Building Blocks for Better Stories

There have been a few common themes popping up among my favorite motivational resources recently: Cultivating greater self-awareness, expanding our understanding and language around emotions, and the impact of our stories on how we navigate life.

In my last blog post, Re-Writing Our Story, I revealed the insightful discoveries I made when I revisited my own childhood experiences through the lens of all the inner work I’ve been doing. I went searching for the seeds of the navigational coping skills I used to make sense of my life — and I found them.

It dawned on me that not only do we devise unique coping skills to help us make sense of things we are too young to understand, we often mimic poor behavioral patterns of our parents when we are young. Some of this is by osmosis, some of it is by keen observation. This “aha moment” was a clue to one of the ways that we can better support younger generations. Recognizing our outgrown behavioral patterns and working on them earlier in our lives, would break that generational “handing down” of unhealthy strategies for navigating life.

In one of my prior blog posts, I shared that I went into parenthood armed with a dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock, a list of things my mom did that I would never do, and a fairy tale-like image of what I anticipated motherhood would look and feel like to both me and my children. Looking back, I wish that someone would have better prepared me for parenthood by helping me recognize the childhood behavioral patterns that were no longer needed. I set out to make a better life for myself and my family, but I was unnecessarily encumbered by those patterns.

I vacillated between believing the story I had crafted in childhood and trying to defy that story. On any given day, I could lean heavily into one — or the other. On the one hand, I accepted the fact that I had a dysfunctional childhood and was not so well equipped or educated to enter into adulthood — and on the other hand I would draw on my resilience, optimism and strong desire to learn to stand my ground and pursue a plan or goal with a vengeance.

Oddly enough, it must have been those childhood behavioral patterns that kept me tethered on that see-saw. What I needed was someone to really listen to my story and then help me to re-write what was no longer needed or serving me well. A boost like that would have helped me gain some balance and pointed me in a clear and better path.

Have you ever looked at one of your children and saw yourself reflected back? I know I did. Today, I can look back at my middle son and clearly see the behavioral patterns he adopted from me — harmonizer, helper, easy-going. And I can also see the roots of those patterns that gave me some parenting challenges. He had a really hard time making a decision. It often frustrated me. Now I realize that he was most likely putting all his choices through the filters of what others wanted.

This is one small, yet very relevant, insight into what I am discovering about learned behavioral patterns. I was a people pleaser. I had a hard time expressing my own needs and my fear of those needs being rejected kept me quiet and compliant most of the time. My son adopted that same coping style, most likely through osmosis. It served him well in childhood, and helped him create a safe cocoon when his feisty siblings created chaos. When he was an adult, I would often wonder why it took him so long to make a hard decision — one that seemed rather obvious to me. Now I realize that the behavioral pattern and his filters for what others needed were clouding his ability to stand his own ground and honor his own needs.

Today my daugher looks at her young children and readily recognizes the ways that they are like her. Some of their behavioral patterns are so familiar to her yet she also knows that those didn’t serve her so well — even in childhood. We have some of our best conversations diving into understanding her children and their unique personalities, reading and learning how to parent with better emotional tools, and giving them the best environment to be their true selves.

My friends and I openly discuss how we are striving to help our adult children discover and learn better parenting skills than we had. We also recognize the role we can play in providing scaffolding for both our adult children and our grandchildren in this new landscape. The more we become keen observers of behavioral patterns, cause and effect, and how we “show up” in those moments for these little children, the more likely we will break the generational chain — and the greater opportunity for our young people to enter adulthood without childhood baggage holding them back.

Another area where we can make an impactful difference is by teaching our children that emotions are an invaluable part of their lives — and they are helpful teaching aids that deserve our attention. No more dismissing what a child is feeling, no more assuaging with candy or toys, no more shaming.

When we know better, we do better, as Maya Angelou reminds us. And now thanks to neuroscience and psychological research, we know that unprocessed emotions (especially painful ones) never go away and become the birthplace of poor emotional regulation, harmful coping methods, lifelong emotional triggers, and cumbersome emotional baggage.

One of the most impactful shifts we can make is to change our perspective about emotions. Emotions are the drivers of our lives — that is just how we are hard-wired as human beings. While we have the most incredible brains and the capability of thinking and creating in extraordinary ways, it is our emotions that often derail us from our greatest potential and satisfaction in life.

Imagine how transformational it would be if children learned that it was essential to express their emotions? Emotions are neither right or wrong. They are simply what we truly feel, in that moment. What we often do not recognize as parents is that our child’s emotion is their internal warning system telling them that something does not feel right to them. It could feel scary, dangerous, unfair or unpleasant. Our emotions are the indicator signals tied to our basic needs and values. Kids (like all of us) need to feel safe, to be seen and heard, valued and loved.

Dr. Dan Siegel has written an incredible book, The Power of Showing Up, to help us all become better parents and grandparents for our children. It is how we “show up” when our children’s emotions hit them. How we respond changes everything. How we role model emotional processing and emotional regulation reinforces all the good things we are teaching them to understand about themselves and others.

In her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown introduces us to an expanded vocabulary for the myriads of emotions that we human beings experience. Our children often grow up only knowing a few words to describe a multitude of the emotions they feel. Those 3 words are mad, sad and glad.

But within each of those three simple words are many nuanced emotions that we really need to understand better. In fact, if we can label those emotions correctly, we can process — and learn from them — in a meaningful way. We can help our children learn to express disappointment, envy, embarrassment, fear, pride, fearlessness and joy — and so much more. We will all benefit greatly from expanding our language and our definitions of our vast array of complex emotions.

My six year old granddaughter was recently sitting in her car seat, deep in thought. When she spoke, she described three distinct emotions she was feeling. Then she sighed, smiled and said “I think this is a learning experience for me and I think it will help me be patient.” (Note to self — never underestimate the power of a young child to learn!)

Lately I have been finding new ways to reinforce how important feelings are when interacting with my grandchildren. I tell them that I respect how they are feeling — in the moment. “I respect you, buddy, and that you are feeling angry and disappointed right now.” Even though we cannot often change the reality of the moment, taking that time to respect how he feels, to hear him out, often is just enough to diffuse big emotions. It doesn’t mean we can — or should — fix a situation. It might be a lesson in disappointment. It is these tiny moments that help to build emotional agility and resilience.

There is one more area that deserves some attention — fostering a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset for our children. It’s another area where language really matters. We often tell our kids that they are good drawers, good skiers, good singers. The language we use focuses on the child — defines them. Research shows that we should be using our accolades and encouragement to shine light on the “process” that our kids are using for drawing, for learning a new skill or sport, or for the pure pleasure of belting out a song.

We can inadvertently set our kids up for a fixed mindset if we aren’t careful. The beauty of a growth mindset is that it takes away the limitations we often place on ourselves and frees us up to try new things without feeling we need to excel or master them. It is the “process” of learning something new that we find stimulating and enjoyable and very fulfilling. Cultivating a growth mindset in our kids really opens them up to possibilities and agency over their choices in life. (You can learn more about ways to encourage a growth mindset for yourself and children from The Happiness Lab podcast episode I share below in Recommended Resources.)

I’ll wrap this up by summarizing how integrated resources that are becoming more accessible and mainstream will help us all navigate through life a little easier, less constrained, and more fluidly:

  • Cultivate greater awareness of behavioral patterns. Take stock of your own periodically and assess if they are serving you well in your current stage of life.
  • Learn from your emotions — they offer so much guidance to keep you in alignment with your needs and your values. Expand your emotional vocabulary.
  • Foster a growth mindset — give yourself the freedom to try new things without letting your inner critic get in your way. Have fun on the journey and enjoy the process.

The bottom line is that we are emotional beings who keep moving through life with experiences of all kinds. We can make a choice to keep learning, re-assessing what is working and what isn’t from time to time. And we can make a difference in the lives of others, by sharing what we are learning and helping others have an easier path.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

This Being Well episode is Entitled How to Break Your Old Patterns. I have shared often that the Enneagram is such a great resource for learning about behavioral patterns common to many of us. Well, knowing your behavioral patterns are one thing — breaking them is quite another. This episode is chock full of relatable ways to recognize and free yourself from behavioral patterns that just aren’t working.

Click the link on the left to watch this episode.

Check out this Happiness Lab Podcast on How to Adopt a Growth Mindset with David Yeager, a psychology professor at UT-Austin and Dr. Laurie Santos.

The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Re-Writing Our Story

A recent Typology podcast with Ian Cron inspired me to do a little more forensic excavating into my own childhood story. It was Ian’s comment that we need to go back and uproot that old childhood narrative that no longer serves us well as adults that motivated me to do so.

The striking difference in my approach to this unearthing project had quite a bit to do with gaining a deeper understanding. It wasn’t just about healing from painful events that happened to me, it was more evolved than that — it was shining light on parts of my family’s story that had remained in the dark for far too long. It was the very first time that I could go back and revisit a poignant memory and recognize the deep roots of behavioral patterns when they were merely seeds.

When I was about three or four years old, we lived in a second floor apartment of an old house in a tiny quaint rural area. There was a little square sandbox in the backyard and one large maple tree. Most mornings, my mom would put me in that sandbox all by myself and return to our apartment, cigarette in hand. A neighbor had a nasty little dog that roamed freely in this backyard and I was frightened of this yipping, biting four-legged terror. My mom would arm me with a closed child’s umbrella every time she put me in this sandbox. Then she’d leave me — alone.

In the past, when I would revisit this memory, I would be sad for that little girl. Mostly I would focus on how I would have handled things differently as a mom. I’ve even used those tools of revisiting that memory and imagining swooping that little blonde-haired girl into my arms and assuring her that she was safe.

But today I was on a quest to discover the seeds of childhood behavioral patterns – those patterns we develop to make sense of our world and navigate our little lives as safely as possible. This is the deeper exploratory work that the enneagram inspired me to do. That one little vignette from my early childhood provided many clues.

Picture a few conversation bubbles placed over that sandbox scenario that go something like this:

Why am I alone in this sandbox? My mom can’t possibly hear me or get down here fast enough if I need her.

I am scared to death of this terrifying dog. Who is going to protect me?

I’m supposed to use this umbrella to hit that dog? I can’t hurt that dog even if I am scared to death of him.

Being alone in this sandbox day after day with that scary dog is not my idea of fun. There is no way I can play while I am constantly on the alert for danger.

Why does this same scenario play out over and over, day after day, even when I have told my mom that I am unhappy and afraid? My crying and pleading never bring any changes.

As I teased apart each of these conversation bubbles, I found the seeds for which I’d been searching. I also discovered the familiar framework that I grew up in — a template for the repeated cause and effect of our rocky family dynamics. My childhood behavioral patterns were deeply engrained by unconscious and unchecked parental actions that repeated themselves for years.

I have a vast collection of vignettes similar to my sandbox story where I was either left to fend for myself or that the consequences of asking for help resulted in a punishment far worse.

What I did not intellectually comprehend through most of my childhood was that I was afraid of my mother.

I’m beginning to see one of the ongoing internal conflicts that led to blind spots in my adult relationships. As a kid, I struggled with being afraid of the one person whom I was supposed to trust and who was supposed to protect me. Was this the origin of feeling not worthy, not valued? Was it part of why I found it so hard to hold others accountable for inappropriate behaviors?

I now realize that another parental complication was also in play: I was mad at my dad for not standing up for me and protecting me while simultaneously empathic and understanding that he was in the same boat — he too was afraid of my mother. Unknowingly I may have adopted some of his ineffective coping strategies. Some of those strategies made it easy for both of us to be controlled or manipulated. My mom had “power over” us.

A few of the childhood patterns that I came to rely on were people pleasing, hyper-vigilance, trust only yourself, don’t complain or ask for your needs to be met, keep the peace at all costs. I am a Type 2 on the Enneagram — aka The Helper.

When I became a big sister, most of my early coping patterns were amplified in order to protect my younger brothers. Adding more children to the unhealthy and stressful parental dynamic only made a dysfunctional template stronger. Now I was not only protecting myself, I took on the hefty responsibility of looking out for my innocent younger siblings.

This forensic excavating that I did was so incredibly catharttic for me. I was just a little kid trying to make sense of things that did not make sense. I even gained some invaluable insight about my brothers as I looked back on our childhood. Both of my brothers also found their own ways to navigate our volatile home life which resulted in behavioral patterns and coping skills unique to each of them. For the first time, I think I understand the root causes of my youngest brother’s short and very troubled life.

When I first discovered the enneagram as a valuable tool for my self-discovery and personal growth, a sense of great relief washed over me. I felt seen, heard and even understood as I soaked in all that I was learning about my type. I laughed and I cried as I recognized lifelong behavioral patterns and began to understand why I adopted them. But at the same time, I could see where these childhood patterns had not served me well in adulthood. I let people take advantage of me. I accepted behaviors and stories about me because I believed I didn’t deserve better. It was hard to dispute the fact that I came from a pretty messed up family. That was the hard truth. Yet there was another truth that brought me so much comfort and encouragement to change — We are not our broken stories.

In the recent 3-part Sister Series of Unlocking Us, Brene Brown and her twin sisters, Ashley and Barrett, openly discuss their childhood experiences and the behavioral patterns that they developed as a result. Brene, being the oldest of four, became the “protector” and developed a super power of being able to read a room and moods. She was a hyper vigilant observer of others and always at the ready to do what was needed to protect her siblings from the fallout. This honest, heartfelt conversation between siblings underscores that we all have recognizable behavioral patterns that developed from seeds that were planted in childhood.

The enneagram is a field guide for behavioral patterns. It helps us define them and make sense of our own. With increased awareness of specific patterns, we begin to see, and feel, when they arise in our day to day lives. It is from this vantage point that we can figure out if those patterns are really serving us well in our current stage of life.

This brings me back to Ian Morgan Cron’s podcast about uprooting our childhood stories, and writing a new story. Again, the enneagram is such a helpful tool for crafting this new story — because if you use it to help you move toward the healthy end of your type’s spectrum, you will be cultivating your unique gifts, talents and strengths in a way that fosters your personal growth. Changing our outdated, outgrown behavioral patterns is the uprooting process. It opens space in our inner gardens to give the good seeds –the best parts of ourselves — room to grow. Without the heavy dark shadow of old patterns, light and fresh air fall onto the best parts of ourselves. This is how we get out of our own way! This is how we craft a better story for our evolving lives.

There is another thread to my recent excavation process that is worth noting. I don’t think we go out into the adult world openly stating “I am less than or I am not worthy.” I think those buried beliefs are wrapped up in shame. We are ashamed or embarrassed of our broken stories. At 18, I could not deny that my family history was messy. So two things happened: If someone reminded me of that truth, I relegated myself to the second-hand bin of life. The bar had been set low and I just acquiesced and kept my dreams small; or, I kept my family story hidden and fought really hard to push that bar for my own life beyond those restricting limits. In the middle of those two scenarios was a whispering self-doubt, keeping me tethered to my old story.

Are you beginning to see how old patterns, old belief systems and avoiding emotions are inter-connected?

We have such a rare and inspirational opportunity right now to combine the wisdom of the Enneagram with the body of work that Brene Brown offers on Emotions in Atlas of the Heart. These two invaluable resources have the potential to dramatically improve our self-awareness and our understanding of who we really are and what makes us tick.

This post is part one of my excavation discoveries. In my next post, I will share what I’m learning from my research and my friends about how we can help prevent childhood narratives from trapping our children and grandchildren. I am very excited about all that we are unearthing in our own personal growth journeys that will help others on their own paths.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Ian Cron’s latest book on the Enneagram – and a great resource for re-writing your own new story
Listen to this episode on childhood stories
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ul0U5JLjU0Y
Beatrice Chestnut’s latest book – written as an introduction to the Enneagram . Beatrice is a renowned Enneagram expert and a friend of Ian Morgan Cron. Dr. Dan Siegel – author of MindSight and the Power of Showing Up , writes the forward for this book!

Expanding our Emotional Vocabulary

Unpacking the multitude of mysteries around our human emotions could be a daunting task — and yet the more we really understand, the more intriguing it becomes. For starters, Brene Brown’s research revealed that most of us operate under the guise of three basic emotions — happy, sad and angry.

In her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, she unearths 87 emotions and experiences that are woven into the fabric of our lives, our relationships and how we make sense of our world. From 3 to 87 — imagine that! Now imagine what it might be like if we really understood the complex and nuanced landscape of each of those 87 emotions and emotional experiences. It literally changes everything — from self talk, to relationships, to parenting, to better understanding others.

Although Brene Brown is a decade and half younger than me, her childhood experiences and learned behavioral patterns mirror many of my own and those of my friends. For far too long now, prior generations were taught not to show –or even acknowledge — their emotions. Is it any wonder that we found a lot of creative, but unhelpful, ways to navigate rocky emotional terrain? This is especially true of negative emotions because it is human nature to avoid what hurts.

As Brene recently shared on The Happiness Kit podcast, “Many of us grew up with the belief that we are “thinking, doing” people who on occasion feel — and that can get us sidelined.”

The truth is our emotions play an instrumental role in the quality of our lives. What really sidelines us is not paying attention to our emotions. We can change the old belief system that feelings are best left unacknowledged. That meaningful work starts with us.

How empowering to really get to know our full range of emotions, to understand why some are stronger for us than for others. Building a more expansive vocabulary to help us articulate clearly what we are feeling could be a bridge to better communication and deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. Most importantly, we can teach younger generations to embrace their emotions, and to learn from them. No more hiding our true emotions and our authentic selves.

What happens when our language is not as expansive as our human experience. What does it mean when we have to shove an experience of despair or disappointment into one of these 3 buckets? (sic. happy, sad, angry) It cripples our ability to own and communicate our emotions. — Brene Brown, The Happiness Lab Podcast 1/2/2022

Brene highlights how neuroscience informs and supports her research and findings especially as it relates to how our bodies instinctively respond to our emotions. It is our personal history that often snags us and amplifies an emotion even decades later. We refer to this as being “triggered”.

Having better language to name our emotions can be a catalyst for loosening the grip of our emotional triggers and help us better respond biologically. Our bodies not only react to an emotion, if we label an emotion incorrectly, our bodies will respond to that too. Brene shares an example of how we often misuse the word “overwhelmed” and that sends an emergency message to our bodies to begin a major shut down. Once you understand what happens when the brain releases chemicals in direct response to your emotions, you will be motivated to learn more about emotional regulation.

About 4 -5 years ago, we started seeing how language doesn’t just communicate emotion, but it also shapes it. We are individually and collectively in trouble if we don’t have language.” –Brene Brown in her interview with Dr. Laurie Santos on The Happiness Lab Podcast, January 2, 2022

If you are familiar with Besser Van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, you will recognize the intrinsic value of helping our bodies process emotions, anxieties and trauma in a more immediate and healthier way.

Perhaps the most eye-opening discovery that Brene makes is how languages shapes our relationships. She admits that for many years, she believed that we just needed to get better at reading other’s emotions. At the conclusion of all her research for Atlas of the Heart, she now acknowledges that this is not possible.

One compelling reason is that so many emotions present the same way.

In Atlas of the Heart, Brene gives us not only language, but relatable definitions and real life examples for these 87 emotions and experiences. She explains the impactful differences in words that we often use interchangeably such as envy and jealously. She’s organized the book in chapters that help us recognize “The Places We Go When (fill in the blank with your own emotion)”. It is an incredible guide to understanding where we go in our bodies, our old narratives and our actions when emotions are in the driver’s seat.

Once we begin to realize all the ways we ourselves are impacted by our own emotions, we can gain greater empathy and patience with others.

While we can’t read emotion in people, we can get curious — and connect with them deeply – as opposed to diminishing, questioning or challenging the stories and the emotions they share with us.” — Brene Brown

Along with an expanded vocabulary for our wide array of emotions, Brene sheds much needed light on the reality that our emotions show up in layers. She offers these four B’s to help us understand these layers:

Biology — Emotions are called “feelings” because our body is the first responder — we FEEL emotion. Emotion is physiological — Where in your body are you feeling it and what are you feeling?

Biography – What did you grow up understanding, believing or learning about this feeling?

Behavior – How are you showing up when you are triggered by a strong emotion? Do you want to punch the wall, hide and cry, feel like you are coming out of your skin?

Backstory – What is your personal history and lived experiences? How do they impact your emotional responses in life?

I’ve been on my own self-discovery journey for over six years and it required a lot of unpacking of emotional baggage and entangling myself from behavioral patterns I developed as a young child to help me navigate an often confusing, disruptive environment. None of that was serving me well as I matured organically through life. I believe that we can all benefit from the game-changing research of Brene Brown and the field of neuroscience about emotions. It is time to bring our emotions to the forefront of our self-improvement work and get to know them intimately. They power our lives and have so much to teach us.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

This January 2, 2022 episode of The Happiness Lab podcast is a great introduction for anyone who wants to hear directly from Brene what she offers to us in her newest book, Atlas of the Heart.

The Happiness Lab podcast is brought to you by Dr. Laurie Santos and this coming year she is focusing her attention on learning from our negative emotions with dynamic guests and relatable stories.

This will become one of your greatest reference guides in your home. It is a coffee table book — and will require lots of conversations over coffee to fully appreciate its value.

New Year, New Look

Call me a forever optimist, but there is just something about a brand new year that brings a sense of rejuvenation and hope to me. One of the reasons I am so uplifted is the bigger community I am feeling a part of — a community of people who are actively discussing personal development and embracing meaningful changes in their lives.

This collective positive energy and rich, deep conversations inspired me to revamp my blogging website and I am unveiling it today! It’s a brand new look with some major changes to my navigational menu. Gone are tabs that are no longer relevant and in their place are ones I believe better suit the evolving direction of my blog.

I have a renewed focus for my blog now. It’s my strong desire that it will become a resource for others — a place where they can discover helpful tools and teachers for their own self-awareness journeys. My new menu tabs include Noteworthy Resources, such as podcasts, books and Instagram influencers. Inspirational Quotes is another new tab. These are impactful quotes that guided me to start the personal growth journey and motivate me to stay committed to the ongoing work. Best of all, many of these inspirational quotes come from relatable peers who are deeply steeped in doing their own work.

When I first started Inspired New Horizons six years ago, my goal was to share with others what I was learning through my self-discovery journey with the intention that it might help others on their own path of personal growth. To be honest, I felt pretty alone in the process at that time. It was not a topic of regular conversation among most of my friends. My secondary goal with my blog was to keep myself committed and accountable to the inner work I was doing. I’m not only still doing that work six years later, it has become a part of my daily routine.

I credit Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle for the growing community that is keeping me so inspired these days. Glennon’s book Untamed unleashed a groundswell of women who began to look at their lives through very different lenses. Her “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast and her Facebook discussion groups opened up the floodgates of women wanting to share their stories and dig deeper into some serious personal development. Brene has been on fast-moving upward trajectory to get us to embrace our authentic selves and to shed ourselves of protective armor, numbing, debilitating behavioral patterns, and painful triggers. She calls for us to step into our vulnerability, courage and creativity and live a wholehearted life, rooted in grounded confidence.

Brene’s work has created several global discussion groups that I belong to, and honestly the conversations have been real, raw, meaningful and purposeful. All throughout the pandemic, I found ballast from the news and political chaos, in these discussions. I’ve made friends, gained followers for this blog and my Instagram posts, discovered incredible activists and had my faith in humanity restored. The diverse perspectives and heart-opening stories that are shared serves as a healthy reminder of the power of connection and empathy that Brene espouses.

I mentioned in a recent blog post entitled Becoming Part of Something Bigger how Brene’s latest book, Atlas of the Heart is an impactful reference book for anyone who is committed to personal development. She taps into the wisdom and research of so many of the teachers I’ve used over the past six years. This prompted me to make changes to my blog website to help others easily find these resources. It’s my hope that my personal stories will help others feel less alone when they peel back their own layers.

And this brings me to one of the most dramatic changes I have experienced and witnessed because of self-discovery and improved self-awareness. My close circle of friends these days is comprised of women with whom I can have deep, emotional conversations. No subject is off limits, no confidence will be betrayed, no judgment or dismissing of feelings. I have a beautiful jar of diverse, empassioned marble jar friends. My marble jar friends have revealed to me that they too now have the most remarkable collection of trust buddies. Somehow, over the past few years each of us has drawn to us the women we needed to help us excavate our histories, reframe them, and shine a light on all our potential and possibilities.

It is my hope that my blog posts will inspire others on their journey. I’m going to keep sharing my stories, the lessons I am learning and relearning, and the benefits that come from self-reflection and embracing change. I wrote a post entitled Awareness Activist some time ago — it is where I feel I make a meaningful contribution in this world. We cannot change what we are unaware of — and once we become aware, we can make better choices — for ourselves and others.

Wishing you Peace, Love, Joy and Hope in the coming New Year.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCE:

I’m offering only one resource to accompany this post today. The reason is that this podcast is so relevant for reflecting on the past year and our own past, as well as for looking forward and pondering what will best support and guide us. I think you’ll really enjoy this conversation with Dr. Rick Hanson and his son Forrest.

How to Get the Most Out of 2022 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lz17LizwD8

Nuggets of Wisdom – The Gifts of Awareness

I love those “aha moments” that show up in the midst of an ordinary day. Those “aha moments” grab our attention making us more aware of things we sometimes take for granted or are often too busy to notice. Catch an”aha moment” and put it in your pocket! Start a collection of “aha moments” and watch a little magic unfold in your daily life. This Nuggets of Wisdom in this post are about creating more “aha moments” by putting a little more awareness in each day — self-awareness, present moment awareness and other-awareness.

Meditation is one of those practices that begins to show up in your daily life in organic, meaningful ways. Take listening for example — when you meditate, you learn to be free from judging your own thoughts. You become more skilled at sifting out distracting thoughts. You become more attuned to listening to understand what you are truly feeling or experiencing.

When these skills sets begin to show up as you interact with others, you will smile knowing that you are taking your meditation practice from the “cushion to the real world.”

Improved communication and connection with others is a two way street — speaking AND listening. We can become better skilled at both! A skilled listener is non-judgmental and focused on understanding how another person is truly feeling.

Practice on yourself through meditation….then try it out IRL (in real life).

As we hone our skills to become more aware of our emotions, we might be surprised to discover that all too often we are giving those emotions much more control in the heat of the moment than we would prefer. It’s time to tell our emotions that they are always welcome, but they can’t do the driving.

During the course of a normal, busy, routine and occasionally chaotic day, we are going to experience a wide range of emotions. Sometimes when we are just being bombarded with too much to juggle, we inadvertently let our emotions run the show. Often it only makes a stressful situation worse.

Hit the reset button — take a deep, calming breath BEFORE you react/respond. That breath, that pause is often just enough to create awareness that it is your emotions taking over, not your integrity. And guess what? Your kids (and others) are watching…..and they’ll mimic your stealth skills if they see you doing this “reset” in times of stress, being calmer and more reasonable in your responses. That’s a win-win in the daily course of our busy lives.

In her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown dives deep into helping us understand how so many emotions can look similar — and all too often, we assume that we know exactly how someone else might be feeling. Then, we respond or react to others from that place — how those same emotions would feel to us. Is it any wonder that we can really make things confusing when this occurs? First of all, we are snagged on our own emotions and that will often pull our attention away from another person and inward on ourselves. Second, we may be putting the brakes on the emotions that another person is trying to process and understand.

Brene introduces a new concept for us to embrace — story stewardship. When we become trusted stewards of others’ stories, we listen with open hearts and open minds, without judgment and with an intention of getting to better understand what their personal experience and emotions truly are.

All of us have stories that are hidden under the tip of our iceberg. It would be impossible for others to know why certain things land so hard on our tender hearts. Not everyone needs to know, or can be expected to understand, these vulnerable parts of our story. It is healing for us to share our stories with someone who has earned the right to know the depths of our experiences. It is also helping others to gain bigger perspectives, to deepen their empathy and curiosity and to release habitual judgments when we have the courage to share our stories.

One of the greatest lessons to be learned from Brene when someone trusts us enough to share their stories, is to ask the question “What does support look like to you right now?” Ask that question and wait for the answer….take it in and really listen to what someone needs. Too often, we are so uncomfortable when others are hurting we rush to fix, to distract or even turn away. Meaningful story stewardship means holding space (even when we are uncomfortable) and asking others what they need.

We sometimes fail to see, or forget about, the best parts of ourselves. When we look in the mirror, we see reflected back whatever our inner critic or racing thoughts deem appropriate to share with us. If you have a trusted friend, a caring parter or a supportive parent who reminds you of your goodness, your grit and your unique gifts, then you are truly blessed. Those people are your best mirrors — the best sources of encouragement when life gets bumpy.

It is not surprising that we often bring the best versions of ourselves to the outside world — to our workplace, our community endeavors, even to strangers in the check out line. Yet we find it more challenging to tap into those attributes with the people we know the best — and often the ones we love the most. If you have a trust buddy that reminds you of this, thank them. If you have someone who has your best interests at heart and holds you accountable to the better version of yourself, you have a committed teammate in life.

We get to be these mirrors for others all throughout life. When you spend time on your own self-discovery, you often enhance your abilities to see the strengths and gifts that others possess too. Speak up — tell others all the goodness you see. The way they make you laugh, how generous they are, how resourceful they are, how they stand up for others…..there are so many ways that each of contribute our unique gifts to the world. Sometimes we all just need a really good mirror!

Becoming Part of Something Bigger

When I first began my self-discovery journey about six years ago, I had no idea what incredible gifts I would find along the way. At the onset, I was cobbling together teachings from notable mindfulness gurus like Pema Chodrun, Deepak Chopra and Thich Nhat Hahn. I relied on Mindfulness Magazine and SoundsTrue.org to help me find teachers and tools that would guide me. I contributed at least a dozen of the 60 million views to Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability.

I felt a lot like Alice in Wonderland when the Chesire Cat offered his wisdom. I had no idea where I was going on this personal growth journey, I just knew in the deepest part of me that something had to change. I had a few breadcrumb clues to work with (patterns that I was discovering as I reflected on my 60+ years), and a 1,000 piece puzzle of both good and not so good pieces of my life. I knew I wanted to heal from heartbreak, to gain some traction in becoming a better version of myself, and above all to live a peaceful, meaningful rest of my life.

Little did I know that I was part of something bigger than I could have ever imagined — a growing community of like-minded people who were hungering for change and who were willing to look at themselves as the starting point for that desired positive change. It became evident that “inner work” was an emerging new path for self-help, enlightenment and personal growth. What fascinated me was how neuroscience was weaving its way into relevant conversations about evolving into our best selves. It is not only possible, it is incredibly beneficial, to rewire our brains for an enriched quality of life.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about how this entire field of inner work and personal growth has grown exponentially over the past five years — and how collectively so many different disciplines, resources and tools are merging to create a solid framework for anyone who wants to proactively address their mental well being and quality of life. Best of all, it is so mainstream now that the stigma associated with counseling, therapy and mental health is loosening its grip. We can almost hear and feel the collective sigh of relief and release. We are long overdue in getting to know our true, authentic selves.

I don’t offer that last sentence lightly. The real transformational change that humanity needs begins by truly knowing ourselves. Brene Brown has been shedding light for years on all the ways that we armor up to hide and protect our vulnerabilities. Yet it is our vulnerabilities that forge our strongest connections and are the birthplace of innovation, change and creativity — the very things that get us unstuck from old patterns and behaviors that just are no longer working.

We think that words like “love, trust and vulnerability” are gauzy and mushy — that they lack the strength, endurance and conviction to bring about meaningful change and deep connection. Well, prepare to be amazed — these words convey an enduring personal empowerment and an undeniable shift to growing self-awareness, perspective-taking and cultivating empathy. When we invest the time and work in truly getting to know ourselves, we shed the heavy armor that gets in our way and weighs us down. We live more at ease, comfortable in our own skin and stories. We have room to grow in the expansiveness we’ve created by purging what is no longer needed.

I remember very early on in my personal growth journey the words of Pema Chodrun. She said that once we know ourselves, we will in turn get to know others better too. This is a compelling message that Brene offers to us in her newest book Atlas of the Heart. Brene encourages us to do our inner work so that we can show up in life with “grounded confidence” in ourselves. It is from that deeply rooted place of self-trust that we can in turn engage with others with empathy, awareness and courage.

Just imagine “showing up” in your relationships with skills and tools that foster compassion, respect, non-judgment, safety and trust — instead of old armor that often leads to shaming, blaming, dismissing or avoiding.

Today, If anyone were to ask the Chesire Cat the best path to self-discovery, I am fairly certain that he would mindfully hand them this most incredible book — The Atlas of the HeartMapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. As Brene shares “I want this book to be an atlas for all of us, because I believe that, with an adventurous heart and the right maps, we can travel anywhere and never fear losing ourselves.”

I just finished reading this book a few days ago. It had a profound impact on me. I have been on my committed practice of self discovery and personal growth for six years and what I discovered about myself while reading Brene’s work, was both healing and revealing.

“The lack of self-awareness in folks is not overcomeable without language and the study of emotion. We are not rational, cognitive Vulcans — we are emotional beings. People are trying so desperately to become more self-aware without the lexicon and language to do it. It feels (this book) like something completely different than I have ever done and also the culmination of all my work.” — Brene Brown during her Unlocking Us podcast, Part 3 of A Sisters BookClub on Atlas of the Heart.

Normally at the end of my blog posts, I share my recommended resources with all of you. Today, the only recommended resource I’ll share is this beautiful, hearty, impactful, colorful, inspirational, incredible book. The bonus I’ll throw in is simply to listen to the 3 part Sister series on Unlocking Us where Brene and her twin sisters, Ashley and Barrett, have a book club discussion about Atlas of the Heart. You can listen to Unlocking Us for free on Spotify. You can also find show notes and links to every episode at https://brenebrown.com

Genuine Listening

I found myself in a bit of a conundrum recently. I was fully committed to leaning into my courage and being honest about how some things were landing on me. This meant that I also had to state my boundaries (again). This has always been something that I’ve struggled with – it feels so darned uncomfortable not to mention extremely vulnerable. It can be especially hard for me to share my hurt feelings with those I love. Yet I have made a commitment to myself to do hard things and to develop better navigational skills for just these sorts of relationship conversations. The problem? I entered familiar territory with a new strategy, but the receiver of my message of how I was feeling went into defense mode. Almost instantaneously I could feel that old familiar paradigm washing over both of us. It would have been so easy to fall into our old patterns and roles. But this time, I declined to play my old role and I stay grounded and calm.

I’d love to tell you that there was a quick, happy ending – with hugs and humor. That was not the case.

While the scenario played out much like it always has in the past, it was me who brought a new conviction to the situation. I knew I could not control how my conversation would be received. The only thing I could control was how I chose to respond in return. This is where real change takes place for me — when I make a conscious decision to choose a new path. I will only ever get a different result in the way I am treated if I stay committed to my self-worth and the boundaries that support my values. As a life-long people pleaser and conflict avoider, this will probably always be a work in progress for me.

I learned a lot from being both an observer and a participant in this interaction. Mindfulness and meditation practice have been instrumental in helping me to straddle these two perspectives. I made a lot of mental notes and later poured them out into my journal. Journaling helps me to sort through my emotions, another’s emotions and reactions, and differing points of view. It is often through journaling that I gain a deeper understanding of myself and why certain situations matter so much to me. In this case, it was not all surprising to recognize myself on both sides of the fence.

You see, I was on the receiving end of someone trying to insist that their idea was best for me but I had stated clearly that I did not want that. I used to be that person – the helper — who would jump in and “fix things” even when my help was not wanted or needed. Ugh….so that is what it feels like to be steamrollered by good intentions and poor “listening to understand” skills. Naturally, the person trying to help me solve a problem (and not even the right problem), was hurt that I would not be appreciative of their efforts and their thoughtfulness. (Oh my, I have been that wounded helper so many times in the past.)

On the other side of the fence, is the new me, trying my best to set and hold boundaries, to honor myself by stating clearly what I want or need. It was important to me that my wishes would be respected. The reason this is such a tender and vulnerable issue for me is that for many years, I would acquiesce to keep the peace, I would sacrifice my own needs and desires to placate others, and I was often afraid that I would lose treasured relationships if I held my ground. The tap root for all this people pleasing and timid behavior was embedded in my childhood experiences.

Since boundaries are something that I am striving to develop with confidence and conviction, I am trying to practice new skills with what seem like relatively small matters. What I discovered was that even a small situation can be fueled with a lot of emotions, defensiveness, misunderstanding and poor listening.

Ironic isn’t it — that I could see myself as both the over-zealous helper and the evolving person striving to set clear boundaries. What a rich lesson for me to absorb. It is a reminder that when we get to know ourselves better, we also gain a greater awareness and empathy for others.

It just so happened that I came across some invaluable insight from Dr. Rick Hanson just as I was processing all of this:

It was those words — “the restraint of reactive patterns in order to stay present with another person” that stopped me in my tracks. What I had wanted most during that hard, heated conversation was to be heard — and what I was learning from my own part in that same conversation was the value of genuine listening. Listening to understand. Genuine listening that moves us to truly hear what another person wants us to know about their most vulnerable places.

Too often, we find ourselves unconsciously falling into the same old conversations and familiar but ineffective patterns. Judgements and defensiveness are roadblocks that lead to dead ends. Dr. Hanson offers a better way for us to enter these challenging conversations — by being open to hearing how someone really feels.

This does require that we tap into our empathy and that we pay attention to old reactive patterns (our own and another person’s). So many times, our actions are well-intended, but we miss the opportunity to respect how it might land on someone.

Making a genuine effort to change how we “show up” for each other in these hard conversations can have a transformational impact in our relationships.

Listening to understand creates a bridge for a better conversation — and a deeper connection. And did you know that repairing a misunderstanding or a wrongdoing can actually strengthen a relationship?

Relationships also grow stronger and flow more easily the better we know each other. Just as we are careful with the sensitivities of young children, we can work to be more cognizant of these tender places with our friends and family. Some of those tender places are the wellspring of the best attributes of people we love.

There is a happy ending to my story. It took a few days and several more conversations — and yes, there were a few good laughs to boot. (Did you know that laugher completes a stress cycle?).

Perhaps the best take-away from this whole experience is that I earned a merit badge in the personal growth department. I am finding solid footing for expressing my boundaries and I am able to refrain from getting caught in old, unhealthy emotional swirls. It really feels good to use my tools and get a favorable result in the end, even if I still need a lot more practice.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Dr. Rick Hanson – Check out Dr. Hanson’s many resources including his books, podcasts, newsletters, and courses. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook for daily doses of practical wisdom and insight.

https://www.rickhanson.net/rick-hanson/

Nedra Tawwab – Therapist, NY Times Bestselling Author and Relationship Expert – Nedra is best known for her work on boundaries! Follow her on Instagram “NedrasNuggets” for daily doses of inspiration for setting, holding and honoring boundaries.

https://www.nedratawwab.com

Elizabeth Earnshaw, Clinical Psychologist, Author, Gottman Institute Trained Counselor — Elizabeth is one of my favorite young resources for sound relationship advice and experienced guide for invaluable tools to navigate all of our most important relationships. Follow her on Instagram — LizListens

https://www.drlizlistens.com

What Gives Me Hope

Back in October, I offered my blog post entitled Scattering the Seeds of Change, where I shared how friends were making proactive, meaningful differences in their families and communities. Admittedly I was more “aware” of how my friends had transformed how they were “showing up” in a much more authentic way. My awareness of this collective shift was cultivated over several years of long conversations, being vulnerable and trusting each other, non-judgmental support and a healing dose of empathy.

One thing stands out as a true catalyst for those who are the change-makers, the seed sowers, the light carriers — their willingness to be vulnerable. Time and time again, I have been blessed to hear the stories my friends found the courage to share. My respect and compassion for them grows immeasurably when I absorb their heartbreaking life experiences and contrast them to the courageous, dynamic, wholehearted women I know and love. They are living proof that we are “broken open” often by life. These women radiate light, emit a magnetic energy that feels amazing, and reveal a deep vein of trust that will take your breath away.

My friends are captivating storytellers. It is through their stories that we discover parts of ourselves — and find the courage to bring our own vulnerabilites into broad daylight. The more we share with each other, the deeper our friendships grow. Trust is a rock solid foundation on which to build relationships and ironically enough, it is being vulnerable that opens us up to trust.

Oh yes, it is scary to take that first step, especially if your trust in others has been broken repeatedly in the past — and who has not experienced that? The first person we need to trust is ourselves. Trust that our life experiences do not define us. Trust that how we respond and learn from our experiences is the accurate reflection of our true selves.

What I have discovered about my friends is that when they have found firm footing in trusting themselves, that is when they lean into vulnerability and bring others hope, encouragement and a roadmap. They do this through storytelling.

This past week, I witnessed the power of storytelling in a collective setting. My friend, Diane Brandt, was the keynote speaker for an annual event in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – The Silent Samaritans Luncheon. The Silent Samaritans are a group of women focused on helping other women who seek counseling but are at a time and place in their lives where they cannot afford it. They were founded in 1996 and have raised over $1.4 million dollars for women in need in the Lancaster County community. This year’s event was entitled “Ripples of Hope & Healing: The Many Colors of Creativity.”

I have come to know Diane through my Beautiful Cheetahs Zoom Book Club which began right at the onset of the quarantine for the pandemic. She is a liturgical artists and spiritual director, with deep roots in the Lancaster Community. She is a talented artist who teaches how art and creativity can heal us in profound ways. I am sure that her students over the years have been transformed in ways they never thought possible. The overview of her keynote presentation shared that Diane would share how we can move beyond the limitations of our fear-based thinking and enter the spacious terrain of the heart.

Over the past 20 months, during twice a month book club meetings, Diane has often shared a personal story with us that moved us deeply. Her wisdom and insights that come on the other side of her healing experiences are profound. Naturally, I was eager to hear what she would impart to the Silent Samaritans in this more formal setting. There were several reasons for this — my lifelong best friend, Judy, would be in attendance along with some of her wholehearted trusted friends. Judy has heard many stories about Diane and my other friends in the book club. They would all be present together at this event and I so wanted them to meet. Another big reason for my eagerness was my excitement for Diane — she would be stepping into a role that much of her hard work had beautifully prepared her for — she would be fulfilling another component of her life’s purpose. Diane is a change agent — she helps others transform pain into creativity and healing.

A little sidenote — I was participating virtually for this event since I now live in scenic Idaho. I was surely wishing I could have transported myself to be there in person for this event, and I was grateful that the live streaming option was available.

When Diane stepped onto that stage, she radiated peace, joy and high energy. Within minutes, she had won over the audience with her easy going, relatable manner. While I should not have been surprised, Diane deftly took us on a journey through her life — and revealed tragic, vulnerable parts of her story that were new to me. I was in awe — here was my friend, being a complete open book to this group of caring women. She personified courage in that moment to me. She was standing firmly rooted in her own trust — trust that she evolved into the woman she wanted to be in spite of her life experiences, trust that she is living authentically and trust that she can help others in a meaningful way.

In conversations after the luncheon that I had with my friend Judy and a few of my book club friends, I learned firsthand just how Diane had created a safe place for vulnerability to have a sear at the table. Each table at this event had sheets of blank paper, crayons and markers. Diane used her gift of creativity and art to encourage each of us to draw something that depicted where we found HOPE through the pandemic. This child-like activity was a stroke of pure genius. Each woman could reflect privately on her own life, illuminated through Diane’s presentation, and then simply draw…..

When the exercise was completed, the women took turns sharing with others at their table their drawings and what it represented to them. These conversations were more vulnerable, more genuine, more open than Judy had ever experienced at prior luncheons. Guests lingered longer, connections were being made and as one guest commented — you could feel those connections!

Oddly enough, “connection” was the very word that came into my mind as I sat with my colored pencils and sheet of paper, 2000+ miles away in Idaho. It was connection that gave me hope all throughout the pandemic. I drew a loopy heart with flowing tentacles, a thick tree trunk and many deep roots. I jotted a few notes about what it meant to me in my journal. The big loopy heart is a symbol of my happiness when I am feeling both loved and loving. I lead with my heart in all my most cherished relationships. The tentacles represent my personal connections that deepened through the pandemic – including my bond with. my 8 year old granddaughter in Maryland, the growth and depth that Judy and I experienced in our lifelong friendship, the new friends I made through the Zoom Book Club who are now treasured trust buddies, a reconnection with my dear friend, AR, and the deeper bond I made with my daughter and her family while living with them through the quarantine, uncertainty and change. The brightly colored tentacles are loosely wrapped around me (represented by the tree with deep roots). They represent how relationships ebb and flow, with room for growth and space to be on our own. That smaller heart that anchors us all is the me I discovered through my personal growth work — still stretching down into the rich nourishing compost of vulnerability, honesty and acceptance.

What I find so fascinating is that many of these connections which gave me hope and anchored me through all the uncertainty — were done virtually! Zoom book club, long phone calls, twice a week Skype sessions with my granddaughter. It was the continuity and consistency of our outreach that created a framework. Honest conversations with deep dives into vulnerability and acceptance of reality made those connections stronger. Our relationships flourished — even though the Petri dish of life was not ideal.

What gives me hope is connection – the deep, solid, sustainable type of connection with others on whom we can depend, learn from and growth with through their wisdom. What I am committed to being braver about is my own vulnerability — which is the birthplace of both creativity and connection.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/songwriting-storytelling-and-dropping-keys/

This conversation with Jake Wesley Rogers will touch your heart with its honesty, vulnerability, creativity, joy, acceptance and gratitude for those who “drop the keys” for us….to free us from our own cages and light the path to our greatest potential. There are “mic drop” moments in this conversation about the power of a song to change a heart and mind. Do yourself a favor and listen to his song Pluto on Spotify….

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/the-lightmakers-manifesto-part-1-of-2/

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/the-lightmakers-manifesto-part-2-of-2/

This dynamic conversation that Brene has with her long time friend and activist, Karen Walrond, will inspire you to look for joy even in the darkest of places, but especially in the everyday things we do — it is joy that reminds us of our purpose. It is joy that fuels needed change in positive ways.

Nuggets of Wisdom — Lessons Learned from Children

One of my most rewarding facets of the personal growth journey is learning how we can best support our children. So many of us go into parenthood with the list of things we will do differently than our parents, but only from the perspective of how their actions and behaviors felt to us as a child. Dig a little deeper into what was going on with our parents to cause them to behave as they did and add a healthy dose of what society deemed acceptable at that time — and you will come away with a better understanding of how invaluable doing personal growth and healing work can be for generations of families.

I’m a huge fan of the dynamic work of Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Seigel. Both these distinguished researchers offer us insights into how a child’s brain develops, the effects of trauma and neglect in the first few months of life, and the importance of relationship scaffolding for children and their caregivers. As Maya Angelou so wisely tells us “When we know better, we do better.” Understanding that a young child does not have the top down emotional and intellectual capacity to self regulate gives us a whole new insight into our expectations of a child’s behavior and what is possible in reality. The onus goes directly back to us as adults to utilize our own self-regulation, effective distraction and empathy to respond to a child in emotional distress. Imagine how the power struggle shifts, and possibly even evaporates, with this knowledge. Recognizing that some of the fidgeting can be a child’s organic way of self-soothing and calming would stop us in our tracks before we tell them one more time to stop.

When I was a young mother, I relied on Dr. Spock for parenting advice. Today I would encourage parents to read the books that Dr. Perry and Dr. Siegel have written. A companion tool for parents is the enneagram. Even if you don’t want to go to deep with the enneagram personally, a quick review of the core motivations and fears for each of the nine types provides a primer to many of the reasons we choose to armor up, dial back and bully our way through life. A little knowledge can go a long way in preventing your own child from needing to make these adjustments to feel safe, loved and to feel like they fit in.

Too often, we are so caught up in our “to do” list, personal agendas or lack of awareness, that we dismiss our child’s feelings. We don’t really mean to do this of course, but it happens. With the best of intentions, we might say “Oh honey, you shouldn’t feel that way. Look at all these things you’ve got going for you.” Wrong. Trust me, they feel exactly as they feel. And those old familiar words intended to bring comfort only bring shame and guilt to a young person already struggling with big emotions.

Get curious when you child is displaying big emotions. You can probably sense the hurricane-like storm that is swirling around in them. Sitting down together – calmly – and inviting your child to open up about their honest feelings is incredibly powerful. Responding with words like “that must be really hard” or “that must feel so painful” is so empathic and respectful. You don’t have to solve the problem or soothe the discomfort away. Just being present, listening to learn and understand, offering compassion and a hug are incredible gifts to receive when emotions are strong (whether you are a young child, a teenager or an adult). Rather than inserting our will, leaning in and holding space for young people who simply do not possess the capacity to understand, yet alone process, their emotions is a better path for parent and child.

There is no doubt that we live in a world where there are many demands on our time and attention. Technology has managed to eat up snippets of our day that accumulate into hours without us even recognizing it.

Take a look around when you are out to lunch, in a coffee shop, at the local park or grocery store. Adults everywhere are staring at their screens instead of each other, and this includes their rambunctious, adventurous toddlers.

It’s easy to see how we can miss the little “bids for connection” that children make all day — with their moms and dads, grandparents, teachers and caregivers. We may not be able to catch every one of those bids but my guess is that there is big room for improvement. Challenge yourself to pay attention to the excited little voices calling to you repeatedly, the tug on your pant leg, or the crashing of toys being dumped in the middle of the floor. It only takes a few seconds to answer that bid for connection, and the reward is huge — for both adult and child. Eye contact, a smile, an encouraging word, a hug or tap on the head are all meaningful responses to these tiny bids for connection that our children seek every single day. If we can jump to respond to the ding of a text or email, we can re-program ourselves to do the same for those who look up to us.

True confession — I came up with this one big question when my sons were teenagers. I’m not sure how it came to be, except that I do remember pondering how to make the lessons stick. Having them be part of the conversation about consequences, accountability and responsibility seemed worth a try. When my sons would balk thought-provoking question and beg for a grounding or daunting chore, I knew that I was on to something.

Now my daughter has been using this question consistently for her young children, ages 4 and 6. The other day I was delighted to discover that this poignant question is entering the third generation. My six year old granddaughter, Charlotte, was knee deep in a silent assessment of the results of a choice she had just made. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her mom patiently watching for her next move. She turned to her mom and said boldly “Well, that was a learning experience!” Then she sighed and added, “I don’t care for learning experiences.”

My daughter looked at me and winked, both of us hiding smiles that tugged at the corners of our mouth. That’s when my daughter knelt down and made eye contact with her sweet girl and reminded her that learning experiences help us make better choices the next time. “I get it, mom”, Charlotte responded.

The reason I have come to like this question as an invaluable parenting tool, is that it not only gives a child information to draw on in the future, it plants the seeds of agency. It also opens up lots of meaningful conversation about trial and error, using good judgment, asking for help, being resourceful. My daughter is not waiting til her kids are teenagers to employ this skill, she is using it now when her children are young — when it sticks like velcro.

The other morning, Charlotte was sitting in the kitchen with her young brother as he was assembling legos. It was clear that he was struggling a bit with his design by the sounds he was making. Charlotte turned to him and sweetly asked, “How can I help you?”

I was in the laundry room and chuckled with delight to myself. She sounds just like me. I confess I loved it.

Skillfully learning how to approach others when it appears they might need help was a hard lesson for me and one that I truly only got after a few years of personal growth work. Thank you to the enneagram and Brene Brown for helping me discover that we can help too much, steamroller people, and even take away growth opportunities when we insert ourselves too much. Who taught me this lesson in the most remarkable way? None other than spunky, strong willed Charlotte. When she hit that age of “I can do it myself”, I got many chances to practice skillful approaches. Charlotte wanted –and deserved — the chance to do things for herself. Whether it was learning to ride a bike, bake cupcakes, or follow instructions for a science project, she wanted autonomy and agency. I remember telling her “I respect you Charlotte and I promise not to help.” She beamed.

What we are all learning together is that when you ask before just inserting yourself, it is a show of self-restraint and respect. Asking “how can I help you” opens up the space for someone to speak their truth — “I don’t want help. I don’t need help, I’m just frustrated. Could you hold this end for me? That would be great.”

I used to help too much. I have done this since I was a child. Always believing I needed to keep the peace, pick up the pieces, resolve the issue. These childhood patterns can lead to enabling and co-dependency in adulthood. It can also be dismissive to others, making them feel incapable or instilling a sense of neediness.

Brene Brown offers this great question for our adult relationships – “What does support look like to you right now?” Wow — isn’t that an awesome, clarifying and supportive question to ask your friend, your partner or your colleague. Rather than assuming we know what they might need or want, invite them to share honestly with you. The other caveat to this question is that it invites someone to ask us for the help they legitimately need or want – without having to feel guilty or ashamed of asking for help.

I’m including this “reframing” of what we often call triggers, because of a touching note I received from a follower recently. Her 11 year old son struggles with PTSD and she read this “reframing” to him because it felt relatable and comforting. My heart melted as I read her note to me. This is how we can help our children heal, by being aware of the hurts and traumas they have experienced and conscious of how they might show up from time to time. Our children are deeply impacted by divorce, by the loss of loved ones, by the pandemic and virtual school, by incidents at school…..the list goes on. How we show up for them when they have bad dreams or bad days, is crucial. We don’t have to be perfect, we simply have to care enough to put ourselves in their smaller shoes.

Sending love and encouragement out to all parents, grandparents,caregivers, teachers, mentors and coaches who lead with their hearts and their ears….showing our precious children that they matter.

Recommended Resources:

My prior blog posts:

Profoundly Helping The Next Generation https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/09/21/profoundly-helping-the-next-generation/

Older and Wiser Parenthood https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/07/09/older-and-wiser-parenthood/

Empathy- Essential and Endangered https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/06/19/empathy-essential-and-endangered/

Go to YouTube and search for conversations with Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Siegel to listen and learn from two of the best resources on childhood development and how we as adults can make an incredible difference to the quality of their future lives by showing up in meaningful, helpful, responsive and respectful ways.

Broken Spirits…..Part 2

After much reflection and filling half a journal, I have peeled off a few more layers of understanding about the impact that our protective armor can have on our spirits. I actually had a really big AHA moment this morning, which is the reason for this addendum to yesterday’s post.

What started this search was an explanation of how I fell back into old childhood patterns so late in my life. The clues were hidden in the fibers of my life story. I have often said that I lost my compass after Skip died in October, 2002. Now I can see more clearly just how incredibly true this was. But there’s some backstory that also deserves attention.

In September of 2001, my daughter Brelana was just beginning high school at Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia. This was her decision and anyone that knows my strong-headed girl can appreciate that she was all-in for this empowering decision she’d made for herself. Her devoted step-dad Skip was a graduate of VES and it was evident that she embraced this fresh start for herself as a chance to “belong” in ways that made her feel worthy and valued — by association, being the “daughter” of a respected, congenial graduate of this boarding school. While I supported her decision, my heart was aching because I knew I would miss her terribly. I knew all the reasons she’d made this decision, which is a story for another time. Just know that she was desirous of a clean break from a confusing pattern with her dad as a result of our divorce. While I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, I now know that I was very angry at having to pay the price of being separated from my daughter because of my ex-husband’s behaviors and choices. This pattern of paying the price for someone else’s actions has a very long thread in my life story and those origins lie in my childhood.

Skip urged me to go with him to Scottsdale Arizona where he was conducting an international banking conference for a week. He thought the distraction would be good for me. Bless his heart — he hated to see me sad and he could tell that I was struggling with emotion about my baby girl being so far away from me for months at a time.

Skip knew the bond that Bre and I have – he often told me that Helen Reddy’s Song, “You and Me Against the World” reminded him of the two of us. Each time he passed a bubbling water fountain in the Philadelphia plaza near his office, he would toss two pennies in it as a symbol of his pact with God to protect us.

Perhaps if I had stayed home, I could have processed all my emotions. The anger about who and what had prompted such a decision, the gratitude for Skip and the role model that he was for my daughter, the sadness about being apart from her and not having conversations over cookies after school.

But as often happens in life, that big life event got swept under the carpet very quickly. While the banking conference had indeed been fun and a distraction, it came to an abrupt and tragic halt on the morning of 9-11. Just typing 9-11, I can feel so many strong emotions coursing through me, the memory of that morning returning with such clarity that I can feel it in my bones. Skip’s adult children were scattered across the country, as were my three children. Phones were jammed as we frantically tried to make contact with loved ones. Bre’s classmates at VES had parents who worked at the Pentagon. The VES faculty were scrambling to keep kids safe and address their fears. In a split second, our world had changed so dramatically. Collectively we all felt fragile, vulnerable, scared.

Skip was a hero in my eyes with how he conducted himself at that conference, being a source of comfort and resilience to so many. Again, the full scope of his efforts are a story for another time. I have shared some of it in an earlier post. We got home, to a small apartment in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It wasn’t really home. It was a temporary place for us to live while our house was being built. Home for me was our cute townhouse back in Millersville, full of happy memories, familiar furniture, treasured keepsakes.

Ironically Skip had to leave shortly after our return for an international business trip. Flights had resumed and although there was much uneasiness in the day to day life routines, everyone was trying to get back to some sense of normal. That is, all while keeping a watchful eye out for suspicious white vans or shady activity. So I was home alone, in an apartment, where I did not know any neighbors. I’d go to work each day at PNC Advisors, grateful for friends and something to do to pass the hours. But things were changing rapidly at work due to the terrorist attack and safety precautions being instituted to protect clients and financial affairs. It was overwhelming to process it all especially with a healthy dose of fear added to the mix.

Cell phones did not get good reception in those days. We had not yet gotten a land line installed in the apartment, so I would go to a payphone outside the apartment complex gym to call Brelana or await a call from Skip. A few weeks of standing in the dark, talking on a pay phone hoping that I sounded cheerful, calm, and comforting.

Just one month later, my mother died suddenly. A blood clot from a surgery I did not even know she was having. Now my mother and I did not have a really good relationship, but we had been trying to get it back on track. Oddly enough I had heard some church bells ringing in the distance while walking our small dog at the very moment she passed. As I realized that coincidence, I took a little comfort from it. A sign that in the end, we were ok.

In 2002, I had high hopes for the pendulum to swing back to more positive experiences. The house Skip and I were building was a source of joy for both of us. But only two months after we had moved in, my beloved Skip passed away in my arms…..having just returned from a 2-1/2 week business trip in Cairo. My world went dark….and extremely quiet. So did I. There was just not an ounce of grit and determination left in me. I was beyond worn out. For a very long time, I felt numb. I think it is the body and soul’s way of protecting us — cocooning us when things seem so unbearable.

I know this story of mine is beginning to sound surreal — so many big, impactful life events all unfolding like dominos….one right after the other, without a moment to catch a breath, cry it out, start to heal.

Yet I am sure that if you look around, you will see similar stories that are unfolding right now — through this current collective event of a global pandemic. It is the impetus for me sharing all of this. To open your eyes and hearts to the many events and experiences that are breaking spirits of others.

A key similarity to my life experience and the pandemic is isolation. When Skip died, I was all alone. We had moved from my hometown to the Philadelphia suburbs. No family, no friends yet. Too much isolation during my darkest hours.

I believe that it was that isolation — that long lonely recovery period of grieving — that really put me in a tailspin and sent me spiraling backward into unconscious behavioral patterns.

In my post yesterday, I shared how even experienced practitioners can get snagged on emotional baggage from their past. These deep emotional experiences can have very strong currents that pull on us when we are most vulnerable. So often, we then begin to sift through old memories and excavate other painful experiences. I have done this myself, stringing together a series of past events where I was alone, vulnerable, in struggle. It amplifies our emotions and can flood us to the point of overwhelment.

I have witnessed this happening to people I love. They ask questions I cannot answer and those questions reveal the unhealed parts of their life that still snag them.

This is why I am sharing such personal vignettes with you today. It has only been through a lot of inner work, with the help of a cherished friend, that I have been able to go back and process what needed to be faced and healed. I was dragging around of lot of old baggage for far too long and allowing it to hold me back. This is precisely why we need to help each other with non-judgment, kindness and an abundance of empathy.