Small Change Life Coaching

Stoicism: Care, Don’t Carry (and Unburden Yourself From the World)

StoicismMany folks who hear the words “stoic” or “stoicism” bring to mind someone who is aloof. Cold. Uncaring. Self-centered, even.

But, actually—folks who practice stoicism do care deeply about the world. The difference is they know how to control their emotions, rather than letting the emotionality of the moment control them.

I’ve inadvertently practiced stoicism for many years. Meaning, I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until I read the definition. I looked at my reactions to things as merely a way to remain focused and in a way were I could be actionary, if you will, rather than reactionary. But  it’s easy for some who do not (re)act in such a manner about things to confuse stoicism with lack of caring or indifference.

As an example, several years ago there was a school shooting that took place around the holidays.

Of course I was deeply affected by that. But I didn’t speak of it or show it. I didn’t need to. But I knew one girl who was in constant hysterics about it.

My friend couldn’t stop crying—to the point where she was so incapacitated for several days after the event she was unable to sleep at night, and finally collapsed so deeply into her emotional overwhelm about the shooting so deeply she had to call in sick for two days! Stoicism.

She was often quite emotional about things, but the extent to which she was overwhelmed was, in my thinking (as well as those of us around her) an extreme.  To her, however, it was a natural, normal reaction. She was utterly appalled that I wasn’t having a similar reaction, or at least wasn’t talking constantly about it and showing visible distress.

I could understand if she’d known one or two of the children, or she lost her own child, but it seemed way out of proportion to become that grief-stricken over something that happened to strangers.

She became convinced that my cooler way of reacting (and reacting to things in general) meant I absolutely didn’t care and I was completely self-centered. This wasn’t true at all.

When she finally calmed enough to a point where she could hold a non-sobbing conversation, I explained to her that it’s possible to feel things deeply, but not necessarily allow them to tear your life apart to the point where you cannot function. She stared at me as if I told her that she must tear off her own arm in order to continue on.

Finally, I said, “I was devastated and angered by that shooting. But how is allowing myself to be consumed by grief in such a way that I cannot function helpful? How did it feel to be so overwhelmed by your emotions you had to take two days off from work, claiming sickness?”

She stared at me a moment, still deeply confused, but blinking in a way that I could tell understanding had started to seep in.

“What does the phrase ‘care, don’t carry’ mean to you?” I asked.

“‘Care don’t carry?'”


She blinked again. “I don’t understand—?”

“It means you can care about something, deeply so. Even be affected—to a point–about it, but not so much you carry the weight of all the things that do affect you. Think of it like this. Let’s say you’re in a rock quarry, and you’re surrounded by dozens of gorgeous rocks, as well as some incredibly hideous ones. What’s easier–taking photos on your phone to remind you of the experience, or gathering up each rock and stone to keep with you at all times?”

She thought a moment. “But if I don’t get upset, how can I show I care?”

This is a prime example of indicating the confusion between caring and carrying. You don’t have to collapse into your emotions in order to show you care or are affected. 

That’s what stoicism is. The understanding that you cannot (always) control what happens to you, and you definitely cannot control what other people do and what happens to them—but you can choose how you react.

And the degree to which you react.

“There’s a difference between being upset, and being upset,” I said.  “Like tipped over and incapacitated. How can getting upset to the point where you’re fully unable to function help anyone?”

“I, well—I guess it can’t.”

“And, again—did you like feeling that overwhelmed by your emotions?”

“Well, not really, I guess. But how can I show I care if I’m not showing I’m caring?”

“Let’s say you had the means to fly out and help those families. Did the state you were in lend you the ability to do so?”

She thought a moment. “Well, no—but—” she stopped, blinked at me again, then mumbled something and walked off, confused. But it was clear an understanding had begun to knit together.

There are days when I still get overwhelmed by my emotions and I do cry or get visibly angry.

There are days when I’m even more overwhelmed and react poorly. Generally because I’m tired or it’s been a long run of crap and I’m burned out completely of reserves. But it doesn’t happen that often. And when it does, I’m certainly still able to function.

Generally, however, I keep it all to myself. I acknowledge how I’m feeling (stoicism is not burying things; burying emotions is merely overreacting inwardly, which is no different than overreacting outwardly). I allow myself to feel the feelings, but in a non-attached way.

 Notice I said “non-attached”, not “detached”.

Non-attachment means you hold no judgement, you hold no expected (“concretized”) outcome. You’re merely observing (but feeling is fine, as you’re doing so in a way where you’re still in control.)

Detachment lends a sense of shoulder-shrugging and a sense of “meh-ness”. Not truly paying attention.

When you practice caring about the world, rather than carrying the world, you unburden yourself from unnecessary emotional weight. You free yourself from taking on pain that doesn’t need to be carried by you. Pain that’s suffocating you.

There’s a great website called “The Daily Stoic” that’s very helpful in explaining stoicism. They even have a great article that outlines three easy steps to beginning the practice.

When you choose to feel the pain but not be controlled by it, you actually free yourself to feel things more fully, especially the joy that’s been squeezed out by all the pain.

Like the stoics, you can learn to let that water slide off your back like a duck. You learn how to stop the little things in life from pulling you down. You learn how to feel the big things deeply—but without incapacitation. It finally separates you from all that drama you keep saying you hate. It creates deeper and deeper levels of compassion.

And that’s how you can—most effectively—carry on.

Questions? Comments? Email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org or drop by my Facebook page and leave me a message, leave a comment below or feel free to start up a conversation in the discussion forum.

Deja-Vu All Over Again: When You Feel Like You’re Back Where You Started

It’s absolutely normal to feel this way.

But it’s actually an illusion. img_3322As a life coach, every single client I worked with (yes, every single one) ran into this at some point. Sometimes a full 180 degree return. Sometimes mildly.

Sometimes they remained in that return and gave up. But those who realized/accepted they’d get through it and it was normal, went on to achieve what they wanted.

What you’re experiencing is an unconscious resistance to the changes you’re trying to make that’s becoming conscious. Meaning, you’re in awareness of the resistance we can all feel at times to the changes. (I’ve been in a slump recently myself.) this is a good thing.


Because awareness is how you can become more mindful and therefore make more mindful choices.

Choose not to look at it as “suffering” or “struggling”. When we label times like this, we start focusing on what we don’t want. And when we focus on what we don’t want, we start creating more of it. As I always pointed out to my client, your mind skips over the “not” in “I don’t want” and hears only “I do want”.

So if you say to yourself, “I don’t want to struggle. I don’t want to suffer”–what, then is your mind really hearing, if it is deaf to not?If someone also says to themselves, “I’ve never been able to do _____” and it’s a goal they want to achieve, AND they’re focused on the “struggle” and “suffering”, they wind up creating more of that as well. It’s called a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, and it leads them to not creating that goal. Now, this isn’t mean to be discouraging. Not at all! Once you’re aware of the tricky things your unconscious mind tries to do to keep you in your old comfort zone, you can make changes.

But, to that–we also need time for integration.

It’s easy to think that if we’re not feeling consistent changes every single day, we’re slipping backwards. What’s possibly actually going on is your mind/body/spirit saying, “OK, I need to pause here and catch my breath. Really get these new skills under my belt.

An integral part of change are pauses like this. It’s also a chance to enjoy the view and see where you’ve come from. Because the other thing people have a tendency to do (and I do this, too), is compare themselves right now to where they were five minutes ago. Not last week, last month, last year. And/or they start comparing themselves to what they see others doing. Other people’s changes.

Always compare yourself to yourself, and it’s always best to put a healthy span of time between the comparisons. It’s difficult to sense change if you’re comparing yourself to where you were yesterday.

Also, just because you can’t sense the changes happening, it doesn’t mean they aren’t. Think of your journey like traveling down a river on a boat, using only the currents for momentum, but also steering yourself where you want to go.

Much of the time you can see the landscape passing and you have a sense of movement.

But, one day, you wake up and the river has widened to a point where you can’t see the land on either side. It’s cloudy above, uniformly so, making it impossible to gauge movement that way, too. The river is deep and looks still.

Have you stopped moving? What if the sky remains cloudy for days and days and the shore remains too far away for you to see it? Or do you know that the river is still carrying you?

This same phenomenon happens when we start making changes for the better.

But lulls are also times when we wake up and find ourselves moored to a dock. Maybe it’s a familiar dock to a familiar town filled with familiar habits. Except what your spirit is asking for at this time is some time to rest. That it even needs some familiarity for awhile.

The thing is, it’s not the SAME town you came from. Just very, very similar. You’re not actually back in your old ways/town because you’re now 350 miles downriver. So it’s impossible for you to have actually returned to the exact place you were. You’ve made too many changes and have traveled too far.

Another way to look at it is that change is a journey up a staircase lined with turnstiles. Some you will pass through easily. Some will be stiffer. Some will block you for a time (perhaps like where you are now), but with patience and acceptance of the pause, it will move.

The thing to keep in mind is that turnstiles, like the river, only go one direction: Forward. It’s only with enormous effort that you can go backwards.

But first, all change starts with acceptance.

We all hit these places of frustration. That we all sometimes have old habits come back, ESPECIALLY in the freshman time of making those changes. I’ve been immersed in personal growth for about 17 years and I still have periods of time when I roll back to old ways.

 Acceptance also means self-acceptance. If you’re in a lull, and your overall focus is to continue the changes, if you beat yourself up over the lull, over (unconsciously) reaching for an old habit you know doesn’t serve you, then it’s like trying to beat ourselves into submission.

Acceptance also means self-compassion.

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to screw up. Royally sometimes. That’s part of the human experience. Personal growth isn’t about becoming mistakeless or perfect. It’s about realizing your potential…and to realize you can make fewer mistakes (and far fewer royally terrible ones). I recently read a quote that went something like, “Good choices come from experience. Experience comes from making bad choices.” 

One thing I encouraged my clients to do was to give themselves permission to slip up. Permission to accept the slip-ups. Permission to be in lulls. I have to remind myself to do this now and then, too.

Another thing to know is that the greater the overwhelm you’re feeling (that’s also what can make us feel like we’ve stalled or returned to old habits; overwhelm is also normal when we’re making changes. It’s spiritual/mental sore muscles), the bigger the pull of momentum you’re feeling.

Meaning, it’s like being pulled backwards in a slingshot. So the greater the overwhelm, the farther away from where you were you’ll find yourself when it dissipates. (Most of the time, it’s smaller spurts, thankfully.)

So you’re in a very normal place if this is what you feel like is happening to you.

Hold yourself in compassion, look backwards to see how far you’ve come since you’ve started, recognize you’ve been in spots like this before and you’re still moving forward. It’s just that right now, that resistance in you is trying to trick you into thinking the river has stalled, simply because you can’t see the shores.

Questions? Comments? Email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org or drop by my Facebook page and leave me a message, leave a comment below or feel free to start up a conversation in the discussion forum.

The Right to Pursue Happiness is Rightfully Yours

Recently, someone on Facebook posited the question: “Is happiness something you have a right to, or is it something you have to earn?” annashummingbird

My response: “Neither.”

And what I mean by that is that we have to act, behave and make choices that generate our own happiness. We do not have the right to demand our own personal happiness from external resources. We are each responsible for our own level of happiness.

When we approach happiness as an “entitlement”, that’s when we become focused on (demanding) everything outside of us being responsible for “making” us happy.  And that’s the quickest route to UNhappiness. Read more →

How Goals Help keep you on Track


Once upon time, long long ago, I was in the Navy for three tours to Vietnam. My job was being a Boiler Technician and about the least desirable position anyone could ever want. It was mostly hot and miserable. We would work 16 to 18 hours a day on the average. We sweat so much that at one point you realized that you had no body odor. In my time there I worked my way up to 2nd Class Petty Officer (E-5).

As one gets close to their discharge date you have the opportunity to reenlist for another hitch. I was interested in doing so if I could make E-9 (Master Chief). The Career Counselor laughed at me and told me that Boiler Techs couldn’t ever make E-9. So my back up plan was to leave the US Navy and become a Chief Engineer in the US Merchant Marines. A considerably higher goal.

Once you leave the military, in those days, there was very little support to make the transition to civilian life. I didn’t have much of a support system waiting for me so I went home to my parents house and filed for unemployment.

I began my short term goals of growing my hair out and restoring old chevy muscle cars.
I had dreams of getting that Chief Engineer’s license and actually using it but didn’t really
know where to start except to talk to the Coast Guard who I later found out was in charge of Merchant Marine Licenses.

I started the process to get some basic seamen’s papers for unlicensed engineer ratings. This was a fairly tough task for me but I doggedly followed through. Later I realized that this was really a psychology test more than anything. In fact everything to do with this was a psychology test more than anything to do with skills or aptitude.

With Vietnam being shutdown there were few jobs around now for Merchant Marines so I kept growing my hair and working on muscle cars.

One day a friend of mine, who was a Port Engineer for a Coastal Freighter company in Seattle comes driving into the yard. He tells me to get in the car he’s taking me to work.
I argue with him. He just lost several of his Mechanics and I was the only one he knew that could help get this ship underway. Anyway I did get in the car with him but kicked myself later. He didn’t bring me back for 3 days after we left.

I found myself gainfully employed. We did all kinds of conversions turning old Navy Yard Oilers into Coastal Freighters that hauled groceries to Alaska and returned with holds full of Fish Product. These were old fashioned product haulers. All the cargo was hand stowed and off loaded the same way.

Going to work is by far the best therapy especially if it’s in a field you are interested in.
I had grown up stream fishing and was working on big machinery, two of my favorite things in one.

I now know I was also suffering from PTSD, I would get depressed and if there was no work I pretty much became a vegetable on my time off. I reasoned that I had to have some new experience that made Vietnam seem like child’s play. So after many years of getting my Engineer’s license the chance to go fishing in the Bering Sea came up. What else could be more intense than that? I questioned. I had heard so many stories of the rough conditions and fishermen that had lost their lives. Here was the experience that I thought I needed.

So my shallow depth of Merchant Marine Licensing had been greatly expanded over the years. Previously I didn’t know anything about Maritime Academy’s or the snobbish side
of credentials. Although I did finally have the whole picture of what I was trying to achieve and that was to become a very real “Chief Engineer Unlimited Horsepower”.
In the industry, it was said, that a real Chief Engineer could walk on any ship in the world and get it underway in 24 hours. This wasn’t a license requirement but more of a personal measure of oneself. So to be able to confidently walk on any ship in the world and get it underway was a knowledge and feeling I wanted to have. Maybe do a little fishing on the way.

It takes many years of experience, classes and certificates on the way to becoming a Chief. The rules are always changing but the basics remain the same.

On the path I was always tempted to try something else. With partners I tried starting 3 different companies which all crashed and burned. My Engineer’s License pulled me through more of these experiences than I can remember.

So off to the Bering Sea I went. It was like many years of life on a Roller Coaster but the awesomeness of the Sea and the wildlife was sometimes beyond description. Other times we went through storms with waves up to150 feet and winds almost as fast as the wave were tall. Finally you have a break through and it becomes a meditation. Vietnam was just a memory and the Bering Sea had given me a peace of mind I was searching for.

After the Bering Sea experience I still had to complete the upper level licensing I started after many years previously. Now it didn’t seem so important to me so I moved to Hawaii and waited for the right job to come along. I took a year off and didn’t wear any shoes the whole time. It relaxed my feet so much that when I did finally go back to work I had to buy shoes that were two sizes bigger.

Merchant Shipping was picking up again, after a 15 year break so I was able to finally use my Engineer’s License for what it was designed for. I eventually did get my full Unlimited Chief’s License and attain my Goal set back in 1974. I did it in 2004, a full 30 years later and have worked in that position ever since.

In talking with many of my Veteran friends, they all agreed that what worked to my benefit was having that Goal. I have to agree. Whenever I crashed and burned in life somehow that little thought in the back of my mind would surface and I would strike out again to become that Chief Engineer, if for no other reason than to be true to myself and show that lousy old Navy Career Counselor that I could do it. Not that he really gave a hoot.

In pursuing my goal I always looked for skills that would contribute to achieving what I wanted to do. My Aikido Sensei called these Side Training. Aikido helped me develop a Calm Mind or living calmness. At least the concept of it seemed worth following through on and was a great tool to becoming a decent Engineer.

PTSD was an obstacle I recognized and the only thing I could think of was do more of the same. Now that I’m older and wiser it makes the most sense.

In nature you find examples of this. The Ginseng root is said to live up to 300 years if not eaten on the way. It gets attacked by all sorts of things and develops immunities and ginsenosides to fight off these things but they are some kind of experience and the Ginseng deals with them and becomes stronger each time. That is why a Ginseng plant over 20 years old is fully mature and nothing much can bother it. To eat a fully mature ginseng root is to taste immortality they claim.

I have a Chinese friend that goes home regularly and I ask her to bring me a Thousand Year old Ginseng Root when she returns. She always asks what color I want?

Helping Yourself Sometimes Means Allowing Others to Help

let goOne thing that really frustrates me is when someone I know is continually lamenting how they can’t get to everything they need to do around a major project, even mentions something specifically they need help with—but then, when I offer to help with that specific item, they decline my help (or the offer goes in one ear and out the other)…and then continue to complain how overloaded they are.

Especially with that one specific sub-project they specifically asked for help with. Read more →