Following the spark of curiosity

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #131

In August last year when I was on the edge or in burnout, everything felt like too much. I wanted to do fun things that interested me,  but I just had no mental space for anything except the bare minimum (which was pretty much only work). I realised this week that in the last months I’m starting to find more joy again in extra activities, like boxing, and helping colleagues who are performing the gender scan in our organisation, and of course writing…

I want to stop and appreciate how far I’ve come and how much better I feel, especially since there were moments when I deeply feared I would never feel like I had energy again. It’s not perfect, I still experience nights where I lie awake too long or anxious mornings, but I feel like by being more mindful of self-care, I’ve managed to carve out some space for the things that I enjoy or spark my curiosity. These activities do take some energy, but in return they also give me satisfaction and a feeling of contributing with my input and voice to a slightly lighter and more joyful world.

What migraines are teaching me

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #125

I am grateful for migraines. This may seem like a very strange thing to be grateful for considering the extreme pain they bring, leaving me writhing in my bed, eyes closed against the slightest ray of light, each sound magnified, my brain banging incessantly against my skull. You would probably never hear me saying this while I’m in the throes of an actual migraine, but now safely on the other side of a recent one, I can appreciate how migraines are teaching me to respect my limits. To accept what I cannot control. To reset my overachiever expectations of what I should be able to endure and instead practise (again and again) being kind to myself.

In the (not-so-distant) past, I used to resist the migraine, then wish for it to disappear as soon as possible so I could go straight back out into the world. Recently, I’ve decided that the strategy of walking shaky-legged, weak and raw right back into the day to day grind doesn’t work for me, and I believe this reflex has been exhausting me over time. So I’m experimenting with allowing myself a day to recover after the tsunami of the migraine, to rest at home with no obligations. It gives me time to simply rest, find my footing and my appetite again and gather my strength, so I can go back into the world with more appreciation and vitality.

I realise this is not a possibility for everyone, and that I am very privileged to be in a situation where I can take paid sick leave and take time to recover.  However the reason this is a turning point for me is that for many years I believed that to-dos and other tasks had priority. I feared I may be letting people down by taking the proper time I need to get better.  But it turns out that putting my self-care first hasn’t caused the world to stop turning in any way, and I hope this might inspire others to push themselves a little less hard when possible, in order to be more resilient in the long run.

Getting my energy back

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #117

This is the season where the hours of daylight get ever so slightly longer after the long Dutch winter.  I’m slightly confused and happily surprised to find it’s not dark at 5pm.  As the days start to get longer, I’m also noticing my energy levels are gradually getting better after many months of struggling with burnout and a sense of constant exhaustion.

So what has changed? I’ve rested, a lot, taking it very easy over the last months.  But also I’m much more aware of what I need, I’m not pushing forward like a robot as much as I used to. In the mornings, I stop to think whether I feel like cycling to work through the hectic city center or whether I feel like choosing the confort of the tram where I can read, look out the window or write my morning pages.  I’m trying to spend less energy worrying about how things will go. I’m saying NO to things that I think will take more energy than I feel I have available, and YES to creative things that make my heart sing or open new horizons.

It’s not perfect, I still get the occasional headache if I don’t give myself a break on time or feel totally drained after a long day… But on the whole I’m putting more regular deposits into my energy bank, doing more things that are good for me and less SHOULDS and I can feel the difference. I’m grateful that the steps I am taking towards healing are bearing their fruits.

A step back to reflect

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #104

Today marks 2 years of writing weekly about JOYFUL GRATITUDE, so like last year I am taking a step back to reflect a little on this practice. 

Writing the weekly post has the benefit of bringing me joy by re-living the moment and exploring what it was exactly that delighted me. Recognising those special moments helps to consciously create more of them in the busy day to day rush.  

I’d like to bring up one point however. It may seem when reading the weekly posts like everything is always rosy, as I focus on the good times, creating something  that may seem like a mismatch between real life and my tone here. In reality, I am struggling like everyone. Though I realise I am very privileged, I must still work hard to find mental balance and peace.

This weekly practice is an exercise in training my mind to zoom in on the positive, big and small things that bring me gratitude. Like everyone I struggle with bad moods, fear and doubt, but there is also a wise voice in me, like in all of us, and I trust that by writing regularly here, this voice is somehow guiding me step by step. I am deeply grateful for this voice tapping into a deep pool of wisdom somewhere beneath the surface:)

When having a quick look at the main themes that came up over the last year, there were no surprises. The top 3 can be categorised like this:
     1. Nature / Outdoors / Plants
     2. Quiet time / Reflection
     3. Mindfulness / Self-care

So that’s where I’ll continue to focus on the coming months:) Tell me, what will your focus be?

Mental cane toad invasion

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‘Swallow your frogs’ is a tip found in many articles about how to be efficient, meaning you should tackle the important task that you are dreading the most as soon as you start work in order to have the satisfaction of having tricked procrastination and achieved something concrete that you can proceed to cross off your to-do list.  I’ve often followed that advice and generally it works for me.

However, in the past few months, I’ve been struggling with stress and exhaustion.  I realised that a great deal of the tasks I needed to do at work daily had turned into ‘frogs’.  I kept hoping that the frogs linked to my job position would eventually turn into princes, or at least become more manageable as I gained experience, but they didn’t and I felt more and more overwhelmed.

The frogs were also following me home, in the evenings I couldn’t switch off the constant croaking of all the work thoughts and worries going on in my head and I sometimes lay awake at night. I found it increasingly hard to focus and make any type of decision, big or small, and anxiety started rearing its head. Things that previously I considered routine tasks now felt complex and inachievable. It was like my mind was being overtaken by a cane toad invasion.

For those not familiar with the cane toad, it is a species that was introduced in Australia in the 1930s in an attempt to eradicate pests in sugar cane fields, but instead became a pest itself because its venom kills any animal that attemps to eat it, meaning it has no natural predators.  Over the years, it has multiplied and is upstoppably making its way across the whole of Australia doing devastating damage to local ecosystems.

The cane toads of my mind were advancing beyond my boundaries, feasting off long meetings, stress, incessant skype messages and other notifications, frustrations and extreme self-doubt.  Though I did my best to regularly practice mindfulness, breathe and take care of myself, it was like those efforts were native marsupials being wiped out by the cane toads.

So after pushing myself for several months to continue working, while attempting to cover up the shame of being less efficient and struggling to beat the evil cane toads in my mind, I’ve decided to take time out to recover.  I’m not entirely sure how I will transform the cane toads back to frogs or even into cuddly koalas, I am going to figure it out step by step over the next weeks and months. For now rest and self-care are my priority.

*****

By the way, I don’t know what species the animal in the photo is. It was taken in Thailand, I’d love to know more about it if anyone knows:)

Self-care checklist

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A simple checklist to remind me of the basics today, and every day:

  • Breathe.
  • Take a few minutes to check in with yourself.
  • Loosen your jaw. Puff up your cheeks like a blowfish.
  • Listen to your body (Are you thirsty? Do you need to pee? Do you need to stretch? Do those things now)
  • Remember everyone struggles with the same questions and fears. You are not alone.
  • Take your eyes away from the screen, look out the window for a few minutes (really LOOK out the window. What do you see?)
  • Be gentle to yourself (What would you say to your little sister if she were in this situation? Say it to yourself.).
  • Put things into perspective (Will this be of any importance whatsoever in a month or a year’s time?).
  • Be ok with not feeling ok. Emotions come and go like waves.
  • Go for a breather or a quick walk outside.
  • Remember: you are enough.
  • Breathe.

What do you have on your list?

Meditating in the morning

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #91

At the beginning of this year, I followed a mindfulness course for eight weeks and thanks to the accountability of my fellow class mates I managed to make time to meditate daily for a few months. I tried my best to keep up these good habits afterwards, but little by little the habit slipped and I was not as regular in my practice.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve reminded myself of the benefits regular meditation had and I’ve been consciously making more of an effort to take those ten or fifteen minutes in the morning to calm my mind and come back to myself.  I’m grateful that I can dedicate time to my self-care before heading off into the busy world, so I can be more present to what is going on in and around me.

Rooftop yoga

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #78

On Tuesday I got up a little earlier than usual to join a yoga session organised by a colleague on the rooftop of our office before starting work. I count this as one of my favorite yoga lessons of all times! It was wonderful to be outdoors in the sunshine, overlooking the city, and I entered my work day feeling so much more relaxed and grounded than usual.

As our office is just next to Amsterdam Central station, our rooftop is not the quietest of locations, but actually the screeching of the train brakes on the railway tracks and the sound of traffic driving below contributed to the unique atmosphere.  The nudge of the gentle breeze helped me to push through the discomfort of the downward-facing dogs,  and it was pure pleasure to feel the sun warming my skin as we stretched.

While in warrior pose, focussing on the horizon over the the river Ij towards the North and then looking over rooftops and church spires towards the South, I felt intense gratitude that I get to live in this beautiful city.

Not listening to the ‘shoulds’

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February in Amsterdam has been sunny but relentlessly cold.  Typically on the weekend I have a lot of ‘shoulds’ popping up, like ‘I should go out for a long walk to get fresh air’ and ‘I should make the most of the sun to take some photos’…  Most of the time that works for me and being outdoors makes me feel great. However in these days the winter now feels like it is dragging on. Despite the days getting longer, the cold feels excruciating and my fingers ache in the freezing air as I try to snap pictures.  So I decided to give myself a break and make it a weekend for lying on the couch with the sun pouring through the window, reading an easy thriller uninterrupted for several hours, and for enjoying fun conversations over a lengthy delicious brunch in a warm cafe. It was perfect!

How-to for a day of extreme self-care

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  1. Make sure to have no plans whatsoever. Nothing on the agenda. No-one to meet with.
  2. Go for a walk after breakfast. Soak up the rays of winter sun, stock up on precious vitamine D. Breathe in the fresh air. Enjoy exploring the familiar paths of your neighbourhood.
  3. Look for some nice plants to photograph. Feel your fingers get cold as you take pictures without gloves on.
  4. Pass by the little free library down the road. Pick up a book or two that catch your fancy.
  5. When it starts raining, rush home.  Enjoy the excuse to stay indoors. Use the quiet time to journal and process your thoughts. Listen to the voice of your intuition.
  6. Spend the rest of the afternoon reading peacefully on the sofa while sipping fresh ginger tea.
  7. Have a delicious dinner of left-overs.
  8. Read some more.
  9. Go to sleep early.
  10. Repeat:)

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