schedule, it upsets the entire dynamic of her actual family, and it takes them weeks to recover. By why then, does she insist of them staying at her home when they come to town to visit? The stress in advance is so much, everyone has a pretty piss poor time because it’s not going well, and then it takes days and sometimes weeks to restore equilibrium after her family departs. But the story she tells herself is, I am the kind of matriarch that can do this, I can fill this family role. Instead, how about some grace? Maybe the family doesn’t even want to stay there but does because she insists. She insists because she believes I am this type of person, and this type of person does this.
Another client fills every second of her kids’ lives. I am talking every.single.second. Camps! Teams! Classes! Play dates! And of course, these kids don’t drive and there’s no teleportation so she is filling every second of her life. The story she tells herself is that a good Mom makes sure her kid plays sports and a musical instrument and attends culturally events but also learns about good citizenship, and that is just not true. Do you know the average stay at home in the 70’s spent less time with her kids than modern working Moms do? Moms today are killing themselves based on an illusion of some bygone era that never even really existed.
Where might you be doing this? Do you have a story that you’re the party animal so you can’t stay home and watch kids movies in your pajamas? Alone?
I’ll tell you one of my stories is that I am an intellectual and I read high brow fiction and watch clever movies and shows. In reality, I like cozy mysteries, shoot ’em up action movies (even though I am anti gun), and apocalypse flicks. And I love them all. And that doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy high brow shit; it just means that when I am happy and cozy and comfy or sad or need to work through something, I’m watching Gunpowder Milkshake.
Now, point #3, is believing you have to do something in a certain way or to a certain standard for it to “count” against some sort of imaginary, completely arbitrary made up level.
For example, I have a client who believes exercise has to look a certain way or it doesn’t count. If it’s not Instagrammable, is it still exercise? The answer is a resounding yes. If it’s 15 minutes in your pajamas, it still counts! Does it count if you have an exercise bike that isn’t a Peloton? Also yes.
I have a friend who beats herself up if she doesn’t cook dinner, if it’s something cold or take-out. When I was a kid, breakfast for dinner was the freaking best. I didn’t think it was bad, and I have happy memories even now. And honestly, keeping kids alive is hard. If you are feeding them, that’s great.
I once had a client who needed to deliver some bad news to someone, and she had decided that the way to do it was a very specific way and that was in person, face to face. She was shy and nonconfrontational, and the idea of delivering the news in person was impossible for her. We worked very hard for her to just deliver the news. If she could do this confrontation, that would be a win. She didn’t need to start with something that filled her with complete terror. She could tell the person on the phone. But more than the confrontation itself, she had to give herself grace that even if she couldn’t do exactly what she thought she needed to, she would still be learning and growing and delivering news that was her responsibility to give.
What about you? Have you set arbitrary immovable guidelines for yourself? What if you just let the thing happen or get done without deciding in advance what the level of perfection needs to be?
So to review, the three ways I think you should consider giving yourself some grace are:
1) Stop people pleasing and letting it fill all your time.
2) Stop doing things because you think you should be doing them to be the kind of person you think you are or should be.
3) Stop believing you need to do something a certain way for it to be done at your ridiculously high level of expectations.
How does that feel? Does it feel a little baggy, like you’ve got some room to breathe in that life of yours? I hope so.
Wishing you some practical grace.