An Intentional Life
My best friend was a puppet.
OK, I know that sounds strange (if you’re not Jim Henson) to say. I don’t mean a puppet in the sense of a fuzzy toy with a hand-hole that you make ‘talk’ to people. I mean one of those marionette puppets; the ones with the strings attached to all of its limbs.
I say this because, like many people, everything she did for most of her life was because someone else was manipulating her strings. Well…let me backup for a second…she did things because she BELIEVED that other people were pulling her strings.
That belief kept said friend on autopilot for 40 years.
How do I know that she believed that other people were working her strings? Her language, for one. She routinely would use words such as, “I have to…” and “I better do this” and “What if?” She uses what I call “puppet language.” (I just made that up, by the way; it works.)
Many of her actions also reflected this ‘pulling of the strings.’ She literally would always jump to please people. She rarely questioned things, she just did them. She took action on things in the hopes that people would like her or say, “good job,” or tell her they were ‘proud’ of her. That’s the reason she did those things.
She has spent a lifetime giving, giving, giving and not realizing that she has taken, taken, taken…from herself.
Allowing her strings to be pulled, whether in reality or in her mind, kept her in a state of aimless, desultory, purposeless, abrupt, impetuous, non-elective, obligatory, casual decisions that were rarely her own. She has spent most of her life not making her own decisions.
Six months ago, her father passed away. He was her light. He was the family member who ‘understood her.’ He was her savior who always came to the rescue whenever she needed rescuing, which was often. With him gone, she needed to start making her own decisions…for the first time.
This meant that she needed to stop doing things in her life for validation and acceptance and begin doing them because they needed to be done for her and her family. This meant she needed to begin cutting the strings that kept her captive for so many years.
Pulling out the scissors was the easy part; there was new found motivation and, dare I say, excitement about becoming the empowered person she always told me she wanted to be. But motivation and excitement are not enough when they are up against 40 years of habits. Habits are tough customers. When they are habits that move you forward, they’re your best friends. When they are habits that keep you in a state that does not serve you, they are a powerful force that can feel insurmountable.
Within the past six months, my friend has become a force to be reckoned with. She has gone from acquiescence to intention; her decisions from debilitating to deliberate. The strings are slowly being cut away and, with every closing of the scissors, her confidence grows.
How did she do it? How do you take 40 years of learned helplessness and transform into a self-leader in less than a year?
Here are five things she did to begin living an intentional life.
1. She chose deliberate over autopilot.
Part of being intentional is about being deliberate.
OK dictionary.com, help us out here:
in·ten·tion·al (/inˈten(t)SH(ə)n(ə)l/) adjective “done on purpose; deliberate.”
The key phrase here is ‘done on purpose.’ So often, we find ourselves on autopilot in our lives. Have you ever driven somewhere you’ve driven dozens of times before only to get there and not at all remember actually driving there?!? That’s frightening, but we do that stuff all the time. We physically drove from point A to point B, however we were on total autopilot. We didn’t have to think.
Autopilot takes choice out of the mix.
When you are too busy thinking about the past and the future to be in the present, you miss the opportunity to choose. The only time you have control and the ability to choose is right now; in the present moment.
By switching off of autopilot and living in a more conscious way, she found more and more moments to take control of in the moment. Because of this, she could make a choice…her choice.
“Great things never came from comfort zones.” (Neil Strauss)
2. She became self-aware.
My friend was one of the most un-self-aware people I knew. She attributed much of what happened in her life to other people being “stupid” or “ungrateful” or “mean” or “not getting it” and situations being “hard” or “scary” or “new and different.” Those people and situations were the ones who caused her to be “nervous” and “stressed out” and “anxious” and “worried” and “want to throw up” (my least favorite of her descriptors).
At no point did she ever step back and think, ‘could I be a part of me always feeling these things?’ That is, until I asked her one day, “Have you ever thought that you are a part of you always feeling these things?”
That question was at first met with defensiveness (typical), then denial (of course), then silence (this is when the actual question sinks in), then introspection (wait for it) followed by, “I do create some of that, don’t I?” (welcome to self-awareness!).
By understanding that life is not about what is happening to you, but how you are choosing (there’s that word again) how you respond to what is happening to you changed her forever. Just by having this discussion, she became hyper-aware of when she reacted (autopilot) to something instead of responding (choice) to it. She was able to catch herself ‘overthinking’ and ‘overreacting.’ That awareness is the first step to changing anything! It is the light-switch that allows the rest of your life to turn on.
“True self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends.” (Adam Braun)
3. She stopped ruminating.
When a person ruminates, they repetitively go over a thought or a problem without completion. It is often negative in nature and creates a cycle or spiral from which the person can find it difficult to leave. It is essentially hitting ‘play’ then ‘rewind’ then ‘play’ then ‘rewind’ then ‘play’ then ‘rewind’ then ‘play’ then ‘rewind’ then ‘play’ then ‘rewind’ then ‘play’ then ‘rewind’ on the recording device in your head. It is difficult to just let it continue to play without hitting rewind or hit ‘fast forward’ and move on. This is over-thinking at its finest, and my friend was a pro!
Her most debilitating rumination problem was ‘what if?’ She would ask herself ‘what if’ all the time, only choosing (there it is again) to think about the negative possibilities, and never answer the question.
Shifting two things helped her to end her rumination problem forever: thinking about the positive possibilities as well as the negative ones and answering the ‘what if’ question.
By making herself think of both the negative and positive possibilities, she stopped her negativity in its tracks. For example, she could think ‘what if it doesn’t work?’ but had to then make herself think, ‘what if it does work?’ By getting in the habit of seeing both sides of the equation, the effect of the negative thought diminished greatly. It suddenly didn’t seem so powerful and overwhelming.
By making herself answer the ‘what if’ question, she found instant closure. When you have closure, there is no fuel for rumination. It is like hitting ‘stop’ on the recorder in your head instead of hitting ‘rewind.’ There is nowhere else to go when you answer ‘what if it doesn’t work?’ with ‘then I will go to plan B.’
If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry. (The Dalai Lama)
4. She stopped storytelling in her head.
So much of what she was worrying about wasn’t even real. I mean, it literally did not exist. It was made up. Like 90% of it.
As a creative person and a talented poet, this creative brain has been an ally and an asset throughout her life. At the same time, it has been a detriment to her peace of mind. Her mind didn’t easily shut the ‘storytelling’ off (autopilot rears its ugly head yet again).
This storytelling constantly creates problems that are not there. If your goal is to be less overwhelmed and less-stressed in your life, the first thing you need to do is stop creating more of it!!!
By being honest with herself about the fact that SHE created a lot of her overwhelm, worry, and panic, she was able to begin ‘catching herself’ doing it in the moment. When she would catch herself storytelling, she would choose to hold up a mental stop sign, sit back, and take a breath.
This routine took moments to do, but created a habit that now allows her to feel in control in the moment. By focusing on what is real in the moment and what she really needs to do in the moment instead of allowing herself to get sucked into a negative spiral of everything that has gone wrong over the past 20 years of her life (because that is where it always ended up), she put down the storytelling pen and got things accomplished.
“Things do not change; we change.” (Henry David Thoreau)
5. She changed her self-talk.
This is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do to move yourself from powerless to powerful. What you tell yourself, is what you believe; and what you believe, you become. End of discussion. So, what are constantly telling yourself? It is probably mostly negative, criticizing, and not serving you (not to mention, mostly lies).
My friend had some of the most destructive self-talk I have ever seen. It was absolutely debilitating at times…and she created it all! That’s how self-talk works! YOU create it all. YOU are the author. YOU write the script.
If anyone else ever talked to us the way that we talk to ourselves in our own heads, there would be a fight! Most people would never say those things to a friend and they certainly would not accept someone else saying the same words to them. Yet WE knock our own self-esteem constantly by sucking at self-talk.
The way I helped my friend change that has worked wonders. Here is what we did. We named the negative a-hole of a voice in her head ‘Herman’ (neither of us have any idea where that name came from). Anytime berating or negative self-talk came into her head, she had to stop and think to herself, ‘OK, Herman, I don’t have time for you right now, I’m doing something” or “Herman, shut up” or “Herman, I don’t agree with you.”
This exercise made her do two things; first, begin separating that voice from her own more supportive voice and, two, begin to stand up for herself, something she had never done before.
When you are faced with self-talk that is holding you down, you will not move forward. You are your biggest critic, even when things are going well. That is not helpful. By learning to recognize what type of self-talk is helpful and what type of self-talk is absolute crap, you can begin to manage the conversation in your head. You can rewrite the script. Once you realize that you are the author of it all, you become empowered to edit and re-write when necessary to move forward.
“Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” (attributed to Tony Robbins)
While this six month process was not easy, the shifts were simple. By becoming more self-aware, paying attention to her thoughts, and creating more action based on her choices instead of someone else’s changed her forever. Why? Because these shifts changed her perceived ability of herself. Once she started doing things instead of just thinking about things, she began accomplishing things…quickly and easily. Things that had been on the proverbial “to-do” and “should-do” lists for months were checked off within hours. The feelings of failure and incompetence turned instantly into feelings of capability and triumph.
It is nobody’s job to believe in you; that is YOUR job. The quicker you take ownership of that and begin implementing these five skill sets, the faster you will become a role model to yourself and countless others who will see in you who they strive to be.