“If you want someone’s attention, whisper” — Skip Davis
Thirty years ago, for no apparent reason, I decided that I needed to get serious about my physical health. I committed to working out on a daily basis. As a busy mom of three kids, ages 5, 15 and 16, with a full time career, I’d let myself slip into a “I’ll do it later” mindset and never really made the time to exercise. It wasn’t a New Year’s resolution, not a workplace challenge, or even a sense that I didn’t have the strength and stamina for yard work like I once did. In that decisive moment, I can’t really say what it was. Whatever it was, I heeded the nudge and began lifting weights and running. I might have wondered silently if my impending 40th birthday was the impetus for getting in shape.
The last thing I expected on my 40th birthday, was the discovery of a lump and soon thereafter the diagnosis of breast cancer. What I do recall ever so clearly is the awareness that intuitively my body had known in advance that I needed to be ready for the fight of my life and it had cajoled me in to doing the necessary prep work.
Intuition and instincts….what gifts they are.
My intuition and instincts had gotten buried under the daily demands of a busy life. Like many moms of my generation, I believed the advertisements and theories that we could have it all, do it all. I learned a hard lesson though — you can’t really give your best to others if you aren’t taking care of yourself first. There is a very big hidden cost to juggling too much, sacrificing often, and burning the candle at both ends.
It was somewhat revelational to me that when I started carving out time for a 5 mile run or a 45 minute weight training session, I actually felt more energized, a little more patient and sillier with my kids, and I was paying more attention in general. In fact, it may be the very reason that I discovered my lump in the first place. I was paying attention.
Brene Brown often asks her guests on Dare to Lead “what is one lesson that life teaches that you just have to keep learning over and over again?”
In my case, it is “trust your intuition and your instincts.”
It was 2015 and I was 63 years old, taking my two granddogs for bedtime walk under the hazy full moon rising in the darkening Arizona sky. I noticed my shadow on the stucco wall and in that moment, my intuition spoke to me. My life was feeling just like that flat, one-dimensional grey shadow. What happened to that happy, sunny, energetic girl who embraced life with enthusiasm and resilience? I missed her.
This time, I was more attuned to my intuition and instincts and if I was truly honest with myself, I’d been getting little signs, navigational buoys and even flashing warning lights for quite a long while. Glennon Doyle, in her book Untamed, calls these nudges “the knowing”. My friend Judy and I call our nudges “instinct and intuition”. Judy often reminds me of the importance of acting on our “nudges”.
I have a few friends who have come into my life since 2015 who also felt their own “knowing” in various ways — wanting something a little more out of life, needing to find deeper connections, or feeling a sense of complacency that nudged them to find a new interest. One thing we discovered that we had in common was a genuine desire to be at our best for whatever unfolded in this chapter of our lives. Judy and I often remark that in our wildest of imaginations we would never have envisioned a global pandemic would have been on the horizon. I do remember telling her that because of all our inner work over the prior 4 years, we were far better prepared to face it.
Over this past week, I have been fortunate enough to have long conversations with most of those friends who are on this personal development path with me. When we take stock of the many events that have unfolded in our lives over the past few years, we are deeply grateful for the ways in which we met these moments with greater awareness, calmness and improved navigational skills.
My late husband Skip would often say “The future belongs to those who are prepared for it.” That was the very message that my intuition and instincts were sending to me back in 2015 — “be prepared for the future; be strong, resilient, compassionate and resourceful. Be your best.”
It is no surprise that my good friends were receiving similar intuitions and instincts.
It is no wonder that we felt motivated and supported by each other.
The sharing of stories, books, podcasts and other resources has contributed to our growth spurts in meaningful ways.
My friends and I recognize that we turned down the volume on our intuition and instincts by accident. We’d gotten so busy with the “doing” that we forget about “being”.
This is just one of many benefits of living a more mindful life — paying attention to our attention –– helps us rebalance and rediscover what is most important in our lives.
I am deeply grateful for the friends who link arms with me on this journey, for their warm hearts, their open minds and intricate, intimate stories that become the mirror for all of us to see our own lives reflected back in each other’s experiences.
Spring is my favorite of the four seasons because it is so rich with fresh starts, new beginnings, awakenings and growth. As a young girl, I loved the fact that my birthday (April Fool’s) coincided with spring. Bluebells and lilies of the valley bursting through the ground felt magical to me, like anything was possible. Being able to open the windows and let fresh air fill the nooks and crannies into each stuffy room felt so revitalizing. Warm sunshine and cool, crisp air became a “hot fudge sundae” moment to be savored.
Back in the day, April signified a time for a major refresh indoors — the annual spring cleaning tradition. It meant some serious deep cleaning and purging of toys and clothes we’d outgrown. The house was infused with sunlight, more space, a lighter energy and a clean, appealing scent. A soft spring breeze would make gauzy window curtains dance. A vase of pale purple lilacs was the finishing touch. I can still smell their delicate fragrance and be transported back to the “fresh start” feeling associated with spring cleaning.
Recently I listened to Michael Singer’s podcast “Taking Care of Your Inner Environment”. His message was chock full of relatable metaphors including one that reminded me of spring cleaning.
We tidy up our homes, declutter and deep clean them. When we step back and admire our work, we find a deep sense of satisfaction and a pride in our abode. It’s like we have waved a magic wand and transformed our home into a blissful place to entertain, recharge, unwind.
Michael Singer invites us to do the same with our internal self. Why not declutter inside and create an inner self that can move with greater ease through the realities of life?
“Very few people work with themselves on the inside. If we don’t do that inside work, then what is going on inside can be a real mess. People don’t even understand what a mess it is, because they aren’t aware that it doesn’t have to be that way. They are moody, sensitive, they don’t get what they want, they are afraid. It’s an uncomfortable commotion inside.Just as it is our responsibility to keep our house clean and make our bed it, it is also ourresponsibility to take care of our inner environment. It’s the exact same thing.” — Michael Singer, from his podcast
We live from the inside out. Whatever is going on inside of us, consciously or unconsciously, is going to be impacted by something that happens outside of us.
“Because people are not straightening up inside, they accumulate an entire collection of stored things from the past that bothered them. This is unfinished business. As a result, events that unfold outside come in and stir up discomfort, disturbances and fears. Anything that is stuck inside of you is going to drive you crazy.” — Michael Singer, from his podcast
Picture this – we might be hoarders! We just might be hoarding old memories, past experiences, unresolved conflicts and that beat up cardboard box of insecurities our inner critic likes to rummage through. This is the unfinished business Michael is talking about — the multitude of things we’ve stuffed in the basement and attics of our inner self.
The ironic thing is that many people spend a lot of time and effort trying to keep the outside world from getting any glimpses of all that accumulated junk. As Michael points out, this strategy is not the least bit effective.
We simply cannot control outside events. The reality of life is that things will change — and some of those changes will be uncomfortable, even painful. We cannot build a life that has only good things and none of the discomforting things.
Maybe this is why I find Spring to be so meaningful. After all, Spring is fearless when it comes to pushing through once frozen ground, stretching both fragile roots down and pushing delicate leaves and buds up. Spring does the hard work. She knows it is worth it. Spring welcomes paradox — the hot fudge sundae moments of warmth and cold. Spring can hold two opposing moments and value them both. Spring rushes head first into the fullness of her season, bursting with color, textures, scents. She goes softly when it is time to hand the baton to Summer with a wink and a promise. It is this ebb and flow of nature that Spring reminds us of…take the good and the bad together — it is life. We can do hard things and we can grow.
“If we had our way, we would never grow. We would build a little life that is in a box filled with all the things we are comfortable with, hop in and lock it up! Growth comes from things that are not comfortable.” — Michael Singer, from his podcast
Michael compares this inner housekeeping to physical training we might undertake. The motto at the gym is “no pain, no gain.” Yet we shy away from adopting that same motto for our emotional and mental well being. Brene Brown reminds us that people will do anything not to feel emotional pain — even causing pain to others. Offloading our pain onto others is a horrible strategy. Hoarding it is an equally bad option.
We can’t let our fear of feeling some emotional pain prevent us from doing the inner work. Taking care of our inner environment is doing the heavy lifting of accepting reality, fully experiencing what is happening and honoring the right to learn from it. No pain, no gain.
What we have been learning in recent years from Brene Brown’s research, neuroscience and psychology is that powering through big hard emotional experiences is NOT strength and it surely is not in our best interests long term. It is exactly why we end up with a basement and attic full of accumulated discomfort.
We need to fully experience and process the hardships and losses in our lives as they unfold. When we learn to do this, we grow. We only bring into our inner world the invaluable residue of what we have learned from the experience. That’s the rich compost for a grounded, meaningful, more peaceful life.
“Working on yourself means learning from the realities of life, learning from our discomfort. Honor what has happened, accept it, experience it and become a greater person because of what you learn and how you grow from the experience.” — Michael Singer, from his podcast
Michael Singer offers a powerful reframing that helps us approach emotional processing in a whole new light. Rather than thinking of how painful it is, think of it as a challenge — like training for a marathon or mountain climbing experience. Or you might approach it like a game of chess — what strategies can you employ to win?
People go out of their way to challenge themselves in other areas of their life. That’s why we love a good competition. What if we changed our mindset about life’s difficulties?
Right now I am feeling a bit like the mom that sneaks veggies into the Mac and Cheese. Is anyone shying away from a good old fashioned challenge? A chance to win? To move from victim to victor?
Michael’s reframing changes not only our mindset; it also changes our energy from resistance to receptivity. We get excited about a challenge, we get motivated. We get it and we own it. We say to ourselves, “I’ve made a mess inside and I am going to clean it up!”
Here’s another refreshing insight. Michael says we can ease into this new paradigm by dealing with the realities of life that are unfolding in the present moment. Set yourself up for success by working on the things that are causing you discomfort right now. In other words, don’t be putting more “stuff” in the basement. Step one is stop adding more clutter.
Lead with this new mantra when you are practicing genuine emotional processing as it is unfolding: “I want to be open and receptive, to be able to handle the reality that is in front of me — and finish it off.” (credit to Michael Singer)
Once you are more nimble with processing current experiences, you may want to get into that attic or basement and pull out the dusty older stuff. Learn what you can and then toss it. I have found Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart to be invaluable for this deep clean. With an expanded emotional vocabulary and a better viewing lens, I can go back and revisit old experiences in a healthier way. I keep the treasures and discard the cobwebs.
Imagine how much lighter you will feel emotionally, how much more expansive your inner world will be and how much more discerning you will be about what you keep inside.
Now…get to it! It’s time for some major spring cleaning!
For quite some time, I have been thinking about all the stratifications that we each have under the surface — the ones that are hidden not only from others, but even from ourselves. These stratifications are biology, biography, behavior and backstory — and they can snag us, keep us stuck or sometimes even pull us under when the seas of life get tumultuous. If you’re curious about how to move through life more fluidly, with less drag, read on.
This image of an iceberg seems fitting for what I’ll be unpacking. The surface is where we believe we are operating each day. The reality is that the stuff below the surface is always present, either consciously or unconsciously. The more self-aware we are, the lighter the undertow of what’s below the surface.
In Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown defines these stratifications as the layers of our biology, biography, behavior and backstory. We are continually adding to these layers as we go through life. Brene implores us to to examine them so that we can become more self-aware.
If we pull back the layers and tease apart the entanglement that occurs as we drag these layers unchecked and unconsciously through life, we begin to more clearly understand the weight and the complexity of all that lies under the surface of each of us. Why wait for a mid-life unraveling as Brene calls it?
I marvel sometimes that we human beings can have a meaningful, interactive conversation with each other, let alone be in relationships, be parents, friends, co-workers and leaders. A peek under the surface at another’s stratifications would be revelational — and even daunting. The buried treasures are the very things we need to make deeper connections, build resilience and move through our lives with greater ease.
In my most recent post, I shared some of the game-changing insights about our superpower, ATTENTION. The entire time I was reading Peak Mind and writing that post, I was thinking about something very profound: If we are already losing 50% of our lives because we aren’t really “paying attention”, what happens when we numb our pain, hide our true feelings and needs, walk on eggshells, and react to false narratives and beliefs? How much of the remaining 50% do we lose with armor, addiction, baggage and unconscious patterns of behavior?
Is it any wonder that there is an urgent call to “find your authentic self?”
Picture Jacob Marley, dragging around that long and heavy chain for most of his life.
The chains are intended to represent his sins in life, accompanied by his guilt for failing to help his fellow man. His lack of compassion.
He forged the chain himself.
This image seems an appropriate metaphor for the stratifications we have under the surface. Quite honestly, some were not of our own doing, but just ways in which we learned to make sense of our world.
Other parts of our stratifications can be attributed to baggage we’ve collected over our lifetime, unprocessed emotions, insecurities and triggers. Hidden underneath all that heavy stuff are the very things we want to be more aligned with — our innate gifts, our strengths, resilience and joy.
Let’s take a deep dive under the surface and explore how biology, biography, behaviors and backstory impact us today. We operate unconsciously because we simply aren’t fully aware of how we are showing up and why. Armed with self-awareness and introspection, we can make informed choices about personal development.
Outgrown behavioral patterns originated in childhood when our brain development did not yet able us to operate in a “top-down” fashion. We were using immature brains to make sense of our lives. Not only that, we had limited language which hampered our ability to articulate complex emotions. All too often, as children we were told to suppress emotions or get over it. Bottled up emotions are bound to explode at some point. So, we developed both behavioral patterns and reactive responses. This hampered developing emotional agility and good coping skills.
Here’s a sampling of typical behavioral patterns: Conflict avoider, people pleaser, shape shifter and perfectionist. We may go through life withdrawn, hyper vigilant, overly anxious or temperamental. We may have a fear of abandonment or of not being worthy; or we may be confrontational or overly complacent.
The coping strategies we relied on to navigate our childhoods rarely serve us well in adulthood. In fact, these “go-to” behaviors hold us back from growing emotionally and psychologically. Very often, these behavioral patterns are some form of armor that we use to protect us from feeling vulnerable. We were most vulnerable as children, especially if the very people we relied upon to keep us safe, did not do that. So, we armored up. We found creative ways to navigate and mitigate.
While they may have worked in childhood, they do not help us function in a healthy, proactive way in adulthood. They become the “drag” that shows up as resistance, a lack of confidence or not even knowing what we really want from life.
Our behavioral patterns are interconnected to our “attachment style”. Simply put, attachments styles are expectationswe develop about relationships with others based on the relationship we had with our primary caregiver.
Our attachment style is a great place to start when pulling back the layers of our biography. It offers insight into how we are showing up in our most important relationships.
This chart highlights the attributes of the primary caregiver for each of the 4 attachment styles and the corresponding ways a person will respond in their adult relationships.
The huge benefit of coming to terms with both our behavioral patterns and our attachment style is that we free ourselves from things that no longer serve us. We often go into adulthood with concrete ideas about the things our parents did that we will NOT be doing. But we are unaware that unconsciously we are bringing along the patterns — both our own and those of our family. We lived in a Petri dish of family dynamics for nearly two decades. We won’t shake off old habits overnight — especially if we aren’t paying attention to them.
We can take affirmative steps to untether ourselves and find a better way to go through adulthood. This work starts with self-awareness. It is also how we break unhealthy generational cycles. Dr. Dan Siegel is a great resource for parents who want to understand their own attachment style and develop healthy, secure attachments with their children.
There’s a little more to biography than attachment styles however. Our feelings arise from an emotional experience — and we surely accumulated many emotional experiences during childhood and adolescence (and all with a brain not yet fully developed).
The study of moods and emotions helps reveal the porous boundaries between conscious and unconscious mental processes.
What gets stored consciously in our memory banks are the tangible details of our experience – the one we can articulate with clarity years later. What gets unconsciously stored is the nuanced physiological and emotional responses associated with that story. This is where we find ourselves “triggered” by a present day experience that is quite different from a past event yet feels familiar.
Did you know that our brain might not distinguish between an imagined stressful situation and one that is actually happening? Our brain will produce stress hormones — adrenalin and cortisol — in both situations unless we help it to make the distinction. As Dr. Amishi Jha explains in Peak Mind, our brains are trainable.
New brain imaging research shows that “imagining” a threat lights up similar regions as “experiencing” it does. This research confirms that imagination is a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our well-being.” — Tor Wager, Director of the Cognitive and Affective at CU Boulder, senior co-author of Your Brain on Imagination, White Paper published December 10, 2018.
If we could take a cross-section of our accumulated emotions and experiences, we would see clearly how the layers formed – from our childhood environment, to how we made sense of it; to the behavioral patterns we adopted and the armor we used for an added safety measure; to our brain and body’s responses, and the memory banks we filled. This is also a heavy “drag” on us as we go through life. These stratifications are our own Jacob Marley chains.
All of this brings us to backstory. Biography, Behaviors and Biology are all intertwined in the narratives we created as children to help us make sense of things; they are equally intertwined in the stories we tell ourselves today when we are feeling insecure, shamed, triggered, uncertain or vulnerable. Our inner critic often engages as a co-author in our stories, much to our detriment.
There is a shadow being cast from our backstory onto the experience we are having today. Most of the time, we are completely unaware of it.
Imbedded in the layers of our biography, behaviors and biology is our history. Brene invites us to get inquisitive, to ask “what brought this on? Because the clues we need to unravel the present moment from our entangled past, lie in this deeper exploration of our layers – the stratifications of emotions and experiences we have accumulated over our lifetime.
For decades, I have combed the shelves of the “self-help” section of libraries and bookstores. I even stumbled across Jon Kabat-Zinns book “Wherever You Go, There You” are back in February, 2000 — but I wasn’t ready to “receive” all the wisdom imbedded in his book about mindfulness and meditation. When I was reading Atlas of the Heart, I marveled that Brene Brown included his work in her own research and writing.
In fact, as I have written in prior blog posts, so many of the resources I have cultivated for my own personal growth work over the past decade are now intersecting. The tool box for self-discovery and personal development is chock full of readily accessible, integrated resources.
One inspiring difference are the game-changing breakthroughs in neuroscience that have become the foundation — and the impetus — for all of us to take self-awareness seriously.
And the serious work of cultivating greater self-awareness begins by pulling back the layers, performing a “Marie Kondo-like” purge of patterns, armors and coping skills that are not sparking joy and harnessing the power of our most phenomenal organ — our brain.
What has me so excited and energized these days is witnessing young parents leaning into all that we are learning from neuroscience, incorporating personal growth and mental well being as a part of their overall self care, and proactively teaching their children to express and process their emotions in healthy ways.
This morning, I was sitting in front of my fireplace with a cup of piping hot peppermint tea while a confetti snow fell over the mountains and canyon. In my hands, I held a book, a yellow highlighter and hot pink post-it notes. I heard the gentle sloshing of the water in the washing machine and the distant bark of the neighbor’s playful dog. I was practicing using my brain’s flashlight to focus my complete attention on each and every thing I have just described, one at a time.
The book I am reading is Peak Mind; Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. I confess that I am so into this book that I find myself giggling, gasping and nodding in agreement with each and every page. This book with all its revelations about our brains and our attention has me captivated.
I stumbled into mindfulness and meditation six years ago in an attempt to cultivate self-awareness and an ability to stay in the present moment. I had a hard time articulating to others, in a succinct way, what I was discovering with both. I often used an analogy involving yoga or golf to attempt to explain how the small daily practices, done consistently over time, led to quite noticeable positive changes months later.
And now, in my hands, is the most incredible reference book I could ever dream of having — and it is so relatable, so captivating that I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to read it. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in mindfulness and meditation, the knowledge you will gain about your brain, and most importantly about your incredible superpower –ATTENTION — should be more than ample to spark your interest.
Your attention determines:
What you perceive, learn and remember;
how steady or how reactive you feel;
which decisions you make and actions you take;
how you interact with others;
and ultimately your sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. (Excerpted from page 4 of Peak Mind)
If that list isn’t enough to pique your interest, consider this: Your attention now has a commercial value. “If you aren’t paying for the product, you ARE the product.” As Dr. Amishi Jha states, more precisely it is your attention that is the product — a commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder. Did you know that we now have attention merchants and attention markets? And this forecasts the possibility of trading in human “attention futures” along with metals, oils, grains and currency.
I’m guessing that you might be paying more attention now…..
If our attention is so invaluable that it has become a commodity, perhaps that will be the wake up call that compels us to take control of what is rightfully ours and attend to it much like we would our physical health.
We tend to accept that, to improve our physical health, we need to engage in physical exercise. Somehow, we just don’t think the same way about psychological health or cognitive capacity. But we should! Just as specific types of physical training can strengthen certain muscles groups, this type of mental training can strengthen attention — if we do it. (Excerpted from page 15, the Chapter entitled A Mental Workout that Works, from the book Peak Mind)
Go back and re-read that list above in the blue background. Everything on that list is what we are striving for when we talk about personal development. It encompasses emotional regulation, self-awareness, good decision making, learning from past experiences, gaining knowledge and wisdom, changing behavioral patterns and cultivating gratitude. It all gets boiled down to one simple yet profound factor — attention.
Dr. Jha is a gifted writer who uses her personal experiences, decades of fascinating research and relatable metaphors to walk us through the operations manual of our complex brain, how attention gets hijacked, how we can de-clutter our minds and strengthen our focus so that we fully experience more of our lives.
“What you pay attention to is your life.” (Excerpted from page 26, Chapter entitled Attention is Your SuperPower, the book Peak Mind)
Just sit with that for a few minutes — What you pay attention to IS your life. Check your daily screen usage if you dare. Ponder that on average we have over 6,000 thoughts per day. Think about all the things you routinely juggle on a daily basis. Dr. Jha points out that the problem is not all the things that are vying for our attention every single day, it is that we lack internal cues about where our attention actually is — moment to moment. The solution? Pay attention to your attention.
Dr. Jha reveals that attention is both a superpower AND it is fragile. She identifies 3 main things that are “kryptonite” for our fragile attention: stress, threat and poor mood.
Stress: That perceived feeling of being overwhelmed can jettison us into time travel: rumination about the past or worry about the future. These only aggravate and accelerate the amount of stress we are experiencing.
“When you experience too much stress for too long, you get caught in the downward spiral of attention degradation; the worse attention gets, the less you are able to control it; the less you’re able to control it, the worse the stress gets.” (Excerpted from page 47, the chapter ….But There’s Kryptonite, the book Peak Mind)
Threat: Whether real or imagined, threat makes it nearly impossible to focus on any task at hand or even stay on track in a heated conversation. Our ability to direct our attention at will is gone. Threat vigilance increases (we are triggered to protect ourselves) and our attention become stimulus-driven (we are on keen lookout for anything that is threat-related.) No matter how hard we may try, the threat becomes the focal point of our attention. Think back on a disagreement you had where you felt that your integrity or intentions were under attack, and even now you may feel heat rising in your body. Was it hard to focus solely on the content of the disagreement?
“Even if you have the highest IQ on the block, here’s a truth about human brains: in some ways, they haven’t changed in thirty-five thousand years. If the brain believes it’s under threat, it’s going to reconfigure attention accordingly, regardless of whether what’s actually in front of you is a threat.” (Excerpted from page 50, chapter ….But There’s Kryptonite, the book Peak Mind)
Poor Mood: “Everything from chronic depression to how you feel after receiving bad news can constitute poor mood” explains Dr. Jha. No matter the source, the effect can send us into loops of repetitive negative thoughts. Performance of cognitive tasks that involve both attention and working memory worsen in the midst of poor mood. This worsening of attention and working memory affects accuracy, slows the speed at which the task is accomplished and inhibits varied responses to the task at hand.
Dr. Jha says that once we wrap our heads around the 3 components of kryptonite, might say — “ok, so, I’ll simply reduce my stress, be on the lookout for a bad mood and make sure I’m not feeling threatened by stuff that isn’t a real threat.”
There’s just one major problem – kryptonite is not only good at sabotaging our attention, it is SNEAKY!
“The fact is, we’re really bad at identifying forces that degrade attention, even when we’re immersed in them. We often aren’t able to recognize them for what they are. And further, without training to gain a stronger awareness of our own minds, we simply aren’t very cognizant of the effects. Excerpted from page 51, the chapter ….But There’s Kryptonite, the book Peak Mind).
Let’s stop right there for a moment and take in some good. Attention is our superpower and while it is fragile, it is also trainable! Did you just breathe a sigh of relief?
“It is possible to change the way our attention systems operate. This is a critical new discovery, not only because we ARE missing half our lives, but because the half we’re here for can feel like a constant struggle. (Excerpted from page 6, Introduction to the book, Peak Mind.
As I read Peak Mind, and share these insights with you in this post, I find myself feeling so incredibly grateful. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this book will change lives. This “critical new discovery” is combining the wisdom of centuries old meditative practices with groundbreaking neuroscience discoveries. It feels like the beginning of a new era of discoveries for mental health, Alzheimer’s, dementia, cognition, emotional intelligence and resilience.
In the past I did have a hard time conveying to others just how game-changing mindfulness and meditation can be. I’d talk about neuroscience and neuroplasticity and people would glaze over. I’d talk about being in the “present moment” and eyes would roll.
Even more challenging was being able to give someone a concrete plan for cultivating mindfulness and starting a daily meditation practice of their own. I’d suggest books or podcasts but in the end it really was a DIY approach.
Lastly, it was hardest still to really get across to others how transformational mindfulness and meditation had been in my day to day life: How I stopped ruminating and needless worrying, how I am able rather effortlessly to bring my full attention back to the present moment when I notice it drifting off. I am now able to be in the midst of a lot of negative energy and remain detached from it, rooted in my calm center and much more capable of observing with clarity. I have freed myself from old emotional triggers. I am more resilient, more rested, and definitely more relaxed. Even when I am dreaming, my mindfulness shows up! I am a strong testament for everything that Dr. Amisha Jha offers in her book, Peak Mind.
In her book, Dr. Jha offers the 12 minute daily exercise that will put you on a path to reclaiming your attention and all its superpowers. Over the course of just 5 short weeks, she will guide you through Core Training for the Brain. It’s the beginning of a daily and lifelong practice that will undoubtedly change the quality of your life in remarkable ways.
It’s exciting that a resource like Peak Mind is available. The more we know, the more we grow!
I’m changing things up a bit for this Nuggets of Wisdom post. This time, I am sharing insights from some of my favorite inspirational resources along with my reflections on how their wisdom can show up in our daily lives. Let’s jump in:
You know that old adage that “time heals everything“…..well, it simply is not true. As yung pueblo so wisely shares in the above quote, it is not time that heals — it is the courage we muster to stop ignoring and hiding from the obvious. When we know we are not showing up as our best selves, when we keep having the same argument or miscommunication, when we lose our cool or opt to shut down — those are the little warning lights telling us that we need to pay attention to the root cause. From my experience, the pain that yung pueblo refers to has two sides — the unprocessed pain that we bottled up because of a past bad experience AND the pain of showing up now in an inauthentic way. Often we regret how we are showing up in the present moment, because we are “acting out” rather that “working through”. Stuffed emotions, ongoing resentments, and bottled up pain never go away with time alone. Heed the warning lights and lean into your courage. It’s the faster path to self awareness and supporting the better version of who you really want to be.
This quote from Fred Rogers echos the same sentiment that yung pueblo expressed, so I thought it a fitting P.S. to his nugget of wisdom.
Boundaries sometimes conjure up an image of limitations or walls, but they are actually the gateways to treating someone with respect and integrity – in a way that feels very tangible and supportive to them.
Nedra Tawwab is my go-to resource for deeper understanding of the importance of boundaries in healthy relationships of all types. In this post, Nedra provides clear cut examples of what it looks like to respect and accept another’s boundaries.
I’m working on helping my grandchildren learn the benefits of boundaries by using the word “respect” when I respond to their request for privacy, specific help, or even not helping. If my granddaughter tells me that she does not want help with something that I believe may be frustrating her, I respond by telling her that I respect her wish to do it all by herself. This may seem like a small matter yet it is planting the seed of what it feels like to be respected. Here’s an interesting twist that she’s teaching me — She prefers to work through things on her own even if they are a little daunting; then she feels good to have successfully accomplished it independently. This invaluable lesson of resourcefulness, tenacity and personal agency that comes from respecting her boundaries is not lost on me.
At the onset of 2022, I shifted the focus of my blog to helping others discover tools that would best benefit their own self-discovery and personal development journey. The concept of a toolbox really resonates with me and I like the idea each of us customizing our individual toolbox. Just like the toolbox you have for home repairs, you might have some you use often and others that are for speciality jobs. The same is true for the tools we rely on to help us build resilience and emotional agility, cultivate greater self awareness and inner peace, and those that heal and bridge us through times of great adversity.
Yet there is an important caveat that must be mentioned here. We are all better skilled at using these tools and achieving meaningful results if we take the time to understand neuroscience and how our brains operate. It is the very reason I was drawn to Dr. Hanson’s work at the onset of my own personal growth journey. Fortunately there are understandable and relatable resources to help us better understand and utilize the potential of our brains. Check out Peak Mind by Dr. Amishi Jha, Flourish by Dr. Martin Seligman, You, Happier by Dr. Daniel Amen, Hardwiring Happiness by Dr. Rick Hanson and of course, the Being Well Podcast. My recent post entitled Mindfulness: A Brain Game Changer might be a good primer if you want to dip your toes into learning more about neuroscience.
One of the phrases that Dr. Rick Hanson often uses that I find so encouraging is “how are you resourcing yourself?” This question encompasses what we do on a daily basis to support our overall mental well being and what tools we turn to when we hit a rough patch, are overwhelmed or in deep struggle. Our customized toolbox can be chock full of diverse tools to resource ourselves throughout life.
I’m wrapping this post up with yet another nugget of wisdom from yung pueblo because of an uplifting, inspirational conversation I had with my friend, Judy Chesters. It’s no secret that we have supported in each other in many ways over these past 5 years of personal growth work. Mindfulness has been a cornerstone of our inner work and that’s where we both became much more self-aware of armor and baggage that was getting in our way of living in alignment with who we really are. In our recent chat, we were both sharing how much lighter and more expansive we feel now, how we have more clarity, more resilience and inner calm. We have more energy, more fun, more creativity and deeper relationships. Because we know each other so well, it becomes very evident as we swap stories that we are most definitely showing up in much healthier ways these days — and yes we even chuckle at how the former versions of ourselves would have responded.
What got my attention in this quote of yung pueblo’s is how he emphasizes that when we “find ourselves” (and are operating with more mindfulness), we connect with people that add to our radiance (love that word), and move with bold and genuine energy. That is exactly how Judy and I are feeling these days.
In her book, Peak Mind, Dr. Amishi Jha highlights that when we are living mindfully and are more skilled at focusing our attention in the present moment, our experiences are amplified (another awesome word). Things feel brighter, louder and crisper. Judy and I have discovered that memories of our experiences have been enriched with smells, sensations, the feel of a tiny warm hand in ours, colors and textures, the twinkle in someone’s eye. You cannot capture these sensory details in a photo….but they are strongly imprinted with our experience when we have been fully present in the moment.
All these nuggets of wisdom may seem to be unrelated, but they are actually stepping stones on the personal development journey. Time doesn’t heal, doing the work is what heals. Boundaries help us show each other how we want to be treated, and serve as a reminder to ourselves of our value and what we need to flourish. We benefit from having a toolbox to resource ourselves with daily self-care and to support us through challenging times. And the light at the end of the tunnel — well that is where you find yourself living more mindfully, more present and engaged, in alignment with who you truly are. You will find friends and like-minded souls on your self discovery journey. They will scaffold you, hold space for you and celebrate your progress.
Before I got seriously committed to personal growth, I had this growing curiosity about resilience, coping skills and an ability to sustain some level of overall satisfaction with life. Why did some people seem to have this in spades and others really struggled? Little did I know that my search for answers would end up changing my life in the most remarkable ways.
Back in 2014, I found myself in the psychology section of the book store and discovered Dr. Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.
Dr. Seligman offered a game-changing theory in the field of psychology about what really makes a good life — and his focus was on optimism, motivation and character. Simply put, flourishing was defined as feeling good and functioning well. That sure seemed like a great place to start for answers to my questions. Here’s what drew me in:
While certainly a part of well-being, happiness “alone” doesn’t give life its meaning. Seligman asks: “What is it that enables you to cultivate your talents, to build deep, lasting relationships with others, to feel pleasure and to contribute meaningfully tothe world. In other words, what is it that allows you to “flourish”? (Kirkus Reviews)
Dr. Seligman was flipping traditional psychology upside down — rather than focusing solely on efforts to relieve human suffering, his focus was to look at what was going well in our lives. It was a straightforward, understandable way to “re-wire the brain” and provide balance for the brain’s negativity bias. I was intrigued by this because I had noticed that some of those folks struggling with sustained contentment in their lives often had a lot of things in the “plus” column. Yet that alone did not seem to be enough to have them adopt a “glass half full” perspective. A simple exercise that Dr. Seligman recommended was to identify 3 things that went well at the end of every day.
That simple exercise had a very relevant link — often the very reason that things went well was related to something that the person actively did to facilitate a positive experience.
Agency, action and positive reinforcement all wrapped up in a simple gratitude practice.
It was then that I had a “aha” moment. My brother is the poster child for resilience, strong coping skills and a contagious enthusiasm for life. Yet my brother has had more than his fair share of setbacks and adversities in his life and frankly he has a lot more “minuses” in the column than most. Could it be that his immense gratitude for the small, good things was the key to his ability to be so upbeat and resilient?
Whenever I spend time with my brother, I just bask in his effervescent reviews of the best cheeseburger he just enjoyed, the thrill of the round of golf we just played (even if he lost most of his golf balls) and the miraculous beauty of a sunset. He is the most appreciative, grateful guy I have ever known. Is this his secret sauce for living life with optimism, motivation and resilience?
About a year after I read Flourish, my friend gave me several issues of Mindfulness Magazine. It was my initial introduction to mindfulness and I was fascinated. Little did I know that mindfulness practices would become an integral part of my life. There’s no doubt in my mind that because I had read Flourish, I was extremely receptive to learning all that I could about mindfulness.
Flipping through those issues, I discovered Dr. Rick Hanson, an expert in positive neuroplasticity. I was so intrigued by this remarkable concept: Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify, change and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. What I had already been learning from Flourish was that shifting the brain’s negativity bias simply by focusing on the good things in our life can have dramatic impacts on our quality of life — and on our ability to cope, build resilience and squeeze more joy out of life.
I began to see where psychology and neuroscience were complementing each other. It was through Dr. Hanson’s work that I began to find some of the answers to my earlier questions — we can get caught in the negativity bias, create deep trenches in our brain where we stay stuck…and have a very hard time overcoming — even when our life circumstances have changed dramatically for the better. Negative emotional cycles can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, rumination, apathy, anxiety and depression. It can be very difficult to break these cycles, especially if you’ve been prone to lean heavily into the negativity bias for most of your life.
About the same time that I was digging deep into neuroscience, I was also soaking up all that Brene Brown was revealing about shame, vulnerability, courage and empathy. One of her findings was that when we “numb” pain, we also “numb” joy. This insight led me to think about the ways that people numb their pain and its correlation to negativity bias. When we numb, we dial down our awareness. So, we are now operating unconsciously and before we know it, we have consumed an entire bag of potato chips, the carton of ice cream, or binged two seasons of a Netflix program. When we have slipped into auto-pilot, our brains are naturally going to default to the negativity bias if that’s our “go to” familiar place. See the connection?
When we numb pain, we numb joy. We aren’t able to see the good things right in front of us, because we are back in the negativity loop and we don’t even realize it. When the numbness wears off and we “awaken” to our consciousness, we look around but still have blind spots to the good stuff. It’s incredibly hard to sustain joy and happiness when our focus and awareness are lopsided due to the negativity bias.
The correlation I was making from all of this inter-connecting research is that mindfulness is an incredible tool because it anchors us in “awareness”. Mindfulness keeps us present so we can take in the good and stops us from slipping into unconscious auto pilot. Meditation is an interactive tool to help us break the cycle that feeds the negativity bias. Meditation helps us to avoid getting “stuck” by our thoughts and pulled into old negative cycles.
Putting the pieces of this puzzle together became the foundation for my own self-discovery and personal growth plan. While I was an upbeat person, wired much like my brother, I was having some difficulty breaking free from rumination. I realized that this was holding me back from the life I really wanted to be living. I wanted to “flourish” – feeling good and functioning well.
At the onset of both my mindfulness and meditation practices, the best I could do was small doses of each. I committed to doing the best I could and to doing it every single day. When I would find myself “living in the past” rather than being fully present in the moment, I would make a note of it — “ruminating” or “thinking”. This is a basic tool I learned from my Headspace mindfulness app. A little trick that can be used throughout the day. I also used another trick of “substitution”. If I would find myself thinking about a person or event that caused me discomfort, I would substitute a person or event that brought me joy. I recall Dr. Hanson offering a mindfulness practice of “flipping it”– which was basically the same premise that Dr. Seligman introduced — “look for the good, not the bad.”
I will readily admit that meditating was so incredibly hard in the beginning. I had these unrealistic expectations that I would sit for 5 or 10 minutes and be blissfully thought-free. Just the opposite happened — hundreds of thoughts streamed into my mind the moment I sat down and closed my eyes. After I embraced the idea that meditation was more about letting thoughts come and go, I bought into the theory that I was “breaking the cycle” of getting attached to my thoughts. My meditation practice become more productive and honestly I came to enjoy it. Maybe not in the moment if I am being honest, but when I realized that I was able to tap into these tools throughout my day, I knew I was making real progress.
Mindfulness and meditation became the foundation for my processing, my healing and personal growth. I was able to end a long cycle of rumination and curate greater self-awareness. I often wonder if my keen interest in resilience, optimism and emotional regulation was really a springboard for what I myself needed. Would I have been so drawn to neuroscience, mindfulness, mediation and Brene Brown if not for this curiosity?
I will share with you what prompted me to reflect on all of this and to make the connections I may have missed five or six years ago. It was a dynamic and insightful Dare to Lead podcast that Brene Brown recently had with neuroscientist, Dr. Amishi Jha. It is entitled Finding Focus and Owning Your Attention.
Here’s the introduction for this episode: “a game changing conversation about attention, focus, concentration and mindfulness- specifically how mindfulness can literally change our levels of attention “……Brene Brown
Naturally I was captivated the moment I read both the title and the introduction for this episode. A huge smile came across my face as Brene Brown shared Dr. Jha’s credentials before the conversation — She is the Director of contemplative neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. Wow — contemplative neuroscience is a real thing!
This podcast episode will illuminate all the ways that mindfulness can have a profound impact on your quality of life. Yes, I chose that word illuminate on purpose because Dr. Jha is witty, light-hearted and possesses a gift for metaphors. Her flashlight metaphor will totally illuminate things you never knew about your brain and your attention.
Dr. Amishi Jha is the author of Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day and she has a Ted Talk entitled “How to Tame Your Wandering Mind”. I highly recommend both if your interest has been piqued. Imagine what a small investment like 12 minutes a day might just do to amp up how you are “flourishing” in life.
I am so grateful that neuroscience, mindfulness and meditation are becoming mainstream, relatable and user-friendly. Those of us in the everyday world who are practicing both and reaping the benefits can be so helpful and encouraging to others.
TEDxCoconut Grove – Dr. Amishi Jha on How To Tame Your Wandering Mind
One of the things I love most about this enlightening journey of my personal growth is the reconnection with friends from my past. Who knew that my blog and my social media posts about my experiences would be the spark that rekindled old friendships?
It turns out that parts of my stories resonated at a time when my friends found themselves in a similar place, contemplating what wasn’t really working in their lives, struggling with relationship issues, or trying to find their way forward after a major adversity or loss. We often discover common ground when another’s story reflects parts of our own life back to us. There are elements of our experiences that are so relatable, we feel safe to reach out for connection and support.
That is exactly what unfolded as my friends were processing their own lives and happened upon my blog or social media posts. I am so grateful for these reconnections because these are friends that I have shared so much of my earlier life with and it feels so good to reminisce, to laugh and to discover all that has transpired since we last saw each other. What we valued in each other way back then is what we still value in each other today. Often, we help each other blow the dust away to see the hidden treasures deep inside of us that we may be having difficulty finding in the present chapter of our lives.
I marvel at the very different paths that each of our lives have taken and yet there are so many common threads that run between our stories of careers, marriages, parenthood, family dynamics, major life events and choices we have made over the decades. There have been a great variety of reasons for each of us to take a step back from our lives and give serious consideration to things we wish to change.
When we take in another’s story and recognize that we have had similar experiences, we feel a sense of relief. We feel less alone. It reminds me of Brene Brown’s book, “I Thought It Was Just Me” where she emphasizes that our imperfections are what connects us to one another and to our humanity. Our vulnerabilities are powerful reminders to keep our hearts and minds open to the reality that we are all in this together.
In the case of these rekindled friendships, there was also a reminder of our shared values and the comfort we found in each other when we first forged our friendships years ago. All these things combine to create a bridge from the past to the present and a knowing that it is safe to share our full stories.
I was both humbled and deeply touched that my friends would reach out to me because something in my blog resonated with them. While I had always hoped that what I was learning myself would in turn help others, it was an unexpected gift to discover it was meaningful to my friends — women that I knew, loved and respected; women who in turn knew me so well.
One of those rekindled friendships has evolved into a deeper, more encompassing relationship than either of us could have ever imagined.
My dear friend, Judy Chesters, and I met when we were just 18 years old and starting our first job right out of high school. We worked for a small law firm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At that time, we bonded over our Lancaster roots, humble beginnings and hopes for our future. We were two peas in a pod. Eventually our lives took different paths – though in a small town like Lancaster, we’d run into each other and pick up right where we left off. Some friendships are just like that — no matter how much time and life fills the spaces in between seeing each other, it is easy to catch up and reconnect. As often happens however, we fell out of touch as we both got so busy with growing families, juggling jobs, health issues, and life. I had also moved to West Chester, PA and then later to Florida. I did see Judy once in Lancaster before I moved to Florida when we ran into each other at the Park City Mall. We exchanged mobile phone numbers and friended each other on Facebook. That chance meeting turned out to be very fortuitous.
Just a few years later, Judy was reading my newly launched blog and decided it was time to call me rather than just hit “like” or offer a supportive comment on Facebook. Not surprisingly, we picked up right where we left off, chatting with ease to each other. However, this call took a sharp right turn and a deep dive — turns out we both were doing some soul searching and personal development work. It was one of my blog posts that really hit home with Judy and prompted her to call me.
Looking back, I can still picture where I was sitting that day, the Arizona sunshine warming me — but not as much as the heartfelt conversation that Judy and I shared. While our lives had taken completely different paths, so much of what we experienced over the past few decades had remarkable similarities. Even though our circumstances were polar opposites, the personal development discoveries we were making were nearly identical. Judy and I became trust buddies committed to helping each other on our inner work/personal growth journey. Two peas in a pod once again.
I recently asked Judy if she’d be willing to be a guest writer on my blog. I wanted her to share from her own perspective what it was that prompted her to do some re-evaluation of her life five or six years ago. Her insights are so impactful and I am so grateful that she agreed to share them here.:
“I have known for a very long time I am an individual who thinks and feels differently than most people — many people would say that I am just “too sensitive” as if I have control over how I am wired. I feel deeply, I love deeply, I care deeply and I feel others’ pain deeply. I have a strong intuition and a result of these, I can hurt deeply.
I have a tendency to put others’ needs ahead of my own, often times not realizing that I too have needs. Emotionally, I became worn down by others who would embrace that part of me for my sensitivity and how it served them, but criticized me when my “sensitivity” did not serve them. As a result of this pattern of behavior and feeling exhausted and defeated, I had to accept the fact that I needed to embrace who I was to survive — and I had to find the balance to stay true to myself while protecting the heart that was given to me.
I worked tirelessly, reading and practicing some behavioral changes and it was a very difficult journey.
I was blessed to have my dear friend, Amy, and a few very close friends who were going through similar personal growthto help me stay on track.
I had to look deep inside of me and accept the fact that some of my own behavior patterns were keeping me trapped and getting in my way of moving forward.One of the biggest things I had to do was set some healthy boundaries to protect my heart. When boundaries were set, some embraced it while others did not. I realized that I did not have control over how others accepted my “change” and I could respect that.
I had the ability to live my life in a way that kept me true to myself for my intended “purpose” in life, using my God-given gifts to help others and I was no longer tethered to those who felt I needed to become “less sensitive” because it somehow made then feel “less than”. I have learned to respect myself and embrace the number of people who are in my life that understand my heart – they know my “core values.” I am far from perfect and I remind myself daily that I am ok with keeping distance from those that don’t understand my heart — and quite honestly, if others feel that way, why would they want to be a part of my life anyway? This has nothing to do with my love or caring for others. It is just a healthy boundary for self-care — and sometimes means loving “from a distance”.
I am so energized by living a life that aligns with who I am and not being burdened by anyone that doesn’t understand me. I am OK with that. I encourage others to look inside of themselves to align with who they are.
We are all different and have different purposes in. life. We all need to be the healthiest version of who we were meant to be — and discover that for ourselves. No one else can do it for us.
I love having women over for coffee just to chat and encourage each other to keep growing and to share resources for that growth. It is then, when we are able to have peace and contentment of knowing who we are, that we are able to “serve” others in a way that aligns withour individuality. ” —- Judy Chesters
My dear friend Judy is a born empath. I have known this about her since I first met her and it was likely the very reason I was drawn to her. As she shares, being an empath meant that she often took on others’ pain as though it were her own. There is no doubt in my mind that Judy’s young life experiences influenced her as a deeply compassionate, intuitive empath. She is one of those very rare people who can sit with others in their darkest hours without flinching. She has even done this for total strangers and somehow seems to find the words of comfort they so urgently need. I often tell her that she is God’s airbags for others when life is crashing all around them.
Perhaps the most noteworthy transformation that I have seen in Judy through all the personal growth work she has done, is that she is no longer overwhelmed physically and emotionally because of her gift of deep empathy. She has discovered a rare ability to stay grounded while also being a source of great comfort, support and healing for others. The people who come into Judy’s life are often in need of the most intensive care. It is not all surprising to me that Judy frequently forges meaningful, long term friendships with people she has supported through some of their hardest trials.
What Judy and I have both learned is that having a “study buddy” for personal growth work is truly invaluable. We are sounding boards for each other; we share resources and tools that we find helpful. We are honest and open about the patterns and responses we are working on. We cheer for each other when we make real progress and we support each other when the work gets challenging.
It is so gratifying today when we have our long conversations and witness the positive changes that have occurred in each of us. We are discovering that as we have shifted into the healthier, better versions of ourselves, we have more energy, more joy and a broader scope of awareness. We both feel more in alignment with our values and our life purpose.
We do have a few good laughs about how the old versions of ourselves might have shown up and the repercussions of that. Without a doubt, this is better!
When Judy shared with me that she was setting up a little library in her home for the books and resources that we have found helpful – and would regularly be inviting small groups of women over for coffee, I was overjoyed. I can just imagine the friendships that will be created, the stories that will be shared and the personal growth that will emerge.
In our wildest dreams, I don’t believe either of us thought our personal growth journey would be so rewarding. Over the past few years, we have both grown our circle of marble jar friends — and we are delighting in seeing each of them tap into their potential and share their unique gifts with the world.
I will close this post with a giant thank you to my lifelong friend, Judy, for being so genuine and so supportive.
Judy and I found the enneagram very useful. We both read The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron. We discovered we are both dominant enneagram type 2 – and I told her she would laugh and cry when she read about us in this book. The enneagram puts a spotlight on behavioral patterns that hinder us. The best part of the enneagram is that it helps you move toward the healthy end of your spectrum. Check out The Enneagram Institute online for an introduction to this worthwhile tool.
Brene Brown’s books, both her podcasts (Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us) and her Ted Talk all served as great resources. The Gifts of Imperfection is a personal favorite.
Both of us have journaled most of our lives. Judy and I find journaling one of the best way to process our emotions, do deep reflective work and get to know ourselves better.
I’ll be updating this post with Judy’s recommendations for books on being an Empath; and on her favorite Daily Devotionals.
Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser is another remarkable book – and is great for discussion with a good friend.
When I began my self-discovery and personal growth journey six years ago, I had no idea where it would be leading me — and I am extremely grateful for the path it has become. What excites and inspires me is the ground-breaking research that is shedding light on old myths that have contributed to unhealthy multi-generational family dynamics and stunted our own personal growth efforts. In this post, I will highlight some of the key shifts that are having transformational impacts in self-development, mental health and personal growth.
Many of us grew up with the belief that vulnerability was weakness. So naturally we tried our best to hide and mask our own vulnerabilities in an effort to protect ourselves. Our blind spot around vulnerability was most likely in the way we responded to others who showed us theirs — we’d recoil, dismiss or diminish what they shared with us. Weakness was to be avoided at all costs.
Brene Brown’s extensive research on vulnerability spans over two decades and volumes of data. What she reveals is that across cultures, most of us grew up with this false belief that vulnerability was weakness — and at the same time, we were told to be brave. This created a tension that made so sense. Being brave requires courage — and we can’t get to courage without leaning in, and exposing, our vulnerabilty. Hard stop.
Brene has long professed that vulnerability is the key to deep, meaningful connections with others. Author and activist, Dr. Shawn Ginwright drives this point home with a powerful image:
“Vulnerability is the portal for deep connection with another.”
I believe that vulnerability and trust go hand in hand. This heartbreaking misconception about vulnerability being weakness may be a huge contributing factor to the breakdown of trust in family dynamics. Children who do not feel safe will carry mistrust with them into adulthood along with the armor they use to hide their vulnerabilities. Brene cautions us that we often don’t believe the stories others tells us about their experiences, which leads to more disconnection, withdrawal and an innate lack of trust.
Vulnerability is not weakness – it is in fact the greatest measure of courage. On both sides of this coin, we can become more aware of this truth and drop the old, harmful belief. We can learn to respond to vulnerability — our own and others – with respect, empathy, non-judgment and a desire to learn more. We will cultivate more heroes than victims of our own stories with this one transformational shift.
Here is a thread that runs from what we are re-learning about vulnerabilty to what we also can re-learn about regret. When author Dan Pink was working on his latest book, The Power of Regret, he was rather astonished to discover that when he openly shared his heartfelt stories of his own regrets, his friends did not recoil — they actually leaned in. There was an exchange of similar stories and shared humanity. Those conversations led him to do several years of research about how we got regret all wrong. Living a life with no regrets means living a life without any reflection, without extracting the invaluable life lessons meant to help us along our path.
Dan Pink discovered that when others opened up and risked being vulnerable about their regrets, their insights revealed what they valued most in their lives. Not surprisingly, as we age, what we value most becomes crystallized. In this case, hindsight was truly 20/20 and most regrets were about thing people DIDN’T do rather than things they did — the missed opportunities and risks they didn’t take because of fear, insecurities or perceived judgments.
Vulnerability and regret are like two missing pieces of a bigger puzzle. Dr. Shawn Ginwright explains that we can’t move from transactional relationships to transformational relationships without vulnerability because there is no emotional risk, nothing is at stake. Transformational relationships help us evolve into our better selves; these are the people willing to hold up a mirror for us and encourage us to grow — especially from our life experiences.
Let me share my favorite example of a transformational relationship — being a parent. Reflect for a moment on how your role as a parent evolves as your infant moves from toddler to teen. There is no greater example of how deeply our shared vulnerabilty with our child forges a bond that cannot easily be diminished or disconnected. When our kids are teenagers, we often use regrettable moments as a tool for helping them gain some agency around their choices and a foothold on creating their personal values.
I love Angela Duckworth’s body of work around resiliency and grit — and guess what, it dovetails right into vulnerability and regret. Angela says we don’t learn well when there’s no feedback.
Feedback from others is something that often feels like a hit to our ego, so naturally we prefer to avoid or ignore it.
Yet if the feedback is coming from someone we respect and is offered as a “mirror” for personal growth, then we should be grateful — and lean in. Feedback, like regret, is another tool for learning. Those people who offer us insightful feedback may be the ones we can develop a transformational relationship with — those who will help us do our most meaningful “mirror” work.
One way to get more comfortable with feedback is to ask for it. There’s no doubt this will foster your willingness to choose courage over comfort. And, you will be setting a good example for others:
“Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better, and the world a little braver.” –Brene Brown
One of the most revelational breakthroughs has been around emotions. We are emotional beings and yet we rarely tap into the wisdom that our wide range of emotions offers to us. We may have been taught as children not to express our emotions; we may have learned to stuff them and power through hard times; we may be triggered by them and then act on them, often with poor outcomes.
While we often talked about emotional regulation, the focus was more on trying to navigate around our emotions than accepting them, feeling and honoring them, and gaining the knowledge they offered. As more research rolls out from behavioral scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists and social work experts, we are recognizing that emotions are not the problem — it is unprocessed emotions that cause lingering and long-term issues.
In Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown integrates so much research of her own and others, to open us up to a brand new way of thinking about — and learning from — our EMOTIONS.
Emotions are neither right nor wrong, good or bad. Each and every one has some intrinsic value that is a part of our full life experience.
In Atlas of the Heart, Brene gives us a resource guide for 87 emotions and experiences that are common to most of us. She shows us “where we go” emotionally with so many relatable events that happen in our lives. Best yet, she gives us an expanded emotional vocabulary to help us name them, process them and learn the lessons from them. Her research revealed that we often just dumped our emotions into one of 3 buckets — happy, sad or angry. There is no way that we were ever going to be able to untangle ourselves from the complexity of our many emotions without a bigger vocabulary and greater discernment.
Imagine the transformation that can occur in just one generation when we embrace these breakthroughs — recognizing vulnerabilty as a measure of strength and courage; gaining invaluable life lessons from regret and reflection; and accepting and honoring all our emotions, processing them in real time (rather than ignoring or stuffing). Imagine how freeing it will be for younger generations to move through life without heavy armor and emotional baggage. What if we came to see ourselves as heroes of our own stories rather than victims of an old narrative? All of these breakthroughs in how we relate to vulnerabilty, to regret and feedback, and to our vast emotional landscape are the maps we can use to grow forward.
My recent blog post — What We Got Wrong About Vulnerability
I get so invigorated when a breakthrough discovery upends old paradigms and carves a brand new path for us to take on this life journey. Recently I shared how we missed the necessary life lessons embedded in regret. Today, it’s a big one — it’s vulnerability.
Just like the impassioned enthusiasm that author Dan Pink has about reframing regret for its value, this same passion and high energy exudes from author and activist, Dr. Shawn Ginwright, about the multitude of benefits gained from embracing vulnerability in a whole new way.
In his recent conversation with Brene Brown on Unlocking Us, Dr. Shawn Ginwright spoke with conviction about the role vulnerability plays in our most meaningful relationships. Especially, transformative relationships — those rare and invaluable relationships where we are lifted up and given the scaffolding we need to grow and flourish.
When Dr. Ginwright proclaimed “vulnerability is the portal for deep connection with another” I stopped the podcast and let that soak in. Then I rewound it and listened two more times.
As an ardent student of Brene’s work on courage and vulnerability, this concept of a portal gave me an unforgettable image to reframe the role that vulnerability plays in meaningful relationship connections. A portal is a doorway, a gate, an opening — sometimes, a large and impressive one.
When someone is courageous enough to be vulnerable with us, they are literally dropping their innermost drawbridge and revealing the “portal” into a deeper understanding of who they are, what matters most and what they are experiencing.
Dr. Ginwright calls our response to these moments of vulnerability “the exchange of humanity”.
If we peek through that portal and look closely, we can see, and feel, another’s anguish through our own eyes and heart.
Brene Brown explains that this “exchange of humanity” creates a connective energy between people and provides the emotional support for healing and growth.
All we really have to do is reflect on a past vulnerable moment of our own to intuitively know what we would have found comforting. This is where “meaningful connection” takes root – in our shared humanity. Our experiences may be quite different, but those deep feelings and painful emotions are similar.
Vulnerability has been a rich topic of conversation very recently in my book club and with my close friend since we are all reading and digesting Atlas of the Heart. As we shared stories with each other, we began to reframe how we think about — and respond to — vulnerability.
It made me realize that we were actually experiencing what Dr. Ginwright is teaching — our connections were deepening as we leaned in to each other’s stories where they took a leap of faith and bared their vulnerabilities to others.
Brene writes that across cultures, most of us were raised to believe that being vulnerable is being weak and that this belief sets up an unresolvable tension because we were also taught to be “brave.” But being brave implies having courage — and vulnerability is the most accurate way to measure courage.
Real courage means taking that risk, sharing our truth and who we really are, without any guarantee of the outcome.
“Courage requires the willingness to lean into uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” (excerpt from Atlas of the Heart).
We are “all in” for courage when we cheer on the protagonist in our favorite book or movie. That kind of courage seems fearless and heroic.
We are far less comfortable with courage when it comes to ourselves. Our fear — of being judged, labeled, diminished or worse yet — cast out from the groups we want to belong to — keeps us armored up and silent.
And here is our conundrum — we want deeper connections in our relationships, but we mistakenly believe that by being vulnerable and opening up to others, we will be perceived as weak. There’s a lot of shame, fear and insecurity wrapped up in this old belief system. We build walls and don protective emotional armor to keep us safe — but it is a false sense of security and a major roadblock to meaningful connection.
That old belief system also set us up for failure when it comes to responding to those who take that risk and share their vulnerabilities with us. If we believe that being vulnerable is weakness, we can easily fall back on old unhealthy patterns of relating to weakness as something to avoid. Like it or not, our first unconscious responses probably are to judge, diminish, recoil and withdraw.
We’d be operating on auto pilot with a harmful belief system that predisposes us to respond to perceived weakness as undesirable.
This is where I find the work of Brene Brown, Dr. Shawn Ginwright and their peers to be game-changing. Shattering these old myths and reframing vulnerability as the portal for connection is a very profound, healthy step in the right direction. As Brene shares in Atlas of the Heart, we have been using perfectionism, people-pleasing and proving to mask vulnerability. No wonder we find it so challenging to really be our authentic selves.
It seems to me that the old belief about vulnerability being equated with weakness also contributed to an erosion of trust. Trust is the bedrock of genuine connection. If we shared our vulnerabilities with someone and their response was to treat us as “weak”, it is only natural that the trust we placed in that person would be compromised.
Brene highlights the importance of discipline and self-awareness when it comes to sharing our vulnerabilities for this very reason. Trust is an essential component of solid relationships. She advises that we mindfully chose those who have earned the right to hear our stories and experiences — those people you deem trustworthy.
On the flip side of this, remember that if someone comes to you to share their stories, you have probably earned their trust. Will you be a good steward of that earned trust?
Reflecting on my life, with this new perspective, I can more clearly see the pivotal “sliding door moments” where both vulnerability and trust were at stake — and the resulting outcomes.
There are moments when I shared my vulnerability with someone I trusted — and they chose to lean in and listen, to be kind and respectful. A warmth washes over me when I recall how it felt to be cared for in such a loving way when I was hurting. And yes, my trust in those people grew exponentially and our relationships have stood the test of time.
There are other “sliding door moments” when others dismissed, diminished or ignored me when I was most vulnerable. These reflections took me back to childhood, marriage, friendships and parenting – where those missed opportunities caused chasms in relationships. These moments feel more like doors closing, my membership card in a group being revoked, and jabs at my self-worth.
I see that now — I did not see it in those moments when it was all unfolding.
My friends and I have long wondered why others respond in ways that amplify someone’s pain, or even inflict more on to them when they are at a low point. Could it be that the old myth of vulnerability being a weakness was the main problem?
The more we are learning, reflecting and sharing, the more we are beginning to understand the root causes of disconnection. It is a complex combination of the belief that vulnerability is weakness; all the ways we employ to keep our vulnerability hidden; the lack of emotional support that we inherently need to help us work through adversities; and our own negative and hurtful responses to others’ vulnerability.
We are “unlearning” what doesn’t work and we are “relearning” a much more beneficial approach for courage, vulnerability and deeper, meaningful connections. It does require that we begin to show up more authentically and not hide our vulnerabilities, that we express our needs and boundaries and that we do our part to build trusting relationships.
Dr. Ginwright encourages us to take all of this “relearning” one giant step further by seeking “transformational” relationships. He defines these relationships as those that help us do the necessary “mirror work” to grow into our better selves. Transformational relationships will help us see where we are stuck, where old behavioral patterns could be problematic, and the hidden potential we possess.
In his newest book The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Yourself, Dr. Ginwright emphasizes that we don’t get “mirror work” without these important transformational relationships — and that we only get into these invaluable relationships by sharing our vulnerability. It is through this exchange of humanity that we become connected in ways that cannot be easily dismissed or disconnected.
When I think of a transformational relationship and “mirror work”, I think of my lifelong friend Judy. Over the past six years she has been an honest, trustworthy, truthful friend. We have forged a strong, flexible and enduring relationship bond as we peeled back the layers of our life experiences and searched for the lessons we missed along the way. Perhaps this is why Dr. Ginwright’s teachings resonated so deeply with me. I have firsthand experience of the transformational power of reframing vulnerability in this whole new light.
It is what inspires me to be a transformative “mirror” friend to others. The gift in paying it forward, is that we continue to gather more stories of humanity — those heart-expanding stories that braid the bond with more texture, more color, more fiber, more compassion.
I hope that this revelational new way to view vulnerability opens your heart and eyes to a better pathway for relationship building — and repairing. I will leave you with one compelling message: Please be gentle with those who show you their vulnerability. Even if you are unable or unwilling to be the rock they need in their hour of despair, don’t make their healing work harder. Be kind and respectful. Reflect on how much courage it took for that person to show you vulnerability.
I found myself captivated by the recent Dare to Lead Podcast with author, Dan Pink, discussing his latest book, The Power of Regret – How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. Dan weaves rich personal stories and extensive research together to shatter the myth of that age-old advice to “live a life with no regrets”.
Dan was so impassioned about the role that our regrets play in transforming our lives for the better that I found myself actually leaning into this conversation and hanging on every word. He believes that regret is our most misunderstood emotion and it can be the pathway to our best life.
I’ve had regrets throughout my life and most often I kept them to myself. I recall conversations with friends who would say they had no regrets. We’d all agree that we wouldn’t be where we were in life without some of those regrettable decisions. But it was this insightful discussion that Dan Pink had with Brene Brown that made me wonder what different paths we might have taken in our lives had we learned the lessons that our biggest regrets wanted to teach us.
If we were operating under the adage of “no regrets”, we probably just licked our wounds, and powered on through life without taking the time to even consider our values. Is it any wonder that we were prone to repeating the same mistake? Or that we doubled down on our fear of taking a risk or speaking up?
Dan explained that what we “regret the most” shows us what we “value the most.”
Brene Brown has also addressed the “crunchy” subject of regret for years. This insight from 2018 captures the essence of her findings about regret:
“I’ve found regret to be one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary. In fact, I’ve come to believe that regret is a kind of package deal: A function of empathy, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom. Like all emotions, regret can be used constructively or destructively, but the wholesale dismissal of regret is wrongheaded and dangerous. “No regrets” doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection.” — Brene Brown (4/26/18)
Dan Pink’s recent research and latest book dovetail with Brene’s body of work – and throughout the podcast, it was evident that they were both inspired by and in awe of each other’s discoveries. This new, enlightened way of viewing regret is compelling.
I began to reflect on the big regrets of my life through a much different lens. What was the life lesson that was imbedded in each of those regrets? It dawned on me that the process of reflecting on regret is yet another tool of self-awareness and personal growth.
How unfortunate that we were told to bypass it.
Just as we are learning that stuffing our emotions and keeping skeletons in the closet was so detrimental to our family dynamics and our own agency in life, this is another big shift in the arena of self-discovery.
Which comes first — the chicken or the egg? Do we recognize our regrets more readily as we peel off childhood armor — or do we learn from regret that we even have that armor, those outgrown behavioral patterns that are not in alignment with our adult values?
Dan Pink pointed out that the older we get, the more we are inclined to look back and have more regrets about the things that we DID NOT do than the things we actually did do. This makes me believe that as we age, and shed the protective armor, we do get more clarity about missed opportunities. We can see more clearly our failures of courage, failures of kindness, failures to take a risk.
All the more reason to teach the value of processing regret in a timely and productive way, so that when life presents a “sliding door” moment, we are better informed and in alignment with our values so that we make the wise choice. This is a radical shift from living a life with no regrets which bypasses the transformational learning.
In his book, The Power of Regret, Dan reveals that “regret is a marker of a healthy, maturing mind. It is so fundamental to our development and so critical to proper functioning that, in adults, its absence can signal a grave problem.” All the more reason not to ignore regret. Perhaps there is some key to our mental well being imbedded in the life lessons from regret. (Learn more about the scientific research that unpacks this in the chapter “Why Regret Makes Us Human.”).
In the chapter “Why Regret Makes Us Better” we learn something we intuitively know — Burying negative emotions doesn’t dissipate them. It intensifies them. It also reinforces all those behavioral patterns we developed in childhood to keep us safe. The problem is we are wearing toddler sized armor in our adult world.
Dan explains that “rumination doesn’t clarify and instruct. It muddles and distracts. When feeling is only for feeling, we build a chamber from which it’s difficult to escape.”
Dan has a better approach for processing regret — Feeling is for thinking.
“Don’t dodge emotions. Don’t wallow in them either. Confront them. Use them as a catalyst for future behavior. If thinking is for doing, feeling can help us think.” — (excerpt from The Power of Regret)
Here’s the big distinction that turns processing regret into a tool for personal growth:
“Framing regret as a judgment of our underlying character can be destructive. Framing regret as an evaluation of a particular behavior in a particular situation can be instructive. ” (excerpt from the Power of Regret)
Brene helps us clarify the relevance of this distinction: “Shame is a focus on self — I am bad. Guilt is a focus on behavior – I did something bad.” Framing regret as a judgment of self reinforces shame. Re-framing regret as an opportunity to evaluate a behavior fosters self-awareness and positive change. Game-changing distinction.
Another correlation between shame and regret is that we really don’t want to experience, or talk about, either. Brene has been sharing with us for decades that shame makes us feel small, flawed and never good enough. If we share it, we feel so incredibly vulnerable. When others share their vulnerability, we view it as courage and daring. In ourselves, we view it as weakness.
Is this why when someone takes that first step — and opens up to us about some of their most vulnerable life moments, we can find ourselves breathing a sigh of relief and discover our own courage? It is this mutual understanding and acceptance that forges deeper connections.
That is precisely what Dan discovered when he opened up and began talking about his own regrets. Rather than recoil, people leaned in! People wanted to talk about it — they wanted to engage.
A remarkable discovery was made about disclosing our regrets. Disclosure is both an unburdening and a form of sense-making. “When we convert these blobby, negative emotions to concrete words, it de-fangs them. It helps us make sense of them,” says Dan Pink. That is a mic drop moment right there!
Brene teaches that labeling our emotions correctly is the first step in processing them, and learning from them. Her book, Atlas of the Heart, offers in-depth definitions for 87 emotions so that we can get better at accurately defining them. What we are learning about the misunderstood emotion of regret is that it can be a bucket for many negative emotions, all sloshing around with our values.
So, now we have a “research guide” for an expanded emotional vocabulary in Atlas of the Heart — AND — we have all the wisdom and tools that Dan provides in the Power of Regret to expand our life lessons’ education.
“Our fear is that when we disclose failures, setbacks, missteps of our own, we think that people will like us less — and the evidence is overwhelming, after 30 years of behavioral science study, people like us more. This is vulnerability “ — Dan Pink (stated emphatically in the Dare to Lead podcast). Yes, this is another mic drop moment.
I can share (again) from my personal experience that the above statement is absolutely true. This is precisely what transpired in my Zoom Book Club over the course of two years with a group of women that really did not know each other very well. As we took a deep dive into Untamed, and now Atlas of the Heart, we stuck our toes in the pool and began to share how our own life experiences mirrored what we were reading and discussing. The more we shared with each other, the more we all leaned in, and the closer knit our friendship became. To be quite honest, a group of women scattered across counties and country, with a variety of different backgrounds and experiences have more in common than we could have ever imagined. Vulnerability was indeed the bridge that forged our deep connection.
We haven’t gotten to the chapter on Disappointment and Regret in Atlas just yet, but I have a keen feeling that we will be doing some major exploration and excavation when we do. The more “unburdening and de-fanging” we do, the more space we have in our hearts and lives for purpose and intention.
Dan shares that framing regret as an opportunity helps us transform it — from a leaden blanket to a sharp stick. This image brought to mind just what it feels like when we are emotionally burdened with our armor. I’d trade that any day for a laser pointer on a whiteboard.
Dan’s book is chock full of tips for more effective problem solving and sturdier emotional health — that oddly enough all come from the one thing we’ve been told to steer clear of — REGRET.
What I am enjoying so much about Dan’s book is how he combines his research with heart-opening real life stories from people he interviewed about their regrets. He uses one of my favorite backdrops for revealing how our cracks make us better — the Japanese art of Kintsugi — which is repairing broken pottery by sanding down the rough edges of the broken pieces and gluing them back together with a lacquer mixed with gold. It is not the artisan’s goal to faithfully reproduce the original work or even to conceal those acquired flaws. It is to transform the pottery into something better. The bowls are beautiful because of their imperfections — the cracks make them better. Dan’s gift of storytelling reveals to us how the same is true for us human beings. It is the vulnerability of others as they share their regrets and subsequent life lessons that opens us up to accepting a brand new way of viewing both disappointments and regrets.