How Do You Process Your Life?

Editors Note: This is a guest post by Tara Sophia Mohr of Wise Living.

A lot happened to you yesterday, I know.

There were the estimated 3000 advertisements you were exposed to.

There were all the tweets and emails.

There was all that you saw while staring out the car window or standing at the bus station.

There were the news stories – unsettling and upsetting – that you took in.

There were the interactions with others, some harmonious, some fractious.

There was the odd thing so and so said, the harsh words spoken.

There were the little disappointments and the surprises and the thrills.

It’s a lot. And that’s on an average day.

All of that enters the ecosystem of you every day: thousands of images, impressions, experiences.

How Do You Process Your Life?

So here’s the question: how do you process all of that, and when?

When do you heal the disappointments? When do you make sense of the baffling stuff and recover from the stresses? When do you take in the triumphs?

When do you turn inward to discover what needs purging or cleansing or sorting out in the ecosystem of you? When do you mine for the treasures and take out the trash?

When we go, go, go, when we define productivity as doing and seek to maximize it, we miss out on one of the most important ways we can enhance our effectiveness, wellbeing, and creativity – by processing what is happening within us.

To Be Generous, Open, Productive…We Need Processing Time

I need reflective processing time desperately, I’ve learned. Not because I’ll stop functioning without it. On the contrary, I look more “normal” to others when I don’t have it. That’s when I turn into a busy, over-achieving, self-distracting gal, driving aggressively, obsessively checking email, looking for shoes and bling and things outside myself for comfort. That’s when I rush through my life, missing the most precious moments of it. That’s when I start operating out of touch with what’s actually going on inside of me.

In other words, by the standards of our culture, totally normal.

But to be the woman I want to be – emotionally generous, not cranky or erratic or jaded; to be spacious and open and deep, to have a presence that feels to myself and others to be grounded and alert and graceful; to be someone who brings more sanity into this world instead of contributing to the craziness, then I need downtime. To deal with colleagues and professional partners in a rational and calm way, to manage the challenges of my work effectively, to show up creative and focused everyday, I need to process what comes into the ecosystem of me.

Processing Is Changing Emotions from One State to Another

It’s interesting: to process something literally means to change it from one state to another; think processing plant. Processing our lives is about changing toxic residue from our life experiences into something we can work with, something that’s not harmful to harbor within. It’s about turning resentment into peace, disappointment into understanding, wounds into healing, and confusion into clarity.

Learning how to do that well is the work of a lifetime, but we get huge payoffs in effectiveness, creativity and wellbeing from processing – no matter where we are on that learning curve.

Here’s What Processing Looks Like in Practical Terms

  1. Time & Place: Find quiet downtime for processing, fifteen or so minutes a day. Find a protected space — bathtub, bedroom, local trail, coffee shop –-that works for you for your processing time.
  2. Method: Journaling or creating art (drawing, painting, sculpture, music) about your life experiences are great methods for processing. Contemplation– just meditating on what’s present in you, observing your emotions and thoughts (rather than identifying with them), and responding to those thoughts and emotions with compassion, is another way. Sharing with a supportive listener (whose role is not to advise but to listen) such as a friend, spouse, coach, or therapist, also works beautifully. There may be other strategies that work for you. Experiment and see what works.
  3. Diving In: In your processing time and through a method that works for you, explore what’s happening in you. Reflect on what’s occurred. Notice how you are feeling. Scan your body and heart to see what’s there. Sit with the new information or experiences you’ve had. Here are some questions you can use to prompt and focus that work:

What hurts or disappointments are lodged in the eco-system of me and need healing, so that I don’t become defensive, wounded, or jaded? Name them, and then use your tool of choice (journaling, sharing, contemplating, making art, etc.) to let them get fully expressed. Give yourself what you need to recover from them.

What anger needs to be expressed and released, so that I can move forward free of toxic and energy-consuming resentments? Figure out what the anger is really about. Get to the hurt at the bottom of the anger it. What do you need arudn the hurt and how can you get it?

What realities do I need to absorb or accept in order to move forward effectively? Sometimes, we just don’t have time in the day to take in the realities of what’s really happening in a work situation or a relationship. Processing time is a time to accept and make peace with what is – so that we can make wise decisions and choices in light of reality, rather than in response to self-deception or wishful thinking.

What good news needs to be savored and celebrated, so that I can mark milestones and nourish myself? As a coach, I often see how hard it is for people to savor and celebrate their victories. Doing so can feel vulnerable. Many of us were taught that it’s unimportant or even frivolous, self-aggrandizing. But when we don’t take in and process our wins, we develop a skewed self-concept and miss out on the opportunity to reflect on what created our successes – and that’s very important information. We also miss out on a lot of joy.

With the Right Time, Space and Tools, Processing Happens Naturally

I’ve been amazed to see that when we simply give our emotions space in one of these ways, when we feel them and and explore them and give ourselves what we need, negative emotions evolve naturally. They clear. The icky stuff dissolves. The toxic material transforms.

In our doing-based culture, that’s counterintuitive. What good could that do, we wonder. Why go through the discomfort of delving into difficult emotions? Shouldn’t I get out there and do something about them instead?

But simple processing: noticing, naming, expressing and inquiring into what’s present within us changes what’s there. Processing changes what we are made of — literally. We each have the power to determine what resides in us, and that determines what we can give back to the world.

Photo Credit: BudgetPlaces

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  1. says

    I. Love. This post.

    Absolutely adore want-to-print-it-out-and-tack-it-on-my-wall love.

    There are so many times that I need that quiet time. There are some days I dread taking that time, because often I know I’m running from something that happened that needs to be cleared from my eco system, but the process is going to be some ugly nasty reconciling. There are days when stopping to breathe can require energy and bravery that you do not feel you have.

    But it’s important, so important. When you keep running and never stop to process, you burn out. Or you disconnect. You don’t realize what you learned if you never stop to see what that bruise or that smile left inside of you.

    I call it my detox time. And when I don’t get time to detox, even for then minutes, I feel a heavy pressure on my shoulders weighing me down. Like so much daily sludge.

    Often we look strange to take that break. To say “not right now, I need to be by myself.” It’s not normal. I have a hard time asking for it because not a lot understand or are comfortable with silence, but if I don’t I’m worse off. It does no one any good.

    Thank you so much for writing this post.

    • says

      Hi Laura,
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts- there’s so much food for thought and juicy stuff in your comment.
      First of all, I’m so glad the post spoke to you. I love that you are pointing out how hard it is to slow down and be with ourselves and what’s come up – I think that’s something most people don’t realize – they think they are just “too busy” rather than realizing they are avoiding stopping or slowing down. I wrote a whole post about that which you might enjoy – it’s here –

      The other thing I wanted to share is that I make it a practice to really celebrate and affirm other people when they set boundaries, when they cancel something just bc they are too tired, or when they say need alone time. As I do that, I’ve found it becomes easier for me to get comfortable with setting these boundaries myself.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

  2. says

    Wow, Tara, this is beautiful. Beautifully said and so obviously felt by you. Thank you for sharing.

    For me, there’s an additional piece of processing that is happening lately…it’s the sitting quietly in a rocking chair for an hour, or lying in bed and looking out the window without thinking for several. I’m in a big life transition right now and have done alot of verbal and written and experiential processing…feel like I’m on top of it in those ways. Something that’s calling out right now is to just…be. It’s not profound, I’m not feeling any particular way, there isn’t a nice clean edge around my pain. But I’m wanting to simply absorb all that’s gone on and is going on, sit with it like I would a person whose language I don’t speak. Share space, comfortably.

    I’m not sure about the why behind this, just know that it’s what’s happening.

    Thanks for inspiring this reflection. And for your wise words.

    Big hug to you,

    • says

      Thanks Amy. I’m so glad you brought this up – because this post is about a very deliberate, conscious type of processing – which is only one kind. I think there is something else that happens when we create what I call “white space” – empty, open downtime – and just “do nothing” in it. That’s when a natural, perhaps unconscious way of processing things happens.
      Big hug back to you. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  3. karen says

    Thank you for this very comprehensive and extremely well done post.

    It’s going on my “best of 2010” list.


  4. says

    Awesome post. I have to agree with the other comments on here that say that what you said in this post is well-put.

    Since I work full-time, I definitely need some downtime. I used to think that playing on the computer or on my phone consisted of downtime. But I realize that true downtime is taking the time to really process your life and unwind, even if it means disconnecting from technology for a little while.

    Doing this gives us more time to help others, or just relax and connect with nature. Even doing this for just a few minutes goes a long way.

    • says

      Thanks Gabe.
      And you brought up one of my favorite topics – our misunderstanding of “downtime.” I think this is so common. We conflate things we do for fun, things we do for social connection with relaxation and downtime – and they don’t always overlap!

  5. says

    Tara –

    Great post and great comments! Very thought-provoking and so needed. Too often we want to just go on, move on, push down the emotions and be ok. Yet, we’re so not ok.

    I’m also one that seems to need a lot of processing time. I have never thought of it as similar to a processing plant – turning the toxic into something positive and good. Great analogy! I also agree with Amy’s post above about the time to just be. It reminds me that we are human ‘beings’ vs human ‘doings.’

    Thanks for sharing the post and for the comments.

    • says

      Carma –
      Thank you!
      Well put – “we are so not okay” – thought we might convince ourselves everything is fine.
      Glad the processing plant metaphor spoke to you – I’m finding it helpful as well.
      Nice to “meet’ you and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. says

    Hi Tara,

    Awesome post! I think you touch on something pretty important here, that is how you can turn a flood of information and noise into verbs that have meaning in your life.

    I don’t know that ‘whitespace’ is good for that? I’ll give it a go. It kind of sounds like digestion. In order to digest, first you have to chew and swallow. I’ll have a think about that and maybe post on it.

    Your post also reminded me of something my grandmother used to say, that you have higher-quality thought when you close your eyes. I think this is true, not a clue why.

    What do you think?

    • says

      I would say your grandmother knew something about how the noise and distraction in the world can obscure the voice of inner wisdom. Closing our eyes lets us tune into that.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. says

    Hi Tara,
    Thank you for sharing most openly in this post.
    I think perhaps many haven’t even thought how do they process life; perhaps in this society that reveres multi-tasking, autopilot is in heavy use.
    On the days my heart is fully open, I process my life as the moments are experienced..there is a natural flow that is full of wonder, awe, delight…On days that my heart is not most open I process in increments throughout the day..and to completely process or praise I play or sit in nature..I don’t want life to rush by and the moments to mesh together, I want to experience and savor each delicious, delectable moment much as I would when I sit with friends to eat a fine meal…

    • says

      Hi Joy,
      Thanks so much for sharing this – I think it adds another dimension to the conversation. There is a special state – a state of flow and wonder – that allows us to process what’s happening pretty deeply and fully as it happens. I think that also comes from having done a lot of work on ourselves so that we are able to identify what we are feeling about things as they happen -in real time.
      I too find days when I can access that, but on the average day….I definitely need separate processing time.
      I often say that I think savoring is a lost art in our culture. Love how you speak about it here.

  8. says

    Too often we are in a hurry. We rush from one thing to the next and we don’t take time to process. I love that you talked about journaling. It’s been a big boost to me slowing down and taking time to think about what I accomplished.

    The thing is we need to slow down on a regular basis. That means scheduling in time to process our days. It’s not as spontaneous, but that really doesn’t matter. By setting time aside each day at a certain time we make sure we make this into a habit. Good habits are vital to productivity.

  9. says

    I don’t think I ever have “processed” my life. Maybe I do it subconsciously or maybe I am in desperate need of it. Regardless, I appreciated your steps for how to start this process

    • says

      You are in good company! We aren’t taught to process, and its not valued or understood in our culture really.
      I wish you lots of rich discovery and experience as you experiment with it.
      ps – it might feel uncomfortable at first….but its worth it.
      Warmly, Tara

  10. says


    Great post! So glad to see you here! Charlie has lately become one of my favorite bloggers, and I’m so glad he had the good sense to let you contribute a guest post!

    Keep up the amazing work!


  11. Ruth says

    Tara, thank you so much for this post. It describes exactly what my being has been begging for the past few days. I feel like received such a big hug and a part of me deep inside received the acknowledgement it so needed. Everything else can wait, right now this is what is important. Thank you (and thank you to all the insightful comments as well).

    • says

      What a beautiful comment. I commend you for listening to what your inner wisdom is telling you is needed and important. It will always lead you to the right place.
      Sending a second big hug.

  12. says

    I really like this post! I usually do my “processing” while riding a cab/bus. Staring at the window really calms me down because I get to observe the people or surrounding. I get so much insights just by watching them. By the time I’m about to get off, I pretty much know what to do.

    • says

      Very cool that you’ve found a strategy that works so well for you. And isn’t amazing how our inner wisdom can take care of anything if we just give it some time and space to emerge?
      Warmly, t

  13. says


    This is wonderful, thank you. I like some of the distinctions you’re making in the article and the comments between a more conscious, self-aware processing, and deeper intuitive processing.

    I like to become aware of what I want to process by simply noticing that there’s something there, and then getting curious about it. Then, I leave it alone. Going for a walk, or going to sleep on it, or getting some exercise–basically doing something “mindless”–gives my deeper, subconscious brain a chance to do the real processing.

    And I love this sentence:

    “With the Right Time, Space and Tools, Processing Happens Naturally”

    This is the first post of yours I’ve seen. I’m looking forward to reading your blog.


    • says

      Thanks so much.
      I really like your concept of using the more conscious / focused processing to surface what’s there and then letting the less conscious process take over. That makes a lot of sense to me.
      Look forward to hearing more from you here or at Wise Living!

  14. says

    Tara, Well said! I love how you made an ever-undulating process understandable.

    I know that cranky, resentful feeling, and I know that all I need is at least one day in the week with no obligations. Usually Saturdays, I get to do whatever I want and follow my own rhythm. It feels great, and then it’s easier to deal with everything else.

    Thanks for a brilliant article!

    • says

      Oooh that sounds like a fabulous strategy. I was just doing a coaching session with a client all about this yesterday – about how to organize her life and talk to her family so she could get that obligation free time in her life once a week. So important, as you know.

  15. says

    Thank you for making that reference back to the expectations of society. We are so programmed to be on the go 24/7, and if we are not then something should be wrong with us. Taking the time to stop and feel all that we need to feel within a day is so necessary for our development as human beings, which makes us better friends, partners and parents…overall much more effective in our lives. Learning to identify what we are feeling and then processing it — somehow I think this is a life skill we need to better teach children and teens, and ourselves.

    Am so enjoying your blog. Thank you!

    • says

      Yes, yes, and yes, couldn’t agree more.
      How amazing would it be to teach kids about this, for parents to model it?
      Glad you are enjoying the blog – that means a lot to me.

  16. says

    Fantastic post, I’ve starred it, saved it, printed it, saved it again, instapapered it, read it later’ed it and shared it.

    Really great stuff and just what I needed to read today. Ironically I’ve started implementing some of the things you talked about just in the past few days and am making a conscious effort to declutter my brain and emotional and creative briefcase.

    I’ve even started journaling, trust me its the last thing my friends or family would ever guess that I would do:)

    Don’t want to ramble so…Thanks for the great post and more food for thought.

  17. says

    This is great! About 10 years ago, in a 3 month backpacking trip around Europe (a getting-my-head together thing), I started to realize that I had to process (I invented the term for myself, for lack of any other way to put it because that’s what it is) sometimes because I would get overwhelmed with sights, sounds, new experiences, languages, people–so many things. My head would feel like it’s swimming.

    So I would just go back to my tent (I was backpacking around) in the afternoons or whenever and lie down–let it all flow through my brain until things got quiet and I felt calm (obviously a sort of meditation). And then I felt better and ready to see what the evening offered.

    I’ve been doing that ever since–it’s essential. There’s more to it than that, of course and as you say, but things have to go into their little files (I think of the brain as a computer). And that can take some time. For me, to be overwhelmed means becoming totally distracted and all those other less-than-desirable things you mentioned.

    How cool to read this! Thanks–wonderful to read about someone else’s experience or belief/advice and see my own experience in it.

  18. says

    Excellent post, Tara! As a musician, nearly all of the performing and educating I do is in public settings. The older I get, the more I realize how important some alone “processing” time truly is. It’s become an integral part of my growth- providing the time and headspace to properly review my recent activities, analyze what has and hasn’t worked, and plan my next steps.

    Thank you, thank you!

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