Old Hurt, New Reaction

First, the promised winners of the giveaway: Kelly Harms has won Ann LeFevre’s book, Live Your Life, 14 Days to the Best You. Winners of the coaching sessions are: Cynthia Pepper, Linda Marsh and Lynn Thompson. Congratulations to the winners! You’ll be hearing from me for details. *   *   *   *   * 

Emotional reactions (often called triggers) are familiar to every breathing human being.  Something from the past –a word, comment, reaction, song, even a smell–that snaps us back to a  bad memory in full, vivid color. The most common reaction is to behave as we did the first time–although we may be decades older.

Old tree trunk, with considerably damage, still beautiful. Beautiful because of the damage.

In mild cases, triggers cause us to cringe with the emotional strength of the memory. In severe cases, they cause us to behave forcefully, drop years of therapy, coaching, or conditioning. In the worst cases, they aren’t  just flashbacks, they are the symptoms of PTSD.

Let’s focus on those milder triggers: The relative who says something thoughtless, taking you back to childhood. You snap at them as you did when you were younger. A friend teases you and pushes an old trigger, you reply harshly, surprising your friend with your anger and hurt.

This afternoon, I was on the phone, talking to an acquaintance, and she pushed an old, almost forgotten trigger. It was a casual, teasing move on her part. But to my emotions, it felt like a slap, a reminder of a mistake I made that I’d rather not re-hash. I was at the point where my tongue already was sharpened to smack down the remark and devastate the speaker, when a thought flashed across my mind:

“You aren’t the same person as you were back then. Time has passed. You have changed. Circumstances have changed. Use a new reaction. You won’t be sorry.”

Just as fast as it came, it was gone, but the truth it left behind was huge. I paused, pushing away the hurt and embarrassment of the long-ago mistake I made. Instead, I stepped into the adult I have become, the different person I have grown into since that incident. In that instant, I could see the acquaintance meant no harm, I could see her remark from her perspective.

That shift in perspective allowed me to swallow my own hurtful remark, and say something light-hearted instead

The result surprised me. Instead of letting the trigger pull me back into the past, I brought the event into the present and saw that it had lost some of the power to shame and hurt. Time had made me capable of different behavior. Enough time has passed. I am different. It will always be a trigger, but I do not have to let it hurt me again

Quinn McDonald is surprised that old hurts can remain old.



Reading Baby Wipes

No, no, this is not as dreadful as it sounds. Most artists use baby wipes in their art–to wipe up smears, to spread ink, to clean fingers. I use mine to read, to let my mind wander and come up with new ideas.

Sometimes when I sit down at the art table, I need a few minutes to move from what I was doing before to a creative mindset. The shift is not always automatic. This morning, I found a used baby wipe (no babies in the house, this was an alcohol ink wipe) and immediately began to see figures in the ready-to-discard wipe.

There are figures pressed into this baby wipe, and as the ink soaks into the grooves, allowing figures to stand out.  Here is a close-up of another wipe I played with.

Using a Tombow pen, I pulled up a little robot of inspiration. He’ll have to work hard to bring me new ideas, and with those friendly antenna, he should pick up ideas from far off.

Yes, you can see it as a demon, but I decided to befriend the abstract as a robot. You can even see the extension cord on this guy.

By the time the outline was done, I had an idea and was ready to work. Taking your mind off your work allows ideas to float to the top of your mind. And it’s kinder than sitting down and saying, “I need ideas, and I need them now!”

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who often needs to get to creative ideas by a long path and the back door.



What I Learned From Failure

My artwork didn’t get accepted into a juried competition. It’s an experience every writer and artist knows as rejection. It’s not a question of  if, it’s a question of  when.

Over the years, I’ve let rejections destroy my confidence and make me wonder if a skilled PhotoShop user has a better chance of success than I do.  I’ve let the inner critic out of the cage to gnaw on my soul, leaving it half-eaten in the rain of self-doubt.

This is the accordion book I made with alcohol inks. It represents the five seasons in Arizona–spring, early summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. The length of time the sun is above the horizon is reflected in the length of each piece of art. © Quinn McDonald, 2018.

This time, having worked on a skill that separates creative self-expression from outside judgment, I was disappointed, but only for 10 minutes. And it was disappointment, not crushing self-defeat. I can talk about it without shame. I’m writing about it to see if what I learned (over time) helps other artists who put their work on display to be judged by strangers.

Every artist (I’m including writers, musicians, dancers, performers and every other art form) takes their creative work, tosses it in the air and risks judgment, ridicule, and being ignored.  We are hoping for delight, engagement and maybe a sale.

The skill that I learned, the one that helped me survive rejection, is called non-attachment. I developed it through practice.  Like every other skill, it takes practice to get comfortable with, and then good at, non-attachment. First, non-attachment does not mean not caring, not investing yourself, or ignoring your emotions.

The accordion book laid flat. The white numbers under each panel is the length of time the sun is above the horizon on the 21st of the month in the middle of the season. © Quinn McDonald, 2018. All rights reserved.

Non-attachment is rooted in a simple idea: creators create for self-expression. In my creativity coaching practice, I’ll ask “Why are you writing this book?” (Or painting, composing, singing–engaging in expressing creativity.) Most often, the answer is, “I want to get it published and make money.” That’s where the problem festers.

Yes, artists have to sell their work to pay the grocery, plumber, and mortgage. If that is the primary reason they create, all creative decisions  will be made through the marketing plan and all success will me measured in sales. I’ve been there, and it is a dry, lifeless place of relentless competition and incremental failure.

The reason to create, to practice, to struggle with your creative urge is to express creativity. That’s it. That’s the prime directive of the creative soul–express your creativity. It is the process of creating that lifts the soul, not the price tag.

When you create work that requires your concentration, full attention, joy, fear, satisfaction–that is the reward.

What others think of it is their opinion. You might grow from another opinion, but if you let random opinions steer your creative expression,  you will forever be chasing approval. Your creative expression will no longer be tethered to your idea, it will be tied to someone else’s preferences. That’s an impossible space in which to create.

Here are 10 clear steps to get to non-attachment:

1. Work regularly. Creative work builds endurance and creative muscle.

2. Work relentlessly. Self-doubt? Keep working. Not sure the piece is good? Keep working. Tired? Get some rest, then keep working.

(This stage includes re-writing, editing, overpainting, noodling with those six bars in the refrain, anything that is improving the work.)

3. Work until you are satisfied.  Don’t know if you are done? How satisfied are you? Not sure? Not done. Don’t ask Facebook, Instagram, your mom or best friend if you are done. They are related to your inner critic, not your creative expression.

4. When you have worked hard and made meaning for yourself, you will feel satisfied. Happy, if you give yourself permission.

5. Give your piece a name or title. It’s an ancient tradition that naming something gives you power over it and distance from it.

6. Send it out into the world. Enter a juried competition, put it up for sale, go to a gallery. Because your creative work brought you joy in creation, what someone else says is an opinion, not absolute Truth with a capital T.

7. If you are turned down (the term I prefer instead of “rejected,”) you will still have your hard work, your idea, and your satisfaction. The rest is someone else’s opinion.

8. You cannot live in the judge’s head. They might not like your kind of art. (That’s their opinion.) They may know what price-point sells in their gallery and choose that kind of work. (Their marketing decision.) They may choose a piece that fits a certain space, one that reminds them of the curtains in their childhood home, or something that their dog wagged his tail at–all decisions that have nothing to do with you. Your artistic decisions are complete. What happens next is not yours to control.

9. If you are turned down, you still have your joy and satisfaction. You may feel disappointed that all the unknown decisions didn’t line up right for you, but those decisions were not yours to control. The ones you do control were ones that you were satisfied with. That’s the core of creative self-expression. Once you are satisfied with the quality of your effort and your result, no one can take it from you.

10. Go to the show that didn’t accept you. Enjoy the work, congratulate the artists. Feeling happy for others is a skill that stretches your soul to make it fit more easily.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach, writer, and artist. She helps artists learn non-attachment.




When Authentic Isn’t Enough

One image of a Gordian knot. There are many interpretations. I like this one for its art value.

One image of a Gordian knot. There are many interpretations. I like this one for its art value. Image from http://www.sangsunbae.com Check out the other imaginative images from this artist, too.


Digging through my journals, I came across a story I want to include in the book I’m working on. (For now, the content of the book is not important.) The story is about my mom’s struggle with authenticity. She stewed in the perpetual heat of anger. One day, I asked her, “What is it that makes you so angry all the time?” I asked it in the softest voice possible. I really wanted to know; it was a key to our Gordian-knot relationship.

She looked at me and explained, “This is who I am. You always say it is good to be authentic. This is me, authentic. If you can’t deal with it, it is your fault. I am being true to myself.” The fable of the lady and the asp flashed through my head, but I remained quiet.


To this day, I still feel anxious when I hear anger–even if it is not directed at me.

She had a point. Except her anger was so damaging, so painful. But most of her friends–those whom she liked–didn’t feel the sting of her anger. She did have another side. I rarely saw it.

Fast forward to now, when we encourage people not to change, to be happy as they are. What makes me think this? Listen to the language we use:

  • It is what it is
  • That’s you being you
  • Be yourself, everyone else is taken (attributed to so many people I’m not even trying to be sure, although I like Oscar Wilde.)
  • Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” –Bernard Baruch

We love being ourselves without excuse. “Don’t judge!” we warn. But somewhere there has to be a difference, a line, a distinction between back-stabbing gossip and being authentic.

When we say, “it is what it is,” or “haters gonna hate,” we are not excusing others, we are justifying ourselves and writing everyone else off as envious–lesser. There is then no cause or reason for criticism. We win. And so does everyone else, in their mind.

I beg to differ.  Language shifts our culture, so let’s be clear about the definition of “authentic.”  It is your deepest best self, not the shallow way we behave without thinking. Being authentic takes some reflection, asking, “Who would I like to be seen as? My character is my reputation, how do I want to present it?”

That’s the person we want to be. The person who builds a reputation; the person who is loved by dogs.

–Quinn McDonald spends a lot of time watching how language and culture influence each other.


Compassion v. Boundaries

We all want to be compassionate. Unless, of course, the other person doesn’t deserve compassion. Oh, wait, isn’t that exactly when we are supposed to be even more compassionate? But what if the other person is a jerk? What if compassion isn’t working?


Boundaries can be beautiful and useful; you have to plan them that way.

That’s what boundaries are for. Boundaries are limits we set for ourselves and other people. It is completely unrealistic to think that you have unlimited compassion, patience, and ability to shift to please other people, even if they are family or friends.

Sometimes, people’s bad behavior, demands, or blame-game is theirs to own. Your job is not to fix, educate, or change them. Your job is to set a clear boundary and enforce it.

Boundaries are not a judgment of others. It is calling them to a higher level of discipline. If they can’t make it, or don’t want to, that’s fine. That’s why boundaries work so well. You can walk away cleanly from abusers. When they try to blame you, you point to the clear boundary.

When you set a boundary, make sure you can live with it.  Not enforcing

A line in the sand can be a ditch or a design; it's up to you.

A line in the sand can be a ditch or a design; it’s up to you.

the boundary is equal to not having a boundary and putting a doormat on your chest and saying, “please walk over me.”

Be clear about the boundary and enforcing it. No fair saying, “if you forget to put gas in the car one more time, I’m leaving you,” and then not leaving. Don’t create a threat you won’t carry through. Boundaries are not threats, they are reasonable lines that show the level of your discipline and self-care.

Saying “No” is your responsibility. When you set a boundary, you can expect your family and friends to think it doesn’t apply to them. When it does, learn to say “No” and mean it.

Steer clear of “If you loved me, you would. . . ” Don’t say it, don’t fall for it. It’s manipulative and untrue. People you love will disappoint you and you will still love them. That’s how you know you are compassionate. People who try to get around your boundaries will use it to push your people-pleasing button. Don’t fall for it. If you do, it will be the first in a long string of manipulative “if you love me. . .” demands. Be firm. “I love you, but . . no, I will not do this.” If their love is defined by how much you do for them that is against your values, you are learning about their definition of love. And it’s not yours.

Boundaries are healthy for your own well-being and help those around you be clear about what they can expect from you. Think them through and set them. Then enforce them. That is true compassion.

—Quinn McDonald is still learning the difference between “No” and wanting others to approve of her.

Kickstart Your Journal

Yesterday, my friend Marit said she was “waving from her journal page to mine,” and I thought, “what a great idea!” Need something to focus on? Need a jumpstart on writing?

Dialog can intersect and circle around, like this path in King's County (Washington)

Dialog can intersect and circle around, like this path in King’s County (Washington)

This is more than a journal prompt. It’s not a word to write about, it’s a whole technique. And it’s powerful. Let’s get started:

1. Warm up by focusing on your emotions: Right now, I feel [fill in the blank.] One word may be all you need.

2. The reason I feel [blank] in 20 words: [describe how you reached this emotion.]

3. Almost always, someone else is involved in this story about your emotion. Whether you are happy, anxious, excited, or skeptical, most of our emotions are connected to other people, often for reasons we don’t understand.

4. Use the next page to write a dialog between you and the other person. Writing dialog means you will make things up. That’s fine. You want to figure out a reason for the emotion and what your role is and what the other person’s role is. By putting words in someone else’s mouth (and you know you are doing this), you are resolving old issues, exploring new ways to happiness, or clarifying ideas.

Example: I’m feeling anxious. A friend has asked me to help her in a way that I feel uncomfortable with. I want to help my friend, but I want to hold onto my values.

Q: I’m not sure I can do this, Friend.

F: But it will help John and it will be a big favor to me, too.

You can also draw speech bubbles and fill them in.

You can also draw speech bubbles and fill them in.

Q: I think speaking up at the Writers’ Club and supporting John as another member isn’t a good idea. The club rules say you have to be a published writer, and John isn’t.

F: It’s not about you, Quinn, it’s about getting John into a place where he can find business. And the club is great for that. You’ve gotten business that way. John is a good guy.

Q: I have gotten business from the club. But I was a published writer when I joined. And John isn’t.

F: He writes his own blog, and that’s publishing. You are just afraid he’s a better writer than you.

Q: A blog is not publishing. And I want what’s best for John. But getting him into the club is not in his best interest.

F: What’s wrong with you that you won’t help this friend? Haven’t you needed a hand before?

Q: I’ll be happy to help John in some way that helps John. Being dishonest doesn’t help anyone. Least of all John, if he gets a job he can’t handle.

. . . .the dialog can go on as long as you need it to. In this example, I see my own stubborn character, but also my clarity in not being dishonest. Yes, it’s a small thing, but I can see that if I vouch for John, and he doesn’t do well, the lie I told will be the reason John got in over his head. What I am understanding from this dialog is that my need for approval is pretty big, not not big enough to lie for someone.

Is this the dialog the way it really happened? No, but by making up the other half, I’m giving myself the opportunity to dig into my own emotions in ways that help me see my own motives clearly.

The dialog exercise is a good way to find out more about yourself.

–Quinn McDonald is an explorer in her journal

Emotional Food Poisoning

Last week, after surviving the flu, sinus-infection, ear-infection-thing I had, we

Watercolor on paper. © Quinn McDonald, 2013

Watercolor on paper. © Quinn McDonald, 2013

went out to eat because neither one of us felt like cooking. And . . . I got food poisoning. No, I will not describe what happened next. You can imagine. Or you can look it up, but I’m not getting into graphic details.

I was amazed at how smart my body was, though. It was not going to allow, not for one minute, anything that was so harmful to stay in my system. My job was to stay in the house and drink water to keep from drying out. I dried out so fast my eyes had trouble blinking. The cure for food poisoning is counter-intuitive. After the first wave of death is over, you begin to eat a lot of fiber–red peppers, nuts, apples, celery. No clear broth for three days. You also eat yogurt to replenish the bacteria your digestive tract needs.

Why am I writing about food poisoning? Because I wish my emotional self were as smart as my physical self. How often have I known a relationship, friendship, client, job were not good for me and kept up the pretense. Wouldn’t it be great if our heart and emotional self were as good as rejecting what is bad for us, what will harm us, as thoroughly as our gut?

10403549_10152701851191439_940404957215462235_nWhen we do, we feel just as bereft and drained as our physical body does with food poisoning. But emotional poisoning is just as damaging, and there is no reason to clutch it to us.

The difference between emotional poisoning and food poisoning is that we can’t control our body’s defenses, but oh, what a bad job we do of holding on to emotionally damaging relationships. We are afraid of being alone, of change, or what we don’t know yet. So we keep clutching onto the bad relationship, hoping we will change enough to make the relationship work. The job is killing us, but we keep trying to prove we can do it well, because we don’t know for sure what we would do next. Although, if we listen to ourselves, we would hear what we want next.

So what’s the emotional fiber that restores us to balance? What’s the spiritual yogurt that puts us together again? It’s just as counter-intuitive as the physical fiber: trust your gut. Trust yourself to know what is not good for you. Don’t look at all the reasons you need to stay–look instead at their foundation. If all your reasons are based in fear, rooted in lack, or imagined attack, they are not real.

Your gut knows what you want, what is good for you, what you need. Look for what feels like freedom, joy, like breathing easily. Head toward that. It will restore you to the person you want to be.

Quinn McDonald learned a lot in the bathroom last week. And she is over the food poisoning, happier for having learned something.