Three Quick Quotes and a FREE resource – 31 March 2021
Spring well and truly sprang yesterday (at least for some of us in the UK!) There’s a shimmer of green on trees and bushes, daffodils in the borders, and lambs in the field … Small details, but ones that bring me joy – and for a wider discussion on how attention to detail helps us or hinders us, scroll down to my blog post ‘The devil in the detail’ below.
Our three quick quotes this week are from Gabor Maté, Linda Graham and myself, and our free resource this week is the PDF version of our ‘Emergency Box’ poster. The poster can be found here, and a low-ink version can be found here – and there’s an explanation further down of what the poster is all about.
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“Feelings are inherently physical. We feel sick to our stomach or punched in the gut; we’re heartbroken or feel winded. Recognising that we experience emotions in our bodies, my first response to them is always to breathe. Emotions invariably cause our breathing to shallow and speed, so I counteract this. Not by breathing in – because this tenses me more, and it often feels, when upset, that there’s no space for the air to fill – but first of all by breathing out. Emptying my lungs, pushing the air out through my mouth like I’m blowing up a balloon. Emptying, and then emptying some more – it’s a strange phenomenon that when we feel our lungs are empty, there’s always more to come. I push the air out of myself.
And then I let get of the tension needed to do that. And automatically, without effort, the air comes rushing in: it’s simple physics. And then I do it again. And again. And so, when my body screams with the agony of emotion, when my heart is racing and nausea is gripping my guts, I breathe. Just for a few minutes. But I deliberately focus my attention on counteracting the reaction in my body, with this one, simple technique.”
this week’s free resource
The only good time to find out that your first aid kit is empty is when you’re well, and you have time to restock it. The worst time is when you’re bleeding from an artery. Similarly, we need to plan ahead of time for how we’re going to manage a mental health crisis, and have strategies in place. Because crises WILL come – how we handle them depends not on some innate character capability, but very often merely on planning. And that’s what an ‘Emergency Box’ is all about.
This poster, taken from our ‘Emotional Resource Guide’, is a starting point for discussion and planning – when I hit crisis, what things might be helpful to me? What could I reach for, like a physical first aid kit, to stem the bleeding? What are the emotional equivalents of bandages and slings?
I know from experience as well as from neuroscience that when I’m in a crisis, I lose the ability to think, to use my front brain. I can’t at that moment figure out what might help me. By gathering together items or objects – or even lists of activities – into an emergency box ahead of time, I don’t need to think or figure out solutions. I can just reach for my pre-prepared list of suggestions. Even the simple act of planning how I will care for my future self when I’m stressed and distressed is a step in the right direction of self-compassion and care.
When you’re in crisis, what do you need? What would help? What would bring some comfort or soothing? That’s what this poster is aimed to help you start to think about.
snapshot of my week
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
Today would have been my twentieth wedding anniversary. As it happens, instead, last week was the fifth anniversary of my divorce. This astonishes me: not that life didn’t work out as I had dreamed and planned it would. But that times goes so quickly, and that so much of what is important in the moment holds no significance at all years later.
Take, for example, the font for the Orders of Service at our wedding. I don’t remember now what the font was (all I can be sure of was that it was not Comic Sans), but I do remember the agonies of choice over it at the time. It seemed so important ‘with just three months to go’, as if the right font on the right coloured card with the right binding and the right words would predict my future happiness.
Such attention to detail often plays a role in our success or failure. People who know me well know that I pay a lot of attention to detail. Sometimes it’s my strength; sometimes it’s my frailty. Because those who succeed do so by paying attention to detail. They are exact and precise and diligent; they master their art; the devil is in the detail. A brain surgeon, a proofreader, a sculptor, a solicitor: their success lies in their ability to attend to detail and to do so diligently.
But it’s also true that people who struggle in life often do so because of attention to detail – because of a ruminating, self-critical, fear-and-shame-based obsession over detail. They are stymied by anxiety over minutiae that don’t matter. They fret over font size, and forget what they’re actually writing. In social settings they brood over every word and facial expression and emotion that was said and seen and felt, flagellating themselves for every detail of every wrongness of last night’s ‘friend or foe?’ encounter.
People who obsess over detail become grand masters of skill and wisdom and achievement, and people who obsess over detail become paralysed with fear and shame and inaction. The only difference is in knowing which details are worth obsessing over.
I see this in my life, for good and for ill. When I’m tired, when I’m stressed, when I’m outside my window of tolerance, my need to use exactly the right word even in a shallow social encounter can thwart my ability to connect well with others. I am distracted by detail. I am disturbed by detail. I am derailed by detail. But when I’m on my game, in the green zone, and I’m writing a book or a blog, my need to use exactly the right word drives me to higher standards of eloquence and emotional expression.
I have been learning, over many years, that we all have a writing part, and an editing part, and that never the twain should meet. When I’m writing, I need to write – and not obsess over the detail, of whether that was in fact just the right word, if its etymology was sufficiently apt, if the rhythm and rise and timbre of the sentence appropriately suits what I’m attempting to convey. I need to write what needs to be written, and not censor it out of existence. If I write and edit simultaneously, I write the same, perfect words – all four of them – over and over again. I need to segregate the two activities. Write now; edit later.
When I’m outside my window of tolerance, I get stuck in editing mode in life: the detail of everything that is wrong, and could be wrong, and will be wrong with me. I stop trying, for fear of failing. I assume that what I do will be wrong, and rubbish, and reckless, and I get writer’s block for life itself. But when I’m feeling fundamentally safe and settled, in the green zone, in my front brain, I write life forwards, letting it spill onto the page, knowing that I can splurge now and refine after. I don’t edit and critique myself while I’m living. I give it my best shot and later, in bed on my own, I edit my experience together – but I don’t let it stop me living and trying and risking and doing in the moment. Editing matters, but only once you’ve written. This is my permanent battle.
When I was engaged to be married, I obsessed over too many details. The colour of the card, the size and swirl of the font, are irrelevant now. My ‘big day’ was not spoilt by the wind, despite 73 photos of my dress perpendicular to the grass. Twenty years later, the worry over fonts and photographs was of futile insignificance – enjoyable perhaps in the moment (I enjoyed choosing just the right font) – but not a detail that made any difference in the long run.
The detail of a book chapter matters; the detail of a note to the window cleaner does not. The detail of a ‘with sympathy’ card matters; the detail of what someone said on Facebook does not. The detail of compassionate self-talk matters; the detail of all the reasons for our erroneous self-hatred does not.
What are the details that you are obsessing over today that really won’t make a jot of difference in twenty years’ time? And what in your life needs more attention to detail today so that in two decades you will be a more skilled master of your art, and of the art of living?