Transcript Episode 36 : What Isn’t Working?

Introduction

Welcome to Sing With Your Feet, the podcast in which we hop down to the pumpkin patch to rescue a listener from a very very bad day.

The podcast in which we look at what isn’t working in our Ideal Life, without blaming ourselves for every tiny thing that’s going wrong.

The podcast in which we draw a distinction between expectations and expectancy, and find that one of them is an incredible vector for fairy dust…

My name is Lily Fields, and I am going to be your fairy godmother for the next half hour or so.

We are in week two of a four week series about the four questions we need to ask ourselves every day about just one theme of our Ideal Life. I sometimes will refer to your Ideal Life as something of a big beautiful Venn Diagram, and if you need help understanding that, then you should go back and listen to Episode 34, called Navigating Your Ideal Life. 

We’ve been trying to distill your life down to its basic components, and seeing how they interact and overlap…so that’s why I like to see it as a Venn Diagram. We did this by answering the prompt: In my ideal Life I am a person who… keep in mind, it’s not, “In my Ideal Life I have…” or “In my Ideal Life my husband is a person who…” 

After we’ve spent a lot of time answering that prompt, then we take the time to see what themes rise to the top. For me, there were 19 of them, which included Work, Parenting, Marriage, Health, Personal Style, A Clean House and way more. Your themes may be different from mine, and that’s okay. That’s great. That’s normal!!! We are all different, right?

Then, each day, we take just one of those themes and we answer four extremely simple questions about that theme: 1. What is working? (That’s what we talked about last week.) 2. What isn’t working (That’s what we are talking about this week.) 3. What do I need to think about? 4. What do I need to do today?

If you feel like I am getting repetitive about this, then I am 100% doing my job. Repetition is how we get good at anything, and getting good at examining our progress towards our Ideal Life is no exception! 

That said, I promise we will be moving on to another topic in just a few short weeks as we head into the holiday. Bear with me, Cinderella. We are on our way somewhere!!!

Part One: Listener Question:

I’m going to share a listener letter with you, but I want to assure you–I wrote back right away and even had an amazing FaceTime conversation with this listener to talk through some of what happened, before I asked permission to share her story with you. You’ll see that literally nothing could better illustrate what we are going to be talking about in today’s episode better than this tale of no good deed going unpunished. (And if you didn’t just hear Elphaba belting that out, then you and I need to reconsider our working fairy godmother/Cinderella relationship.)

So, all musical theater diversions aside…here’s that letter.

Dear Lily,

I hate my life. I hate my children. I really hate my husband. I’m sorry to dump all this on you, but I feel like you might be the only person who understands and won’t judge me.

Some idiot in my family (me) got an idea that it would be fun to go to the pumpkin patch with my kids. I got this stupid idea from an article I saw in People magazine about celebrities, and the pictures were so pretty. I got it into my stupid head that In my Ideal Life my family dresses in plaid shirts and cowboy hats and goes to the stupid pumpkin patch.

I have three kids, boy/girl twins age 4 and one toddler, boy, 18 months. I also have one husband, age 33.

I swear, the day started off bad, and I should have aborted the mission. My older son accidentally gave my toddler a black eye that morning. My daughter refused to wear a plaid dress I bought her because she said it looked like something a boy would wear. I finally convinced her by letting her wear a lace t-shirt of mine under the dress.

My husband was clearly not into this, and he kept saying, “why don’t we just get a pumpkin at Publix?” and I kept muttering  “please just shut up” because obviously, my husband not being into this meant that my older son, who already would have preferred to stay home and watch cartoons, was kept saying, “this is stupid.”

We drove by…count them…not one, not two, byt three Publix supermarkets on our way to the pumpkin patch, by the way, some sort of cosmic torture, with my husband saying, “we could just stop right here…” at each one. At the third one, I couldn’t hold my tongue and I said, “Can you just pretend for a few minutes that you love your family?”

This isn’t what I meant to say, but it was enough to get my daughter crying.

The pumpkin patch was a fiasco. My older son started sneezing within seconds of getting out of his carseat and my toddler fell in love with the ugliest pumpkin in the patch. I kept trying to take pictures, trying to get everyone to smile. You could imagine how that went, or you can see the picture I attached.

Lily, I went into this trying to live my Idea Life and I ended up hating my life. Help.

By the way, I’m not always this negative. I love the podcast and I like to listen while I’m doing the dishes because the music makes me want to dance.

Okay. Now help. 

Love,

Pumpkin Patch Party Pooper in Greenville, South Carolina

Ooooofff…Girl…I feel this. I feel this in every inch of my body, and not just because I saw the photo. I feel this because I have lived similar crises with my own family, and have come away saying, “we are never doing anything fun again for as long as I live.”

It’s like…the higher our expectations for an activity, the more certain we are to fail, right? 

Well, this is when we need to start singing with our feet.

You see, there is a fundamental shift in thinking that you need to do in order to stop hating your family for ruining your Instagram-worthy pumpkin patch photo shoot, and I can highlight it with just one sentence, taken from your letter, in your own words. May I?

In my Ideal Life my family dresses in plaid shirts and cowboy hats and goes to the pumpkin patch.

Let’s go back to the basics here for a second. When we answer that prompt, In my Ideal Life I am a person who… it is not about our family or how they dress, right? Or about where we go, right? It is about WHO you are in your Ideal Life.

Maybe, in regards to this situation, a more apt phrasing would be, In my Ideal Life, I am person who enjoys memorable moments with my family. Or In my Ideal Life, I am a person who has fun holiday traditions. Or In my Ideal Life, I am a person who is sensitive to the wants of my family and knows when to push and when to let go.

Let me reassure you: there is nothing wrong with wanting picture perfect holidays. We will talk about that in a few weeks. Dreaming about what we want our kids to remember about our holiday celebrations is fun! Pinterest is a great place to get inspired by, but a lousy place to set our hopes on. People Magazine articles glorifying celebrity holiday traditions is a great place to get an idea from, but a lousy place to get parenting advice from.

But to be truly authentic about what happened in this situation, you need to ask yourself that ever important question, “why?” What was it about that celebrity pumpkin patch article that inspired you? Having talked to you, and asked you this question live via FaceTime, I know that your answer surprised you, and I even wrote your answer down in my notes: I loved seeing them outside like that together.

You shared with me that your family doesn’t get to spend a lot of time outside. Your son has allergies, your daughter isn’t very outdoorsy. Your husband would rather build things in the garage than take a bike ride. And the little one–I believe you said you feel like the toddler leash was something created for him.

So. What we discovered is that in your Ideal Life, you are someone who gets outside with her family.

If that is what inspired your interest in doing this activity, then maybe there would have been a less high-stakes way to go about it, right? 

The idea was great. And, if you hadn’t pinned all your hopes for those perfect photos of the experience, maybe it might have been great. Your expectations got in the way of expectancy, and there is an important difference in the two, which I am going to stifle my urge to explain in the voice of the Philosopher Princess…I am going to try to summarize the difference in a completely normal voice, hold on…

Here we go… Expectations are like a checklist that will lead to an anticipated outcome. Expectancy is saying “I wonder what will happen if I bring these different elements together,” and then hoping for the best, but not hanging your ten-gallon hat on any one outcome. 

Expectations, while a perfectly valid way to get things done that depend entirely on ourselves, or when we have communicated doable steps with the people we need to have on board,  will inevitably lead to disappointment when they need to get checked by other people who don’t know that they are supposed to be checking off boxes. The outcome that you hope for cannot be met. Which is, we agree, what happened in your situation. 

Expectancy might say, “I’d love for my family to go outside together this fall, so I’m going to suggest a few outdoorsy things and see what makes my family sparkle.” 

I wonder what would happened if, maybe, in an effort to add some levity, you would have been willing to say, “Let’s look for the ugliest pumpkin we can find.” At the very least, this unexpected twist might have made it possible to not have to try and convince everyone to smile for pictures.

Just like when we talked about Creativity being the act of saying, “what would happen if…”, here you are creating a situation that is harder to fail. Ugly pumpkins are still pumpkins. And they are more fun to look for. More natural smiles. And oh no! What if they actually end up with a good-looking pumpkin? Heavens, no!

In this situation, there is no ideal outcome…but there is potential for less stress and more joy. And, lest I repeat myself endlessly, joy is the fairy dust that makes our lives worth living.

You and I talked about this, but I want to reiterate it for our listeners: Your Ideal Life is about who you are. It’s about how you react, about how you think…it’s not about anyone else. You can only control what happens between your ears, my dear, and how that impacts what you do with your mouth and your hands. 

When you love yourself, when you consent to your life, and when you stop comparing yourself and your life to others, and especially celebrities on Instagram with their nannies and their cowboy hats and their endless resources for cute outfits… you are, by the nature of things, going to create more memorable, joyful moments. 

It will happen. But you must let go of your unrealistic expectations.

And…actually, I want to insert a little personal story here, because I did something recently that could very easily have caused me to fall into the expectations conundrum…but by some miracle, and after years of practice in the seeking of fairy dust, I managed to let expectancy take the wheel, rather than my checklist of expectations for everyone in my life.

Many years ago, a very dear friend received as an inheritance an amazing grand piano from her great-uncle. Her house only being large enough for one piano, she asked if I would like to house her old piano until her son was out on his own, at which time he would take it back. It was like…a long-term loan. 

To celebrate the arrival of her grand piano at her house, she had a party, at which we made music with her family, some musician friends…it was so much fun. This is also the same friend who organized a living room concert to celebrate her 40th birthday. 

Well. Years passed, and her son picked up the piano back in January. I was very sad to see it go, because it had become part of my family. 

Fast forward to the start of this summer, when a dear old lady from my church was moving out of her home and into a Residence for seniors. She was looking to rehome her piano, and offered it to me. She mobilized some people to help move it, who had a little truck. A friend watched my boys while we went and helped pick the piano up, and then suddenly, I had a piano again!

I knew that I wanted to celebrate my new piano, just like my friend had all those years ago. Obviously, my new piano was not a grand piano, and my apartment is not an exquisite showpiece on the hill. But nonetheless, I organized a little party, inviting the people who helped move it, the lady who gave us the piano and her adult son. A few people canceled at the last minute, so I scrambled, inviting everyone I ran into to my party.

Now remember, I celebrated a birthday recently. It wasn’t an accident that this party was around my birthday. I wasn’t going to tell anyone in advance, but this was, for me, a way to celebrate my 45 years in a special way, with special people. Plus, I convinced my friend Myrtille, who loves to sing, to perform a song for our guests. My friend Aline even got out my son’s double bass and played along. It was…in a word…magical.

Listen. My apartment is tiny. Everything in it is falling apart. I usually don’t like to invite people over because of the shame I sometimes feel at the state of affairs. (I mean, we literally do not have cupboard doors on our under sink area…so the fact that we store a dozen PlayMobil toy bins under there cannot be hidden.) But I decided to set that aside, and do my best to create a pleasant atmosphere with pretty food, good people, and nice music. And you know what? It was amazing.

And you know what else? I didn’t take a single photo. It never even crossed my mind. I was so enjoying being with my guests, and singing songs and eating cookies and drinking bubbly… It is not because we didn’t take pictures that the event never happened. I really believe that each of my guests will remember our afternoon as something very special, even though we don’t have any photographic evidence.

When you do something, anything, no matter what it is, please don’t do it only for the Gram. Don’t do something just to have a photograph. Do it because it fills you with joy to do it. I promise you, this will make the difference in how you experience your life.

I love love love love to hear from my listeners. If you are having an Ideal Life conundrum and would like to work it out with some help from your fairy godmother, drop me a line, lily@lilyfieldschallenge.com.

Part Two: The Second Question

If I included this particular listener question in today’s episode, it is because it goes so well with the topic we are tackling this week. 

Today, we are looking at the question, “What isn’t working.”

Now, let’s remember, the context of asking ourselves these questions is not between you and your spouse, or you and your mother. It is just you.

There is no one who is going to judge you for what isn’t working, because no one else has to know. I think that there is power in putting things into words…remember, a few weeks ago I said that “Words are Surgery for the Soul”–And I believe that with all my heart.

Not necessarily conversations–although having a good, heartfelt conversation can bring healing. I really believe that the articulation of what isn’t working…even things that seem relatively small…is a powerful vector for finding a solution.

You know how…okay, maybe this is just me, but, sometimes I will complain about something to my husband and then he will swoop in and say, “well, if you don’t like that activity, maybe you should just quit?” or, “Have you tried doing x,y or z?”

Usually when that happens, I just end up more frustrated, because I wasn’t looking for a solution. I just wanted to put my frustrations into words. The act of saying the words was sufficient, sometimes, to have performed the surgery and gotten my soul into the recovery room without anyone else’s intervention.

So…in the end, in the words of the immortal Mike Birbiglia, “What I should have said…….was nothing.” 

Well. When you answer the question “What isn’t working?” in the context of your Ideal Life Exercise, you are not going to get any reaction to your answer from someone who, however helpfully, wants to solve your problem for you. You are simply going to have put your concerns, anger, frustration, boredom, whatever, into words. And then you can study it, solve it, or dismiss it.

Part Three: Beware Self-Criticism

For many of us, we have little microscope for things that aren’t going well. Like the Princess and the Pea, the tiniest inconvenience knocks us off our trajectory and we end up with outsized reactions to things that might, really, not be that big of a deal. But to us they feel like a big deal.

Listen, Cinderella. I live in France. I live in the country where complaining is the national pastime. I believe that French people are genetically different from the rest of the world in that regard. They just…they have a vocabulary for complaining and a capacity to find things to complain about that astonishes me.

But I think that for you and for me, we are capable of being lucid about what isn’t working. It isn’t like an additional level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for us to find things to complain about. 

What I get concerned about is when what isn’t working turns into self-critique. Remember, as we answer these questions, we are not judging ourselves for things that aren’t working. We are being curious. We are showing genuine interest in ourselves, and compassionately digging deep. I think, for example, about Party Pooper in the Pumpkin Patch, who sent me the letter. Her words were pretty harsh about herself and her situation.

Sure, I enjoy a nice expletive every now and again, like the next fairy godmother. I mean, a good harsh word can really capture a mood, right? But we can’t just stay there. We can’t just say, “What isn’t working?” “I’m an idiot.” We need to go deeper, no matter how unpleasant it is.

(sidenote: I told you that I want you to do this exercise when you are completely alone, and that having a Kleenex box nearby can be a really helpful thing. Something magical happens when we clearly state what isn’t working: We can release a lot of the stress that we’ve been holding in. And yes, sometimes, a really good cry can be what will help us make a breakthrough. Bonus points if it’s a really good cry followed by a nap.)

It is possible to look back on a week, when, for example, my pants aren’t fitting anymore and I know full well that I ate my way through a bag of chips for breakfast and ate an entire plate of brownies for lunch, to answer the question “What isn’t working?” by “I’m fat and I eat like a pig.”

My pants not fitting anymore is the symptom of something. That something happens to be that I was not taking good care of myself, and I knew it full well. Binge eating was the end result. But how did I get there? I got there by being tired. I got there by being stressed out, having no self-control and having no healthy outlet for my stress. I got there because I had no other food in the house. Those are the things that weren’t working. 

What isn’t working will inevitably lead to more questions. And those questions will help us as we head into the third question, which is “What do I need to consider,” which is the theme of next week’s episode. 

When a lot of things aren’t working, the most important thing to do is simply write it down. No judgment, no editorializing. Be honest with yourself. Address the elephant in the room.

Trust yourself enough to recognize what isn’t working.

Being compassionate with ourselves, being patient with ourselves, treating ourselves like a good friend who needs a kind ear…these will help us stay out of the self-criticism trap.

Part Four: When Everything Isn’t Working

Just like we said last week that we can sometimes end up answering the question “What is working” with…”Nothing is working…” We can also end up answering the question “What isn’t working” with “Everything.”

First, there’s this: The feeling that nothing is working is not the same thing as itemizing everything that isn’t working. We can feel like nothing is working, but also have a hard time coming up with anything that isn’t working. This is a kind of neutrality which is extremely important to understand.

You see, when you find yourself in a place where both nothing is working but nothing isn’t working either, then you need, you absolutely must, ask yourself the important question, WHY?

Creative low-tides, fatigue, overwhelm, boredom…these are very real manifestations that can lead to stagnation. Sometimes we can’t even put them into words, or put our finger on exactly why we’re just not making any progress. It is very important, then, to catch these when they start to appear. 

This is, then, another brilliant reason to develop the discipline of doing this exercise every single day: this neutrality can sneak into one area without touching others, and remain self-contained, meaning that it’s really just a sticking point in one circle of your Venn Diagram, just one theme of your Ideal Life where you are stagnating a little bit. This happens. 

Next week, when we talk about the third question, “What do I need to consider?” We will ask, for example, “Am I taking care of my basic needs?” And very often, our honest answers can reveal that we are stagnating because we aren’t taking care of ourselves well enough. But that is for next week. 

Where I would start to be concerned is if this neutrality becomes generalized across all the circles on your Venn Diagram, at which point, you really need to get professional Mental Health support. This feeling of being stuck and not being able to suss out anything at all that is working, without having any reason either that nothing isn’t working? That is something you need a professional to help you with. 

So first, I want us to imagine a little plotted graph with y-axis “What is working” and x-axis “What isn’t working. Were you to place points in that graph, what we just talking about would be at the 0 point on our graph.

Theoretically, we would end up creating a downward slope from upper left to lower right. Why? Because, in theory, at least (and you know how much I love theories!) if everything were working, then nothing wouldn’t be working, right? So you would be at a theoretical infinite point on the “What is working” y-axis, since if everything is working, then nothing isn’t working. Right? Right? 

Likewise, if everything isn’t working, or said another way, nothing is working, then you logically, you are at an infinite point on the x-axis.

These extremes, either the “everything” or “nothing” are something to keep our eye on. Nothing is infinitely perfect yet. Nothing is infinitely horrible either.

Taking this time, early in the morning, when you are completely alone and don’t have to be anyone for anyone else, means that you can perform a little verbal self-surgery, simply by putting into words, factually, what isn’t working right now.

Next week, we are going to take a look at how what isn’t working can become a springboard to solutions and progress, one little mote of fairy dust at a time.

Conclusion

If you feel like you are drowning–you are having a bad day, or a bad week, or a bad month…or a year…or….a bad life…? That really, really stinks. 

And it can get better. There are an infinite number of tiny steps of progress that you can make, millimeter by millimeter, improving your trajectory through your Ideal Life, and not all of them mean you have to learn how to swim or else you’ll sink.

Simply factually articulating what isn’t working is the act of putting your head above the water when you are drowning. Being lucid and stating what isn’t working will help you define the real forces at work so that you can counter them.

I want to encourage you. If you are feel like you absolutely nothing is working right now, find someone to talk to. Whether it is a friend or a therapist, put your concerns into words. Remember. Words are surgery for the soul. 

Closing

Thank you so much for listening to the podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe on your podcatcher, and please, if you enjoy something you’ve heard here please share it with someone you think could use a fairy godmother, too!

 A great big thank you to Seven Productions here in Mulhouse France for the use of the song La Joie as the Intro and Outtro to the show. Also, thanks to Matt Kugler who sang it and Claude Ekwe who wrote it.

This is your fairy godmother signing off. Just remember: it is never too late to start singing with your feet.

 Show Notes

 Talking points: The Good Girl Paradox and the Mama Paradox: how they keep us from being able to articulate what is going well in our lives. Also, how finding yourself interesting can make you more interesting.

If you have a question about the Ideal Life Exercise, drop Lily a line: lily@lilyfieldschallenge.com

A great big thank you to Seven Productions, https://7prod.fr/,  here in Mulhouse France for the use of the song La Joie for the Intro and Outtro to the show. Also, thanks to Matt Kugler who sang it and Claude Ekwe who wrote it.

Homework:

  •  Overall, would you say that your “what isn’t working” is less than, equal to or outweighs or “what is working?”
  • Think about the big things that aren’t working right now. Write them down, without judgment and without self-criticism.
  • How would you characterize the way you care for your basic needs (sleep, hydration, nutrition, fresh air)?
  • What relationships might there be between what isn’t working for you right now and how you care for your basic needs?



Episode 40: Loving Yourself at the Holidays Sing With Your Feet

Talking Points: Unhooking ourselves from the expectations of others; the lowest common denominator for joy; imagining our ideal holidays; taking care of ourselves. A great big thank you to Seven Productions in Mulhouse, France, for the use of the song La Joie as the intro and outtro of the show; to Matt Kugler who sang it and Claude Ekwe who wrote it.
  1. Episode 40: Loving Yourself at the Holidays
  2. Episode 39: Leaving a Commitment
  3. Episode 38: Let's Do This!
  4. Episode 37: I Need to Think!
  5. Episode 36: What Isn't Working?

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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