A Missing Ingredient
By Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC
I recently read about the concept of “flow” in the book “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time” by Bridgid Schulte and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Flow is a timeless space, where one becomes absorbed in the challenge of the task at hand- the surgeon in the middle of a complex procedure, the artist caught up in the act of creation, the child playing in her own imaginary world. In flow, humans lose themselves and feel most at peace. It is a state that researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl describes as greater than happiness. And it requires undivided attention and uninterrupted time.”
Flow is allowing yourself to do your thing (whatever that is), get immersed in it, and feel satisfied by doing it. It’s a fairly simple concept: we see children doing this all the time. It is an essential part of being human.
The research on “flow” has illuminated something – a danger I have seen in my counseling office for years. We view flow as leisure, and we consider leisure optional, as something we can do on vacation or when the to-do list is complete. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that people who are in care-taking roles (children and parents yes, but also think of partners, lovers, and friends – you know, when other’s needs come first) are challenged to simply allow themselves “flow” in the first place.
We don’t have permission from ourselves for flow. We believe creative pursuits and pleasure are secondary to meeting expectations and crossing things off the list. Listening to our own rhythm and allowing for flow is considered indulgent, not necessity. This is a huge error in thinking. Allowing for flow reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. It reminds us of our essential goodness and magic. Brené Brown, in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” says, “Creativity (and flow, I think), which is the expression of our originality, helps us stay mindful that what we bring to the world is completely original and can not be compared.” Worthiness lives in flow. Life energy does too.
This matters. Many of you reading this have grappled with trying to free yourself of compulsively numbing through eating or not eating, dieting and exercise. Sometimes I wonder if the constant “self-improvement project” is our stand-in for creativity and flow. No wonder we are on a constant search for busyness and satisfaction. So many of our go-tos leave us simultaneously empty and longing for more.
I think about the times that I experience flow in my life. Writing. Being alone. Music. Stillness. Yoga. Cooking with the music on. Some reading. Travel with minimal agenda. Even occasionally picking up clutter. Outdoor adventures with my family. Being in the presence of creation, mine or another’s.
When I look at this research through the lens of my own motherhood, the guilt of “not enough” comes front and center. It’s so commonplace it can jump into almost any thought process. The guilt invites trying harder and doing more instead of throwing down the gauntlet and saying “enough already!” Caregivers of all types are not revered for their boundaries but for how much they pull off. There is always something to do, so much to communicate, to show up for, to think of and be considerate about. We are drowning and are taught to be damn proud of it. We just call it busy. Brené Brown calls it “hustling for our worthiness”. It is the antithesis of flow.
My teacher Jennifer Louden wisely reminds me that we are individually responsible for setting our own “conditions for enough-ness”. It is up to us to decide what is enough and to call it good. We typically set the bar so high, we continue to hustle. But we can set the bar anywhere we want, especially if doing so creates conditions for ease…for flow…and there is more space for you. (By the way, others in your life may not like this, but they aren’t trying to do what you are trying to do – so let it go).
I recently read a remarkably wonderful book called the “The Crossroads of Should and Must” by Elle Luna. In it she says this, as she compares the words should and must:
“Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires — unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.
Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own — and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.”
When we are in flow we are saying yes to something in us. It is not the adding to the to-do list or fixating on the schedule. We are being intimate with our own presence. We believe in what is coming forth, or at least there is a relationship to allowing. It is better than happiness (the research says). It is because it is our own self calling forth what we came here to do.
I’m beginning to believe that flow is an antidote to compulsion: allowing instead of judging. It emerges instead of pushing its way forward. If we don’t talk about this in the healing process then we can almost miss the point of healing. We don’t want to heal compulsive or addictive processes simply to be “good” or “better”. We don’t heal shame simply to be out of pain (although, yes), but to find meaning in life that is lit up with enough-ness and worthiness. We do this to give voice to our own sweet self that has been there all along, ripe with valid contribution. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone get free of compulsion without connecting to a passion so compelling it counterbalances the painful years of numbing, striving and coping.
One of the most radical shifts you can make is to free some time for yourself; time where your deepest interests are front and center and you say no to others. This boundary can become a container in which the creative energy of flow takes seed and you create space for what you must do instead of the endless shoulds. This is what you are here to express. Let yourself flow.
Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC is a therapist and co-founder of Be Nourished. She encourages conscious and authentic living, with the courage to love yourself anyway.