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  • Writer's pictureCatherine M Harris, ATR-BC, RYT 200

What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

Recently, I was lucky enough to go on my first week-long vacation since the pandemic. My family and I went to the Florida panhandle and set up camp alongside the waters’ edge, and it was beautiful. A much needed change of scenery after the last two years that came with an unspoken permission to leave behind any and all to-do lists and simply rest, play, and savor time with loved ones.

The trip was truly restorative, and I had grand plans to extend this sense of renewed energy into the coming weeks. But as I should probably expect by now, things do not always go according to plan. Upon returning home, the obstacles to maintaining the beach frame of mind just seemed to keep piling up: a broken hot water heater, continual nights of sleep interrupted by either a toddler or a cat, the lingering cold that we get every year when the weather changes, an entire shelving unit that collapsed in the main bedroom closet, and all while staring down the start of another day of Zoom meetings with the neighbor’s tree service and wood chipper serving as the constant soundtrack. There were so many things that needed attention, it was hard to know where to begin.

So what do you do when you don’t know what to do?

If this sounds familiar, then you are in good company. In multiple conversations with friends and family lately, it seems like the to-do lists keep growing for us without ever crossing anything off. One friend expertly termed this perpetual piling up of messes as the Vortex of Chaos, which unfortunately, the more I talk to people, the more this seems like the “new normal.” After thinking about these collective conversations and the similarities of our experience, it got me thinking--maybe it is not so much that the experiences have changed recently but more that our ability to cope with them has shifted.

After almost two years of living with the constant change, stress, and trauma of pandemic life, our energy reserves are depleted. We no longer have the mental and emotional bandwidth to respond to the challenges that in truth have always been present. Occurrences that once produced minor annoyances in our day-to-day now suddenly seem insurmountable. And of course, it is not just these unexpected inconveniences weighing on our minds and hearts. There is the regular load of work or school, family responsibilities and social needs all amid the backdrop of some of the deeper challenges of life that arise, such as the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or ongoing health concerns. When facing the sum total of this list, it is no wonder that we feel overwhelmed.

With this amount of constant stress on the mind, it can be hard to focus our attention and think clearly about what to do and how to respond. When there are so many things that need attention, it can be hard to know where to begin. So what do you do when you don’t know what to do?

Mindful Self-Compassion teaches us that sometimes we have to learn how to hold ourselves before we can hold our experience.

It may be instinctual then that I so often turn to Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) practices in these moments. What first stood out to me when learning about the approach of MSC, and what I have grown to love so much about the practice, is that Mindful Self-Compassion does not ask you to do anything. It does not require you to fix a problem, change a situation, or be anything other than exactly how you are in the moment. Instead, the practice simply provides a way to comfort and care for yourself within that moment. Mindful Self-Compassion teaches us that sometimes we have to learn how to hold ourselves before we can hold our experience.

Soothe, Soften, Allow

This idea is beautifully explored in a book I read earlier in the year called The Body Knows the Way by Nashville therapist and meditation teacher Gordon Peerman. Gordon writes, “There is simple magic in allowing yourself to have your experience . . . Allowing opens up a space for simple acceptance of reality, and the possibility of wise action in response. In allowing, you are holding space for your own healing.”

One practice that has helped me learn how to hold and create this space for healing is a Mindful Self-Compassion practice called Soothe, Soften, Allow.

To practice:

  • Take a moment to pause and bring your attention to the present moment. Notice where your feet connect to the earth. Notice where your body rests on any other surfaces, such as the floor, chair, or bed.

  • Notice what your breath is like in this moment, paying attention to the balance between inhale and exhale. Where does the inhale fill the body? Where does it create space? Where does the body fall with the exhale? Where does it soften and release?

  • Bring your attention to your body and notice any physical sensations in the moment, any presence of tension or tightness, soreness or even pain.

  • Place a hand on this physical sensation to offer soothing touch, noticing the warmth and tenderness of your own touch.

  • Imagine you can send your breath to this physical sensation, creating space for what you feel on in the inhale and facilitating a softening to that feeling on the exhale.

  • In this moment, allow the sensation to be just as it is, knowing there is no need to change or alter anything about this experience, knowing that you can allow it to be just as it is by offering your own soothing touch and your own softening breath.

For further reflection:

  • After taking a moment to soothe, soften, and allow, ask yourself: Is there anything I can let go of in this moment?

  • Maybe there is a physical sensation like the tightening of the jaw that can be released a little or a relaxing of the shoulders.

  • Maybe it is more of a mental perspective that can be released, attachment to a specific outcome, an expectation of perfection, a requirement to feel a certain way.

So often when faced with a difficult situation (or multiple difficult situations), we tend to focus on how we can fix the problem that is causing us stress, and we quickly deplete our energies trying to solve the unsolvable or change the unchangeable. Yet in these moments, what is truly needed is turning this focus inward and learning how to hold ourselves within the stressful experience through actions of comfort and care and meditations like Soothe, Soften, Allow.


Interested in learning more?

Schedule a free, 20 minute consultation with Catherine to learn more about how

Mindful Self-Compassion is used in Art Therapy Sessions for individuals and

Wellness in the Workplace Workshops for organizations.


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