Find Your Inner Compass: Learn to Listen

  In Shirking the Shoulds, we played around with the idea of letting go of The Shoulds— beliefs we hold about how we're supposed to do things. But that begs the question: If we don't do things the way we're "supposed to", how do we do them? I believe we learn to trust our instincts---something you're going to love or resist, and decide I've gone off my rocker into "woo woo-ey" territory:


I used to tell myself a lie: Writers are poor.

I thumbed this idea like a worry stone. I thought about it on the way to work. Driving down valley to grocery shop. Wishing I could book a nice hotel when my boyfriend and I wanted to rock climb in January without camping in snow.

That one thought created a stress that infiltrated my body, showing up in outward pressure in my chest and the sensation of something lodged in my throat. And then one day, my friend Dina asked me a question.

"Are writers poor?"

She was training to be a life coach, and had offered some of her practice hours to me. We sat outside her house at a metal table, and I remember the way the sun cast the shadow of the table's pattern across my legs. I had never asked that question before.

I assumed it was true because moving from Minnesota to Colorado, and from marketing to writing, had reduced my paycheck by a third. But under Dina's careful questioning I realized that I didn't make more money because I didn't know how to ask for it. My mind ran circles when I determined my rates, even informed by competitive analyses. I didn't TRUST in the value of my work.

Luckily, Dina gave me a new way to approach it.



"How do you feel when you ask for too little money?" Dina asked.

I told her I felt like crap, but Dina meant in my body. Actual physical sensations.

I told her about my throat and my chest.

"That's your body talking to you," she explained.


Dina went on to explain that we have two parts---the part of ourselves that's deeply versed in society's logic (everything we learned from our parents, our friends, at church, at school and at work about how we should behave), and the part of ourselves that knows when all that logic is a load of hogwash.

Dina called them the socialized self and the essential self, and said the essential self knows what we need at all times. We're just good at overriding it because we're so well versed in the logic of society.

That idea resonated with me right away.



I think of my essential self as the five-year-old me who hid behind a tree on the way to kindergarten. I wanted to learn new things and make new friends, but I didn't want to be bullied by the teacher because I didn't know how to tie my shoes. She wouldn't teach me, wouldn't let anyone else tie my shoes, and let me walk around with my laces dragging. Some part of me knew I didn't need to be treated like that, but I didn't know how to tell my mom. (Luckily, WonderMom discovered velcro shoes shortly after she discovered that I'd ditched kindergarten).

Portaging in the BWCAW

Just like I didn't know how to tell my mom about my teacher, the essential self doesn't have words. It talks to us by compelling us to hide behind trees or sending signals through our bodies---another way to think about it is that gut feeling you get when something is really great or really bad.

When we're following The Shoulds, we override those gut feelings. We cover them up, gird our loins, and do whatever it is we're "supposed" to do.

Luckily, we can practice trusting our instincts by tuning into our bodies when we make decisions. Dina invited me to do that when I set my rates. Instead of running a comparison between my services and other writers', she suggested tuning into whether I felt closed in my throat or open and free.

If that sounds too easy, let me be the first to tell you that as soon as I started doing that, I started making more money. It was gradual, but I proved to myself that writers did not have to be poor.



The first step to listening to your body is to practice feeling it. An easy way to do that comes from this adaptation of an Eckhart Tolle exercise, and if you're feeling uncomfortable with the idea of essential and socialized selves, this is a place to start:

Find a comfortable place and take a seat. Sit tall but not rigid, and close your eyes. Mentally scan your body and see if you have any tension or sensations anywhere. Don't judge or assign value, just observe.

Now, set one elbow on your knee, a table or some other surface so you can raise your hand into the air. Your hand should be touching nothing but air.

With your eyes still closed, ask yourself, "How do I know my hand is real?" Notice any sensations or cues that tell you your hand is real even though you can't see it.

When you're finished allow your hand to return to a resting position. Take a deep breath and exhale. Mentally scan your body. Does it feel different?

When I do this, I feel a tingling in my hand, and a pulsing sensation. Afterward, my whole body feels more relaxed. You might have sensed something different---a buzzing, or a breeze on your hand. Whatever it was, in that moment you were in your body and out of your mind. You were practicing what Life Coach Martha Beck calls wordlessness.



Life Coach Martha Beck (who trained Dina, and whose memoirs I very much recommend) has developed a process of listening to your body as a tool---she calls it the Body Compass. This is what Dina taught me, and in it's most basic form it goes like this:

Think of a time that wasn't that great. In fact, it kind of sucked. You don't have to dwell on it, but remember it and see what sensations arise in your body. (I get that closed throat feeling). Once you identify those sensations, give the overall feeling a nickname. I call mine "Closed" but have a client who calls hers "Reggy", a nickname for rigid.

Now, take a deep breath. Shake off the bad memories.

Sit comfortably and remember a time that was great. Go through the same process: see what sensations come up in your body. I get a swelling and an openness in my throat. Give that feeling a name.

This gives you a way to check in with yourself when you're making decisions about your writing. Say you get offered an assignment, and the publisher wants to pay you $25. Check in with your body---which way does it feel when you think about trading your work for $25? Let that influence your negotiation.

Trusting our own wisdom takes practice, but over time it will help you find a sense of freedom and you'll see the results in your writing. You'll learn to tell the difference between fear masquerading as wisdom (as one wise WritingStrides reader put it), and your true instincts.

Read Post #3 in the Find Your Inner Compass series: Find Your Own Way