Trusting Grief

I cringe to admit this, but I used to sometimes wonder, “Why don’t they just get over it?” when I’d see someone grieving for longer than I thought was warranted. While my compassion was abundant, it had an expiration date.

That was before the year in which I ended my marriage, lost two dear uncles an03112015_KimChildsTrustingGriefd nearly lost my father. During this time of multiple losses, grief moved in and unpacked its bags. A year later, I’m humbled to see that, while I thought I’d be done with the grief by now, it’s not yet done with me.

I’ve never been one to suppress my tears, but I didn’t anticipate their seemingly endless flow as I mourned these endings, especially my divorce. Grief has literally brought me to my knees at times, forcing me to surrender my own agenda, slow down and pay attention—often, without warning.

Some days, grief is simply exhausting.

What I’ve learned is that there’s a reason for all of this.

“Grief is a body-centered process, and when we allow our bodies to experience the feelings, they will integrate and shift,” says Kripalu Healthy Living Faculty member Aruni Nan Futuronsky. “However, we’re not responsible for the integration—the moving through the feelings in the body/mind. That relies upon the wisdom of our brilliant, ‘animal’ bodies, as Mary Oliver would say.”

What we are responsible for, says Aruni, is creating the circumstances in which integration can happen, which means quieting our minds and lives to make space for grief.

“When my mom died, I was totally and wholly exhausted. I needed to rest and relax regularly,” Aruni recalls. “A few months later, it was time to start moving. Bike riding, walking, yoga—they all helped me keep unravel the feelings, but they would not have worked earlier in the process.”

The most important thing, Aruni says, is to give ourselves full permission to be exactly where we are on our own unique journey of grief. This may prove challenging—not only to us, but also to those who care about us, especially if our grieving makes them uncomfortable.

In the months following my divorce, I heard from friends and loved ones who said, “I hope you’re keeping busy,” or “Focus on the good in your life,” while others told me, “I’m praying for you,” or “Come over, I have Kleenex.” These well-meaning messages largely represented their personal strategies for coping with loss, while I had to honor my own.

In truth, I’ve sometimes felt a strange sweetness in the murky depths of my sadness. As my heart continued to break open, I sensed more room in there for tenderness, appreciation and love. For that is what we’re doing when we grieve, mourning the loss of something or someone we loved, and thereby honoring love itself.

“The road back from grief can be a wavy one,” says a friend who lost her partner to a heart attack several years ago, “but the gift within this is that the road is to yourself, in new ways.”

Self-compassion is therefore essential when grieving, as is support–especially from those who’ve been there. Two books that kept me company during this time were Dark Nights of the Soul, by Thomas Moore, and Safe Passage, by Molly Fumia. Both authors promised that I could trust grief to carve deeper channels in me for a fuller experience of life, if I let it. I also learned that denying grief can cause anxiety, depression, addiction, compulsive behavior, blocked creativity and even chronic physical ailments.

“If you get grief wrong you get a lot of things wrong in life,” said Fully Alive author Tim Shriver in a recent interview. “You hide from a lot of pain. You hide from a lot of frustration. You hide, hide, hide.” A member of the Kennedy clan, Shriver said he grew up not knowing how to face or transform the inordinate amount of loss in his family. “I think learning how to express grief, move through it and internalize both the pain and healing is a real process of growth and change,” he remarked.

In another helpful book, Honoring Grief, author Alexandra Kennedy recommends setting aside a special place and time each day to sit with our grief and honor the person or part of life that we’ve lost. I’ve done this at the altar where I pray, letting photographs trigger healing words and tears. Journaling also helps enormously, giving voice to the pain.

“May you learn to trust grief and let it take you where you need to go to heal,” Kennedy writes in her gentle book. “May your heart heal of old wounds and regrets so that it may open to greater love and joy. May you celebrate—every day—the wonder and mystery of being fully alive.”

I think I’m getting better at trusting grief, my unpredictable, demanding companion, for the wise healer that it is. One day I hope to look back and appreciate its gifts.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.

(Note: This post was written for Thrive, the blog of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and also appears here.)

The Art of Receiving

Last year was one of the most rewarding and challenging of my life. After suffering several personal losses amid building a new business, I arrived on the doorstep of 2015 completely exhausted. My well was empty.

The solution? Create a month-long, self-styled retreat in the comfort of my home because planning a trip anywhere else took more energy than I had. I excused myself from all but essential work projects, unplugged (mostly) from the Internet, saw just a few coaching clients and limited my social interactions to those that really nourished me (sometimes quite literally…more about that later).open-hands2

This left gorgeous swaths of unstructured time in which to enjoy my own company and practice self-care.

It’s been delicious, though not always comfortable, and quite an opportunity to get better at the art of receiving, from within and without.

At first, I struggled with believing that I had the right to take the month off.  I had to remind myself of all the reasons I’d “earned it,” all the hard work I’d done in the last several years, and all the ways I’d been there for others recently. That helped, but the feeling that I had to be productive still taunted me some days. Fortunately, I listened to my body and chose baths over business most of the time, stretching out my morning rituals until 11am.

Decadent…and perhaps just what the doctor would have ordered, if I’d consulted one. Instead I saw Danielle, an amazing healer who gently released years of accumulated tensions from my body via myofascial release work.

And so, during my birth month, I gave myself the gift of time and space to heal, and allowed myself to receive it. I also received gifts of all kinds from people who love me, from delicious meals and hot cocoa, to wonderful energy healing sessions, books and flowers.

All of this got me thinking about (and feeling) how challenging it can sometimes be to receive. Based on my own experience, and that of some friends I surveyed, I learned that:

–When we receive, we may think we have to reciprocate, and that can feel like pressure.

–Childhood wounds, abuse, shame and a sense of unworthiness can inhibit our ability to receive and make us mistrustful of those who want to give.

–We are stubborn sometimes, and unable to receive (from people, from life) if what’s being offered doesn’t match our desires or expectations.

–We may feel indebted to those who give to us, and that’s uncomfortable.

–Our hands have to be empty and open to receive, which means letting go of things that no longer serve us to make room for what does. We don’t always want to do that.

–Receiving, especially help, can trigger feelings of  vulnerability and challenge our self-image.

–If we are habitual givers or people pleasers, receiving means relinquishing a bit of control.

–Those of us who’ve been super self-reliant have to get used to letting people help us.

You may have your own reasons for struggling to receive, or you might be a pro at it (if so, well done!). If you do want to improve your receiving skills, here are some ways to practice:

–When someone compliments you, simply say, “Thanks!” without deflecting or diminishing.

–When someone offers you something, say “Yes, thanks!” and enjoy it. (Unless it’s something awful, in which “No, thanks” works.)

–Bear in mind the joy that you feel when you give to others, and allow people to feel that same joy by giving to you.

–Practice being nice to yourself (in thought and action) so that you get used to receiving and feel attuned when it shows up externally.

Imagine no receivers on the field on Super Bowl Sunday. Who would catch the ball? Life, too, is a game of give and take. May you become an excellent receiver, from within and without.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.

Beyond Wishing and Hoping

The start of a new year offers itself irresistibly like a clean slate and invites us to consider:  o-TEA-WRITING-570What are we ready to leave behind? What do we really, really, really want, going forward?

Whether or not you believe in resolutions, these questions are always worth asking.

For several years I’ve participated in Burning Bowl ceremonies on New Year’s Eve. They involve writing a list of things that we want to shed – from resentments and self-destructive habits, to negative beliefs, unhelpful relationships and excess baggage of all kinds. We’re even invited to thank these unwanted things as we write them down, because they might have served us on some level, however hard that is to recognize. We then burn the list.

Next, because nature abhors a vacuum, we need to reflect on what we most want in the New Year and write about these desires and intentions. This list is one to keep, read and follow like a prescription, because habits tend not to change by themselves.

In preparing to write about desires for the New Year, it’s helpful and motivating to review the important areas of your life (career, health, family, community, etc.) and look for what has gone well in the past year. This echoes a classic Positive Psychology exercise from founder Martin Seligman, who discovered that people who take time at night to write down three things that went well during the day can experience less depression and more optimism over time. It’s important to add why things went well, too, in order to see your own ability to positively influence your life and replicate the conditions and strategies that made things go well.

Example: I got a lot more physical exercise in 2014 because I made it a habit and linked it to other daily activities that were already in place (e.g. walking to the bank or library instead of driving).

Once you see what’s already going well in your life, identify and write about the areas you want to improve. Name some concrete goals and outcomes to give yourself something to aim for and measure (i.e., “a regular meditation practice” versus “to be less stressed”). Write, in the present tense, as much detail as you can about the improvements you seek to realize in the new year. This helps to infuse the vision with feeling and make it more real to you (e.g., “I am taking time to pause, breathe and be mindful each day and it feels so good.”).

This way of designing the future is related to another classic Positive Psychology exercise, from researcher Laura King, known as the Best Possible Future Self. Her prompt to the research subjects went like this:  “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.

King found that subjects did this exercise for 20 minutes straight on 4 consecutive days enjoyed long term mental and physical health benefits. By thinking about our best possible future selves, we learn more about what we most desire in life. This, in turn, helps us to restructure our priorities in order to reach these goals, asking ourselves, “What can I do to live into this scenario?”

The answers to that question create new habits and behaviors, which bring about lasting change.

Whether you’re envisioning your best possible year or your best possible future, let your desires dictate your actions, going forward. In other words, be the character depicted in that “movie.” Aiming for more inner peace, would she check her email first thing out of bed or light a candle and meditate or write in her journal?

Finally, I recommend taking an end of the year detox bath, featuring one cup of Epsom or sea salts, one cup of baking soda and ten drops of lavender oil. Soak for at least 20 minutes, then invite any stress and tension to drain out with the water. As you apply your favorite lotion, appreciate your body for all it’s done for you this year, and promise to take good care of it.

I wish you a happier, healthier, more fun and fulfilling New Year. May you look back on it in a year’s time and say, “Well done!”

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.

When “Happy” is Hard

A few days ago I showed up to teach my chair yoga class at an assisted living facility, where employees were decking the halls and putting out poinsettias. “What’s your favorite thing about the holidays?” I chirped to the women who’d gathered for class.

“When they’re over,” said Marge, a normally polite and well-dressed octogenarian. I was Holiday-Bluesnot expecting that answer.

With some gentle probing, Marge revealed that this was the first Christmas she’d be spending without her husband, who’d passed away. T’was not the season to be jolly for Marge.

I completely understood.

As a Positive Psychology Coach, it’s my job to help clients see the value of appreciating and savoring the good in their lives and doing what they can to cultivate positive emotions. As a human being, I empathize with the fact that life also contains loss, pain, illness, disappointment, and setbacks.

During such “dark nights of the soul,” we can deepen our wisdom, humanity and self-compassion by being fully present to whatever is happening and honoring our feelings. At such times, happiness may feel miles away and joy might seem like a luxury. If so, we can reach for other positive emotions to cope and build resilience.

I learned this firsthand during a year in which I ended my marriage, lost two dear uncles, and nearly lost my father.

As I moved through these painful changes, traumas, and endings, many of my days were saturated with grief. Despite this, I had to show up for my work as a coach and teacher of happiness and fulfillment. The challenge of walking my talk was more daunting than ever.

In response, I increased my habit of consciously registering the things that expanded my heart, lifted my spirits, and excited my mind. While this practice didn’t always take me from “zero to happy,” it allowed me to be there for my students and clients, and for my aching self. Training my mind to see the good, while also letting myself feel and process my grief, kept me from spiraling downwards. Here’s how:

  • I took walks to boost my mood and care for my body, taking in the blue of the sky, the luminous clouds and the many-colored leaves. Appreciating beauty is one of my strengths, and I use it every day. Time in nature, along with my spiritual practices, inspired awe and reverence for something greater than myself.
  • I reached out to friends who could listen compassionately and hold with me what I couldn’t hold by myself. Such moments allowed me to feel seen and heard, honoring my deeply ingrained values of authenticity and connection. Knowing how good that felt, I sent notes and made calls to others who were suffering, which allowed me to feel helpful and stop ruminating.
  • I hung out with other friends who made me laugh and talked about books, movies, ideas and the news of the day. These gatherings fed my hunger for knowledge, stimulated my curiosity, and provided humor. Inspiring quotes and content on the Internet also helped, as did funny articles and, yes, cute baby and animal videos.
  • I continuously reached for gratitude, my favorite positive emotion. Appreciating the people I was losing and the gifts they’d given me, and feeling grateful for my home, health, community and comforts, buoyed my heavy heart.
  • I practiced and took in kindness whenever possible, because I know that it matters even more when we’re hurting.
  • I engaged in my work, challenging as it was some days, which allowed me to use my skills, knowledge and creativity in service to others. I also channeled my energies into growing a business while other things around me were fading or dying.
  • I gave myself space to feel, permission to be human, and room for tears.

As the Buddha stated in the first Noble Truth, life involves pain and suffering. How we meet and interpret our difficulties determines how much we will suffer. Doing what we can to care for ourselves and learn and even benefit from hardship can help us to survive and grow. The science of posttraumatic growth examines this phenomenon, succinctly stated by Nietzsche as, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

As the chair yoga class was winding down I gave Marge a little shoulder rub, sending compassion through my hands. “Good thing you don’t have to drive in this storm, eh?” I remarked. “You can just walk down the hall to a dining room where someone has cooked a hot lunch for you.”

“Yes,” Marge replied, “and I’m grateful for that.”

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.

(Note: this post is adapted from one written for Kripalu Thrive, which appears here.)

Defending Negativity

Mr Negativity

Mr. Negativity, in the flesh

Sometimes, when people hear that I’m a Positive Psychology Coach, they mistakenly assume that I’m only about positive thinking and denying “reality” (quotes added because reality is multidimensional, but more about that later…). Positive Psychology does recommend that we notice, cultivate and savor the good in our lives, but it also acknowledges that life is full of loss, pain, illness, disappointment and setbacks.

While feeling and acknowledging these negative emotions is healthy, dwelling on the them takes us on a downward spiral, both physically and mentally.

And so, in my work as a Positive Psychology coach and teacher, I’m often surprised by how many people want to defend and hang on to negativity. But the truth is, I get it.

When I first started my own recovery journey, I was sick and tired of pretending that everything was fine and ignoring the elephant in the room. I was done with denial, and hungry to talk openly with anyone who’d listen about pain, trauma, abuse, emotional wounds and hardship. It was healing to shine the light of truth on my darkness, acknowledge the difficulties of my past, and express the emotions that were buried within me. I did this in therapy, 12-Step rooms, support circles and personal growth workshops, and I highly recommend all of these to anyone on a healing journey.

Eventually, though, I began to notice that my life was also full of grace, kindness, good people, beauty, blessings, accomplishment and love. The more I consciously register and pursue these things, the better I feel and the more able I am to move through the tough stuff. So why, when we know there’s another way, would we cling to and defend negative thinking, especially when it causes suffering? Reasons include:

–Familiarity/identity: “This is how I’ve always been and it feels ‘comfortable.'”

–Tribal loyalty: “My family/friends/co-workers are negative and I want to fit in.”

–Fear 1: “If I let down my guard and focus on the positive, I’ll get blindsided when something bad happens.”

–Guilt: “How can I be happy when there is so much suffering in the world?”

–Ego: “I’d rather be right than happy.”

–Fear 2: “If I dare to dream and hope, I’ll be disappointed (again).”

–Love/connection: “If I stay sad, I’m honoring the loved one (or thing) I lost.”

–Revenge: “As long as I’m unhappy, I’m punishing _________.”

–Fear 3: “If I start believing that a happier life is possible for me, I have to change.”

Now, this is the point where I have to mention that we humans are, in fact, born with a negativity bias. It’s the reason we’ve survived as a species, because the brain is wired to look out for danger. But in an age where the threat of physical danger has diminished, we’re more often on the lookout for what threatens our ego and self-identity. While this vigilance is meant to keep us “safe,” it limits our perspective when we exclude what’s good, right, helpful and working in our lives.

There is a time when a negative focus may serve us, and that’s in preparing for disaster. As Susan Jeffers advises in Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, it can be useful to follow a problem to its worst case scenario in our minds and imagine how we’ll deal with that outcome, telling ourselves “I’ll handle it.”

Then, it’s best to put our higher brain to use envisioning the outcomes we desire, and doing what we can to bring them about. In coaching, and elsewhere, we call this a Solutions Focus.

My favorite quote on this subject comes from American historian, author and activist Howard Zinn, who says that being optimistic is not foolish, but grounded in the reality that, while history is full of tragedy and cruelty, it’s also full of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness. Zinn then speaks to the value of a positive focus:

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Here’s to the optimists, and defenders of positivity.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.

Befriending Your Resistance

by Kim Childs

Several years ago, I was invited to be a writer and facilitator on a wonderful project. On the morning it began, I found myself dawdling and stalling on my way out the door for the 9:00 am meeting. Once in the car, I encountered rush hour traffic and arrived 15 minutes late. The other staff members, who’d traveled hundreds of miles to be there, were on time and waiting for me, the person who lived two miles away.

It was a cringe-worthy moment, and I blame my resistance.sisyphus

Resistance is a force, as natural as gravity, that shows up whenever we try to grow or change. Sometimes it’s quietly discomforting and sometimes it’s deafeningly loud. It’s rooted in fear and a desire to remain safe in our comfort zones, where very little growth or change happens.

“Resistance by definition is self-sabotage,” writes Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. “Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a high station morally, ethically, or spiritually.”

As a teacher and coach of personal transformation, I see resistance in my students and clients all the time. It’s woven into the list of excuses they come up with for why they didn’t, or can’t, follow through with a plan to make progress on a goal. It also shows up as lateness, crisis, procrastination, sudden doubt, discouragement (“Why bother?”), and even sickness and injury. However the forms differ, they have the same effect: keeping us stuck.

While I still encounter my own resistance, I’ve gotten much better at recognizing and working with it. Kind of like, “Well, hello there, I was expecting you! Thanks for sharing, but we’re gonna move forward anyway.”

Megan McDonough, a yoga teacher and faculty member for Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology (CiPP) program, notes that the same phenomenon occurs when we encounter our “edge” when practicing on the yoga mat.

“Stretching into life gives the same edge, only we call it resistance,” McDonough says. “By calling on your unique strengths, looking at what works, and recognizing the resistance for what it is, you can continue taking forward action with the same deliberate attention you give to a challenging yoga posture.”

CiPP Course Director Maria Sirois says that we can also seek to understand what our resistance is trying to protect us from, and see if we need to challenge any false assumptions.

“For example, I may want to be a calmer person, yet underneath that desire is a competing assumption that my anxiety actually protects me from harm by keeping me on constant alert,” says Sirois. “Letting go of anxiety means letting go of the notion that I can control the world. And this doesn’t happen all at once, but in small increments of change.”

In my experience, resistance is overcome by action, and baby steps in particular. We can sneak around the part of us that’s frightened of change by taking small steps, known in Japanese culture as kaizen, or continuous improvement. Such small changes are easier to make, maintain, and build upon, which leads to new habits and developments before resistance can take hold.

In my recent quest to exercise more, I got around my resistance by arranging errands in a part of town that I could walk to. Since I had to return library books and make a bank deposit, why not put on my sneakers and hoof it over there? Eventually, I stopped needing the errands because my body craved the exercise and it became a habit.

On the occasional lazy day, it’s easier to resist my resistance because I look forward to the buzz I get from my brisk walks.

Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, says that linking dreaded tasks to things that bring us pleasure is a good strategy for overcoming resistance. In the book, Kelly writes about a woman who tackled the long avoided de-cluttering of her spare room with the help of Christmas tunes and scented candles. One of my clients recently got through a mound of paperwork by promising herself dinner and a movie afterwards. It also helped that she’d promised to e-mail me when the deed was done, adding a dose of accountability.

Other clients find success with the “Five Minute Takeoff,” a resistance-busting strategy that involves setting a timer for five minutes and boldly diving into that overstuffed closet, pile of mail or languishing project with permission to stop when the timer goes off. It breaks inertia, assuages overwhelm, and often gets the job done in less time than we thought possible.

Whatever strategy I use for overcoming resistance, understanding that it’s an inevitable part of growth helps me to have compassion for the part of me that’s threatened, and make gentle progress. Self-compassion coupled with action is a powerful combination for getting things done.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.

(Note: This post was originally written for Kripalu’s Thrive and also appears here.)

Self-compassion is My New Yoga

by Kim Childs

It’s been a rough month on the planet, with headline news that’s alternately heartbreaking and horrifying. In addition, so many people I know are losing loved ones or facing serious health issues, and I’m hearing cries of overwhelm amid the relentless buzz of modern life.

finger rose

My rose ring of self-love

Whether or not you’re among those feeling the strain, I recommend that you be extra kind to yourself these days. In fact, I recommend that you do it all the time.

Accepting ourselves, flaws and all, and truly loving who we are is one of the most challenging journeys we’ll undertake. I’m absolutely on that journey, making self-acceptance and self-compassion my primary practices as I navigate some major life transitions.

I distinctly remember two moments that positively altered my relationship with myself, and the first one came through my body. It happened during a yoga class in which the teacher was leading us in head-to-knee pose. As I extended and folded my torso over my leg, the teacher said, “Breathe, and don’t abandon your body.”

His words woke me up.

For years, I had criticized, abused and rejected my body. In that moment I saw it as something aware and deserving, even desiring, of my admiration and companionship. It was the beginning of a healthier partnership with my physical self. Now I sing love songs to my body, because I know that it’s always listening, and I honor it as the wondrous, intelligent being that it is.

The second awakening came at the end of a brief romantic relationship, right before the holidays (for the second time in a year). Amid big sobs over yet another man who couldn’t return my affections, I suddenly wrapped my arms around myself and said, “I’m sorry, so sorry, that you are going through this. I love you, and you deserve a man who will love you, and stay.”

Two weeks later, I met one who did.

Although that relationship ended after several years, it was full of more unconditional love and devotion than I’d ever known with a man. I think that’s because of the decision I made to love myself first on that tearful evening.

There’s a quote, attributed to the Buddha, which says, “You, yourself, as much as anyone in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

That’s not the message that most of grew up with, so we have to learn it as adults in order to reverse our tendency toward self-criticism. When I teach The Artist’s Way, my students are often surprised to discover that treating themselves kindly—as opposed to beating themselves up—is what actually motivates them to make the changes they desire in life.

As humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

My coaching clients sometimes need reminding of how much they’ve done and how far they’ve come when they’re only focused on their perceived inadequacies and unmet goals. We’re all so hard on ourselves, when acknowledgement and kindness would go a much longer way.

I’m not talking about self-indulgence, by the way, which can be linked to self-pity and may lead to self-destruction. I’m talking about the kind of positive self-regard that makes us want to care for ourselves, do better, try again and improve.

Love inspires that.

Kristin Neff,  my favorite author and researcher on the subject of self-compassion, notes that it doesn’t make pain or hardship go away. Instead, self-compassion acknowledges that life involves failure and suffering and gives us “permission to be human,” as I often heard in my Positive Psychology studies. It then directs us to find comfort and connection within ourselves when times are hard, being our own best friend.

Sometimes, self-forgiveness is a necessary first step to self-compassion. We may need to view any actions we regret through the lens of understanding and affirm that we did the best we could with the consciousness we had at the time. I often recommend that my students and clients write love and forgiveness letters to themselves, and the results can be powerfully transformative.

I recently spoke with someone whose life has been turned upside down by a health crisis. When I told him how sorry I was for his suffering, he remarked that he knew others who were much worse off. “Yes,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean you aren’t having a hard time, too.” His face softened as he acknowledged that he was, in fact, really struggling to cope with his new condition.

It felt like an important admission for him to make, to himself.

Self-compassion is my new yoga, and it doesn’t require any straps, mats or stretchy clothes. It only requires mindful awareness and inwardly directed messages of love, support and encouragement. It can be practiced anywhere, anytime, and the only posture involved is a hand placed gently over the heart.

Last winter I bought a rose ring to represent my commitment to myself. Whenever I look at it, I’m reminded to love the person who’s wearing it. May you, too, love yourself a little more each day.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.

Trees: A Love Story

by Kim Childs

images love treeOne morning as this year’s interminable winter gave way to spring, I took myself out for a walk. Strolling though my favorite park, I was arrested by the sight of a shining silver birch that was beginning to sprout some green. An exuberant “Hi!” escaped my lips and I looked around, wondering if anyone had heard me talking to the tree.

Not that I could have stopped myself. Because trees and I, well, we go way back.

As the daughter and sister of two skilled arborists, I consider trees part of the family. In fact, you could say that they put clothes on my back, a roof over my head, and money in my college fund. Our family photo collections contain just as many pictures of trees as they do of gap-toothed kids, pets and relatives. Growing up, my brothers and I would groan as Dad repeatedly stopped the car to photograph the specimens he spotted on family road trips.

I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in my school who could identify Japanese maples, Dutch Elm Disease and gypsy moths.

During my tomboy phase I climbed trees, and sometimes I read books in their branches. Later on I built a fort in the woods where I retreated throughout my adolescence, finding comfort and solitude among my beloved trees. I think that’s also where I felt closest to the God of my understanding.

Throughout college and the years that followed, I traded the solace of nature for the excitement of cities. Years spent living in Philadelphia, London and New York found me worshiping shiny buildings, hot clubs, trendy restaurants and trendier people. By the time I was 35, that lifestyle had burned me out.

An early midlife crisis sent me running back to the natural world for healing in 1999, when I came to live and recover my spirit at the Kripalu Center amid the green, green Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. I went for walks in the deep woods and did yoga or took naps under shady trees on the lawn. My fellow volunteers and I held sharing circles under the majestic American Elm near the Annex, shedding tears and speaking truths beneath its sheltering branches.

Assembling vrikshasana, or tree pose,  took on special meaning at Kripalu as I planted my foot, raised my arms and gazed out at steady evergreens for inspiration. “Trees get everything they need without striving, and they’re never in a hurry,” my yoga teacher once said. “Trees are strong because they root down into the Earth, reach for the heavens and bend with the wind.”

And thus trees became my gurus, too.

Two years later I moved to a suburb of Boston with tree-lined streets and plenty of parks. I’m now just minutes away from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau famously found tranquility in the woods. When I walk the bike path near my home, the tall pines and maples form a cathedral that receives my prayers and secrets. The birds and squirrels offer companionship, too, reminding me of Mary Oliver’s promise that life is always calling to me, “announcing (my) place in the family of things.”

I do feel benevolently companioned by trees, and I’m proud to call myself a tree hugger. I’ve also been known to thank them and caress their bark—usually when no one is looking.

“It’s no coincidence that the most important spiritual leaders went out to nature when they were searching for the truth,” says Positive Psychology teacher and author Tal Ben-Shahar. Indeed, the Buddha himself found enlightenment under a sacred fig tree that later became known as the Bodhi tree. It makes me wonder if this great spiritual teacher was absorbing wisdom from an even greater one during those weeks of sitting in stillness under its leaves.

I once heard a news report that said we humans are spending more time with machines than we are with each other, which makes me guess that time in nature has probably dropped even further down the list. While I love my gadgets, they rarely stir my heart like the smell of spruce or musky autumn leaves, the fiery blaze of fall color or the tender green shoots and pastel blossoms on the trees outside my door.

Recently, I was excited to learn about a meditation practice called Sit Spot. It involves finding a tranquil place in nature to simply sit and observe natural rhythms and changes for about 15 minutes a day over a period of time. Now that’s my kind of spiritual practice, and I know others who’d agree.

“I go among trees and sit still,” the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.”

May all beings, everywhere, find their own Bodhi tree.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.

Living Gratitude

by Kim Childs

Twenty years ago, I was driving solo along the highways of New Mexico with some books imageson tape to keep me company. The most memorable of these was Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, a self-help classic by the late Susan Jeffers. In addition to offering good ideas about managing fear, Jeffers suggested that I take time each night to write down 50 things for which I was grateful.

“Did she say 50?!” I exclaimed, rewinding the cassette. Yup, she said 50—because it’s not really about the list.

In order to create a lengthy gratitude list every night, you have to spend your days looking for things to write down. So far today, my items would include finding my favorite tea on sale at Whole Foods Market, that delightful toddler in the checkout line, the e-mail from a soul sister full of just the right words, and the delicious breeze that beckoned me outside for a walk. That’s five down, 45 to go. And so I will mentally note more to appreciate as the day goes on.

Sometimes the things that make my list reflect what did not happen that day, like a near miss on the highway, the car repair that wasn’t needed after all, and the medical test that came back negative. When I turn on the tap water, I’m grateful that I don’t live in a town plagued by drought or contamination. When my wheelchair-bound neighbor calls me for help, I’m reminded to appreciate my legs. And, because Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said something like “Be grateful for the non-toothache,” I often give thanks when pain or illness has disappeared.

It’s easy to be miserable when I’m suffering. I need to be thankful when I’m well.

What Jeffers was up to with her gratitude list was getting us to flip our internal script from a running monologue of criticism and complaining (and their close friends, scarcity and lack) to one of appreciation and wonder for what we have and what is always available. For years, Positive Psychology researchers have shown that a regular gratitude practice can boost mental and physical well-being. I find that it assuages loneliness, too. When I feel as if life is serving me up a bounty of blessings, I feel companioned by benevolent forces.

On the other hand, when I focus on my problems and complain about what I don’t have, it’s as if I’m wearing super-dark sunglasses. In that state, I’m unlikely to recognize my good when it does appear, and unmotivated to strive for better. It often creates a downward spiral in which my negative energy starts to attract more of the same. Think about a shaking fist versus an upturned palm. Which is more likely to attract struggle? Which is more likely to receive?

Still, I’m imperfectly human, and there are times when it’s hard to trust that life is giving me what I need when it’s not giving me what I want. That’s when I have to flip into “Maybe there’s a good reason for this delay,” or “Well, it could be worse…,” or “Is there another direction I’m meant to pursue?” I’m not saying that I move from anger to acceptance lickety-split, but I do find that life is gentler when I reach for things to appreciate in difficult times.

“What we appreciate, appreciates,” is a favorite saying of  Tal Ben-Shahar, my own Positive Psychology teacher and mentor. I used to think this meant that practicing gratitude was like practicing magic, as in, I say “Thanks, Universe!” and presto, more good stuff appears. Today I realize that expressing gratitude instantly makes me feel abundant, expansive, and connected to source, which is where the real magic happens.

Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, who writes extensively about gratitude, says that it begins with a sense of surprise for all that is given, rather than an air of entitlement. “Gratitude is a real practice in my mind, as valid as yoga or Zen meditation or Sufi dancing,” he says. “It’s not joy that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us joyful.”

I no longer write a gratitude list each night because thankfulness has become a living mindfulness practice, as I pay attention throughout the day to the blessings in my life. It’s an instant mood booster and a chance to acknowledge the miracles that surround me all the time, and that makes me feel hopeful and well cared for.

I also make it a habit to voice my appreciation to others whenever possible, from my husband’s helpfulness in the kitchen to a store clerk’s cheerful assistance and funky earrings.

And who knows? I just might be giving them something to add to their own list that night.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life and Career Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.

(Note: This post was written for Kripalu’s Thrive and also appears here.)

Finding Our Tribes

by Kim Childs

Last mindexonth as I watched my students in The Artist’s Way bonding with each other, I grew aware of some jealousy bubbling up in me. It made me realize that, since becoming a workshop facilitator, I’d spent more time creating support circles than cultivating my own. In the last year, I’d also let my social life get a bit too “virtual” as I single-mindedly focused on becoming a certified coach and building a new business.

While my online connections are wonderful, they don’t take the place of real people in my space, and they aren’t necessarily the people I call when I really need to talk. I know what that support looks like, because I’ve had it.

In the summer of 1997, I hit bottom in my personal and professional life, and depression was setting in. In the midst of that funk, I spotted a pink flier announcing a workshop on The Artist’s Way in my town. There was one spot left in the group, and I grabbed it.

Soon I was meeting weekly with a handful of kindred spirits who wanted what I did—a more authentic life and a way to express our passions. We entrusted each other with our once secret desires to sing, write poetry, pen novels, and paint. We helped each other through dark and doubtful moments, we celebrated each other’s progress and triumphs, and we stayed connected after the course was over.

And, as often happens on the road to recovery, I also discovered parts of me that needing healing.

I found a therapist who steered me to Al-Anon, a 12-step program for those affected by addiction in others. That’s where I was astonished to hear many versions of my own life story from men and women who had walked a similarly painful path of trying to cope in relationships with alcoholics and drug addicts. My circle of support now included Al-Anon members who shared secrets, supportive phone calls and Saturday mornings with me.

As my healing and recovery journey continued, I quit my radio career and headed to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, where I planned to volunteer all summer. In fact, I stayed for two years because I found yet another tribe there—people who were committed to growing themselves as spiritual warriors. My fellow yogis and yoginis were of different ages, races and backgrounds, but those differences melted as we chanted and danced ecstatically, held rituals, shared deep truths, drummed around the fire and practiced yoga on and off our mats.

It was a magical time.

When I left Kripalu and moved to the Boston area, I began leading others in transformational workshops. For 12 years, I’ve watched my students open up to each other in the safe space that we co-create. While they often enter the class feeling stuck and “terminally unique” with their neuroses and fears, they soon relax into the awareness that they are not alone, and that they can be authentic and connected—a powerful combination. When the workshop is over, many of them continue to meet, sharing support and inspiration for the journey ahead.

Now here I am, wanting the same thing for myself again.

My years of moving around to follow my bliss left me with lots of dear friends in faraway places. Many of my local pals have moved away in recent years, while others can be hard to pin down, and so Facebook is where we catch up. I have 600 friends on Facebook and, while they provide a warm and necessary sense of community at times, I’m more deeply nourished by face-to-face contact and rich conversation.

Psychiatrist Ned Hallowell noted in a recent interview that, while we’re all super connected electronically these days, we’re rather disconnected interpersonally. “People don’t have that sense of affiliation, of belonging, of company, of people to turn to at hand,” says Hallowell. “There’s an awful lot of unacknowledged loneliness out there—people surrounded by people, but not really connected.”

I hear this from friends and coaching clients, too, and it’s got me wondering: How can we do a better job of connecting with our flesh and blood tribes in this digital age? Positive Psychologists stress that strong social ties and relationships are crucial to our mental and physical well-being, but we’re often too busy typing, texting, surfing and posting to make a call or plan a visit.

It takes effort to maintain real relationships amid busy lives, but I know from experience that the fruits of those efforts are sweet, indeed. The other day I received an invitation to join a local women’s spirituality circle and I replied with a resounding “Yes!” I’m also creating a peer support group with fellow coaches in my area, and making plans to attend more gatherings this summer and spend time with people I love.

In my husband’s native Wolof language, there’s an odd phrase that sounds like, “Neet, neet-tay garabum.” When I asked him to translate, he told me, “People heal people.”

Yes, especially the kind you can reach out and touch.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life and Career Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.