Kathryn Ely: “Here Is How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”

Remember, there is so much you can do to spread hope and love through social media and technology, that you don’t have to be sitting across from someone to help them and give them what they might need today. So don’t let distance stop you. As a part of my series about “How To Develop […]

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Remember, there is so much you can do to spread hope and love through social media and technology, that you don’t have to be sitting across from someone to help them and give them what they might need today. So don’t let distance stop you.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn Ely, MA, ALC, NCC and podcasterA former practicing attorney, Kathryn Ely, is an Associate Licensed Counselor, National Certified Counselor, and the host of the popular Imperfect Thriving podcast. She owns a private counseling and consulting practice, Empower Counseling, in Birmingham, Alabama, where she lives with her husband, 3 children, and 2 Labrador Retrievers, Otis and Cooper. It is her mission to help women uncover their limiting beliefs, determine what they want their lives to look like, and discover the imperfect daily actions to get them there.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Itis certainly my pleasure. I decided at a very young age that I wanted to be an attorney when I grew up. I was in 6th grade actually. I put blinders on after that and did not allow myself to stray off that path. I was rigid with my rules for myself and put a lot of pressure on myself. I went straight through college and into Law School. Even though I contracted mono and would fall asleep sitting up in class my first semester, I plowed through and graduated on time. I never slowed down to ask myself if I was enjoying my life. I worked as an attorney for many years. Then I took time off to stay at home for about 5 years with my kids. When my two older children were in high school, I realized I needed to find my purpose in the next chapter of my life. I couldn’t stand the thought of not knowing what I would do when all 3 children left the nest. I went back to school in my mid 40’s to become a licensed counselor. During this process, I realized how much anxiety I had and how my rigid and perfectionist thinking contributed to this anxiety. While in my internship, I learned about a particular kind of therapy that I really connected with — Acceptance Commitment Therapy. I learned all that I could about it and applied it to myself. I now use the same program with my clients that helped me go from rigid, perfectionist, and very limiting thinking, to psychological flexibility. I not only thoroughly enjoy my work now, I completely accept myself, flaws included, and love my life. It’s this type of transformation I see my clients go through on a daily basis.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My most interesting stories are all about the amazing transformations I see in my clients go through. I often help women in mid-life like me, who have been taking care of children and parents and have lost themselves along the wayI see them go from floating through life, letting life happen to them, to understanding how they have been limiting themselves. Then ultimately determine what they want in life, and learn how to go out and get it. They go from a sort of helplessness in the way they are letting life happen to them, as if they have no choice in the matter, to realizing that when they are clear about what they want, they can have the lives and the relationships they want to have. This dramatically changes how they experience their lives. So in a way, it is the same story, but it never gets old.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

A fantastic work culture begins with the leader being clear on what she values. What does she want her work to be about? What is most important to her? When she is clear about exactly what is most important to her in her work and who she wants to be known as, that becomes her compass, guiding all of her decisions. It will drive her vision, her mission, and how she treats others. When she is true to her values, then she will be authentic, transparent, and consistent. She will hire employees who share these values and know exactly what is expected of them. When everyone in the work culture is working toward the same valued purpose, it is necessarily productive, fantastic, and electric.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Atomic Habits, by James Clear, made a significant impact on me and my practice, no doubt. If you have not read it, you must. I am a cognitive behavioral therapist, so I am very interested in learning ways to make creating new behaviors easier for my clients. James Clear explains how to leave behind old habits and how to create new, more helpful, habits in such a helpful way. I have used what I learned from his book with so many of my clients. We are the sum of our habits. So every new behavior starts with a very small action that, if performed enough times, becomes a habit.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Mindfulness is all about awareness and acceptance. It is being fully present in the moment, accepting whatever thoughts or emotions you are experiencing, with openness and without judgment. I also see mindfulness as the first part of living an intentional life. To be intentional with your actions, you must first be mindful, or aware, of what you want and the actions that will get you there.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

Research shows that mindfulness can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Often times anxiety and depression arise because we want to avoid, or don’t think we can handle, certain thoughts and feelings. For example, if you become anxious in social situations, you might begin avoiding being around other people to avoid the feeling of being anxious, or you might self-sooth with alcohol. Running from these anxious feelings, may make you experience temporary relief but these anxious thoughts will come back and they will be worse because now you have proven to yourself that you can not handle them. You will isolate yourself more and more, or drink more and more, either of which, can then lead to depression.

Mindfulness is a completely different approach to handling uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness is a powerful way to ride your thoughts and emotions like a wave. Mindfulness can help you stop playing tug of war with your anxious thoughts or stop running from them in fear. True mindfulness is an acceptance of all thoughts and feelings. When I say acceptance, I don’t mean you have to like these uncomfortable feelings. You just accept them and understand they are temporary and you don’t have to run from them. When you achieve this acceptance, there are so many benefits. The physical and mental symptoms ofanxiety and depression subside because you know longer fear your thoughts and emotions. You don’t have to avoid with food, drugs, or alcohol.

Mindfulness can also be used as the first step toward an intentional life. To be intentional in your actions, you must first be mindful or aware of the life you want to lead. When you are clear on what you want your life to look like, and the actions it will take you to get there, you will be so much more fulfilled and satisfied. When you are fulfilled and satisfied, you are more likely to be mentally and physically well.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

1. Create a 5 minute morning mindfulness routine. (Include steps 2 and 3 in your routine.) My routine is longer than 5 minutes, but 5 minutes is plenty of time to start. It is easier to start a new habit if you start small. I like to walk my dogs first thing in the morning. I use the quiet of the early morning, the excitement of my dogs as they greet the day, and being outside to begin my day with mindfulness appreciation. I incorporate steps 2 and 3 into my walk. By the time I finish our walk, I know how I want to show up in my day, for the people in my life, and what I want to accomplish in the day.

2.Focus on what you can control. Anxiety often stems from feeling like you have no control. When you feel no control your mind begins spitting out all of the negative “what ifs” that can happen in the situation but your mind does not answer these questions. These unanswered worst case scenarios lead to more and anxiety. So it is easy to get caught in an anxious loop.

Instead, focus on what you can do in the situation. Begin each morning, before you listen to news, with an intention of who you want to be today and how you want to live this day only. I choose to live the day focusing on uplifting others and doing everything in my control to make my day a good one.

Our minds are meant to solve problems, so we tend to ask ourselves all of the possible negative “what ifs” in any given situation. I have seen this with so many clients who come to my practice. Then we don’t even answer these questions. We just take off in a tailspin of anxiety about all of the possibilities. When your mind gives you the negative “what ifs,” use mindfulness to let them go. Then take time to focus on the positive “what ifs.”

3. Build your new normal. Having no structure to your day all of a sudden can leave you feeling, once again, out of control. Instead, create a schedule for yourself. Be mindful and intentional with your time, so you spend it in ways that are fulfilling and satisfying to you. Begin this daily schedule with a few moments of mindfulness before anything else.

Ask yourself:

1. Who might need me today?

2. How can I help them?

3. Who do I want to be today?

4. What am I grateful for? (Gratitude lifts the mood.)

5. What do I want to accomplish?

6. What actions will it take to accomplish my goals for the day? (This is the intentional part.)

Focusing on who you want to be and what is important to you at the beginning of every day will have a huge impact on how you show up in your life, and in your relationships.

4.Journal.You can write these questions in your journal, then journal what actions you took before you ago to bed. How did these actions make you feel? How did you experience the day? What did you do that worked? What would you like to change tomorrow?

All of these actions will lead to feeling a sense of control and satisfaction, which are so important right now for continued mental health. And you will be able to look back at this time as proof that the hard times are temporary.

The clients I have who are able to, not only, incorporate a mindfulness routine into their days, but then also, journal and evaluate how the routine worked or didn’t work, make the most progress toward living the lives they want to live.

5. Let it go. Now that you have thought about everything in this situation that you can control, let go of the rest. You can not control the actions of other people. If the news of what others are doing, or not doing, and social media are bringing you down, limit your intake.

Most of my clients find this to be the toughest part of a mindfulness practice, letting go of what they can not control. It is especially hard to let go of trying to control the outcome of our relationships, and the actions of those in our lives. We want certain things for our children because we have created a picture in our minds of how we want their lives to be. But we can not make that picture happen. Trying to control the actions of others or what happens in the lives of others creates stress and anxiety. If we can use mindfulness to let go of the need to control others or the outcomes in their lives, then we have done something huge for our mental and physical health.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

There are so many things we can each do to support each other during uncertain and anxious times. And the thing is, if we use our energy to focus on what we can do for others, rather than all of the things we can not control right now, we will be happier, and much less anxious. So putting others first, at times, is a win, win! So I would say the first step is…

1. Put others at top of mind, first thing in your mindfulness routine.

You can incorporate others into your mindfulness habit by asking yourself, “Who might need me today?” and “How can I help her?”. By beginning your day with a mindful focus on others, you set the stage to be mindful and intentional in your actions toward others throughout that day.

2. Go more in depth.

You could add even more questions to your morning mindfulness habit:

1. Who might be lonely today?

2. Who might need food today?

3. Who might be anxious today?

4. What does the world need?

5. How can I show up and serve others?

Start with the basic needs of others. If they are hungry or lack shelter, they will be most anxious about these needs. Start there and work your way up the ladder of their other needs.

3. Now that you know who might need your help, ask yourself “what actions can I take to help.”

Can I cook or pick up food for someone who can’t do it herself? Can I FaceTime an elderly relative who may feel isolated and lonely? Can I get my children involved and help even more individuals in our lives?

Can I host a FaceBook live to share my gifts with a larger group?

4. Take Action. It is great to think about all of the things you can do in a day to help others, but it doesn’t do much good until you take action on these thoughts.

Remember, there is so much you can do to spread hope and love through social media and technology, that you don’t have to be sitting across from someone to help them and give them what they might need today. So don’t let distance stop you.

5. Use positive reinforcement. At the end of the day, think about what you did for others and let yourself feel good about it. Don’t berate yourself for not doing enough or not doing it all. Pat yourself on the back for any action you took to help other people. This positive reinforcement will spur you on to take more action tomorrow.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

The best resources are the Acceptance Commitment Therapists in your neighborhood or city. They can guide you through the steps of incorporating mindfulness into your life. Often we have limiting beliefs or negative core beliefs that are roadblocks to a mindfulness practice. Sometimes we need the help of professionals to see how and why we limit ourselves, and how to remove these limitations.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Failure is success in progress”- EINSTEIN. The day I really believed this to be true was the day my life completely changed. For the fist 48 years of my life, I thought I was not enough. Because I was not enough, I thought I must do everything perfectly. Because I held myself to a bar of perfection, I was afraid to try anything in life that I would not be good at the on the very first try. Therefore, I did not try many things. I missed out on so much of life because of fear of failure. Working through Acceptance Commitment Therapy myself, I found acceptance of myself as a flawed human being, who could not possibly reach perfection in anything. Now I see life as one big experiment. I am not afraid to try because I know I learn by doing, not by thinking about doing. Failure truly is success in progress and that is so liberating for me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ha ha, could you please tell that to my children? If I could start a movement, I would ask all women in the world two to answer two questions truthfully to themselves:

  1. What do I value?

2. What do I want?

These seem like such simple questions to ask ourselves. But through my experience, I have come to realize that so many women believe that they must always be taking care of the needs of others, leaving no room for thinking about themselves and what they want their lives to look like. When we are clear about what is important to us and what we want our lives to look like, we are not only more fulfilled and satisfied in our own lives, we are fueled to be our best selves for our families and the rest of the world. Let’s quit limiting ourselves. When we know who we are and what we want down deep, we have so much more to offer and so much more good to do for the world.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

You can find me and my podcast at https://imperfectthriving.com and follow me on social media @imperfectthriving.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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