State – Not Story.

For someone obsessed with words, this is not an easy concept to drill into practice. This motto relates to polyvagal theory – and it’s the idea that when we are in heightened state (in our sympathetic nervous system), the story we are telling ourselves is not important. In fact, it’s so unimportant and unreliable, we should actively ignore it. Our job is to identify what state we are in, recognize that we are in fight/flight and then help ourselves get our parasympathetic nervous system back online. 

For someone who gets herself very wrapped up in having to understand WHY I feel anxious, it’s a difficult, yet freeing, concept. State – not story. The WHY doesn’t matter, at least for the moment. The only job I have is to have the ‘aha’ moment of noticing I’m spinning, and then to help myself come to a safe stop. Not by analyzing or talking myself out of it, but by doing those state shifting tactics (see State Shifting post for more details). No matter what stories are going on, I need to put is all aside and focus on breathing, self soothing, audible sighing, putting ice on my face – anything I can do to activate my vagus nerve and help myself with what I need most – to re-engage my parasympathetic nervous system. 

For me, I know this is a huge piece of the puzzle that’s been hiding under the box. My mind is obsessed with having to know WHY in those stressful moments – having to make up a story. And without my attachment to that, it eliminates so much of my suffering. Especially if I stop wasting my time with it, and instead can move on to truly helping myself down regulate. My state shifting techniques are important to practice so I have a lot of tools in my toolbox (and can locate them when stressed), but the practice of “STATE – NOT Story” is perhaps even more vital to my wellbeing. Reducing the time between noticing when a screw is loose and grabbing the tool to fix it (instead of getting caught in how it happened)- I’m going to feel a lot more secure. Even if the only tool I can remember and master is breathing, it’s the “state- not story” practice that will be most impactful. You don’t need a million tools, but you do need to go to your toolbox. 

Letting go of the WHY or coming up with a story when I’m in those states has been a challenge, but it’s not the only challenge here. Another part of “State – not story”, relates to when we already have a story. Part of my issue is around wanting to know and being preoccupied making a story – but the other part is when I already “KNOW” a story. 

When we are in our sympathetic nervous system, any story we have playing will feel absolutely true to us. Perhaps it’s a story about how someone did us wrong (maybe even blame of why you are currently feeling stressed/angry/etc), or maybe it’s a story about how we feel or what’s wrong with us (or a situation). The point here is that if you are in a heightened state, regardless of how true or how much it actually makes sense, we will believe the story to be true. It will feel so true we won’t be able to hear legitimate evidence against it. And the more we invest in the story, the more sense we will feel it makes (using everything we think of to work to prove our story). And it seems, there’s really nothing much we can do about it – at that point. This isn’t just in relation to ourselves – this means your child’s story or your partner’s story will all be so real to them that there’s really no point trying to reason or argue or “help them see the bigger picture” or explain your side. You will get nowhere with others or yourselves, until the storyteller is back on solid parasympathetic nervous system ground. 

As scary and frustrating as that it, if we remember to not give our stories too much weight when we know we are flipped, it can help massively. Telling yourself over and over, “Sate – not story”. When we are in fight/flight, it is not the time to evaluate or engage in the story. Again, our only job needs to be helping ourselves (or others) get back to the land of safety and calm. Only then will we even have the capacity to think and feel clearly about our stories. 

When I first arrived in Costa Rica, after a very long and stressful day of travelling, I burst into tears. The story was that I should never have come, that I was an idiot for doing this, that I hate it here, and that I want to be home. Thankfully, knowing that travel is a huge trigger for shifting my state, I knew I was flipped. And even though that story felt so real to me, I also knew I was in a state that I couldn’t evaluate whether it was true or not. I worked on dis-engaging from the story, and focused on helping myself down regulate. People would message me asking about the place, and I set it aside, knowing I wasn’t in the right state to actually answer. It was sad and frustrating to feel like that, but knowing “State – not story” helped me focus on what was important (state shifting) and not get overwhelmed and stuck in the story. And, as you can imagine, once I was back in a calm state, I absolutely loved it here and am so grateful to have made the journey. 

Check in with yourself, get good at checking your state before anything else. And if you find that you’re in fight/flight or freeze, go grab your toolbox.

On Purpose.

This phrase keeps hitting a chord with me. Every time I hear it or say it I get this “YES” punch in my gut. I’ve made it my “word for 2020”, even though admittedly I understand it isn’t one word. And better yet, I know there are words that could replace it, but none of them seem to have the same effect as “on purpose”, so I just decided to go with it. 

On purpose. It means so much to me because I have this desire that’s become almost desperate lately. The need to be doing things and not doing things, on purpose. Choosing with intention. Defining with intention. Nothing by default. In part I feel it is striking an even louder chord with me lately because I can feel my mortality and age creeping up a little faster than creeping. It’s not a new concept for me. A few years ago I redesigned my life, and have continued to do so, based on the premise that I want to live intentionally, fiercely, and right this fucking minute. It’s not that I haven’t felt this before. It’s just another level of it. Another burst of immediacy and surge of importance. 

The process involves questioning everything. Asking myself what I truly want out of relationships, life, career, time. Getting past the automatic responses, getting underneath and digging into what I want without defaults and social norms. It’s not an easy process, and it can be difficult to define without relying on the things we usually rely on to help us define. It’s also a liberating experience, to be in a place where you truly acknowledge that it’s all up to you. You get to decide. You get to define. You get to choose for whatever reasons you wish to do so. Possibilities feel endless and you can feel like a genie with the ability to grant infinite wishes.

Designing your life, on purpose, is also a daunting task. It can be overwhelming and those endless possibilities can leave you stuck if you let it – almost, if not as much, as feeling as if you have no choice at all. Listening is key, and taking your time. Letting yourself dream without getting held back by not knowing how to make it happen. 

Not all of my goals with living on purpose are so huge. Some of them involve getting back into a routine of only checking my email twice per day. I want to be more intentional about how much I use my phone, check email, and check in on social media. I want to check out – on purpose. On the flip side of that, I want to check in on purpose to. Check in with others intentionally, and check in with myself intentionally too. 

As one of my previous posts mentioned, I’m working hard on shifting my state on purpose (engaging my parasympathetic nervous system). It’s another practice, going along with my whole “on purpose” life goal. 

I’ve been spending a lot of evenings on the beach watching sunsets here in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful experience listening to the waves, and watching the sky turn into a colourful masterpiece. There’s something truly magical about it. I find myself feeling the sand, the water, watching the sky in awe. I look around at others and I see most of them with phones in their hands, holding them up to capture the moment. And I have no judgment here, just the realization of the difference of being in a moment and capturing a moment. I understand the desire to capture the moment. I’ve done it, and the only reason I wasn’t joining those people are because I had a previous discussion with myself about my purpose of going to the beach to watch the sunset that night – and on purpose left my phone at home. Being there on purpose only happens when you actively choose to do so – unless you accidentally find yourself there at random (like when your phone’s battery is dead when you pull it out of your bag). I still think there’s value in capturing, and I plan to do it, but I want to make sure I am intentionally choosing to do so. 

Last night I decided to bring my phone with me for the purpose of taking out my phone and joining the masses in trying to get a good shot of the beauty behind my screen. To capture it, on purpose. What I find very fascinating about this process of being so deliberate – is that even when you are doing something that you may otherwise not feel good about – you actually have more joy and feel good about it when you have actively chosen to do so. I find this true whether it’s checking social media, watching Netflix, or having a Coke. When I’ve decided that I want to do it (not just in the moment, but planned in advance) I feel a sense of joy associated with those activities that otherwise is lacking. 

On this note, it doesn’t matter so much what is being decided, just that I am doing it completely acknowledging the choice I am making. Whatever I do, and however I do it –  I’m doing it on purpose. 

For a minute I was questioning how this all sounds. Is my whole “on purpose” motto just a desire for having more control? It feels pretty control-y when I think of it as trying to decide every moment and action I take. However, deciding and controlling are two different things. I’m not trying to control my environment, other people, or what happens. I’m trying to focus on decisions I have regardless of what’s going on. Whatever happens, I get to decide how I want to respond. We don’t always have control over our reactions – but there’s always a choice in there somewhere – even if it’s in how we’re responding to ourselves about how we reacted (like after a panic attack). And as long as I’m actively deciding and not being driven by auto-pilot when there is a conscious driver in the seat — that is me living, on purpose.