How to build a content dashboard

A content dashboard is a central place for doing all the things you, or your team, need to do to work with content.

Ideally, a content dashboard is a simple as possible.

A complex interface often creates more options than you need. Simple decisions and tasks become more complicated and effort-filled than necessary. The result is inefficiency and frustration.

Of course, a content dashboard that can’t do what you need it to do is equally frustrating. That’s probably what you’re dealing with now, and why an article about building a content dashboard drew your attention. “Ah,” you think, “This is the way to solve the frustration of not having everything in one place, of feeling behind, feeling like I don’t have a big picture, feeling like I spend more time figuring out how to do the work than actually doing the work.”

A content dashboard may help solve the issues that contribute to those feelings. It’s certainly helped me.

But realize that clarity is the foundational need. You can build a stellar content dashboard and still feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Clarity first. Goals second. Action third.

What do you do with content?

Before you can picture (or build) the kind of content dashboard you need, you need to know exactly what you’re doing with content.

Here’s what I do with content, more or less.

1. Planning
2. Creating
3. Managing
4. Promoting
5. Assessing
6. Maintaining
7. Expanding

Your process may be slightly different. Before you can picture the content dashboard that will serve you well, define your content process. Name the stages of your content workflow, the big-picture moves.

You don’t have to break down all the steps you (or someone) will take in, say, the Creating stage (research, outline, draft, edit, revise, create assets, work with design, proofread, etc.). When you do that, your big-picture becomes a zoomed-in, detail-filled focal point and you lose sight of the whole process. At the right time, that’s appropriate! But now is not the right time.

When you’re trying to picture and build a content dashboard, you need the big-picture view of your content workflow.

Think of stages, rather than steps.

What you need in a content dashboard

Now that you know the stages of your content workflow, you’re ready to think about what your content dashboard can do—or should do—for you.

Here’s the important thing to remember: a content dashboard does not need to have all the features necessary to do the work of each content stage.

The content dashboard needs to be capable of three things:

Tracking: Show you (and others on your team) where each project or assignment is, which stage it’s in, and how far along it is in that particular stage. I call this tracking. It’s kind of like scheduling, but with more flexibility. The emphasis isn’t on getting a certain task done at a certain time, but on forward movement: following a natural flow, enabling autonomy, and working efficiently.

Sharing: Make it easy for you (and others on your team) to access what they need for each stage and, if possible, for each step or task within that stage. It’s resource and information sharing: what is needed to complete the next task? Here it is. What’s shared could be a link, a document, a draft, a checklist, a discussion, etc.

Logging: Hold notes or some other record that shows what’s been done (and, preferably, when and by whom). It’s the way you ensure that completed means completed. It helps you notice what isn’t working (inconsistencies, inefficiencies, frequent errors) and what is working (ideas, improvements, follow-up notes, themes).

If you’re a solo creator, it’s easy to settle for a content dashboard that works for you and you alone. I think that’s a mistake.

Here’s why.

First, we tend to tolerate our own disorganization and procrastination far more than we should. If you wouldn’t work “this way” in a team, or when a client is watching, why force yourself to work that way anytime?

Second, we tend to discount the value of systems and defined processes for solo work. That often means we end up working inefficiently, feeling frustrated, and thinking that it’s all our fault.

In a sense, it is: we are being too hard on ourselves.

We aren’t giving ourselves the tools and information we need to do the work we want to do. However, we think our failure is all our fault in a much deeper, more detrimental sense: that we’re flawed, somehow. That we’re incapable. That we’re unqualified imposters, and the only answer is to work harder, work longer, do more, suffer more, and try to keep our shit together long enough to reach some mythical productivity castle-on-a-hill in which all secrets will be revealed, efficiency enlightenment will rain upon us, our self-doubt will dry up, and we will finally know that we are good enough to do the work we want to do.

If any of that rings true for you, here is the somewhat harsh but freeing realization you might need: the only castle on a hill you’ll reach is the one you’re building, right now. Build it out of poor materials, with a haphazard plan, frustration, bad timing, and undefined standards and you’ll get a junk pile. You don’t want that. You don’t have to settle for that. In order not to end up with a junk pile, you need to see the value in doing things right, right now, even if you’re the only one who knows about it.

Doing things right does not mean delaying the real work so you can test out a hundred tools, play on fifty different platforms, and waste your time fiddling with overly complex systems. That’s why it’s important to define the work you actually do, the stages of it, before you start building a content dashboard. Define what you need so you can picture what you need. Then you’ll be able to identify the right materials and build the thing.

How to build your content dashboard

Here’s the step-by-step breakdown.

1. Identify the stages of your content workflow.

Don’t worry about naming all the steps or defining the purpose for each stage, or otherwise getting lost in details. Just name the stages. Maybe there’s only one stage. Maybe three. Maybe eleven. List them.

2. Think about the tracking, sharing, and logging that you want for each stage of your content workflow.

What kind of files do you share? How much information moves back and forth? How does it all have to work, for it to keep working? What can change? From this thinking, list the essential features that a content dashboard needs to work for you.

Here’s my list:

  • file and image uploading
  • notes with formatted text (essential for links and identifying the key information)
  • a way to discuss or share notes, ideas, comments, questions
  • labeling, tagging, or other organizational method to sort various projects/assignments, and to identify which stage each one is in
  • available and synced on my laptop and phone/ipad
  • usable offline
  • ability to back up data (automated if possible)

I have some other features on my list, too, as “preferred” but not necessary.

Now that you know precisely what you need from a content dashboard, you can find a tool that fits. There are many. You can sort through them however you want, just beware of the infinite nature of this pursuit. Give yourself a time limit, and honor it.

You could dedicate an hour to researching tools, pick your top three, and then start a trial for each one. Use one for a day or so, then the next, and so on. At the end of the week, pick the one that is easiest to use.

As far as setting up your content dashboard, don’t.

Instead, just start using it.

You’re going to change your initial configuration anyway. Skip the part where you try to guess what your ultimate setup will be and dive in.

Start using it.

Input the information you need as you need it. Put things in place, and move them around. Don’t become loyal to any element of your organization, which will happen if you’ve invested time and energy into a particular setup. Become loyal, instead, to making it easy to do good work. Follow that trail, and you’ll find a setup that may not be obvious but will actually work.

Our systems are always in flux, so there is no perfect system, ever. But smart use of systems, like a content dashboard, can make your work more efficient and easier. It’s a really nice feeling to have a system you use and can trust. It frees your brain from detail chasing and email answering, and gets you back to creative thinking and making. Have fun.

Photo by Ola Syrocka on Unsplash

Never start with goals; start with clarity

All confusion comes from lack of clarity.

Confusion itself doesn’t present a threat, or give us pain, necessarily, but it does make us aware of potential pain.

Complexity is fine. Avoiding complexity just because and idolizing simplicity just because isn’t wise; it’s naïve.

There’s nothing truly simple in the universe we inhabit.

We keep trying to distill complex things to their simplest essence, and the damned things erupt into more complexity. We find, in our quest for simplicity, that we can go infinitely outward or infinitely inward, and find ever unfolding layers and levels and patterns and overlaps and pieces and connections and dependencies and always movement, always change.

The quest for simplicity is a futile one, if we’re honest.

Also, if we’re honest, we don’t really want simplicity, if by simplicity we mean fewer options.

What we want is clarity: clarity lets us scan all the options, and find the few that are important right now. Clarity lets us wade through the noise and hear the signal.

The problem isn’t too much noise. The problem is that, without clarity, we don’t recognize the signal when we hear it. We don’t know what we want, what we’re after, so we can’t find it. It may be right in front of us (usually it is). But until we have clarity, we can’t tune in. We’re twirling the dial, hearing the static, hearing the noise, and trying to define the signal while we search for it.

It’s like trying to tune a flute while you’re playing the flute. You can’t do it. The nature of the first activity—tuning—necessarily interrupts the other activity.

It’s the same when we try to find the signal while we’re still figuring out what the signal is. Until you know what you’re listening for, how do you know when you hear it?

I’ve worked with many clients who don’t quite know what they want from their content marketing.

They know they need content. They know they’re supposed to be creating it, lots of it. They know they’re supposed to market with content, somehow? Right? And they know that the content should be related to their business, and helpful to their customers, and, you know, not crap.

They usually have a content goal like

  • increase website traffic by X%
  • increase conversion rate by Z%
  • get better search rankings for XYZ keywords/topics
  • get more list subscribers
  • make more sales
  • increase readership
  • establish expertise  in XYZ topic/area
  • get backlinks.

All of those things are fine, and can be specific, measurable, achievable. In other words, they can fit the “right definition” of a SMART goal.

But that doesn’t mean there’s clarity.

Clarity is the WHY that supports your goals.

Clarity gives you the reason to keep working toward your goal when the initial motivation’s gone, your energy is low, and you keep hitting obstacles.

If you don’t have clarity, you’ll start second guessing your goals. You might second guess them even with clarity. But having clarity will bring you back, help you remember WHY the goal matters to you.

If it doesn’t matter to you, why put yourself through pain to achieve it?

And let’s be honest: reaching a goal—any worthy goal— will bring some pain into your life. A worthy goal is one that stretches you, pushes you, expands your reality in some way. In order to reach the goal, you have to become more than you are now. You have to venture into unknown territory. You have to change something about yourself, your choices, and/or your behaviors to reach new places, to create new results. There’s going to be some pain involved.

This is true of both personal and professional goals.

Goals aren’t a good starting point.

Goals are what you define after you sit still and quiet long enough to get clarity, to answer your own question: WHY?

WHY am I putting effort into this area? WHY do I want to change what’s happening? WHY do I want different results? WHY do I want something other than what I already have?

One WHY leads to another WHY which leads to another WHY. It’s a trail that takes some time to follow.

Don’t rush it.

If you walk the clarity trail long enough, you may find a shortcut. No, not a shortcut to clarity, but a shortcut to getting whatever it is you really want.

Sometimes the goals are distractions. Sometimes they’re goals that sound good, look good, and make us feel good. We pick goals we can justify, goals that make us feel more like the kind of people we want to be.

That’s all well and good if the goals line up with what we’re really after, with the big WHY underlying all our choices and actions. If the goals don’t line up, though, we’re either wasting our time or … Well, we’re wasting our time.

We may burn out before reaching the goal because deep down we know it doesn’t really matter. Or we may reach the goal because we’re good at self-discipline, but reaching the goal won’t give us what we want, sooo… it still doesn’t really matter.

I don’t know about you, but I do not like wasting my time. I do not like spending my energy on meaningless pursuits, no matter how good they sound or how much my ego lights up at the idea of having a new “braggable” achievement.

Clarity is hard to get to because it requires gut-level, ego-free, childlike honesty.

We have all these internal filters that keep us from operating in that kind of honesty. Oh, we’re honest people, mostly. I’m as honest with you as I can be. The limit of my honesty with you is this: how honest am I being with myself?

I can’t be honest with you about something when I’m refusing to be honest with myself about it.

Honesty with self is the real challenge. Clarity requires some good old-fashioned sit-still-and-think time because most of us are not in the habit of being truly freely perfectly unfiltered and honest with ourselves.

So that’s our challenge. It’s a tough one for those of us who value things like efficiency and productivity and who are Type-A overachievers. (Hands up! I see you.)

Let’s remember that effectiveness is as important as efficiency. Let’s take time to be still. Let’s give ourselves time and space to get to the why, the underlying answer, the real motivation.

Clarity first. Goals second. Action third.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

5 essentials for every freelancer

You can get clients and make money as a freelancer without these five things. But having these will make it much easier.

I’m writing this both as a freelancer (18 years and counting) and as someone who frequently hires freelancers (for my own projects and for client work).

1: Your own (owned) space on the Interwebs

You need a website. Your own.


Please make one. Please have one. Please put all your freelance stuff on it and please, pretty please, stop sending me to your Linkedin profile because you don’t have a website.

I want to know more about you than Linkedin will tell me. And I don’t want to have to run around the worldwide web to find it.  Yes, I’m going to search your name and check out your online reputation. But I don’t want to have to visit five different sites to learn the basics of your expertise and how you might be able to help me.

As a freelancer, here’s why you want your own space:

  • You can decide what’s most important about you as a freelance service provider, and highlight it the way you want. Maybe you don’t your Harry Potter fan fic to be the third thing that potential clients find about you. However, if you’re depending on your Linkedin profile and some scattered clips to be your ‘professional online presence,’ you don’t get to control what people find. And trust me: they’ll look, and they will find.
  • You can filter all the potential clients and focus on the ones who are the best fit. You do this by clearly stating your core services. You weed out the people who want something you don’t offer.
  • You can keep track of all the work you’ve done, in one place. It’s quick and easy to share a webpage with a list of your best clips. It’s time-consuming and frustrating to recreate that list for every client query.
  • You can get more clients through the introductory funnel and into the part where they actually pay you. By providing clips, basic info, an easy way to learn more about you, and a contact method all in one place, potential clients are much more likely to become paying clients. They want to work with freelancers who are easy to work with; having all your important freelance info available in one place makes working with you easier for clients.
  • It also makes things easier for you! All the questions you answer for potential clients can become blog posts or pages on your website. Some clients will educate themselves. Others will still email and ask you, but now your answer is readily available: send them the link or copy-and-paste. Either way, you’ll be more consistent and you’ll be able to do this preliminary work faster and with less effort.

Here are some ways to get started:

  • WordPress. Use if you’re not tech savvy and want a quick, simple solution. Create a self-hosted WordPress site if you want to put a bit more effort and/or money into it. Not sure what those terms mean? Then you want to use, and perhaps hire someone (check Upwork or Fiverr) to help you do it. It’s a worthy investment.

WordPress is reliable and full-featured and it’s been around for a while. Yes, there are alternatives (Square, Wix, etc.) but these are babies compared to WP. Remember that many Internet-company-babies do not survive into adolescence.

  • There’s a cool upsurge of text-based website platforms, such as Blot and Small Victories. If you can create a Word document and save it in a folder, you can create a website. There also very affordable.

2: A biography, in several versions

Nobody really enjoys writing about themselves, but it’s an essential part of being a freelancer.

You’re meeting most people—potential clients, colleagues, collaborators, etc.—online, rather than in-person. You have to provide enough information to fill in the gaps that exist when we’re not physically present with someone.

The biographies you need:

  • A long version. This is the “full life history” version of your biography, but remember that the long version is still only a page or so. You’re still condensing to the most important information. Provide some personal background, then use that to lead into your professional education and development, career choices, work expertise and experience. Cap it with a summary of what you’re currently working on and offering. This is the biography that can live on your About page.
  • A short version. This is the ultra-condensed version. It’s similar to an elevator pitch — you could write it as an elevator pitch. It’s what you’ll send in when you submit a guest post. Pop it at the bottom of your newsletter or put it on your social media profiles. You’re going to drop most of your personal history. Focus on two to three important work achievements or areas of expertise. Add a briefer version of what you’re currently working on and offering.
  • Various tailored versions. When you need a bio for a specific use, you’re going to use your short version most of the time. Take 10 minutes to tailor it for every use. This is a quick and easy move, but it can make a big difference in how you appear to clients, readers, editors, etc. When tailoring your bio, consider these three things:
    • the expertise you want to emphasize,
    • the audience you want to reach,
    • the action you want to produce.

3: Your core services and rates

You don’t have to put these on your website. Many freelancers don’t publish their rates online (to my everlasting frustration).

But you should—at the least—have a list of your core services and the standard rates you charge for these services. Here’s mine, if you want to take a look.

Then, when you receive a client query—or want to pitch a new potential client—you have your services and rates ready to send.

Here are a few things to remember:

  • Your core services don’t have to be your only services. You can adapt, expand, and adjust to work with specific client needs. But your core services give you a starting point, and your rates help you to more accurately estimate what you’ll charge for specialized work.
  • Defining your core services helps you to focus and specialize. This is the fastest route to gaining a good reputation and a roster of repeating clients. If you’re a new freelancer, focus and specialize. Focus and specialize. Later, once you’ve established a reputation and have more completed work to show, you can expand in all sorts of directions.
  • Baseline rates: set a standard rate for each of your core services.
    • Generally, you need to make your baseline rates higher than you think they should be. Every now and then I come across a freelancer who has vastly overestimated the value of their services. But it’s rare. Far more common are freelancers who vastly underestimate the value of their services.
    • Avoid hourly rates. They limit your income-earning potential because they tie your income directly to your time. This is a trap. Avoid it. Per-service, per-deliverable, and per-project rates give you more flexibility. That said, I understand that some services are almost always based on hourly rates. Some freelance platforms (such as Upwork) are based on hourly rates. And maybe you’re cool with hourly rates. If hourly rates make sense for you, use them. Just understand that when you use hourly rates you are limiting your income-earning potential. If you are okay with this, cool. Personally, I am not okay with this, so I avoid hourly rates.
    • Raise your rates annually. Do it. It can be a small adjustment. It will add up to be a significant change over time, it will help you raise level of service you provide and are known for (from “average” or “new” to “expert and worth it”), and it will help you raise the quality of your clients.
    • Give discounts, but not pointlessly. Discounts are great, but don’t ever give a discount just because a client asks for one. Give a discount when there’s a good reason to give a discount:
      • When a client purchases a package rather than an individual service.
      • When a client contracts for multiple services or deliverables.
      • When a client wants to have an ongoing work agreement (an ideal situation for a freelancer, unless you really dislike the client).
      • When a client is providing extra resources or time or is contributing some other type of value.

4: Your No list

This is a simple but powerful list.

It can be known only to you. It is a list of the services you do not provide, the projects you do not take on, the work you will not do.

It will help you focus and specialize. It will raise your standing in the eyes of your clients, because saying no is something you can do only from a position of power. It’s not about being arrogant or unapproachable: it’s about knowing what you’re good at and what you want to offer. You’re the only one who has the right to make those determinations, so start making them.

If you’ve done a certain kind of project and absolutely hated every minute of it, put it on your no list. Use your brain, of course, and figure out what it was that is a No for you. Maybe it was just a needy client; in that case, it’s not the type of project you want to avoid, it’s a particular type of client.

Define what you will and will not accept. Define what you will and will not offer. Write it down, and stick to it.

If it feels aggressive or unhelpful to make your No list public, don’t. Keep it handy, where you glance at it daily and can refer to it as needed.

However, do consider that you can use a No list as a simple way to filter out the clients, jobs, and offers you don’t want. I’ve had a No list on my website for several years and a few of my favorite clients approached me specifically because of it: they liked my clarity and thought we would be a good fit. And they were right.

5: Proof of your skills

A general rule of thumb that I’m making up right now is this one:

  • For every core service you offer, have at least one proof of your ability.

If you’re providing expertise in a certain topic, prove your expertise with your writing or completed projects.

If you’re offering a specialized service, give me a way to see something similar that you’ve already completed.

The more advanced and expensive the service, the more proof you need to provide that you’re able to do the work and do it well.

You can also offer testimonials from clients as proof of your skills, but I consider those secondary. I don’t trust everybody’s judgment. Your Client X may have been super happy with your design work, but their standards may be way different than mine. Provide testimonials and positive feedback, sure! They are powerful. But also provide actual proof of the work you’ve done: links, screenshots, even written descriptions are powerful.

Of course, the best place for all this material is your website! Aren’t you glad you have one?

Photo by Richard Bagan on Unsplash

Personal growth for broke people

The article advised me to take a cold shower every morning as a way of increasing my willpower. And maybe helping me wake up.

There were steps:

  • Take your shower as normal.
  • Then slowly turn the temperature of the water down until it’s full-on cold.
  • Then stand there in the cold spray for 10 seconds.

Boom! Personal growth unlocked, plus (I hear) it’s good for your hair.

This cold shower advice is fine. It’s solid: expose yourself to some degree of discomfort, purposefully, and you develop more tolerance for discomfort.

I’ve seen it in a lot of self-discipline lists and good habit roundups.

It’s also funny.

It was to me, anyway, when I came across it. Funny because we’d moved across town, to a smaller, more affordable place, a couple of months previously. Funny because the new place didn’t have a water heater. Funny because we couldn’t afford to buy a water heater.

Funny because we’d all—me, my husband, our four kids—been taking cold showers daily, for weeks. Not as a personal growth effort, but as a necessary part of life on a barely-there budget.

Did we feel stronger, more powerful, more disciplined? Maybe a little. Mostly we just felt cold.

Personal growth is a weird topic.

I don’t like telling people I write about personal growth, because all-too-often “personal growth” writing is a swamp of wanna-be success advice, admonitions to hustle more, and trash listicles.

In there, though, you find real gems: people who are thinking, researching, trying, experimenting, looking deep, doing stuff, learning from what works and what doesn’t, and sharing their insights.

You also find lots of ways to spend money: courses, books, memberships, subscriptions, software, tools, premium apps, gear, retreats, and so on. That’s cool, too: many of those purchasable items are well worth the money.

But what if you don’t have any money?

What if your budget looks like pay the rent and buy the groceries and… that’s it?

When you are broke,❋ personal growth advice that assumes a certain amount of disposable income isn’t helpful. It can be harmful, in fact, leading you to believe that consciously developing yourself, your person, is a privilege reserved for the affluent.

It isn’t.

Personal growth, at its cold-water core, is nothing more than this:

  • Becoming aware of your self: your mindset, your thoughts, your mental and behavioral habits, your identity, your strengths and weaknesses, your fears and desires.
  • Seeking valid ways to change and improve various parts of your self: retraining behaviors, letting of limiting beliefs, adjusting habits, focusing on strengths, etc.
  • Consciously applying your awareness and your efforts to develop your current self into a different (better?) version of you, and doing that until the ‘improved version’ becomes the unconscious/baseline self, and then you get to start over again. This is the actual growth part of personal growth.

(And then there’s the built-in irony, when you learn that complete and radical self-acceptance is the best place to start for any sort of lasting internal growth, but that’s another story for another day.)

The purchasable tools and resources and whatnots available to help you in your pursuit of personal development are, for the most part, just that: helpful.

But they’re not necessary.

This is a reminder that a serious, focused, and effective pursuit of personal growth does not require money.

We don’t have to stick strictly to Maslow’s hierarchy. We don’t have to nail survival and comfort before we move on to self-actualization. In fact, the key to our continued evolution and collective growth may be to flip the pyramid.

What would happen if we saw self-actualization as the foundation for life at all economic levels?

Would chaos erupt? Would everything fall apart?

Or would we discover, perhaps, that survival is a shitty and unnecessary goal?

If we can choose awareness over fear, even when being broke has us by the throat, we might find the key to something bigger than personal growth.

We might also find the resources and ideas we need to get out of the scarcity cycles we got stuck in. I can give you no guarantees, but I can tell you this: it’s working for me.

And hey, if you’re already broke, what have you got to lose?

Part 1: becoming aware of your self

Creating awareness of your mindset, your thoughts, your mental and behavioral habits, your identity, your strengths and weaknesses, your fears and desires.

Awareness is the first step toward personal growth. And awareness of self is done by paying attention to what’s going on inside of your own head.

You don’t need money to do this. You need time, and you don’t need a lot of time. 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there. That’s enough.

When you’re walking, commuting, waiting for the bus, staying at home because you don’t have money to go out… These are the moments you can use.

Use them to pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings. That’s it. There are a few easy strategies you can use:

  • Meditation. Literally all you have to do to meditate is sit still and breathe. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. You don’t need an app, a coach, a special timer, a mat, music, anything. You don’t even have to sit. Walk. Stand. Lay down. Whatever. Try breathing deeper. Closing your eyes is helpful because it shuts out distractions, but if you need to stay aware of your external environment, no problem. Just pick a spot and focus your gaze on it. You’ll still have awareness of peripheral movements, but you can lock your gaze in on a single spot and focus inwardly instead of outwardly.
  • Journaling. Get a $1 notebook and whatever pen or pencil you can find. Journaling, like meditating, does not require any fancy tools or supplies. I have scribbled in the unused pages in the back of my kids’ school notebooks, on envelopes, on napkins, on any scrap paper I could find.
  • Speaking aloud. If you have the solitude, start saying out loud what’s going on in your heart and with your emotions. It will feel stupid at first, but it’s a great way to start noticing what those voices in your head say. They’re often saying ridiculous things, but we believe them without question until we notice. Say them out loud and notice them, then decide if that’s the internal monologue you want to keep or not. If you have a smartphone, record yourself talking and listen to it. Hear—really hear—what you’re saying, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what you’re believing as true. Notice.

Part 2: Seeking valid ways to change and improve your self

Retraining behaviors, letting of limiting beliefs, setting your values, adjusting habits, finding and focusing on your strengths.

It won’t take much time before you notice some things you want to change. Great!

Here’s the key: focus on changing the internal things, not the external things.

Let’s say you have a really negative body image, and a lot of unhealthy habits, and you want to change how your body looks and feels. Excellent. Start with how you think about your body. Start working on the internal changes.

This is a shortcut to effective external change.

Most people focus on changing the externals. They may dump a lot of effort, time, and money into external changes. But without internal changes, the external changes won’t stick.

You are going to take the smart path: first, because you’re smart, and second, because you don’t have the money to dump into external changes. In this case, you are saving yourself some frustration.

So back to our unhealthy/negative body image challenge. Maybe you don’t have access to a gym. Maybe you can’t afford workout clothes. Maybe you have three jobs and don’t have time or energy to exercise. Maybe you can only afford cheap food, so improving your diet seems impossible.

That’s okay. Don’t worry about any external changes. All that matters is what you change on the inside. Here are some ideas:

  • Focus on your thoughts and feelings. In your meditation, journaling, and talking, spend a few minutes focused on what you think and how you feel about what you want to change. Notice what you say about your body, your health, your food (or whatever it is you want to change).
  • Rewrite what you tell yourself. Once you’ve noticed patterns in your thoughts and feelings, you can change them. You own your internal monologue. Change it. Choose what you want to feel and think about yourself, and write a script, and repeat it over and over and over. So, “I’m fat and I can’t work out and I’m so unattractive uuuuuugh,” becomes, “I’m strong, and I find ways to exercise every day, and I feel beautiful.” Write your own version. Then read it over and over, memorize it, repeat it, record it, listen to it and speak it anyway you can until you reprogram the way you think about yourself.
  • When you can take action, take action. As you reprogram the way you think, something will happen: you’ll see opportunities. You’ll notice that set of stairs around the corner. Now you can go run up and down them: Congratulations, now you’re a person who exercises. You’ll find a pair of tennis shoes at the thrift store. A friend will give you some workout clothes. You’ll notice that a bag of apples is about the same price as a bag of chips. When you see action you can take, take it. Notice yourself taking it. Notice the changes in how you act: they are a  reflection of the changes in how you think. Want more changes in action? Make more changes in your thinking.
  • Ask yourself questions. This is more noticing, more conscious thinking. Start asking yourself things like,
    • Why am I doing this?
    • Do I really enjoy this activity?
    • How do I really feel about this friend? Is this person a good influence or a bad influence?
    • What do I want out of this experience?
    • What makes me feel good? What makes me feel bad?
    • What do I believe about — ?
    • How do I feel about — ?
  • Conscious questions and thoughtful answers. That’s it. It’s free. No cost. You don’t even have to write this shit down. Just think. Thinking is the most difficult thing and most people will do whatever they can to avoid it. You, though? You are becoming a master of it. As you ask and answer your own questions, you’ll slowly formulate a set of values. You’ll start making distinctions. You’ll notice what serves you and what enslaves you. And you’ll develop a clear idea of the person you want to become. You’re ready for the next step.

Part 3: Consciously applying your awareness and your efforts

Developing your current self into a different, better version of you, until the ‘improved version’ becomes your new baseline self, and then you get to do it again.

The more you know who you are, right now, the more you can direct who you are becoming.

What you understand, you can control.

So, if you want to control yourself, understand yourself.

It’s tough work. It can be scary work. But it’s the most important work, and it’s the core of personal growth.

If you don’t do the work of knowing yourself, you’re not doing “personal growth” — you’re just mimicking someone else’s idea of personal growth.

Own your shit.

This is your life. Why follow anyone else’s agenda? What is meaningful for someone else may be meaningless to you. How do you know, until you know who you are and what you want?

As you know yourself more and more, you’ll be able to focus on specific changes you want to make. You’ll be able to direct your attention to a few important things. You’ll be able to let go of distractions, drama, and things that do not serve you.

And your energy, time, and effort will compound to get you faster results, better results, and a lot more fun.

Here are some ideas:

  • Give yourself challenges. Feeling ready to level up in a particular area? You don’t have to join a group or a class or take a course. Challenge yourself:  x days of doing x activity. Or whatever. There’s no set formula. Maybe it’s X days of eliminating something (like junk food or negative thinking or hanging out with a certain friend who always drags you down).
  • Level up your thinking. Find and read material that gives you a different perspective, shows you more options, speaks truth and positivity rather than status quo skepticism. Go to your local library. Get online and find the free books from Project Gutenberg. When something really speaks to you, memorize it: write out the passage, then read it over and over again, day after day, until it’s part of you. You are literally remaking your brain.
  • Get expertise. As you focus on an area of your life you want to improve, look for experts. You can find plenty of expertise online, but there’s so much power in finding real-life experts. Ask for advice but do so with this qualification: only with people who are already doing what you want to do. How do you find those people? You start talking about your own efforts, and you start noticing. You’ll find the experts. They’re around you, but usually they’re so busy working on getting better that they go unnoticed. Start noticing. Start asking. Then you can learn from their expertise, make a positive connection, and get more results out of the same efforts.
  • Track your successes. Any effort is success, because you put in the effort. It’s okay if you don’t hit your personal goal for whatever-it-is you’re doing. The success is in the effort, so notice your efforts. Track the internal and external things you’re doing (and not doing). Notice your progress, because it adds to the energy and builds momentum. It also helps validate the new and better way you’re thinking about yourself, which helps you do even better, which becomes a virtuous cycle of increasing growth. It’s a wild, fulfilling ride!

Radical responsibility is the only path to growth.

Do not excuse yourself from making the most of your self and life because you have to start from financial zero.

We all start from some sort of zero. The key is to start. If you don’t start, you stay at zero.

Find a way to start changing yourself.

Start now.

Change yourself and you change your life. Quit making excuses.

Go take that cold shower, because you have to, and realize that every deprivation is a chance to overcome fear and discomfort and become a stronger person.

Broke vs Poor. The two are different, I agree. And both exist on a scale, or spectrum. I deliberately used the term “broke” rather than “poor” because, in my experience, an excellent first step in personal growth is to stop thinking of yourself as poor.

Maybe you don’t have any money right now. Maybe you’ve never had enough money. That’s okay. That’s your past and present, but it doesn’t have to be your future. You can acknowledge the truth of your experience without repeating it:

“I was poor. I am broke. But I am changing. I am learning how to manage money. I am learning how to earn more. I am creating value. I am building wealth. Being broke is a temporary step in my journey toward an abundant life. I am learning what I need to learn to live in abundance.”

Why not try it? Write it out, your own version. Read it every morning and night. Give it 30 days and see what happens. Unless you’re really attached to identifying yourself as a poor person, you have absolutely nothing to lose with this little experiment.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

What change feels like

Change feels like walking in the dark.

You know generally the direction you’re going, and you know you’re making progress. But you’re not sure how much further you have to go. You can’t judge the distance. And you can’t predict what each step will be like. You stumble. You get a few tree branches to the face.

The darkness keeps you guessing.

You’re doing something you know how to do (walking!), it feels uncertain and risky.

Big change feels like running in the dark.

What makes a “big” versus a “little” change? It’s all about how the change makes you feel. That’s usually related to the level of unpredictability and the potential impact of the change:

  • More unpredictability makes a change feel bigger, less makes it feel smaller.
  • More impact makes a change feel bigger, less makes it feel smaller.

If you’re in a change that’s full of unpredictability, but has limited impact, it may not be as scary as a change that has less unpredictability but more impact.

Also, it’s not really about the impact a change will or does have; it’s about the impact that a change might have.

It’s about potential impact.

You don’t know—until you’ve gotten to the other side, change complete, ding!—what the impact will be. The more “important” the area of the change, the greater the potential impact.

So, small changes to your health or work or relationship with your partner might feel bigger than big changes to your house or hobby or relationship with a friend.

The combination of high unpredictability and high (potential) impact creates change that is especially big. In emotional terms, it can feel so overwhelming that you don’t even know how to talk about it.

That sucks, because you need to talk about it.

The less you talk about it, the more overwhelming it feels. The more you keep it inside, swirling in your head, the bigger it seems.

When a relationship is changing, it feels like holding hands with someone while walking in the dark.

You’d think this would make it easier—support, togetherness, less scary, less alone facing-the-dark! But the effect can be different.

Imagine how much you stumble when you’re walking in the dark. Now you have to recover from your own stumbling and tripping, plus deal with the push-and-pull of the other person as they stumble and trip and try to find steady footing.

Sometimes it seems like you’re holding each other up, but sometimes it seems like you’re knocking each other down.

When someone you love is changing, it feels like being dragged behind someone who’s running in the dark.

It’s all the fear and discomfort of running in the dark, with an added element: complete lack of control.

Terrifying is too weak a word for this feeling.

It’s the kind of terror that can paralyze you, shut you down, consume you entirely.

The greater the unpredictability and the greater the (potential) impact, the more terrifying the experience.

Ok, so: we’re in the middle of change, we’re trying to keep all our shit together, it’s not fun, there’s no pause button, what can we do?

We bring in the light.

Walking isn’t scary, is it? But walking in the dark is unpleasant and risky. Running is fine. Running in the dark is dangerous.

We need light. If we can bring light to the experience of change, it takes away a lot of the discomfort and pain. It reduces the risk. It re-establishes a sense of control. It helps us avoid things we’d stumble over in the dark.

More light means fewer tree branches slapping us in the face, and that’s a good thing.

In fact, if we’re able to add light to the process of change, we can change the entire experience without changing either the unpredictability or the potential impact of the change.

Some ways to turn on the light:

  • Talk more. Talking is a way of processing, and when we talk we can pull out the feelings and thoughts that are inside.  Sometimes all we need to do is express the feelings, and they are relieved. Sometimes the thoughts and fears we have, when we say them aloud, become insignificant. Sometimes things are just as real and scary when spoken as they are when unspoken, but now we have power: once something is spoken, we have named it. We have identified it. We are beginning to understand it. That’s important. When you understand something, you can control it or (at least) control your reaction to it.
  • Ask more. Ask yourself questions. More than one person involved? Ask each other questions.
    • “How is this affecting you?”
    • “What feels scary to you?”
    • “What impact do you think this could have?”
    • “What feels unpredictable?”
    • “What outcome do you want? What outcome do you fear?”
  • Set boundaries. You can still venture into big changes—without a dissolution of the basic structure of your life—if you set boundaries. Boundaries can be set around
    • duration: by setting time limitations. “I’ll try this for one month.”
    • unpredictability: by setting limits on the options you’ll accept. “I’m only willing to spend X amount of money.”
    • impact: by defining how big the change can be. “XY area can be part of this, but ZY area is out of the discussion.”
  • Give permission. If you’re in the midst of change that’s affecting others, you can give them permission to pause the process of change, set limits, ask questions, be angry, share their feelings, etc.
    • Side note: If the change doesn’t impact someone directly, I think it’s better to keep it clean and quiet. Focus on your process and let others deal with their own issues. However, if the change is impacting someone you love directly, giving permission shows respect (Your experience is real and it matters) and kindness (I care about your pain). Plus it tends to make the other person involved feel safer, which removes a good deal of the discomfort and suffering triggered by (unpredictable) (high-impact) change.
  • Find a survivor. Who’s been through this kind of change and come out okay? It could be someone you know or someone you don’t know. Finding others who have been through what you’re going through can make a huge difference in your experience.
  • Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Change is difficult. Say it with me now: Change is difficult. And it’s okay if you feel bad, angry, upset, confused, tired, exhausted, overwhelmed, hurt, offended, terrified, or lost. Feelings are always true. Feelings are never bad. You don’t need to ignore your feelings or justify them. You have them; that’s enough. Let yourself have them without adding guilt, anxiety, or a sense of failure on top.
  • Don’t settle for feeling bad.  Feelings are true and feelings need to be expressed. If you will let yourself feel and express them, you’ll find more feelings. On the other side of worry, you might find excitement. On the other side of anger, you might find courage. Change is difficult; change is also part of life. We are inherently creatures of change. We’re all changing, all the time. We can get better at dealing with change so it becomes less fear, more flow. We can go into those negative emotions and find out what they’re telling us. We can tell ourselves a different story. And we can find moments of power in the experience of change.
  • Some other things that might help:

Photo by Marek Szturc on Unsplash

An internal blueprint for your external world

“…generally we try to make sense of life by constructing it outwardly to fit external criteria and expectations.

The soul has its own set of rules, which are not the same as those of life. Unlike the steady progress of history, for instance, the events of the soul are cyclic and repetitive.”

—Thomas Moore

Our culture’s tendency (and our individual tendency, as a result) is to look to external reality for direction and validation.

We also look for external feedback on whether we’ve done a good job of “constructing life.” We seek feedback, affirmation, approval, encouragement, adulation, recognition, and admiration.

We want people to see something worthwhile in what we’ve built—in the external structures and choices and actions and behaviors that they can see, the external identity that we wear.

But in so doing we ignore—and then become disconnected from—the inner world. Our inner world, which is the basis of our reality. And then something even weirder happens: we begin to fear the inner world. Because we feel disconnected from it, from what’s inside, we begin to experience it as “other,” as something unpredictable. Something unknown and threatening.

Once we fear it, we begin to actively avoid it.

That’s insanity.

Whatever we built in the external world is always an outpouring, an expression of our internal world. Who We Really Are exists on the inside, in the spirit or soul or mind or self, whatever you want to call it.

The choices we make and roles we assume are reflections or expressions of the internal self.

They may not be accurate expressions. They may be distorted. They may be more ego than self. But they spring out of something internal, and we take that internal energy and mold it into some external expression.

But when we become disconnected from our own internal world, our inner reality, we no longer have a source. We no longer have inspiration or meaning. All we have left are habits and ruts.

Have you ever wondered why a role or behavior or activity you once loved can become so unsatisfying? Can change from feeling like a gift to feeling like a trap?

Look for the disconnection.

It may not be that you no longer value the role or activity. It may be that you’re disconnected from your internal self, from the real source that motivated you to step into that role or engage in that activity.

If that’s so, then the problem isn’t with the external expression. You’re not mad about the role or activity itself. You’re unhappy because it’s no longer connected to the most real part of you, the internal part, the real self.

You need to reconnect with the internal world, and from it, form your external world.

Don’t seek to change the externals until you’re sure of what’s going on internally.

Start there. Start where the real choices are made. Start in the place where you are simple and true and have a self that is your own. Know that self. Step back inside and be quiet there long enough to hear your own voice.

Then you’ll know what belongs—and what doesn’t belong—in your external world. No haphazard shuffling. No running away because you’re frustrated or confused. No adding on, chaotically, because it feels like something’s missing.

Instead, simple and deliberate choices. Clarity. Find your internal blueprint. Then create your external reality.

Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

Find your moments of power

I did a lot of singing in high school.
It started with church music. If you attend a small church and they sense any tidbit of musical talent, you will be recruited to help with the music. This seems to be a universal small-church rule. Once you’re recruited, you can’t quit.
It’s like the Hotel California, but not as cool.
From church music I moved to classical vocal training: arias from operas, songs in Latin, and solos from musicals. Various performances, annual recitals. I sang in so many weddings.
One recital (my junior year of high school, I think), I was performing On My Own from Les Miserables. Such a beautiful, emotional song. It was one of my favorites, and I was thrilled to perform it. So, of course, even though it was the least challenging song vocally, I was most nervous about singing it.
It started fine: I came in on cue, my voice was steady, my nervousness, as always, calmed by the actual singing.
Nerves are always worst before you start something, aren’t they? Once you start doing the thing, your attention goes to the doing so you don’t have as much to spare for the freaking out.
Halfway through the song, I blanked on the lyrics. I couldn’t remember the next line.
As I’m singing the current line–in front of an audience small enough to notice every mistake, trying to be poised, following the melody, articulating the words—I am internally freaking out because the next line is coming closer and faster and I have no idea what it is.
Of course, I know what it is: I’ve sung the song a few hundred times by this point. For some reason, though, my brain was like: Nah. You can’t have it this time.
So I’m holding out the last note of the line I’m singing, and my body starts to tremble with anxiety and I start sweating and this is not good because it’s difficult to hold a note clear and steady when your entire body is trembling.
I look at the audience: there’s my family. There’s my teacher. There are the other students, in various states of readiness, fear, and relief. There are friends, people I know well, people who are here to support me. There are some strangers. They’re all looking at me. The note ends and I take a deep breath and it’s time for the next line and I still can’t remember the next line and I open my mouth and I don’t know what I’m going to sing and I realize, right then, that I can sing the same line again, it’s a repeating melody, it will fit, and so I do and no one seems to notice.
I mean, I’m sure my teacher notices, and probably a couple of the other vocal students. But no one else has a clue. My body stills. My voice steadies. I sing the repeated line, and suddenly all the words come back and I finish the song and sit down.
I feel triumphant.
Why triumphant? I didn’t do it right. It certainly wasn’t my best performance. I messed it up. I forgot the words. It wasn’t perfect, wasn’t anywhere close to perfect.
Why triumphant? Because there was a problem, and I solved it.
(Never mind that it was a self-created problem; most of them are.)
Triumphant because there was a difficulty, a moment of potential failure, an instant when I could have crashed, goofed, stumbled, embarrassed myself, cemented my internal mistake into an external, obvious mess-up.
And I didn’t.
I handled it. I stayed calm, I saw another option, I made a quick decision and acted on it and everything worked out fine.

Our moments of power don’t come when everything is okay. They don’t come when everything is easy.
We’re not aware of our power in times when it’s not needed. We become aware when we’re desperate for a solution and we look around for help and realize: Oh, it’s me. I have to figure this out.
There’s always a choice: plunge forward, trusting yourself, or give up. Giving up can look like failure, but it can also look like pausing, holding back, prepping and planning, waiting for some unnameable thing that signifies readiness.
You are the unnameable thing.
Awareness of our power comes when we face resistance and overcome it. Awareness of our power comes when we meet difficulty and do not stop for it.
Awareness of our power comes when we see fear ahead, in our way, and instead of backing down we plunge into it and push through it.
Awareness of our power comes not in the absence of pain, but in the presence of it. Pain gives us a scenario, a backdrop, a challenge.
Pain gives us a chance to flex.

Success–our idea of success–is weird.
We think of success as a static state. We look at other people and see their success from the outside. It looks solid. It looks like something they’ve built, something they’ve accomplished. A structure, an object.
When we experience moments of power, we may not recognize them for what they are: success.
Our idea of success is an achievement. Our moments of power are just that: moments. Fluid experiences, a flow of emotion and decision, an interaction and play of our characters with the backdrop of the moment.
But success has never been a thing, a state, a place, a goal, an achievement. Success is action, one action: doing the thing you want to do right now.

When success doesn’t come easily, there’s an opening.
There’s a spotlight on the stage.
Here’s a moment, and by my choice I can make it a moment of power. I can push through the part that’s not easy. I can believe in my own ability, or I can sit down and wait for help, wait for something or someone to save me.
We’ve all made the choice to be passive in our own lives. It’s easier.
But it’s not better.
In fact, here’s something I’ve learned: I’d rather be pushing through pain than sitting in passivity. I’d rather be in the struggle, active, than sitting on the sidelines, waiting. The pain of effort, the push into fear, the energy and focus needed to overcome resistance or dismantle difficulty: these are ways we know we are alive.
That’s the triumph: to be fully alive, fully aware. To live, awake. That’s power, because it’s our attention focused on the moment, the here-and-now, making it what we want it to be.
Less passivity. More moments of power.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Journey through grief without losing yourself

I was pregnant with my second child when we buried Mom. I visited all three boutiques in my hometown, shopping for a black maternity dress.
I felt strong, almost stoic, through the entire service. The songs, the eulogy, the procession, the graveside prayers. Then it was time to place a rose on her casket and walk away.
My whole body began trembling.
I set the rose down—peach petals melting in the summer heat, hard gray metal—but I couldn’t take my hand away. It felt like everything was shaking, I was shaking, and all I could think was, “There wasn’t enough time. There wasn’t enough time. I’m not ready to say goodbye. I’m not ready.”

Grief isn’t a one-time thing, as anyone who’s lived a little while on this broken earth knows. You lose someone, you grieve, and then…
…you keep grieving.
Well, first you go numb. Then you grieve, in shock, in fury. Then you live through the immediate aftermath: the funeral service, the well-meaning words, the sympathy that’s almost harder to bear than the grief. Or you live through the absence of those things.
It doesn’t matter.
All of it exacerbates the grief, the grief that’s overwhelming, the grief that may or may not leave anything left of you.

Losing someone, losing yourself

Loss is more than death.
You can lose someone—to death, or something else—or you can lose some version of yourself.
“You lose someone” is a catch-all phrase. It can mean something like “My husband died in a car accident,” or “I lost my mom to cancer.”
It can also mean something like this:
  • I lost my long-time partner to apathy.
  • I lost a deep friendship to distance and busyness.
  • I lost a blossoming career—and my successful self—because of one stupid mistake.
  • I lost my confident self to a terrible coach or teacher.
  • I lost my carefree/innocent self to trauma.
  • I lost my open/unafraid self to abuse or neglect.
  • I lost my friend group because of gossip.
  • I lost my community because of dogma and fear.
  • I lost my believing/certain self to secrets and lies.
  • I lost my baby to stillbirth.
  • I lost my imagined children—and my nurturing self—to infertility.
We can lose someone we love, and we can lose some version of ourselves. What we don’t realize is that when we lose one, we also lose the other.
When I lost my Mom, I also lost the free, childlike version of myself. Without her as the living embodiment of nurturing love and wisdom, I couldn’t afford to be childlike, in any way. I lost the stable version of myself, too. The version that felt at home in the world, because I could always return to my own familiar childhood home.
The process of grieving needs to include these losses, and the imagined future that can never exist without them.

Journeying through grief

It’s about what you lost, and about what you’ll never get to have.
Life resumes a routine, after. It has to. Maybe it’s not a normal routine. It’s a hideous deconstruction of a life you loved, and every change is a blow to your heart. Or it’s a freedom you didn’t know you craved, and even as it calms your grief, it provokes guilt. You get a little crazy, feeling disoriented and burdened by an impossible responsibility.
Life proceeds, and we walk or crawl or stumble through it.
We have our own styles of grief, our own form of self-expression even in the darkest night. The creativity of grieving. It’s an ugly practice, at first. It feels destructive, dangerous, and disrespectful. Sometimes it is all those things. Sometimes it needs to be, for a time.
We are resilient creatures, dedicated to our own survival. We find a way to survive, even in the harshest grief.

Wearing the shroud of grief

We grieve for others and we grieve for ourselves.
Some of us find healthy ways to grieve, find comfort, find support. Some of us find dark habits, dark corners, darkness in any form to wear as a shroud.
A shroud is for the dead, not for the living. We clothe ourselves with darkness—any activity or choice that represents darkness to us—as a way of mourning our dead or lost loved one, yes. But we shroud ourselves also to force a hard recognition: the realization that we, too, have died.
We have lost some unique and precious—perhaps better—version of the self. It can never be reclaimed. Our grief must expand to include this lost self or we will never heal.

Grieving the lost self

What version of myself has been lost?
Part of grieving a loss, then, is recognizing and grieving our own lost self. What version of myself was killed when my significant other left? When my parent died, when my body failed me, when the relationship ended? When my career crashed, when my reputation was destroyed? When I couldn’t save my child? When I was cast out of my community?
The loss of someone you love (individual or group) indicates the loss of some version of yourself. Maybe multiple versions.
There’s a reverse truth, as well: the loss of some version of yourself creates a loss for all those connected with you. This is why others may struggle to recover from your trauma, resist the changes you make in your own life. They may try to control and limit the way you heal or rebuild yourself.
Don’t self-limit to accommodate their grief—it’s never going to work.
See what’s really going on, though.
Understanding can help you navigate, hit fewer obstacles. It’s never your job to make someone else feel better, but life can be easier when you understand the source of the feelings. The lashing out, the resistance, the control, and the conflict may come from an unknown, unnamed grief.

Moving through the past

Acknowledging the weight of what is gone.
Part of grieving is looking back at what we now understand to be “the whole story.”
“My time with this person has ended—now I know that. Now I can look at the whole picture. I can revisit the painful and beautiful moments. I can think about my decisions. I can let myself experience the feelings that come with remembering: regret, joy, gratitude, guilt, all of it.”
If it’s a version of the self that’s the primary loss, we can still look back, still revisit and release the past.
“My time with this version of myself has ended—now I know that. I can look back at the whole picture of this self developing, unfolding, experiencing, and ending. I can revisit the painful and beautiful moments I had with this version of myself. I can think about the decisions I made as this self. I can let myself experience all the feelings that come with remembering this self: regret, joy, gratitude, guilt, love, fear, freedom, sadness, all of it.”
You can spend a long time here. I’m not here to tell you not to. You take as long as you fucking want to take, my friend. Grief, in my experience, is limitless. How can I prescribe a time frame for dealing with infinite sorrow? I can’t. No one can.
When you are ready to release the past, you will. You will be done spending your time and energy looking back. You will pick up whatever remains of your self and your life. You will start moving forward.

Facing the imagined future

Acknowledging the weight of what can never be.
Here is where the other aspect of grief waits. This grief we will feel like a hit in the gut. This grief will come on us like a sudden storm. This grief is for a lost future, an imagined future, one that can never exist. The ones who would have created it are gone. We cannot recover them.
When we’re not ready, a picture of that future will fly up, deliver a blow. It’s always a sucker punch. How can you prepare to face something that doesn’t exist? How can you predict when something imaginary will appear? You can’t. So you don’t. Don’t try it. It’s a waste of time.
Instead, know it for what it is. Another step in this journey of grief. A necessary step, important, not one to skip over or ignore. Certainly, not one to be ashamed of.
Try this: try to be open to these moments.
Try to give yourself the time, the space, the permission to look full into the imagined future. Experience it, and all the feelings it brings. Let it come and go. Let it flit in and out of your awareness. Let it settle in with you sometimes. Try not to filter it. Try to see the good and the bad. No future is perfect, if by perfect we mean free from pain. Don’t lie to yourself that an imagined future would have been perfect. It’s okay to recognize the flaws, the limits, the pain you’ve avoided. This doesn’t make you guilty. It makes you honest.

Living in the present

How can I grieve and continue to live?
I don’t know what happens next. I want to say, “Release it, as you released the past,” but I’m not sure it’s that simple.
The past has a definite timeline, a beginning and an end. An imagined future has no such limit. It can extend with us, indefinitely, a sidetrack running parallel to the real future we’re living. Every now and then, the train jumps the track. I don’t know that we can stop it from happening.
I don’t know that I want to.
I do know that an imagined future can eat up the complex and beautiful present. I don’t want that. I want to live, here and now, fully aware, feeling it all, as grateful as I can be. When my attention is on an imagined future, I miss something in the present.
I have to decide: how much of me do I want here and now? How much of me—this version of me, this present self—am I willing to send into an imagined, impossible future?
How do we set hard lines on a question like this? Maybe we don’t.
What I’m learning to do, instead, is find ways to connect with my mom that don’t require me to leave my present reality. I talk about her, and I talk to her. When memories come, I allow them. I feel them and am grateful. Sometimes I share them. I bring some of Mom’s traditions into my own family: these are ways I can honor her and feel the gift of her life, without needing to fly into the past or future to do so.

Resurrecting the self

This is the experimental section.
It’s a newfound discovery, for me. As I stay here, in my own present (which used to be nothing but an imagined future itself: Behold what I have created!), something odd and wonderful is happening.
I am resurrecting the versions of myself that died with my mom.
Oh, not exactly. Not entirely. The shading is deeper. The flavor has a salty, smoky, bitter tang. It’s not all sweetness and light.
The free and childlike version of me is back, is here, but with an edge, a dark streak. It’s much more interesting, but it can turn into desperation. I know this. I welcome my playfulness but recognize its weight. If I don’t give it ways to exist and expand in my present, it will find some dark corner and drag me there.
The stable version of me is back, but with power that has been forged deep, deep within. I no longer feel stable because I can trust others to take care of me. I am stable because I am committed to taking care of myself. I have mothered myself back to wholeness, and I can do it again, anytime.
The nurturing version of me—the grown-up version of the self who wishes to be nurtured—is not only nurturing, but also wise. I have looked upon the face of the devouring mother. Nurture can become something dependent, devastating. Control can masquerade as caring. I know the tragic depths of love, the descent it will make, to give itself. I know and respect this power, and so I walk wisely in it. Not perfectly, but wisely, requiring love first for myself and then for others; asking myself to give, always, a freedom equal to my love, a respect deep as my affection.
We cannot walk through life unchanged. That would be missing the point. Pain will visit us. Sometimes pain will sit beside the bed for a long, long time. We will not be unmarked by these visits.
But we can be whole.
We can journey through the loss, the devastation, and the grief. We can honor the past, and release it. We can grieve the imagined future, as long as necessary—even for all our days—and be grateful for it. We can bring it into our present life, building what we want, bringing in the loose threads, untying the knots, weaving together the self and the future we want to experience.

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash