Red Light, Yellow Light: Paying Attention to What You’re Trying to Tell Yourself

by Annie

in brain hacks, ruthless productivity, the healthy solo

SOS in Letters and Morse Code in Lipstick on White BackgroundYour body is trying to tell you something. And I’m willing to bet you won’t listen until your body makes you listen, usually by breaking down spectacularly just when you need it the most.

Why am I willing to make that bet? ‘Cause I am you, my friend. And we Couch Warriors — we solo biz peeps, rock star freelancers, webtronic entrepreneurs — we just keep barrelin’ on down the highway of Way Too Much to Do at Autobahn speeds. Damn the torpedos — gotta make bank/a difference/a freaking DENT in the universe….

Right?

Yep.

OK, now, deep breath. Inhale. Exhaaaaale. Phew.

Doesn’t that feel better?

Do it again. (Yes, I mean it. Right now. S’OK, I’ll wait…)

Even better, right?

Why does something as simple as a mindful breath make such an immediate positive impact on your sense of well-being?

Probably because breathing? You’re not doin’ it right.  Or often enough. Or mindfully enough. Or all three. Along with a whole host of other signals, that tendency to breathe incorrectly (too shallowly, not enough, etc.) is trying to tell you something.

So, you just sit there and keep on with the breathing thing, while I ramble on a bit, because, boy howdy, do I have a few dozen things to say on the subject . . .

How I Killed a Career

This is not a pretty story. And as I sit down to write this, even now, I’m not sure how much of this story I’m willing to share right now. Bear with me.

Five years or so ago, I was a lawyer. From most outwardly-apparent measures of success, I was successful. I was making a decent salary. I was married to someone I considered my best friend. I had a gorgeous daughter. I owned a home. I lived near my mother, to whom I’d always been blessedly close.

And 48 24 months later, I was:

  • on the verge of divorce
  • orphaned at the age of 42
  • completely broke
  • coping with a broken-down body
  • evicted
  • facing disbarment

What happened in those 48 24 months is probably enough material to fill a book, and I don’t want to simplify it here. So rather than skim superficially over the details, let me just say this:

I was my own undoing. 

A chain of events that I had no control over swept me down this spiral, to be sure. I couldn’t control my mother’s cancer. I couldn’t control my own body’s degeneration. I couldn’t even really control the dissolution of my marriage.

But I could control how I dealt with all these things. And here’s the role model I chose:

Closeup image of ostrich head

Yep. I played ostrich.

I ignored all the signals my own body was trying so freaking hard to send me. And as the signals grew louder and more obvious, I stuck my head in the sand even deeper.

“Nope, nothing going on here,” I’d cheerfully declaim, as life fell apart all around me.

And, as was inevitable, eventually I woke up one day and I could no longer ignore what was happening. That triggered one of the deepest and longest periods of self-evaluation and inner “work” I’ve ever undertaken. And now, well after the fact, I can say this with certainty:

I knew.

I knew hell was right around the corner. I knew things were about to get very, very bad. True, I didn’t know this in my conscious brain, but I had plenty of signals. And if I’d been a little less tied to my ego (“No, no, I can take care of it myself!”) and a little more open to the possibility of asking for and receiving help, this story might have had a very different ending.

How did I know? ‘Cause my body and my mind and my spirit were doing their level best to TELL me. Those parts of myself knew danger was imminent much sooner than Conscious Brain did.

Had I been paying attention and been in a space of willingness to really listen, here’s what I would have heard/seen/known:

  • I hadn’t slept more than 2 hours at a stretch in over a year, and hadn’t slept more than 5 hours total in a night in six months.
  • My chronic pain (which I’ve had since 1999) had changed dramatically. New places were hurting and old places were hurting in new ways. My left leg would just completely give out on occasion — dead weight, totally useless. Sudden paralysis? Yeah, I’d call that a big clue….
  • I was making stupid, silly mistakes. I’d be listening to a client on the phone confirming a date and time for a meeting, and writing the information down at the same time, and somewhere between the phone and the hand, the information changed radically. Even simple math was confounding to me. I’d stare at my checkbook and its dwindling balance, and know I had to subtract one figure from the other … but I couldn’t do it. I’d just stare at it for five minutes, then shrug and fire up the calculator app.
  • My normally sunny and optimistic disposition had vanished. Instead, I coped with a low-level, pervasive anxiety and a perpetual case of the crankies.

I wanted so badly to fix all this, once I realized what was going on. But it was too late to fix anything for me.

I’m hoping it’s not too late for you. And that’s why I’m writing this.

Danger, Danger: Red-Light Signals

Your body is trying to tell you something. Are you listening to it? Or are you, as I was, playing ostrich and pretending everything’s hunky-dory?

This is, by the way, my biggest beef with the whole “Law of Attraction” thing. Sure, be positive, think positive, expect good stuff … but when you wrap yourself up like a burrito in happy thoughts and refuse to see what’s going on around you, I can guarantee you good stuff is NOT what’s likely to result … Anyhoo.

Your signals may look like mine, or they may look very different. However, I’ve made something of a study of this phenomenon and here’s what I can share: for most folks, the defining trigger is change that isn’t explained by illness.

Changes in Sleep Patterns

Your sleep patterns are, I believe, the bellwether of your general physical health. If you’re not sleeping well, or if there’s been a change in your sleep patterns — say, you’re suddenly waking up a lot more like I did, or you can’t get back to sleep where you used to do so easily — pay attention.

Rule out any physical issues first, of course, but then (and also) start looking at your life. Is something off? Are you maybe trying to force round-peg you into that square-hole business deal? Is a relationship in trouble?

Sleep is crucial, guys. And it’s no wonder that during my catastrophic failure I became stupid. There’s a reason some countries use sleep deprivation as a torture method: IT WORKS. You will do/say/agree to ANYTHING when you haven’t had sufficient sleep. Don’t take my word for it — go ask any parent of a 3-month-old baby.

Changes in Moods

Now, we all cycle through a number of moods in any given day. Hell, it’s 8 AM as I draft this and I’ve gone through at least five since getting up at 4:25 AM.

But we also have a default position — a general fall-back mood, if you will. Mine is that annoying sunny optimism I wrote about above. My daughter’s is a strange one — serenely sardonic.

If that default mood is changing — if you’re constantly living in a mild crankiness, for instance, or you’re suddenly feeling a little manic — again, this could be a symptom of a serious physical problem.

It could also be a symptom of a metaphysical crisis.

Either way, pay attention.

Changes in Relationships

This one’s hard. Hard to deal with, yes, but also hard to spot in the first place. Every relationship is going to go through periods of change. Friends fall out of touch, marriages hit rough patches … I’m not talking about those kinds of changes. I’m talking about changes in how you relate to people.

And those are insidiously tricky to identify. When I was going through the Mother of All Failures, I apparently stopped talking to friends. I mean, we talked but I never told anyone what was going on. Apparently.

I say “apparently” because I have no recollection of this. Yet more than one person has pointed it out to me.

“How are things?” they’d ask cautiously (’cause the people in our lives are often able to spot the problems much faster than we are). “Great!” I’d enthuse, while staring at the wreckage of a house that hadn’t been cleaned in a month.

If you normally talk about problems with a friend or loved one, and then suddenly find yourself staying silent, that’s a big clue that something serious is going down. We do it for the best of reasons, mind you. We don’t want to worry others. We want to be self-sufficient, to solve our own shit, to muck out our own stalls, so to speak. But nevertheless, we need people in our lives. People we can share the burden with. And if you’ve got those people, but you’re not sharing, then it’s time to sit down and get real with yourself, at least.

The Antidote to Not-Listening: The Check-In

We’re all susceptible to ignoring the crap in our lives. If you get nothing else out of this, let that one sink in: it can totally happen to you.  Had I just known that one thing — that I, too, was capable of such massive self-delusion — things might have turned out very differently.

Then again, maybe not. But at least I’d have had a shot at stepping in, stepping up, much sooner than I did. At least I’d now be able to say “I did everything I could.” And there is incredible power and peace in being able to say that, my friends.

The single most effective way to heed these inner signals on a timely basis is to simply stop everything from time to time and check in with yourself. 

Stare intently into your metaphorical mirror and ask yourself the hard questions:

  1. What’s really going on here?
  2. How do I feel?
  3. Where in my body do I feel “off” — unaligned — tense — painful?
  4. What am I ignoring?
  5. Am I sleeping well?
  6. Am I eating well?
  7. Am I getting a little exercise every day? Is it enough? Do I need more? Less? Something different?
  8. How are my relationships? Am I protecting people from the truth?

And then you have to stay quiet for awhile and wait for the answers.

Sometimes, those answers will be obvious and instant. They’ll be the metaphysical equivalent of a cosmic two-by-four impacting solidly upside your head. You will see stars and hear bells.

Other times, those answers will come slipping in stealthily like a black cat on navy blue shag carpet. You will not see them coming. But little by little, if you keep checking in and waiting for answers, they will come. They will hop up on your lap and purr loudly, and then you’ll be able to call them by name and deal with ‘em.

Then there are the stubborn little fuckers. You will have to dig deep for these guys. It will take paper and pen, or a text editor, and a lot of free-association stream-of-consciousness writing to get them to announce themselves to your conscious brain. It might even take therapy. If it does, it does. Embrace it and dive into that process for all you’re worth. Shrug off your outdated beliefs that you “should” be able to handle this all by yourself. Instead, grasp that therapist’s hand like you’re drowning and she’s pulling you to shore.

Because this I can promise you: it doesn’t matter how you get the answers. It only matters that you get them and that you act on them.

Your Homework

If you’ve already started logging your days, as suggested here, then you’re half-way there. Now, try adding in a short ten-minute check-in, using the eight questions above as a starting point.

You can also add little mini-check-ins, 1 minute or so, throughout the day. Check your posture — are your shoulders back and relaxed or hunched up around your ears? Run a little mental scan down your body — notice any physical pain or discomfort anywhere? And how are you feeling? Calm, centered? Or anxious and finding it hard to concentrate?

You can then take a minute to adjust accordingly, but even if you don’t change a thing, just the awareness of the signal can work wonders on some deep woo-woo mystical level.

(Hey, I don’t pretend to have all the answers…)

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lora October 12, 2011 at 6:15 pm

OMG … you could be talking about me. I knew something was “not right”, but I didn’t want to deal with the real issues. (Had the full time vacation package beach side on the river denial.) It took a complete body break down for me to stop and care for me first.

Don’t knock the woo-woo mystical stuff. Every time I don’t listen deep, I end up ass deep in alligators. It takes work to find that hum, the drum, the song that connects you. I forgot/forget that it takes practice to maintain that connection.

I love your suggestion to add those questions to your Snipe Hunting Plan. For those, that it seems “too much” to do all the questions. Pick the one that makes you the most uncomfortable. Just focus on that one for the day. Then move or add the next one.

Lora

Reply

Annie October 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Oh Lora, I love you, mostly for this: “ass deep in alligators.” I am totally going to use that in a few sentences today. Yes. It takes WORK, dammit. I wish it did not, but there it is. And your suggestion is awesome. Better to do a little than none. And sometimes that one question is all we need, anyway. Rock on, amiga.

Reply

Becky October 16, 2011 at 5:01 am

When my personal life imploded I turned to mindfulness to get me through. I think it saved me from complete meltdown. You’re right – it’s important to check in with ourselves and do some damage limitation before the bigger signals set in. Thanks for sharing your experiences Annie.

Reply

Annie October 18, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Hey Becky! You are very welcome. Opening up like this would scare the (pajama) pants off anybody, and I’m no exception. It’s so awesome to hear that it resonates with others. Mindfulness is life-changing, I believe. I wrote another post about it here – http://pajamaproductivity.com/on-mindfulness/ – if you’re interested, would love your thoughts on it!

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