What do you need to say YES to?

So often we are focused on, even defined by, our no’s.

“I’m gluten free” or “I’m vegan” or even “I’m sober”. These are identities based around what we don’t do. And while that’s helpful information, it certainly doesn’t form a complete picture.

As a coach, I’m always being told by my clients what they don’t want. What they don’t want to feel, or don’t want to do, or how they don’t want things to be. “I don’t want to be so afraid of what people think of me” or “I don’t want to spend the whole holiday rushing around like a crazy person” or “I don’t want to waste another year not taking my writing seriously.” Okay, so those are actually examples of my own “don’t wants”, since let’s be real, I’m as guilty of this way of thinking as the next person.

But my job as a coach is to help people uncover what they DO want.

How they do want to feel, what they do want to experience. It’s amazing how hard it can be for us to articulate what we actually want, when it’s dead easy to come up with long lists of what we don’t. In a similar vein, it’s so easy to focus on what we want to cut out of our lives, we forget how vital it is to put some attention toward what we want to add in.

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A recent example for me was tv watching. I’d gotten into a habit a month ago of watching more tv than I felt good about, letting that be the default way I was spending my evenings and even daytime on the weekends when I was feeling too tired to do anything else. I was down on myself about it because I knew I was in an addictive cycle and that it was only making me feel less energetic and motivated to do other things, but cutting that behaviour out felt hard.

Then, totally unrelated, my friend Karoline kept telling me I simply had to read A House in the Sky, a book she loved and that I’d owned for years but never read. At her insistence, I picked it up one day and started reading and was immediately drawn into the incredible (and gut wrenching) true story of what this woman lived through. Suddenly I found myself wanting to read at night and in any spare moment I had.

Viola! My tv problem was solved. It happened without me even trying or almost even noticing, and certainly without any sense of deprivation or restriction. I just needed something else, another way to relax and turn my brain off that I actually enjoyed doing, even when I was tired.

I needed something enjoyable to move toward, rather that just focusing on what I was trying to move away from.

Speaking of deprivation and restriction, those feelings have come up a LOT for me in the last few years as I’ve adjusted my diet in order to heal whatever has been causing pain in my body. There have been a lot of restrictions over the years, and that can be a really hard way to live. For so long my focus was on what I was cutting out: sugar, dairy, gluten, grains, nightshades, FODMAPS. You name it, I’ve tried it.

And while that’s been an important part of the process, and being gluten-free makes a big impact on how I feel, I’ve felt so much more freedom in the last few months by focusing instead on what I’m adding in. Trying to up the amount of veggies I eat, adding in leafy greens, and focusing on always having a balance of protein, fat and fibre on my plate to keep my blood sugar stable.

This new approach of “what can I add here to make this more balanced?” feels so much better than being focused on what I can’t or “shouldn’t” have.

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I’m pretty good at cutting toxic content out of my life, including the moment I finally unsubscribed from the NYT “On Politics” newsletter when, months after the election, I was still seeing the dreaded T word in my inbox every morning, leading to an immediate spike in anxiety.

But one thing I consistently forget is the enormous value of consuming content that inspires me.

The other day, based on the recommendation of a friend, I watched Jagged, an HBO documentary about Alanis Morissette and her groundbreaking album Jagged Little Pill. I love watching artists do what they do, especially singer-songwriters. It’s fascinating and so inspiring to learn about their journeys, the countless rejections they receive along the way, the inevitability of brutally harsh critics for anyone who wants to create anything in this world, and the decade or so of hard work that goes into any “overnight success”.

I LOVED Jagged Little Pill back in the day. That album came out when I was 12 and just beginning to pay attention to music. It was so viscerally and unapologetically emotional, and completely unlike anything else I’d ever heard. I was too young to understand the sex references or to have experienced real romantic rejection yet, but You Oughta Know lit a fire within me. It’s just such a powerful song. And the album is so much more than just angry. It’s sweet and hopeful and heartbreaking and deeply deeply wise, especially when you consider she was only 19 when she started writing it.

Like virtually everyone of my generation, as a teenager I sang along to You Oughta Know, Ironic, Hand in my Pocket and You Learn, but it wasn’t until my 20s that I would uncover the album again and listen to it end to end, and discover hidden gems like Perfect and Mary Jane and Not the Doctor. To say I could sing that entire album word for word would not be an exaggeration, and yet for all my love of her songs, I didn’t really know anything about Alanis at all. So it was fun to learn about her then and now, and deeply inspiring to reflect on the enormous impact she made with that one album.

I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but looking back now, I realize how powerful it was to witness a woman who was unashamed of her feelings. A woman who said exactly what she felt with such razor sharp precision. It was intoxicating. I realize now that was the gift she gave to me back when I was filled up with my own angst and had nowhere to let it out. The gift of permission. To be angry. To be hurt. To be confused about who I was and what I wanted. Permission to feel all those things and to let them out as I sang along with her.

* * *

Permission to feel deeply is one of the greatest gifts art gives us. I had kind of forgotten that for a while, and thanks to that documentary, I am again filled up with inspiration to both consume great art and also to create my own.

And I haven’t done it yet, but since watching that documentary last weekend, I have a burning desire to take a long solo drive, listen to Jagged Little Pill at full volume, and sing my guts out. Knowing me, I’ll probably end up crying my guts out too and return home afterward feeling about 10 pounds lighter, and I’ll have Alanis to thank for that, all these many years later.

Permission. It’s a magical thing.

So while this post has taken a turn from my original intent, I’m giving myself permission to deviate.

And that’s what I’m offering you as well: Permission.

Forget all the no’s, and go out there and find something to say yes to. Maybe it’s a song, a poem, a book or a movie (hello Shawshank), but find something that lights you up and makes you FEEL. In fact, go ahead and make that a priority.

There’s more to life than our endless to do lists and self-improvement projects, after all.