Last year, I worked with a client I'll call Michelle, who had recently gotten out of a long-term relationship. She had a good job at a publishing house, and she loved working with writers. But she felt lost. She wanted to feel centered and purposeful, but all she felt was anxiety. Finally, a mutual friend referred her to me.
"I feel like I've completely lost my direction," she told me during our first session. "I just got out of this relationship, so now's the time to do something special, something meaningful. But I don't know what to do."
"Tell me about a time you're proud of," I said. "Something in your life that you look back on and think, Wow, I did that."
"Well," she said, "I'm proud that I work in book publishing. It's a competitive field, so…" She trailed off, sounding unconvinced.
"What's something you're really proud of?" I said.
She thought. "I guess…there was this writing contest in college, and I won first place for a story. It was nothing big. But that's how I got into publishing; that's how I started working at the school's magazine."
"What about it made you feel proud?"
"It made me feel creative and, you know, good at something. I loved writing it, and people liked it, so." For the first time since she'd walked into my office, she smiled – and that told me we were on to something.
"Do you write stories now?"
"No," she said, her smile fading. "I just read other people's. I'm too busy."
Over the next few sessions, Michelle and I talked a lot about values. I asked her about times she didn't feel anxious, times she felt purposeful and centered; we looked at events in her past that stood out to her as important. She described spending time with family, working on a meaningful project, and taking care of herself. We began to see a clearer picture of her core values: creativity, family, health.
The problem was, she wasn't doing much to honor those values. So we looked at ways she could.
She'd fallen out of touch with her parents, so she decided to visit them in Florida at least three times a year, plus call them every weekend. She also looked at how her health had fallen by the wayside. "There was a time when I went running every day," she said, "but now I'm sitting constantly – on the subway, at work, at home. I want to get back in shape."
There were times when Michelle still struggled – she didn't always believe that these changes would help, and sometimes she found it hard to stick to her new plans. But I encouraged her to keep trying, and much to her credit, she did.
A few months later, Michelle walked into my office, a big grin on her face. "I went for a run yesterday," she said, "and while I was running, I thought about my story I wrote in college, and I realized, you know what? I've always wanted to write a novel. That was my dream growing up. And now I help other people write their books, but I haven't written a word of my own in years. And I want to."
That's how Michelle started writing again. She got up an hour earlier to write in the mornings, and on weekends, she went to her favorite café.
Almost a year after I met her, I asked Michelle to check in with herself, and see how things had changed.
"Do you still feel lost, like you're on the wrong track?" I said.
"You know what's funny?" she said thoughtfully. "From the outside, my life doesn't look that different. I still live in my same apartment, I work the same job. But I feel 100% different. I feel like my life is on track. I'm closer with my family again, and I feel great physically. I'm happy. I'm right where I want to be."
She told me that as she made changes to honor her core values more, other aspects of her life fell into place. She slept better, ate better, she had more energy. And recently, she emailed me to say that one of her short stories is set to be published this summer.
Lots of people, at some point in their lives, find themselves in Michelle's shoes. They feel lost, directionless. But it's not that they don't have a map; it's that they've lost sight of their "true north." Their compass stopped working – they forgot what was important to them.
Often, this happens after a big change or disappointment (like Michelle, who'd just gotten out of a long relationship). It can also happen when we're working toward a goal, if we get bogged down in all the nitty gritty stuff and forget what we're really doing. It can also happen when life gets busy and we don’t take care of ourselves.
No matter what the cause is, you can always reorient yourself.
One of my favorite ways is – you guessed it – exercise. When you move your body, you clear away the clutter in your brain. You open up new channels of insight and creativity. You tap into what your body wants to tell you. Your body has the answers you need – you just need to listen.
Another way is to look at what your values are, and ask yourself: am I honoring these values? Am I giving time to them, every day? Or am I spending my time doing less important things?
For the best possible answers, I encourage you to combine the two techniques – ask yourself (and answer) those questions, while you're exercising. That can be as simple as a walk around the block, or even just standing up and doing a few squats or stretches.
So I turn to you: what is your true north? What do you truly value?
Have you ever lost your way? How did you get back on track? Tell me about it below – I love hearing your stories!
Then go out, face your true north, and shine.
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