Break Open

Red-Broken-Heart-Clipart1In the broken places the light shines through. –Leonard Cohen

Last spring I posted, Blossom, encouraging my readers to “choose change” instead of waiting for a crisis to force their hand. This spring I sadly write, Break Open, encouraging my readers to again choose change, but this time, not only for themselves, but also for the victims and survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  As before, a poem inspires my heart…

There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken,

a shatteredness, out of which blooms the unshatterable.

There is a sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy,

and a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space too vast for words

through which we pass with each loss,

out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound,

whose serrated edges cut the heart

as we break open to the place inside which is unbreakable and whole

While learning to sing.

— Rashani

Poet Rashani Réa, an impassioned social and environmental activist, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when she was only 13-years old. Marjory Stoneman Douglas teens, also inspired by MLK, did more than just march on March 24, 2018. These courageous teenagers, determined to create a movement for stricter gun control laws, organized the March for Our Lives, one of the biggest youth protest since the Viet Nam war. A quote by student, Delaney Tarr, unapologetically, pulls no punches …

This movement, created by students, led by students, is based on emotion. It is based on passion and it is based on pain. Our biggest flaws—our tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out, things that you expect from a normal teenager—these are our strengths. The only reason that we’ve gotten so far is that we are not afraid of losing money, we’re not afraid of getting reelected or not getting reelected, we have nothing to lose. The only thing we have to gain at this point is our safety. 

Unafraid, Delaney screamed out passionately. Undeterred, she stood strong, despite her gut wrenching pain. Alone, together, she and her peers stepped up to the podium singing songs of hope and healing, leading chants of generational change. Never again! Vote them out! End gun violence! Register, Educate, Vote!

Captivated, I watched these brave young souls (or maybe old souls?) healing from the aftermath of trauma, an emotional freezing that disconnects us from our bodies and from each other. I saw how their anger melted deep despair, and how their grief rang out in a clarion call. They made me believe in a dream still worth dreaming, where separation withers and dies, and non-violent change blooms throughout our land.

My hope is that this generation, the mass shooting generation, can fulfill the dream of a man killed by gun violence 50-years ago today — Dr. Martin Luther King. We can’t delay any longer, now can we?  Our children are crying out in desperation: We’re dying by mass shootings! Stop the violence! Save us now!

So we can, and we must, but not only by marching, registering, and voting. We can and we must by healing our own pain. These students’ way forward can be our way too, for no matter our brokenness, there’s a place deep inside us that is unbreakable and whole. 

imagesTo learn more about healing from traumatic experiences, I highly recommend the podcast, Healing Trauma: The Light Shines Through the Broken Places, by psychologist, Tara Brach. Very educational and incredibly moving.

 

Stuck? Start by Ending

A few months ago I felt incredibly stuck, itching for a new beginning, longing for a major change. Several of my friends were achieving lofty goals – relocating to a new town, purchasing a new home, starting a promising new relationship. Their achievements occurred within a matter of weeks of each other’s. But me, NADDA! I felt like I was stuck in quicksand, my life going nowhere fast.

If only I could make something happen right now, my action-oriented self pined. Next thing I knew I was obsessing about my future, frantically setting goals and searching for a quick fix. A part of me realized that driving hard wasn’t the answer, but another part just couldn’t help it. I felt like my friends were leaving me behind. I was happy for them, but I was also jealous, bored and frustrated by the routine of my life. I wanted an exciting new beginning. After all, new beginnings are intoxicating. Literally, they are!

Our brains are wired to seek out novelty. New objects or experiences increase our levels of dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center. New cities, new jobs, new relationships, even new clothes or gadgets produce this feel-good hormone. In addition, research has determined that dopamine pathways light up when we take action to achieve our goals. Dopamine contributes to motivation. Hmm! Could this explain my achievement-oriented drive?

Throughout my entire life, I’ve prided myself on setting lofty goals and achieving results quickly. Patience has never been a virtue, especially when I’m feeling stuck. But despite my restlessness, I’m not in a position to make a dopamine-fueled-get-it-done-now kind of change. But coming to terms with this. Never been my style!

According to William Bridges, author of the book Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes, change is a situational shift – moving to a new home, getting a new job, having a child, losing a loved one – the sort of changes my friends are making now. But transition is the way we come to terms with change — the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become.

We experience numerous transitions throughout our lifetimes, but there are two pivotal transition points that challenge us the most:

The first is the turning point symbolized by the phrase “walking on your own two feet” – that is, the transition from dependency to separateness and independence – a shift that typically occurring around age 30. No longer naïve, we’ve learned that things don’t always go our way and that life includes disappointments. It’s a time for reflection and redefining our choices, including our lifestyles, relationships and career paths, and for becoming responsible, mature adults.

The second turning point occurs in the late afternoon of our lives. Letting go becomes the prerequisite during this transformational stage, but we’re not just letting go of the things, people and places that shaped our exterior lives. It’s much deeper than that, writes Bridges. It’s a period of unlearning our way of mastering the world, of letting go of a particular kind of self-image and style of coping….of dismantling a whole life structure.

Thankfully, I pulled Bridges’ book off my shelf when I started writing this post. I found a quote to remind me of what I need to “achieve” as I enter the late afternoon of my life.

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.  -–T.S. Eliot

In time, new beginnings will find me in a whole new way — a slower, more patient way — in a new home, in a new town, enjoying the company of new relationships. But for now, it’s time to unlearn my style of mastering the world, transitioning from fast to slow, and from driven to deliberate, just as I’d do if I were climbing out of quicksand. For if you didn’t know it, the faster you move when you’re stuck in quicksand, the deeper you sink.

Blossom

The following is a favorite poem by Dawna Markova, a perfect inspiration for spring…

I will not die an unlived life. 20160323_123902

I will not live in fear 

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom,

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

Markova penned these words the night her father died. She wrote so movingly in her book, I Will Not Die An Unlived Life, My tears had turned to ink. The words were a bridge across an abyss my father could not cross.

So often we wait for a significant life event – a death, a diagnosis, a devastating emotional experience – to take a risk and change our lives. Something beyond our control rocks our world and cracks us wide open. I know it did for me. I was 32-years-old. My father died in March. My marriage imploded in April. I lost my job in May. It was the worst spring of my life.

Until that time, I thought I was happy. I was going about my life in the way I thought I should. I told myself, I should get married. I’m 32-years-old. It didn’t matter that the red flags were everywhere. I should drive hard and work 12-hour days. I need to make a lot of money. It didn’t matter that my work wasn’t meaningful. I should act like I have my shit together. What would others think if they really knew how insecure I was?

Day in and day out, I defined myself by a set of unrealistic expectations, working diligently to craft an image of what I thought my life should look like. But “shoulding” on myself wasn’t working; it only kept me stuck and strengthened my facade. If only I’d realized this sooner. But I didn’t until crisis came along.

You may have heard that the word crisis in the Chinese language – wēijī – means “opportunity disguised as danger.” But this is incorrect. The wēi symbol in Chinese does convey the notion of danger, but jī doesn’t mean opportunity. Instead, it means an “incipient moment; a crucial point when something begins or changes”.

My father’s death, along with the death of happily ever after, was an incipient moment for me. Up until then, I ignored a deeper inner voice powered by my emotions and intuition. But after enduring such painful losses, my feelings could no longer be denied; the voice of intuition, no longer masked.

Fast forward 10 years later when I’m 42-years-old. No longer deathly afraid of change, I quit my job in March (despite my lucrative salary), sold my home in April, and boarded a plane in May to circumnavigate the globe. It was the best spring of my life.

Now I’m not suggesting you do the same, unless of course you want to. I’m simply encouraging you to listen to your intuition and pay attention to your feelings instead of waiting for a crisis to force you to change.

It’s hard to change without help, so I encourage you to reach out to a caring therapist or trusted friend who won’t should all over you. And as the seeds of spring go to blossom this year, why not risk your significance and leap into the unknown. For as Anais Nin writes, and the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Happy spring!

Milestones & Moms

By now, you’ve likely seen the movie, Boyhood, the award-winning film that captures a boy’s evolution from age 6 to 18. Brutally honest and exquisitely filmed, I’m intrigued by Mason’s transitions from one stage of development to the next, but not as much as that of his mother’s. Her milestones are less predictable, more clearly defined by choice and circumstance, aclker-clipart1nd as she ages, endings appear to be more predominant than beginnings.

The end feels unbearable as Mason packs up for college. She laments through her tears, My life is just going to go like that…the milestones…getting married, having kids, the time we thought you were dyslexic, getting divorced, teaching you to ride a bike, getting my masters, getting divorced again, sending Samantha off to college. And then comes the roaring crescendo, You know what’s next. It’s my f***ing funeral!

I laugh through my tears as Mason retorts, Aren’t you jumping ahead by about 40 years or something? Mason, despite his youthful wisdom, can’t feel the depth of his mother’s loss. He’s at the beginning, alive with possibilities. Death is all she sees.

I know this feeling well and so do my clients. Endings leave us hopeless, uncertain, and confused. We have no sense of the future. We only see the void. The ending doesn’t have to be a specific, external change such as death, divorce, or a child leaving the nest. It could be letting go of a hope or dream, or relinquishing a well-worn identity.

The WayIn the film, Mason’s mom isn’t merely saying goodbye to her child. Certainly, that’s hard enough. But at a deeper level, she’s relinquishing a way of life and her primary role as mother. William Bridges, author of The Way of Transition, describes this shift as a “developmental transition”, an inner unfolding of those aspects of ourselves that are built right into who we are and how we are made. Developmental transitions most often occur when we move from one stage of life to the next (adolescence, mid-life), but they also arise when the life we are living no longer makes sense or doesn’t fulfill us anymore.

No matter the catalyst, external change or internal rumblings, transitions have the power to transform us, that is, if we live for a time in limbo instead of latching onto someone or something to avoid feeling disoriented, fearful, frustrated, lonely, or lost. Bridges dissuades us, as do I, from creating a “replacement reality” before we’ve experienced the “neutral zone,a confusing state in which we feel as though our life has broken apart or gone dead; a period where nothing feels solid and everything feels up for grabs. Sure, it’s an uncomfortable place of uncertainty, but I know without a doubt, it’s a place where beginnings take root.

I know because I’ve been “there” many times throughout my life, and despite my impatience, I’ve lingered awhile rather than latching on. My most significant transition occurred when I was 41-years old. An internal rumbling was driving me mad. I hated my job in corporate and no longer liked where I lived. But despite my unhappiness, I knew that changing jobs or moving wasn’t the answer — not yet. My soul needed a change. So I waited. I watched for signs. I prayed and listened to my intuition. Then one day, after a year in limbo, I picked up a book titled Gutsy Women: Travel Tips & Wisdom for the Road. From that day forward, my life would never be the same.

A new chapter was about to begin. It was titled, “World Traveler.” Now I had a purpose that needed fulfilling. Now the time was right to quit my job and sell my condo. Of course I saw my therapist before I made major changes. I wanted her assurance that I wasn’t going crazy, but deep down inside I knew what she’d say. GO!

On May 14, 1998, I left the life I’d been living behind and ventured into a brand new reality, traveling to 19 countries in 4 months with only a backpack and a good pair of walking shoes. The memories still fill my soul. I was transformed by my experience in ways I never could have imagined. Not only was I brought back to life, I was empowered to write the next chapter of my life once returning home. That chapter was titled, “Entrepreneur.”

My experience of saying goodbye was unlike Mason’s mom; it was much more like Mason’s. Minutes before I was ready to leave for the airport, my mother called me into the kitchen. There was something in her hand, but I couldn’t see what it was. She pulled me close and draped a St. Christopher medal around my neck. Her voice cracked as she spoke these words, “A memento of your father to keep you safe.” When she broke from our embrace, the light caught her eyes. She was fighting back tears. I’m sure the dam broke as soon as I walked out the door. Thankfully, I left something behind to comfort her in her sadness–my dog, Brandie. Surprisingly, my mother offered to take care of her despite never having a dog of her own. Title Mom’s new chapter, “Dog Sitter.”

A mother’s role will change throughout her life, but her significance will never fade. On Mother’s Day 2015, let’s acknowledge all the milestones our mothers helped us achieve, but in addition, let’s encourage our moms to create new milestones solely for themselves. After all, they’ve earned it!

I Am Worthy, No Matter What

self-love1I’ve been on the hunt for days, poking around the internet to find an intelligent article on how to strengthen our self-worth. I struck gold today, discovering a powerful speech delivered by comedian Amy Schumer  at a Ms. Foundation gala. She cut to the core of the issue, illustrating how regrettable decisions made in youth can diminish our self-worth, but reversely, how courage and self-compassion will set us free from the belief of “never good enough.”

The root cause of low self-worth varies greatly, just as the image it projects. It can result from blatant neglect, abuse or abandonment, but also from subtler experiences that cause us to doubt or diminish ourselves. It’s inflicted on mass through cultural condemnation — by racism, sexism, or ageism.  It’s fueled when society proclaims, “You gotta be a rock star, a billionaire, a stud, or a stunner” to be valued in our time. “You gotta work yourself to death to make yourself ‘big’ or starve yourself to death to make yourself small.”

The reality of “never good enough” drives us hard on the outside as it drives us crazy within. We want to fit in, be loved, and feel valued. When we don’t, especially as youth, we develop strategies to hide our flaws or compensate for feeling insecure. As we grow into adulthood, many learn to numb the pain of unworthiness with alcohol, drugs, sex, food or other addictions. Some of us start putting others down in an attempt to build ourselves up. We approval-seek, strive for perfection, or jump from one self-improvement project to the next. Like Amy, some of us fall into bed with men we want to want us, only to discover that we feel worth-less after the dirty deed is done.

Buddhist psychologist, Tara Brach, Ph.D., illuminates the “trance of unworthiness” in her book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of the Buddha.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years away trapped in the same old patterns. Entangled in the trance of unworthiness, we grow accustomed to caging ourselves in with self-judgment and anxiety, with restlessness or dissatisfaction…the behaviors we use to keep us from feeling the pain only fuel our suffering. Not only do our escape strategies amplify the feeling that something is wrong with us, they stop us from attending to the very parts of ourselves that most need our attention to heal.

Recently I found myself, like Amy, reliving an experience that happened during my freshman year. I sensed some danger going “there”, but I also knew that if I paid attention to my thoughts, feelings, and actions, without judging myself, I could rewrite my story of unworthiness into a story of abiding self-love. I decided to go for it, carefully. With each step forward, I remained mindful of my choices. I didn’t escape into old patterns; instead, I watched them play out with a curious eye. In the process, I garnered the courage to face what I feared most as a child — rejection. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t resist. I knew I had to feel what I’d buried long ago.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s still a kid inside of me who doesn’t want to feel rejected. Who does! But I’ll never succumb to a strategy designed to mask my childhood pain. The pain is gone. The pattern’s been replaced by a belief that proclaims, I am worthy, no matter what you do or say.

I must conclude with Amy’s words, because her thoughts are definitely worthy of your time. She writes with power and humor…

I can be reduced to that lost college freshman so quickly sometimes. I want to quit. Not performing, but being a woman altogether. I want to throw my hands in the air, after reading a mean Twitter comment, and say, ‘All right! You got it. You figured me out. I’m not pretty. I’m not thin. I do not deserve to use my voice. I’ll start wearing a burqa and start waiting tables at pancake house. All my self-worth is based on what you can see.’ But then I think, f**k that. I am not laying in that freshman bed anymore ever again. I am a woman with thoughts and questions and shit to say. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story — I will. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you, and I thank you.

Shhh! Quiet Your Inner Critic

Last year at this time I wrote a post titled, A Sensational Summer Ending. I used the game of baseball as an analogy for overcoming adversity, and since it’s that time of year, I’d like to do it again. I was reminded of the parallels when I watched the movie Moneyball last week and discovered that Oakland won their division yet again. If you’ve never seen the movie, you should. It’s really good! Based on a true story, the A’s General Manager, Billy Beane, builds a winning team despite a meager budget, the loss of his three most prominent (and expensive) players, and the constant barrage of criticism from just about everyone except his new Assistant GM, a Yale Economics graduate, whom Billy recruits to prove a theory that will revolutionize the game.

At a crucial juncture in the story, the naysayers’ voices rise to a soaring crescendo as the A’s fall to last place. Beane’s confidence wanes, his conviction withers, not only because of what’s happening at present, but more importantly, because of what happened in his past. Maybe they’re right? What the hell am I doing? I’m striking out now like I struck out then. Louder and deeper, the voices weaken his resolve, You can’t win, you won’t win, it’s impossible to win in the majors, you failure! You never made it as a player, so what makes you think you’ll win as GM?

NO! he screams under his breath as he spins his car around. I watch the movie entranced. Something inside the character has shifted. The critical voice that’s weighed on his psyche is no longer in play.

Like most of us, Billy has an Inner Critic, a voice within that tells us we’re not good enough, smart enough, talented enough, pretty enough–or whatever enough. It dwells on our failures and reminds us of our mistakes. It develops early in life and grows ever stronger as we absorb the judgments of people around us and the expectations of the society in which we live.

In the film, Billy recalls his failures as a rookie while the A’s struggle to dig out of last place. The scouts said he was destined for greatness, but to his dismay, he never made it big. The critics hammered away then as they hammer away now. It feels all too familiar to Billy, the past playing out in the present. As I watch, I imagine his inner dialogue, I chose wrongly in my youth. Have I made a grave error again? Are the critics right? Am I doomed for failure?  In addition to Billy’s thoughts, I imagine his feelings–worry, anxiety, desperation, fear. Negative thoughts fuel negative feelings, that is, until Billy confronts his fear of failure and faces his demons head on.

In an instant, Billy changes. Prior to that time, he kept his distance from his players. It’s easier that way, he coaches his Yalie, if you ever have to cut them. It’s apparent that his rationale has been devised for self-protection; the haunting hurt of being cut is a hurt he doesn’t want to relive. So he buries it behind a wall that is now derailing his efforts. AHA! Insight strikes. It all becomes clear. He realizes that he can’t win with just a theory; he’s got to stop distancing himself and get closer to his players. He has to teach them what he’s learning, encourage them to play to their strengths, and most importantly,  show them that he believes in more than a theory, he believes wholeheartedly in each of them, no matter how they’ve been “valued” by the league.

No longer listening to the critics, inner or outer, the A’s dramatically change course. I’m on the edge of my seat, albeit in my living room. I know it’s just a movie, but what can I say, I’m a sucker for feel good stories, especially when people beat the odds and accomplish great things. The A’s did just that. They beat the record for most consecutive wins in the American League—20 in a row–and prove the critics wrong.

This week Billy’s winning again. His team is unexpectedly in the playoffs as American League West champs. Interestingly, he’s also in the press for a different reason. A San Francisco columnist is suggesting Beane run for mayor of Oakland given the downtrodden state of that city by the bay.  Nice that Billy’s being recognized for his talents, don’t you think? Nicer still if everyone, especially the undervalued, could receive much more of the same.

We all deserve encouragement. We all deserve to win. To learn how you can beat the odds by quieting your inner critic, read an excerpt from the book, Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-Criticism into a Creative Asset or call me to schedule a Voice Dialogue session. It’s an amazing process that will accelerate your growth.

P.S. This Atlanta girl who grew up in Pittsburgh hopes to see one of those two teams play the A’s in the World Series. Go Billy!!!