III. What’s a Grumpy Mom to Do?

Irritation happens. What to do?

In the moment: we feel a flare up of irritation.

Acknowledging and allowing the emotion, we say to ourself “I feel irritated, and that’s okay.”

We take a moment to focus on our breath, saying the words to ourself: “breathing in, breathing out.” This slows us down, calms our nervous system and restores a sense of control. Placing a hand on our heart adds warmth and safety; letting our exhale be an audible sigh releases tension.

Breathing in, we imagine calm and compassion for ourself, our kids and the situation, whatever it may be. Breathing out, we let go of irritation for the burned bacon, parking ticket, or bowl of oatmeal upturned onto the carpet. 

All this may take 20-30 seconds.

Of course, we take care of our child and address whatever needs attention. When we can do so while calm rather than irritated, we are much more kindly, clearheaded and effective.

What if irritation sticks around? Well, irritation, grumpiness, actually all emotions arise out of what’s going on in our brain- our thoughts. So, we can pay attention to what we are thinking. We may be spinning some thoughts over and over: “That kid! It’s a no parking zone! Doesn’t he pay attention? Does he think I’m gonna pay for the ticket?” 

Can you see how thinking those thoughts would cause agitation? And when agitated, how would we likely handle the situation? Probably in an angry and accusative way, without clear thought, without firm grounding.

So, when we notice we are spinning in thoughts, making ourself agitated, fueling actions that aren’t helpful, we can ask ourself: 

 How else can I look at this?

 Is there another way to think about it? 

 What are the basic facts of the situation? 

 Is it helpful to be angry at him? 

 What was it like to get my first ticket?

 How do I want to feel toward him?

 Could this be an opportunity for my son to take responsibility for his actions?

 Can I be firm about that and also compassionate as he deals with his first parking ticket?

In this case, the irritation sticking around was an opportunity to notice and take responsibility for our thoughts. To look inward and redirect our brain. We became mindful of the adult responsibilities he has now that he is driving. We have an opportunity to help him negotiate the system, perhaps discuss how he will earn the money to pay for it, and of course, learn to pay better attention in future.

In this scenario, we redirected our thoughts, and transformed irritation into clarity, resolution and connection. 

In the first scenario, we borrowed wisdom from meditation traditions and neuroscience to turn irritation into kindness and calm.

In each way we find opportunity to learn and grow as parents, and as human beings.

II. Some Good Things To Know

Attention, Moms! Whether your kids are babes in arms, are almost old enough to join the Army or maybe even have their own army of kids, sometimes you get grumpy with them. Irritated, frustrated, impatient, angry, resentful.

You will probably think the reason you are grumpy is something like: your little one dumped her oatmeal on the carpet, your son got a parking ticket or the bacon burned.

But your grumpiness isn’t caused by the oatmeal, ticket, bacon or anything your kids do or say. You are grumpy because of what you are thinking about, for example, your daughter dumping the oatmeal. Perhaps that she shouldn’t have done that, or now you’ll be late for work, or she did that out of spite, or clumsiness, or whatever. 

How do I know this? Because no matter what happens, you get to choose how you respond to it. What you make it mean. You can choose what to think about the oatmeal or anything else. How you feel will depend on what you think.

That said, let’s say you are irritated about the oatmeal. You might feel like slamming a door and yelling at your little one. 

If you are able to stop yourself from acting out of irritation, from speaking unkind words, is that the end of it? What then happens with your negative feelings, with your negative thoughts?

Irritation or anger that is turned inward will eventually make its way out, perhaps as a slow drip, perhaps in a outburst. The thought that caused the irritation also still remains, unexamined and unprocessed. How we behave with our kids is important, but so too is how we feel and what we think. 

I have read that our brains produce 60 thousand thoughts a day, and 80% of those thoughts tend to be negative. This is because our brain is constantly looking for problems, alerting us, protecting us from danger.

So, when negative thoughts pop up, we can remind ourselves that nothing has gone wrong, that our brain is just doing its job. 

We can remind ourselves that no matter what happens with oatmeal, bacon, tickets or our kids, we can choose what we want to think about it. 

We can learn healthy ways to deal with negative emotions.

Next week we’ll get into specifics. See you back here for III. What’s a Mom to Actually Do?

Can We Talk About Your Brain?

Are you feeling called to do hard things? 

Things that make you feel uncomfortable, or require a lot of effort, but that you are committed to because they are important? Perhaps important to your health, to your business, or to creating the world you want to live in.

First, let me commend you! 

Second, can we talk about your brain for a moment? Understanding a few things about human brain function can make taking on those hard things a little easier. 

Caveat: I am not a scientific expert on the human brain. I don’t even play one on tv. But I do help people learn to do hard things, think new thoughts, perceive the world and themselves in new ways so that they can live more intentional, effective and fulfilling lives. Every day. I’m a life coach.

The most technical and science-y thing I will say is this: your decision to do hard things was made in your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is also what you will be relying on to actually do the hard things. It’s in charge of executive function, and will require a great deal of conscious intention, focus and effort to establish any new behaviors.

The prefrontal cortex can override the rest of your brain that DOES NOT want you to do hard things. That will provide reasons why hard things, new ideas, anything challenging and that takes effort and creates discomfort is A BAD IDEA. That will suggest instead that you check Facebook, make popcorn, scroll through your phone, look out the window. That wants you to keep silent, not speak up, keep your head down, and definitely not step off the well worn path.

That part -let’s call it the lower brain- is just doing its job, which is to keep you safe and expend as little energy as possible. It automates your repeated behaviors so that you don’t have to think about them so much- things like driving, brushing your teeth, getting dressed. 

So how can you use this knowledge to help you do hard things?

You can ease the effort required of your prefrontal cortex by

  • being very clear WHY the hard thing is important to you,
  • breaking the hard things into smaller, clearly defined actions,
  • mentally rehearsing when, where and how you will do them, 
  • imagining how you will feel when this new behavior is integrated into your life,
  • posting notes to yourself stating what you will do and WHY, and then
  • practice, practice, practice doing the hard thing.

You can anticipate the lower brain’s discouragement campaign to avoid being taken in by it, and you can be your own cheerleader. 

Try my current favorite approach: be on the alert and nod knowingly when your lower brain shows up and starts balking (you feel smart), then say something like “welcome, and thank you for your concern! I hear you! Very bad idea: okay, duly noted! You have done your job and done it well; now you may move along thank you very much.” (You feel politely but firmly in charge.)

Then, you do the hard thing- yes, and feel uncomfortable- but know that you have strengthened the muscle of your prefrontal cortex (pause to admire your badassery), and that the next time it will be even easier (how strategic is that).

And if you do this enough times, eventually – here is the magic part!- that hard thing becomes easier and your lower brain accepts it as the new normal, making room for it alongside flossing your teeth and flipping on your turn signal.

If I Believe My Thought

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

Sometimes I have thoughts that are judgmental, racist, petty or unfair.

If I believe that my thoughts reveal my moral character, I would then believe that I was a judgmental, racist, petty or unfair person.

I might then think that something is wrong with me, that I am a terrible person. I might feel deep shame. I might try to cover up those thoughts, from others and myself.

If I did try to better myself, to think more acceptable and honorable thoughts from a place of self judgment or shame, it would be like building on a shaky, unstable foundation.

If I tried to hide those unwanted thoughts from myself and others, I would always be on guard, fearful of being found out, disconnected from myself and others.

But if I believe 

-that everything I have ever seen, heard or read is imprinted in my brain, in my memory

-that I carry with me a record of my thoughts and experiences, as well as what I have picked up from my family and school and neighborhood and country and world’s thoughts and experiences

And I understand I have the ability to

-become aware of those thoughts

-decide what I think of those thoughts

-choose which ones I want to embrace, identify with and act from 

And I discover that 

-it is possible to be myself and let others be themselves

-it is possible to be with our humanness without fear, without hiding


-I understand the value of awareness, education, acceptance and love

-I understand the power of intentional thought and action

-I choose who I want to be and how I want to live

And I feel hope and love and faith in humanity.

Stepping on up

“My brain is really good at finding what’s wrong,” my client said. “I’m a chronically dissatisfied person.”

But what if our brains are supposed to look for what’s wrong, what we don’t like, what we see as a problem?

What if that was just Step 1, and then we moved on to…

Step 2, where we use that observation to identify what we would prefer instead

Step 3, where we apply our imagination to that new preference- whether it be a different job, a better relationship, a just world, a safe and healthy planet- and clarify it, feel how it feels, enjoy the feeling of that new preferred possibility. Wonder how to create that in our life. What would need to happen? Embrace the challenge of bringing this new idea into reality.

Step 4 is where we appreciate the original (unwanted) thing for it’s role in bringing onto being this new possibility we are now working on… and let go of it.

Most humans I know (including myself) have brains that are really good at finding what’s wrong. I like knowing I’ve got that step mastered, and now it’s time to see where I can go from there.

Pandemic? How Fun!

The other night, our household played the game Pandemic. Do you know of it? It’s a cooperative board game where the players work together to keep diseases in various parts of the world from spreading and becoming a pandemic.

While I love most games, I saw this one as falling into a category I’m not good at. The kind where each person plays a character in a made-up world that you have to wrap your head around. The kind where there are a LOT of rules to learn.  

But, we hadn’t had a game night in weeks, and I love hanging out with my peeps, so I was going to give this a go.

There we were, four of us around the table. My son read the rules out loud, and set up and explained the board and cards and little playing pieces. 

Soundtrack in my head:
I’m gonna suck at this.
It’s kind of creepy to be playing this game while we are in a real pandemic.
I’m not following anything Sam is saying about the rules.

We all had our characters assigned now, with their particular abilities. (Me: Lady Scientist.) The little cubes representing diseases were piled onto various countries on the world map in front of us. Everyone else started discussing strategies. I had no idea what they were talking about. 

I tried to remember what we were supposed to do in our turns. What did Sam say? Umm… choose four of the actions to do from this little card here, then pick two of these blue cards, then turn up two disease cards. So complicated!

Game starts- whew, my turn would be last so I had time to observe before it was time to do anything. Lots of discussion about which actions each player should choose to move themselves and then help others get to the cities and wipe out diseases. Lots of rules about each of those steps. 

But get this… the other players kept forgetting the last step of their turn: picking  the disease cards. And I remembered! So as the game went on I became the person that made sure everyone completed all the steps. Me, who was in a meltdown about all the rules, became the rule keeper. 

And each time when my turn came around, everyone jumped in to discuss my options and advise on what I could do to help the team keep the world safe. 

Soundtrack in my head became:
Hey, this is kind of fun!
Can you believe I’m the rule girl of the game- how funny is that!
I might not be great at this, but apparently that’s okay.

I started to feel somewhat confident. I started to relax and notice how the game worked. The words people were saying began to make sense. We were all helping each other. We were eradicating the world of diseases! Together we were gaining on world wide problems! 

And in addition to my assigned role of Lady Scientist, I inadvertently became the rule girl, keeping us all doing what we were supposed to do in the made up world of this game.

I did something I wasn’t confident about, or excited about, because I wanted to just be with my family.
I found a role for myself. 
I began to focus on what I could do.
I accepted (gratefully) all advice and help offered.
I found that when I relaxed and stopped thinking about what I didn’t know, my brain began to work better, to absorb information, to track what was going on.
I realized not everyone has to be the leader.
I realized it’s okay to bumble along until things start to make sense.
I was glad to know I can let myself feel dumb, and still have fun.
I enjoyed playing a game my family was really good at, enjoyed their enthusiasm, and learned something new.

And I enjoyed thinking about all the ways this game reflected real life, real life reflected this game, and my experience of playing this game reflected my experience of real life. 

And now my head wants to explode. Is anyone up for a game of Scrabble? Mah Jongg? All Aboard?

Staying Informed, Keeping Sane

I’ve been consciously working on finding a balance between staying informed about our national politics and keeping myself sane.

Last night before getting ready for bed, I checked my facebook page. I clicked open an article about current political disinformation campaigns. I sensed it was a bad time to do so, but I read it anyway as I flossed my teeth.

Angry, dire and judgmental thoughts flooded my head as I went on to brush my teeth, wash my face and push the button on my alarm clock. I slipped into bed and lay there, feeling a tide of panic and despair. I tried to recall more balanced, rational thoughts. Soothing thoughts that might allow me to at least set my concerns aside until morning, but they couldn’t find purchase in the clamor going on in my head. 

Self judgment joined the din: why did I need to check Facebook at eleven pm? why did I click open that article, which I knew would rile me up? And then my inability to coach myself, to talk myself down.  

On and on. One am, one thirty. Thoughts of the alarm going off at six, with no hope of sleep in sight, panic rising. 

I thought of the Ann Patchett novel next to me on the bedside table. A book light next to it. Would that help? And would I be proving my inability to self coach?

I remembered a story a teacher of mine told: a car at the top of a hill, parking brake failing. The slight possibility that one could, if noticed right away, use physical force to hold it back before it began to roll, or maybe jump into the car and get control of it before got going. But that once that car got moving the momentum would cause it to pick up speed and the best thing to do at that point would be to wait til it got the the bottom of the hill, or hit something that would stop it. The wisest thing would be to get out of the way, knowing it will eventually come to a standstill, and then assess and deal with the consequences.

I felt around in the dark for my book and clip on book light. The story diverted my attention and eventually gratefully I clicked off the light, slipped the bookmark between the pages and rolled over to get some sleep. When the alarm went off at six, I turned it off and slept until nine. 

In the morning I assessed the damage: I slept through Zumba class. 

What I gained: a reminder to listen to my gut, a renewed commitment to calm evenings and the value of good sleep. And a reminder for a compassionate approach to self coaching- it’s not a contest, it’s just a tool to be used when helpful and practical. 

In the light of morning, I was able to think about the article I’d read online with less anger, less despair. I recommitted to compassion, as well as truth and integrity. I recommitted to my faith in humans and the human experience. I felt clear and calm. Mind and heart open and engaged.

Staying informed, keeping sane.

Credit: Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

My Brain, Doin’ it’s Thing

Our brains love to answer questions, love to solve for the unknown. 

Sometimes when I am doing something new or challenging, I find myself asking “why is this so hard?” or “how come I’m not getting this?”.

If I pay attention, I notice thoughts like these start coming to me:

I’ve never been good at this.

It’s just so complicated.

I’m too old to learn new things.

These directions don’t make any sense!

I think a crazy person wrote this.

This stuff drives me nuts, always has, always will.

Thank you, brain… umm, sorta! I see that it has diligently gone to work on the questions I asked it, but I don’t like the answers and they certainly don’t make my work any easier.

Now what if, facing the same challenging or unfamiliar work, I caught myself and asked questions like these instead: 

What do I already know that could help me understand this problem?

What are some others ways of looking at this? 

How could I make this work interesting or fun?

What do I need to learn or understand to have this make sense to me?

If I knew the answer, what would it be?

What if I asked these questions, and then just got out of the way while answers started lighting up in my brain? It’s possible that life would be be a lot easier and a lot more fun. 

I think I might be willing to try it. 

Heck, what’s the worst that can happen? Oh wait, stop! Let me rephrase that question…

When Your Brain Enters the Scene

It’s not what happens TO us, it’s what happens IN OUR BRAIN that determines how we feel, what we do and all the results we ultimately end up with in our life.

How does this work? Let’s say you get this text from your son in college: he has quit school. 

Now, I want to make a point here: that message from your son is a circumstance. Whether he quit school is a circumstance. All circumstances are neutral. Neither good nor bad. They just are.

But you read the text, and your brain enters the scene. You have a thought.

Here’s the second point I want to make: we have a choice about what we think. There are unlimited thoughts to think in any circumstance. We may not realize we have a choice, probably nobody ever taught us that, but we always do.

Let’s look at some thoughts you might be thinking (and the emotion that thought probably would generate in you):

No @%!#ing way! He can’t just up and decide that! (in denial)

What the @%!#? After all we’ve done to get him in, all the money we’ve spent…I’m gonna wring his neck! (furious)

Whoa! I wonder what’s going on with him, what’s happened. (concerned)

Okay, third point: our emotions fuel our actions. So, in each of the examples above- feeling in denial or furious or concerned- what do you think you would do? Would you call your son? Your spouse? The college? What would the first words out of your mouth be? Would there likely be a showdown, a conversation, an edict given? How about your relationship with your son? 

Imagine all you would do and say in each case, and what might result from that. 

Here is a way to diagram the elements and relationships we have been discussing here:

A CIRCUMSTANCE is outside you, is always neutral, until you have a…

THOUGHT (or opinion, belief) which is always a choice whether conscious or not, where you give meaning to the circumstance, which generates a… 

FEELING or emotional/bodily reaction, that fuels…

ACTION all that you do, don’t do, say, don’t say, and that brings a…

RESULT in your life, initiated by your thought above.

Simply called “The Model,” this is a tool developed by Brooke Castillo, founder of The Life Coach School. We use a blank form- the five elements of the Model with blanks to fill in- to separate out and fill in all the parts of a situation in order to understand it better. 

Curiosity and self compassion need always be our guides in this work. As a coach, I ask both myself and my clients: By thinking this thought, what result am I creating in my life? Are there other thoughts I can think about this circumstance instead? To feel better about my job, my relationships, my life, what kinds of thoughts would I need to think?

Paying attention to our lives and making conscious choices are not new ideas. Socrates famously said: the unexamined life is not worth living. The Serenity Prayer says: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference. We find this echoed in all the great spiritual teachings and inspired works, across every tradition and culture.

We have so much more power in our lives than most of us ever take up. Power to choose our thoughts, to feel good about our lives, to act in ways that create the life we aspire to.

Two Brains In One

Do you have ideas for what you want for your life this new year, this new decade? Some goals, life changes? Yep, me too.

Setting a goal and then working toward it always has a secondary benefit, over and above whatever our actual goal is: it’s good exercise for our higher brain.

There’s a ton of great information on the human brain, but here’s the part that fascinates me, and makes so much sense of my experience. Simply put, we have two very different kinds of brain function. 

The prefrontal cortex is what I like to call our higher brain. It’s the source of our highest aspirations, as well as our determination to work through the hard stuff. It’s about consciousness and growth and owning our lives. It’s about principles and spirituality.

The other, primal part of our brain is dedicated to our basic survival, and motivates us to avoid pain, seek instant pleasure and spend as little energy as possible. It’s what allows us to drive, open a door and use a fork with little thought or effort. It also can keep us from change, from challenging ourselves, from doing new or hard things.

When we set a new goal, our primal brain works against us. That’s the resistance we feel, why it seems so hard at first.

This year my new goal feels big and important to me, and has me freaking out a bit. Here’s how I use knowing about my brain’s dual functions to:

…have more self compassion. It helps me not judge myself as weak or unprincipled- just someone who has a human brain. 

…work smarter: with, not against myself. I get that setting my goal is the easy part. Achieving it requires me to change my behavior, manage my emotions and think about my life in new ways. All that takes higher brain function work, which takes effort and focus, but I know that with time my primal brain will kick in to help make the new habits and ways of thinking smoother and more habitual. I appreciate how the two functions each serve a different, complementary purpose.

…provide extra, and deeper, motivation. Even when my determination wavers around my current goal, I remember that every time I choose to stick with my plan or do the hard thing required, I am strengthening my integrity, my confidence, my faith in myself. My ability and capacity for creating my best self. For living more consciously and fully. 

Setting a goal or resolution is an act of faith in ourselves. It has the capacity for strengthening the best and highest part of ourselves.