I made a new friend last year and marveled at how quickly we bonded, finding common ground through similarity in our life experiences. There was an ease to the unfolding of our friendship that had a child-like wonderment to it. We both seemed to have some depth to us that the other found intriguing. I remember how excited I felt each time we carved out some time to have a long chat — it was a play date! Both of us were on the tail end of our 60’s but the way we laughed, shared and curiously explored life, it felt like we were 7.
A year later, we are now so close that you would think our friendship began at age seven and carried us through six decades. I’ve often thought that having a sibling or friend to share childhood growing up experiences with was such a rich treasure. I am now realizing that having a friend who is growing into her wisdom is equally a rich treasure.
A few days ago, we were having one of our long phone chats and I was so aware of how I felt as I listened to her cheery, effervescent voice. She had a peace about her and a refreshed joy that was so tangible it could have been a hug. I delighted in this awareness and soaked it in. Her beloved mother had passed away recently and my dear friend had lived with her and cared for her for more than 5 months. There were highs and lows, laughter and tears, a tender holding on and letting go all at the same time. Her mother’s celebration of life was rich with inspiration on how to live a good life – each and every day. As we chatted, I could sense that my dear friend had taken the time she needed to process not only the last 5 months, but also a lifetime of her mother’s love. I marveled at how resilient we human beings really are. I marveled at how the thread of life weaves endlessly from mother to child, from earth to heaven.
There was unfinished business in Isabelle’s life, even at age 95. Sally and I talk about that often as we share our current family stories. Paintings that were sketched but never brought to life with watercolor, some relationships that remained at a distance, perhaps a dream or a secret that was not shared. There will always be unfinished business. What I so adore about my friend Sally is how she views this as motivation to keep doing the work. The work of living a wholehearted life, the inner work of being the best versions of ourselves. The lessons we learn from our past and from those who whisper their last goodbye to us are priceless gifts.
Throughout our conversation, we reflected on all the things our adult children are juggling in their busy lives. It made us pause to think about how the personal growth work we are doing now better prepares us in this chapter of parenting. It may have been the first time that I had the realization that parenting will always be unfinished business. Parenting when my children were young seemed so much easier. Parenting in a meaningful way to my adult children has a complexity to it that I now find inspires me to keep learning, to keep evolving.
I felt at ease discussing this insight with Sally. We have covered this very topic often over the past year as we talked about parents and adult children through her mother’s experiences and our own. What have we learned, where did we make mistakes, what would have been helpful in our 30’s and 40′, what can we do better?
Some of the pitfalls we hope to avoid are not feeling overwhelmed or helpless when our adult children are in struggle, or not shutting them down by telling them to “get over it”, or comparing how easy they have it to how hard we had it. None of that is helpful. We know that from our own life experiences and with hard-earned greater awareness. We want to show up for our adult children with compassion, grace and the gift of personal empowerment.
This is where I have found such a big payoff for all the personal growth work I have done over these past six years. I will never have all the right answers and I may not get it right every time, but I am now operating with more awareness than good intentions and that is a huge shift in the right direction.
My friendship with Sally has flourished with deep conversations about the trials and tribulations of relationships between parents and adult children. Together we are exploring ways to improve our interactions and offer support instead of advice.
Sally asked me the other day if I had a 5 year plan when I started my personal growth journey. She asked — “did you know how you wanted to be showing up in life?” I laughed out loud and confessed — “Oh no, I just knew I needed to stop attracting all the stuff I did NOT want in my life anymore.”
Little did she know that this pivotal question would now become another rung on my self-discovery ladder. How can I take what I have learned, and am still learning, and create a pocket guide for my adult children? So many times over the past 6 years I have wished that I would have learned some of these transformational tools much earlier in my adult life.
I am feeling grateful today for unfinished business. It keeps me motivated to keep doing the work.
I am also deeply grateful for Sally and my other friends who are on this journey with me. We can’t find the answers we are striving for on a google search. We rely on each other as we process, explore and navigate the best way to show up as parents for our adult children. Maybe we can create a pocket guide of wisdom for this stage of life. We just might call it “Unfinished Business.”
Over this past year, I gained a deeper understanding of the impact of childhood experiences from one generation to the next.
As I read this page from Clarity &. Connection by Yung Pueblo, I paused to reflect on just how true these words are. Often when I read a page in this book, I do find that I have lived exactly what Yung expresses.
I reflected on my mother whose parenting skills were sorely lacking and how that impacted me from a very young age. If you asked me at age 5 or 10 or even 15 what I wanted to be when I grew up my answer was always the same: “A good mother”.
Most people would just smile and think how sweet. However, a guidance counselor in middle school took it as a red flag. I spent more time in 7th grade in that counselor’s office than the classroom. I drew pictures of a house with a white picket fence, a big leafy tree with a tire swing, colorful flowers lining the path to the front door, three smiling kids and two happy parents, all holding hands. The guidance counselor would give me an odd smile that felt intrusive as he asked me vague questions and and gave me the ink blot test. Looking back, I am sure he knew I was leading a double life – the fantasy image that I drew on that paper and the harsh reality of a very dysfunctional family. He could also see my mother’s reaction when she stormed into his office to yank me out of there. I often wondered if he could hear her yelling at me when we got into the car. A few days later when I found myself back in his office, I was sure he did. Truth be told I was angry at him for putting me into this endless cycle of fearing the consequences of being back in his office while surreptitiously begging for his help, leaving clues on blank sheets of paper. Neither adult seemed to truly care about me. I was Olive Oyl between Popeye and Brutus. The tug of war was between them and my fate remained unchanged. A pattern that would play out in my life for decades.
So it was clear that from very early on I thought this whole mothering business could be handled much better. My framework for this was established with a long list of “what not to do” and it even included all the awful things my mother would repeatedly say that I vowed never to say to my own future children. Imagine my confused relief when I realized that other kids from seemingly functional homes had that same list. The big glitch in building a framework on “what not to do” is that it creates a very shaky foundation.
It set in motion a very complex webbing of reactive behavioral patterns intended to keep me and my brothers safe. I had an imaginary hope chest full of ideas on how to do things better when I was a mom. All those old reactive behavioral patterns became road blocks on my life journey. I can see that so clearly now — at 69 and on the other side of six years of self-discovery work.
Here’s the blueprint for all that generational heaviness that Yung Pueblo writes about — my mother had her own story. I know very little of it except that her own mother’s early death left her reeling and it must have happened shortly after I was born. She went to seances and fortune tellers, numbed her pain with alcohol, cigarettes and bad choices. My dad was overwhelmed by her and afraid of her. He was way out of his league in how to navigate it all. I remember being so angry with him for not protecting me and my brothers, but now I realize that he was every bit as frightened and stymied as we were. Both my parents were armoring up against their own fears and unprocessed trauma.
I grew up too fast, assuming adult responsibilities around the age of 10. Like many young kids, I believed I was the problem — that if I was better, we would somehow magically change into that happy family image I drew on paper for the guidance counselor. My behavioral patterns took root and I became a helper extraordinaire, a people pleaser and abundantly compliant. I took my lived experience, extracted the parts that hurt and vowed to do it differently. I began stuffing that imaginary hope chest with my own blueprint for being a good mom, wife and having a happy family.
I left home just a few days after graduating from high school. Actually, I bolted from home — in broad daylight, while my mom was at work. Packed my few belongings and moved into a third floor apartment on a peaceful street on the other side of town near a local college. I felt so free, in charge of my own destiny for the very first time. Just one little problem, I kept looking behind me (literally and figuratively) to see if trouble was looming. Like I said, it is very hard to build a solid foundation from shaky scaffolding. My mother gave me good reason to keep looking behind. She stole my car — my 1968 Mustang, in the middle of the night. I came out of my apartment in the morning to go to work and discovered my car was missing. She did this a few times, in spite of the fact that I thought I was so clever by parking it discreetly blocks away from my apartment. Those tentacles of childhood distrust just kept reaching out and tapping me on the shoulder.
At that time, I was working as a legal secretary in a law office for $70 a week. My boss was the most kind, sensible, empathic adult I’d met in a long while. He offered me a solution to the repeated stolen car dilemma, pro bono, and sent my mother some legal notice that put an end to her nonsense. It may have been the first time that I truly felt that someone had my back. I wonder if I conveyed to him just what that really meant to me.
My hope chest blueprint was an attempt for me to be the exact opposite of my mother but because I was also looking over my shoulder, I could not really sink down deep into my own core values and fully embrace who I truly was. My learned behavioral patterns kept me tethered to a past full of uncertainty. I carried my parents armor and my own. There was no sure footing, no strong foundation.
That’s how many find ourselves moving forward into life, getting married and having kids — and bringing all our baggage into the new life we are trying to build. Even in the best of families, there are blind spots. I think my parents’ generation had a junk drawer and a skeleton closet. They hid discomfort, dysfunction and trauma. My generation was often taught to suppress our emotions –stop crying, get over it, pick yourself up by the bootstraps. Is it any wonder that generationally we struggle with emotional triggers?
When I married in my early 20’s, I naively believed that my “happily ever after” blueprint was destined to come to fruition. My first husband was the oldest of 5 in what surely looked like the TV version of family perfection. Dad dutifully off to work, while mom in a flowered apron baked and ironed, preening over her children and her gardens. It was only after we were married, and were living with his family for several months that I discovered there were serious cracks in this facade as well.
Looking back now, I can more clearly understand that many of our marital struggles were rooted in the behavioral patterns we both brought with us into a young marriage. Unfortunately, we doubled down on what once worked for us in times of stress. That in turn just entrenched the cycle of our pasts colliding creating that unwanted heaviness that Yung Pueblo describes. Naturally that meant that our three children were exposed to this newer version of the same old thing — and voila now they were developing their own reactive behavioral patterns. Three generations of armor getting heavier by the minute.
Over the past several years, I learned about the findings of Dr. Bruce Perry, a noted clinician, teacher and researcher in children’s mental health and neurosciences. His work on the impact of abuse, neglect and trauma on the developing brain has had meaningful impact around the globe. It became very evident to me that what happens to us in our early childhood years can have lifelong repercussions.
This is why I feel so strongly about the importance of caring for our mental health and emotional regulation. I wholeheartedly agree with Yung Pueblo that when people heal themselves, they heal the future.
Deep conversations with close friends has revealed that my story is not that remarkable. Many had similar experiences and have felt the effects of their learned childhood behavioral patterns throughout their adult lives. I’m hard-pressed to find a family tree that does not have entangled branches of dysfunction, depression, estrangement, insecurities and brokenness.
Take heart, however — We were also well-intentioned gardeners tending those family trees as best we could. We chose to do the opposite of what their parents did, we chose to love more deeply with an understanding it might hurt, we chose to soothe, comfort and nurture. The pendulum may have swung too far the other way. We burned ourselves out trying to do it all and keep everyone staying in the green on the happiness meter. We still lost our tempers, got resentful, exhausted and disconnected. We offered ice cream cones to our children when we should have pulled them in our laps and honored their feelings. We should have done the same for ourselves but we chose a glass of wine or a bag of chips.
My first marriage ended in divorce. We tried couples counseling before we threw in the towel, but like my guidance counselor experience I realize that we were unable to identify the root cause of our problems. So we just lobbed our resentments back and forth, paid the bill and went home to hit repeat. We did not break the cycle. I can look back now through clearer eyes and a wiser heart and see how our emotional armor and old behavioral patterns kept us entangled til we couldn’t actually live our best lives anymore. I also see how our three kids paid a dear price just as my personal counselor told me. She said that my kids might come back to me one day and ask why I did not leave sooner. When I made the decision to divorce, my sons were away at college and somewhat insulated from the months of anxious fallout, but my daughter was now Olive Oyl between Popeye and Brutus. Consider that my daughter was only 5 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and 7 when she became my motivation to divorce to free us from a cycle of insecurities and unworthiness. Those events landed hard in the heart and mind of a young child.
Again, my story is not all unusual. And we have seen this play out throughout many generations. When my son was in the throes of his own divorce, I remember telling him that the long arduous decision making process had consequences for his young daughter and encouraged him and my daughter in law to co-parent from a space of awareness and love. I am relieved that they have done this well and continue to do so. For me personally, this is what Yung Pueblo means when he writes about healing the future. Learning from my mistakes, I share openly with my son and daughter in law. I am striving to help them navigate the challenges of raising a child in a co-parenting and ever-evolving family dynamic. No choosing sides and no ostracizing a child or making her feel “less than.” Raising a child is the hardest job we will ever do.
Embracing life’s realities and the brokenness that will inevitably occur in a caring, supportive, inclusive way is far better than saddling a child with our old emotional baggage. The best gift we can give a child is teaching them to honor their feelings. Holding them in our laps and listening, holding space for them to truly feel the depth of their emotions and feeling safe to do so. Teaching emotional awareness, emotional regulation and modeling it ourselves in daily life is how we heal the future. Do the work — in the present moment.
I had no idea when I dipped my toes into mindfulness 6 years ago what I would be gaining. While I was so focused on healing myself, I was then unaware how helpful it would be to my family and friends in the years to come. I knew that I wanted to get out of a situation that was draining me physically and emotionally so that I could be at my best for whatever life had in store for me in this last chapter of my life. That desire to be stronger, healthier and of clearer mind took me on a journey I could have never imagined. So often I told myself that I wished I had learned this all much earlier in my life, recognizing that it would have not only saved me a lot of heartache, but it may have also meant I did not inadvertently hurt others. There is a quote that says that life brings to you what you need the most — and what I needed the most was to heal from old trauma, drop the baggage and embrace equally my imperfections and my gifts. My discoveries and continued learning are supporting my efforts to help others learn this invaluable lesson much sooner in life.
I am so grateful that we live in a time where the stigma around mental health is falling away. I am so encouraged that counseling and therapies are taking a more holistic approach to mental health, bringing grounded research and more tools into the fold. I do believe that we need to be an advocate for our own mental health as much as we need to be advocates for our physical health.
I have looked back on my counseling sessions and see evidence where childhood experiences were begging to be brought out into the open, but were dismissed or simply missed. Had we all recognized that the warning signs were flashing, we could have done some of this meaningful healing work so much sooner. We may have saved good relationships that were tainted by our past.
Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah recently released their book “What Happened to You?” If we each asked ourselves this question, and then took the time to go back and revisit our childhood with compassion and mature perspective, it would be an invaluable step in breaking the generational line of hurt.
Just hung up from a long phone conversation with my middle son and am still trying to collect myself. Tears are streaming down my face and I can barely control the emotional tremors in my chest. I literally am laughing that hard!
My mid-40’s son was reflecting on his childhood when he was about the same age as his daughter who is 8. He recalls an endless series of canoeing, fishing, water-skiing, beach trips, hiking, aquariums, Smithsonian, group snow skiing trips not to mention crafts galore, birthday and pool parties and big family gatherings. He was in awe of my ability to have the foresight to plan and organize a childhood so rich with adventures and activities.
I could barely catch my breath to set him straight and for a moment I pondered if I even should.
I caved — I pulled the green curtain back and let him see that amazing, wizardly (and younger) mom was no more magical than he himself is.
The real magic is how he reflects on those memories and what he values most about his childhood.
You see, I was just like every other mom — past and present — juggling too many things and barely keeping up with most of it. There was rarely advance planning for our spontaneous Sunday outings to the Susquehanna River for fishing or water-skiing, or a hike and picnic in Pequea. If we woke up on the weekend and the sun was shining and dad was off work, we may have decided to ditch the mowing and laundry, strapped the canoe on the roof of the station wagon and headed for the Conestoga River. A quick trip to Turkey Hill for gas and snacks was necessitated of course.
Evidently my son was unaware of the hustle to find lifejackets, coolers and boat cushions in the garage that was always in need of organizing. I recall packing sandwiches in an empty bread wrapper because I was out of waxed paper or plastic baggies. I shut the door to the laundry room so I couldn’t see the piles of wash also needing my attention.
When we got home as the sun was setting, three kids were escorted upstairs for showers and clean clothes while I foraged in the kitchen for something resembling dinner. A load of wash was tossed in as I was enroute to the car to round up the cooler, the trash and the soggy beach towels. Dad was busy washing down the canoe or the boat and leaning the lifejackets and cushions by the garage to dry out.
My hunch is that my children sat around the dinner table delighting in the odd collection of food for dinner, laughing about the antics and adventures of the day, feeling that delightful kind of tired that washes over you from a day of sun, water and exploring. That is what sunk into their memory banks.
Meanwhile, I had a mind full of “to do” lists, the “should have” lists and the “how am I going to catch up” lists?
Today I found myself relieved and grateful that my son did not remember the mom that nearly fell asleep while reading bedtime stories, or the mom who frantically searched for gym clothes on Monday morning, or the mom who lost her patience trying to get three kids out the door to school and herself to work on time.
By the time my son and I finished our conversation today, he too was laughing. Not much has changed but I did have some wisdom to share with him. Seize the moments to be spontaneous and don’t wait for things to be “perfect or just right”. Make the time to sit with your child and talk about what they enjoyed the most on those outings and adventures — let that sink into your own memory banks together. Go easy on yourself as a parent — you are probably scoring higher than you can even imagine in your child’s eyes.
It was early Spring, 2020 and things had come to a screeching halt as we went into lockdown due to the global pandemic. Looking back, that was probably the compelling reason that a group of mostly strangers agreed to participate in a bi-weekly Zoom Book Club. We surely had the time, and frankly we needed something stimulating to distract us. The hook was set when we learned that first up was Untamed by Glennon Doyle. Most of us had recently read Untamed and it’s one of those books that make you want to jump up, dash out and go make changes in the world. So we had energy, we had ideas — and we were quarantined. A lively discussion about this book was an invitation we could not refuse.
If not for the quarantine, it is quite doubtful that our dynamic little group would have ever come together in the first place. We would have all been busy with life as usual. We might have had a few conversations about snippets of revelations we had, but it is unlikely that we would have been able to keep it going more than a month or so.
Little did we realize the seeds of friendship that were planted on those first few Zoom sessions. We had no way of knowing what the universe had in store for us — a group of mostly strangers from different states.
We had a pastor, educators, leadership coaches, retired bankers and a chair of her local political party. We were daughters, mothers and grandmothers. We were married, divorced, widowed or single — or had been all of these at one time or another. We were diverse in our ages, experiences and interests.
The common denominator was evident during our very first Zoom session. It was our mixed bag of strong emotions in an unprecedented time of great uncertainty. We were all scared for ourselves, our families, and the world at large. Those seeds of friendship began to sprout as we revealed the concerns that were most relevant to each of us. We got a glimpse of each other’s vulnerability. Looking back, I am aware that there was no judging present as we got to know each because we found the common thread instinctively pulling us together — to share and to listen with grace, open hearts and open minds.
As the months of quarantine continued, so did the Beautiful Cheetahs zoom book club. It was the one bright spot that we all looked forward to every other Thursday evening. Before we would dive into discussing the book chapters, we would update each other on how we were coping, what was unfolding in our lives and families. Sometimes we would vent about the toxic news cycle. We’d share diverse opinions and a wide array of resources to expand our knowledge and understanding. These conversations were sorely needed and much appreciated. It was a chance to offload some stress, a place to ask compelling questions and hear varied perspectives. It was a glimpse into how each and every one of us and our families were being impacted by the turmoil in our country and around the globe.
It was a revelational microcosm of what was transpiring collectively in our country. There is no doubt that we benefited from hearing each other’s stories. It reinforced our common humanity and our human frailty not to mention the importance of connection. We saw job loss, virtual school, social isolation, business disruption, births and deaths through the eyes and hearts of each other.
And all of this happened before we had even opened our copies of Untamed to discuss the assigned chapters!
So let’s zoom out to take a look at what took place when we did turn our attention to the book. At first blush it would seem that none of us had come anywhere near the metamorphosis that Glennon Doyle has in her 40+ years. She has gone through many transformations to get to her true self. She is refreshingly candid about how hard that has been and she offers wisdom that can only come from deep introspection. We were eager to rally around her book and collectively motivate each other to unleash our own inner cheetah.
Untamed became both a framework and a bridge for us. We all confessed that we loved the book, saw ourselves in chapters of it and were inspired for some metamorphosis of our own. The timing was so right. Even though it seemed the world was standing still, change was occurring all around us — a telling metaphor for our own reflecting. The more we discussed the book, the more we realized that even though it appeared on the surface that we had been standing still in our own lives, changes had been occurring all along.
We would dive into a chapter, reading aloud a sentence or two that resonated deeply — and that would be the catalyst for one of us to share a personal vignette from their own life story. Thank goodness for Zoom, because we could see the facial expressions, the body language that enriches a story. If you pay close attention, you can not only feel the story as it once happened, but can even see the indelible imprint it left on your friend.
While I don’t remember the details of the very first deeply personal story that was shared, I do recall that in that moment there was an unspoken understanding that this was a safe and sacred place for each of us. And so it began — organically — a group of women holding space for each other to tell their most vulnerable stories without holding back. As is often the case, our experiences or circumstances may be remarkably different, but the context is the common ground. We could so easily put ourselves in one another’s shoes.
Having these deep conversations was cathartic. Free at last from stories buried so deep within us that we had even forgotten some. Stories that needed to come out just like a splinter so that healing could begin. Stories that we did not realize were our very own “cheetah” moments – not til one of us piped up with a fresh perspective and an “atta girl”. We cried, we laughed, we shook our heads in disbelief and we air toasted our bravery.
Those initial seeds of friendship grew exponentially over this past year. We often reach out to each other independently of Zoom sessions through email and texts and best of all phone calls. Some who were friends before Beautiful Cheetahs have really deepened their friendships. Some of us have gained incredible new friends we would have otherwise never even met. We have helped each other through very specific challenges in supportive ways that came from our own personal experiences.
We offer each other a unique space to explore new ideas or approaches. It’s fun — it feels like going on a shopping trip with friends that bring things to the dressing room that you would never pull off the rack. We help each other with fresh perspectives and reframing. We eagerly say “hey, you can try something new!” We celebrate breakthroughs and wobbly first steps in the right direction.
Over this past year, we have had the privilege of getting to know our friend Sally’s beloved mother Isabelle, through colorful stories and delightful anecdotes. Our hearts were always warmed by the lifelong devotion of our friend and her mother. While we were all busy trying to get better at being authentic ourselves, 95 year old Isabelle showed us what life looks like when you embrace your true self and live every moment in joy and gratitude.
Diane, the ever gracious pastor in our group officiated at Isabelle’s funeral just last week. AnnaRuth, Barbara, and Linda were able to attend the service in person. I participated virtually as did some of Isabelle’s family members who live in New Zealand. Thank goodness for technology and how it can bring us all together for moments like this. Isabelle’s “going home” celebration was the most touching memorial I have ever witnessed. The colorful memories that family members shared about Isabelle were a testament to a woman who seized the joy of every present moment. Listening to Sally tenderly weave the rich stories of Isabelle’s life, especially as she neared the end was incredibly beautiful. Being able to see and hear Sally’s son and daughter share their memories of their beloved grandmother was heartwarming.
After a year of quarantine and zoom meetings, my friends who were able to be physically present for this lovely service were overcome with emotion at being able to actually see each other. We’ve grown so close, but from a distance. The gift of being together was not lost on them. I was sitting alone 2,000+ miles away, having just closed my laptop, reflecting on that beautiful service when my phone rang. It was AnnaRuth. I was so touched that she would call me as soon as she got to her car. Now I was overcome with emotion, a warm wash of that feeling of true belonging. I confided in AnnaRuth that her thoughtfulness in calling me immediately felt like I was being pulled into a hug. As we shared highlights from the service that went to our hearts, we also marveled at the deep personal bonds we have made with each other — because of a Zoom book club.
To say we have witnessed remarkable personal transformation would be an understatement. While it is true that each of us independently has experienced so many growth spurts over this past year, it is the collective bond of deep friendship that is so rare. We went into a lockdown and Zoom book club as mostly strangers and a heart full of untold stories. We are emerging a year later with six trust buddies who love deep conversations and who support each other on this journey to be the best versions of ourselves. That is a truly miraculous metamorphosis.
These Beautiful Cheetahs tip our hat to you, Glennon Doyle.
P.S. Did I mention that we are only half-way thru Untamed a year later?
Vulnerability is a fine precision tool that drills small openings in our armor, our fears and our awareness. A series of tiny. little openings allowing light to fall into the “what matters most” center of our being. It is the continual “breaking open” process that nourishes our life.
The very word “vulnerability” conjures up images so far from the truth of its strength, courage and tenacity. Against all odds, it is our vulnerability that protects us most and often is the jettison force needed to take action. Vulnerability is a constant life companion.
Vulnerability whispers in your ear when you are crying, heartbroken and empty. Vulnerability whispers that you don’t need to stay any longer. Vulnerability says “I will help you pack.”
Vulnerability reaches into your heart and makes space for your newborn as you craddle him in your arms, so tiny and fragile. Vulnerability places gifts of patience, resilience and resourcefulness you’ve never known possible in that heart space. You will operate on too little sleep and a deep well of love for many years. Vulnerability is your constant companion and your reservoir as you parent for the rest of your life.
Vulnerability embraces you and holds space for you alone for days, as you absorb the diagnosis. Vulnerability sits patiently as you tumble through an emotional vortex without judgment. Vulnerability listens to unspoken words, watches in silence as you envision all possible and impossible scenarios. Vulnerability hugs you when you have made your decision days later. Vulnerability becomes your invisible strength partner on your journey no matter the outcome.
Vulnerability sits with you weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a bigger dream. Vulnerability views the sacrifices, the risks, the rewards, the long hours and renewed sense of purpose. Vulnerability rarely misses a detail in the complex decision making process and still offers a nudge to seize the moments. Vulnerability smiles with you as you take that first step forward into a long-time dream.
Vulnerability never leaves your side when you are fraught with worry over a loved one though you cannot change a thing. Vulnerability listens to your heart, your fears, your prayers. Vulnerability helps you discover new depths of your love and faith.
Vulnerability urges you to call a trusted friend when you are falling apart.
Vulnerability reminds you it is ok to ask for help or state a boundary. Vulnerability holds your hand while you hold your breath waiting for a response or a reaction.
Vulnerability will wash into every corner of your very being when you fall in love — with your partner, with your grandchild, or with a passion. You will learn more about yourself than you ever knew possible.
Vulnerability’s best friend is courage. Vulnerability drills those little openings to break free of what holds us back and courage pulls us into a different direction, or back into life, or launches us on a growth spurt.
People who live wholeheartedly lives have come to understand that vulnerability is a strength for it opens our hearts to ourselves and to each other. Vulnerability enables us to get in touch with our deeper human emotional connection. Vulnerability makes no promises about rosy outcomes or happy endings but it invites and encourages us to not let fear hold us back from love and belonging or from pursuing dreams and passions.
The most valuable lesson that vulnerability taught me was that my heart can be broken but not irreparably. My heart will expand in all the places that it was broken and my capacity to love and be loved will grow exponentially. Love is a renewable source of hope, inspiration, comfort, peace and joy. Vulnerability encourages me to go bravely forward for there remains much to be learned from all of life’s experiences.
When I first embarked on my self-discovery journey, I was overwhelmed with the plethora of new information and new tools. It was challenging to piece together a framework for the process. It felt like sorting through the contents of an Ikea box, a thousand parts, a complex instruction book and too many or too few nuts and bolts. It is one of the reasons that I love blogging. It is my hope that my personal stories and my experiences with various tools will be meaningful to others as they build their own framework.
I do believe in the importance of self-discovery work. We are constantly evolving each and every day and that is what makes personal growth work so dynamic. We accept this so naturally as we watch a young child reach their milestones – first step, first word, first lost tooth, first grade — all the way through to adulthood. We marvel and encourage this metamorphosis each step of the way, helping them to discover who they are, what they are passionate about, how they approach life. It seems that once we reach adulthood and especially as we hit our mid-life, we forget that we are still evolving. The changes are not so noticeably evident, but they are every bit as relevant.
The deeper I get into my own personal exploration, the more I am able to look back on the history of my own life and find something valuable that I missed in those moments. I ask myself a lot of really big questions when I take this walk down memory lane. Why did you accept that? What did you really want? What was holding you back? Where did you find that courage?
The answers to these questions come from the woman that I am today, with the hindsight and wisdom of being on the other side of that history. The revisit gives me a better viewpoint to fully appreciate where others are in their adult stages of life’s metamorphosis. I am a firm believer that when we do this personal growth work, we set a good example for others. We have what it takes to break generational patterns that are not serving us well. We can flourish when we shed what is no longer needed. It starts with awareness, acceptance and embracing positive change.
It is a bit ironic that it takes us hitting a wall or rock bottom to realize the importance of personal growth work. It is super hard to try to find some solid ground for a starting point, when we are physically and emotionally drained. Yet just maybe that is where we need to be to allow for some deeper awareness to tap us on the shoulder and say “What is the real problem?”
I often share in these posts how invaluable I find the enneagram to be. However, I only discovered it a few years into the self-awareness work I’d cobbled together on my own. It dovetailed with the concept of looking for reactive behavioral patterns that weaved its way through mindfulness, meditation and neuroscience. For me, it was like having an imaging tool — like an X-ray or MRI — for emotional behavioral patterns specific to my enneagram type. I remembering thinking that I could have really benefited from these cliff notes on day 1 of my fragmented personal growth journey.
One of the key components of the enneagram that makes it such an invaluable and on-going tool is that it shows us fully our unique strengths and weaknesses — and the spectrum on which we all operate, day to day and sometimes even moment to moment. It is the spectrum from healthy to unhealthy that I find most intriguing. Again, I correlate it to the tools we use to gauge our physical health. The bathroom scale, the heart monitor, our wearable activity devices all help us to stay the course. The behavioral spectrum of the enneagram does the same for us.
So we actually get the synopsis of our specific behavioral patterns — and we get the tangible reminders of things to be on the lookout for should we find ourselves off-track. The enneagram is a dynamic tool that we can rely on throughout our own personal evolution.
I have found the discussion of our reactive behavioral patterns weaving its way into so many books, podcasts, articles and conversations regardless of the subject matter. It reminds me how relevant it is for us to be aware of how we are showing up — for ourselves, for others. Are we still clinging to those old reactive behavioral patterns that don’t fit who we are today?
One recommendation that I’ve discovered really works when it comes to identifying patterns we may not be able to see for ourselves is asking a family member or friend to help us. I hit the jackpot when it came to my personal growth buddy for several reasons. My lifelong friend Judy and I were both on a personal growth quest at the same time, we had a lot of shared outcomes though our experiences were different and we were both enneagram type 2’s. Best of all, we built a foundation of trust that enabled us to tackle really painful stuff. We celebrate each other’s progress. And we keep doing the work, always marveling at how much there is to discover.
The other day, I listened to the most recent Dare to Lead Podcast on the subject of advice giving and how disempowering it can be in work and in our personal lives. I leaned in even closer to this episode. An enneagram type 2 is often called “The Helper” and I’ve been learning all the ways that my lifelong patterns of rescuing, helping and fixing were more about me, where I was most vulnerable, and where I need to focus my attention in order to change.
This podcast revealed that many of us are prone to quickly offer advice — to fix or to rescue –regardless of our enneagram type. And once again I heard Brene talk about how old behavioral patterns will creep into those interactions. It can be something as simple as birth order and being the oldest child who just naturally assumes the “fixer” role — or it can stem from a need to be in control, to be right, or to be compliant.
The salient point of this conversation was that we disempower people and get in the way of their own self-discovery and personal growth when we do this! We aren’t helping at all. And all too often, our advice isn’t that good and we are not even solving the right problem!
It prompted me to reflect on my own couples counseling sessions in recent years that never got traction because we opted for a quick fix or resolved a surface issue and not the bigger, underlying pattern that was hiding the true problem.
This podcast episode is a Master Class on empowering others to identify and solve their own problems. Michael Bungay Stanier introduced the Karpman Drama Triangle to illuminate just how easily we all get “triggered” into a very familiar scenario when things get dysfunctional.
In the Drama Triangle, there are three roles — Rescuer, Victim and Persecutor.
Michael pointed out that we can find ourselves “bouncing around in all three roles — even in a single conversation. When we are in the drama triangle, we are in reactive mode and not showing up as our best .”
He noted that if you ask people which role they tend to be in most often, they self-identify as “rescuers.” The motivations will vary, but the reactive “go to” response is to fix.
The rescue role is not helpful. In that role, rescuers create victims and persecutors — and then the rescuers get frustrated wondering “why can’t they sort this out?” Rescuers are actually driving the dynamic. As Brene observed, this reality is very hard for us to hear, especially if we believe our advice is really good.
Michael shared that the Drama Triangle is part of the human experience and we spend a majority of our lives getting sucked into it. “If you are lucky, you get wiser to it and you spend less time in the drama triangle. Just try to notice it, try to notice when you get sucked into it and see if you can get out of it faster.” Brene reinforced that there is so much reactivity in the drama triangle and the old behavioral patterns come right back up. This is where awareness is key — becoming aware that we are in, recognizing our old, reactive behavioral patterns, and stepping out of it.
The enneagram can help us self-identify our old behavioral patterns. Once we know what we are looking for, it is much easier to spot in when it shows up. Then when we do find ourselves getting sucked into the Drama Triangle, we can recognize it, we can step out of it and we can engage a healthier new dynamic.
Michael refers to this better approach as a coaching or teaching role. It’s a better framework with empowering results:
Refrain from jumping in with advice.
Stay curious…..just a little longer.
Ask thoughtful questions and most importantly, hold space for the other person to actually be able to
think about their answer.
In his book, The Coaching Habit, he offers seven key questions that will really help someone get clear about what they want, what support looks and feels like, and what their own challenges are. The significant shift that happens when we step out of the drama triangle and into the “teaching” role, is that the other person feels heard, valued and empowered to make their own decisions. After an impromptu role play, this is how Brene described that feeling:
“How generous it feels to be on the receiving end of someone asking thought provoking, compelling questions that most of the world doesn’t even care about.”
Isn’t this just how we want others to feel in our interactions with them, especially if they are coming to us with the weight of the world on their shoulders, or to resolve an issue that is really getting in the way of living their lives without drama and anxieties? It’s such a thoughtful framework to use with our children, grandchildren, partners, parents, siblings and friends. Empowering others is the best way to contribute to their own personal metamorphosis.
As Michael so wisely pointed out, “we only get one kick of the can” and the price we pay for not working on the things that genuinely matter to us is wasting precious time. This really lands in my heart because the reality is that we can spend far too much in the drama triangle when we would rather be enjoying each other’s company and squeezing the goodness out of each and every day.
I recently discovered some great new resources about the enneagram, a favorite tool of mine for self-awareness. What is driving my excitement is how the enneagram is now being used to help us not only get to know ourselves better, but also to be able to engage more effectively with others. Better yet, how we can tap into the individual strengths and motivations of all 9 types to create dynamic new solutions to our collective, repetitive problems.
The distinctive difference between the enneagram and other personality assessment tools is that the Enneagram addresses the “why” of our behavioral patterns. It reveals why we are motivated to respond and behave in familiar patterns, taking the phrase “it’s just who I am“ to a whole new level. Think about how transformational it would be in your closest relationships if you had this deeper insight about yourself and each other. It has the potential to take conflict off the table and replace it with understanding. Just that awareness alone can turn disagreements into more empathic and productive conversations.
To shed a little light on the “Big Why”, take a look at the core desires and basic fears for each of the 9 enneagram types:
Enneagram Type 1: The Reformer
Core Desire: Having integrity, being good, right, balanced
Basic Fear: Being wrong, bad, inappropriate, imperfect
Enneagram Type 2: The Helper
Core Desire: Being loved, being wanted
Basic Fear: Being unloved, unwanted, needy
Enneagram Type 3: The Achiever
Core Desire: Being valuable, successful, admired
Basic Fear: Failing to appear as successful, being exposed as incompetent
Enneagram Type 4: The Individualist
Core Desire: Being authentic, unique and special
Basic Fear: Being without identity, flawed, misunderstood, inadequate
Enneagram Type 5: The Investigator
Core Desire: Being competent, independent and knowledgeable
Basic Fear: Being helpless, incompetent, without resources
Enneagram Type 6: The Loyalist
Core Desire: Security, guidance, having help
Basic Fear: Being unprepared, afraid, being blamed, without support
Enneagram Type 7: The Enthusiast
Core Desire: Fun, happiness, freedom, contentment
Basic Fear: Missing out, being deprived, trapped or bored
Enneagram Type 8: The Challenger
Core Desire: Being in control, protecting self and others
Basic Fear: Weakness, vulnerability, being controlled
Having this basic understanding of key motivations and basic fears helps us become more aware of the root source of our own reactive behavioral patterns. It also gives us a relevant focal point for understanding where others are coming from and what is at the heart of the matter for them.
It was through a recent Typology podcast with Ian Morgan Cron and his guest, Seth Abram ,that I learned about another enneagram podcast — “Fathoms”. I just loved that name, Fathoms, and what it represents: discovering our inner depths, one fathom at a time. I scrolled through the Fathoms podcast episodes and found several that caught my immediate attention. I’m going to share the highlights of these episodes in the hopes of whetting your appetite to learn more for yourself.
Just imagine the potential that could be unlocked for creative problem resolution if we cultivated an appreciation for different perspectives based on “others” core desires and unique strengths. In the episode entitled “A Conversation with Enneagram Magazine” two college friends share their initial introduction to the enneagram and how they came to launch their dream — the Enneagram Magazine. What makes this magazine so compelling is that Bekah and Molly are tapping into the collective insights of all 9 types to explore one singular topic per issue. For example, the most recent issue of Enneagram Magazine is entitled “Justice”. What a timely and critically important topic. Here’s the intro provided from their website for the Justice issue:
We begin 2021 by diving into the topic of Justice through the lens of the Enneagram. We will be honest, this topic is not an easy one to cover. However, the importance of discussing Justice has never been more apparent to us. We dive into uncomfortable conversations with grace, providing perspectives that may be unusual, unexpected, and unfamiliar to our circles–and that’s okay. Our hope is that this issue will help move us from individualistic comfort into higher communal awareness that encourages thriving for everyone.https://www.enneagrammagazine.com/order/issue-6-justice
Enneagram Magazine was launched just last year. The first issue provides the foundation — it is Enneagram Primer. Subsequent issues included Creativity, Leadership, Relationships. In 2021, they are embracing a theme of growth and using a relatable metaphor of the life cycle of plants. Topics will be Soil, Health, Endeavor and Wonder. Health will correspond to seeds and what is needed to grow from the inside. Endeavor will represent the emerging and Wonder will focus on the flowers and fruits of self reflection and personal growth. It is an apt metaphor for going inward and examining the areas of our life that invite change and then taking the big step to live it out. All 9 enneagram types will be represented for each topic. The diversity of self-discovery perspectives will be rich.
Another Fathoms podcast I found to be enlightening was the March 10th episode entitled “Addiction, Recovery and the Enneagram” with Michael Naylor of Portland Maine. Michael Naylor is an esteemed addiction expert and an enneagram teacher. I was fascinated by his background, stories and observations especially since the enneagram is rapidly becoming an invaluable tool for many types of counseling. The big takeaway from this episode was that people can successfully go through rehab programs only to relapse later because they never really got to the root cause of their motivations for their addictions – the big why. This is where the enneagram plays an impactful role. The rehab and the enneagram work done in tandem can be a lasting pathway to freedom from addiction and its root causes.
Michael is a type 4 and freely shared some humorous yet poignant moments with his own counselor as they unraveled his patterns and his recurring melancholy with the help of the enneagram. Michael stressed the importance of having two or three rock-solid people in our lives that will support our efforts to become aware of our behavioral patterns and help us “catch” them in real time. Early detection is key in the process of changing old habits and patterns for the better.
Since I recently shared my blog post, Author of our Own Stories, the next episode to catch my attention was “Understanding the Inner Critic” with Lynda Roberts, an authorized Enneagram Institute teacher and former president of International Enneagram Association. No matter what enneagram type we might be, we are all quite familiar with our inner critic.
Lynda offered that our inner critic plays two roles — the judge and the ego manager. Our inner judge is the one that offers an abundance of self criticism and is prone to shame or blame us. Lynda also pointed out that our own inner judge is the one who also judges “others”. Our “ego manager” sends our marching orders and this ties right into our core desires and basic fears. She offered an example of these marching orders for herself, a Type 6: “you need to be responsible, you need to do what is expected of you.”
Lynda pointed out that our inner critic was developed in childhood and absorbed both explicit and implicit messages about the rules of life. Since humans can’t survive on instincts alone, we needed this guidance to launch us into adulthood. But much of this messaging is no longer valid or needed as we evolve through our adult life. Lynda equates this to “taking off the training wheels” — we do not need childhood messaging that gets in the way of opening to our true selves. We can discover and enhance our own mature inner guidance that aligns with our personal core values.
It may have been serendipity that beckoned me to listen to one more podcast as I was working on this blog post. This Typology Podcast, hosted by Ian Cron, featured Dr. Curt Thompson, psychiatrist and author, focused on shame and how it plays out in the human experience. This conversation dovetailed so perfectly with Lynda Roberts insights about our childhood and our inner critic. It also circles us back to the beginning of this post where I shared the core motivations and basic fears of each other 9 enneagram types. The enormous take-away from this podcast was that the very things we do to cope with our basic fears ultimately end up reinforcing our fears. We create our own self-fulling prophecy through ineffective coping skills. We push away what we want the most.
Dr. Curt Thompson believes that the enneagram reveals nine helpful ways in which people develop their personal narratives. It helps us understand how we came to develop our attachment style and our temperament when we were quite young. Dr. Thompson says “It is the dominant way we make sense of our lives. Nine consistent, predictable ways to tell our narrative, that comes naturally, and was shaped in our family of origin.”
In this episode, Ian Cron and Dr. Thompson offer remarkable insights around the power of shame and the subtle, silent messages that are carried over from childhood into our adult lives. That inner critic that whispers we are not enough or will never be enough. They walk us through each of the 9 enneagram types and real life examples of where our strong desire to avoid shame at all costs can derail us. I have a few friends who are also students of the enneagram and we compared notes on these examples — and oh yes, they were spot on:
Afraid to ask for help for fear of hearing no (type 2)
Coming off as a bully to protect vulnerabilities (type 8)
Afraid to assert yourself (type 9)
Second-guessing yourself in a conflict (type 6)
Dr. Thompson shares that shame is a signal for us. We will first feel it in our body. He does an incredible job of explaining both the neurobiology and the neuroscience of residues from childhood experiences that cause us to be unconsciously triggered. He encourages us to pay attention to how we feel and to pause before reacting or responding.
His strongest piece of advice was also his most touching — “healing for shame requires that others come find us”. We need to be there for each other, to help each other recognize that often our pre-conditioned behaviors are preventing us from having great relationships and happier lives — not who we are at our core.
Michael Naylor sums up the value of the enneagram this way: “the enneagram assists people in discovering unconscious patterns causing them unnecessary suffering and guides them to more liberation from the patterns acquired as a little one.”
The Enneagram is such an enlightening transformational tool. It can really help us to see our full potential and the incredible capacity we have to be the best versions of ourselves. Each of the 9 types brings unique strengths and perspectives to the world. I am more than a little excited about harnessing all of that energy and creativity for the greater good.
THE MAGAZINE AND PODCASTS THAT INSPIRED THIS BLOG POST:
Did you know that each of us is an author, a storyteller? Brene Brown tells us that “the most powerful stories may be the ones we tell ourselves — but beware – they’re usually fiction”.
Do you know that we possess an imagination more creative than we believe possible? Best selling author, Caroline Myss is renowned for her work in the field of energy medicine. She offers very powerful examples of how we use our big wild imaginations to create the most anxiety-inducing worst case scenarios but fail to apply that same creativity to hope, best case scenarios and problem-solving.
The recent 21-day Chopra Meditation Program entitled “Getting Unstuck” echoed similar sentiments — that we are the author of every moment we live. What narratives do we tell ourselves about our life history and current experiences that prevent us from moving forward and expanding our perspectives? Are we stuck in the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves?
Here are some examples of places we can be stuck:
complaining about the same things day in and day out
self-defeating self talk
a wild imagination that only amplifies our anxieties
lost in thoughts about the past or the future
not accepting reality and relying on magical thinking
A few years ago I was trapped in some serious rumination. I was stuck reviewing a past that could never be changed no matter how much attention I devoted to it. The cycle often distracted me throughout the day and it definitely led to sleepless nights. So, yes I have firsthand experience with being “stuck” and with breaking free.
I credit the psychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson, for teaching me how the brain develops a “reward system” for these habitual but unhelpful mental loops. While we unconsciously retreat to these mental comfort zones, any peace we find there is short-lived. And then that cycle begins again. As he explains, neurons that fire together, wire together.
People can spend years trapped in those negative thought patterns, stuck not by choice, but by habit. Struggles with self-worth, abandonment issues, co-dependency and PTSD are all rooted in the stories we have written around our past and the natural tendency of the brain to spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy on negative thought patterns.
Being stuck, whether it is a small and short term matter, or an over-arching long term life pattern robs us of the present moment, of the love we desperately want but are unable to see or feel, of the connections to others that buoy us through all of life. Unknowingly, our stuck-ness also often creates collateral damage.
From personal experience and both sides of the fence, I can share that others get exhausted from offering support but seeing no real change or break-through from negative patterns. People get tired of hearing the same complaints. Eventually, they are worn down to the point of snapping when they don’t mean to, or growing resentful or even pulling away altogether. These collateral damage responses “feed” the self-fulfilling prophecies of the stories we tell ourselves. They confirm that we are unworthy, that we need to do more, or that we will be abandoned.
Another aspect of collateral damage is the highly contagious effect of negativity. We feed off of each other’s energy. Neurobiologically we are hardwired to find negative energy the stickiest of all. Have you ever noticed how someone’s bad mood can shift an entire family experience? Take a ride in the car with a family when just one member is throwing out some negative vibes and watch what happens. Best real life neuroscience experiment ever.
I recall telling a guy I cared about that I was not going to buy a ticket for the merry-go-round anymore when it was apparent that our relationship was stuck in a pattern of negativity. We just kept having the same conversation over and over. It was every bit as dizzying as an on-going merry go round ride to have the same issue crop up but never change how we handled it. Sometimes we just need to stop. Step back and fully take in the pattern. What is the story that we are telling ourselves and then ask “is it true?” (Thank you Brene for such a great tool.)
Elizabeth Lesser reminds us “tell me where you focus your attention and I will tell you who you are”. In the case of being stuck – either short-term or long term – consider this: “tell me where you focus your attention and let’s figure out where you are stuck.” Surprisingly, sometimes we honestly believe we are not getting what we want or need from others, but we actually are. It is our “stuck-ness” that is blinding us to seeing and receiving the gifts of love, time, attention, and encouragement. Re-writing our narratives can have a powerful transformational effect.
The day I realized that ruminating about the past was never going to produce a different ending to my story, I embraced the breakthrough and began to re-write my narrative. The shift in perspective was the equivalent of moving a giant boulder out of my path. I was free to move on, without dragging the past around. The circumstances could not be changed but my framing of it most certainly could. Yes, I was hurt and yes someone else’s actions caused a lot of pain and suffering. What did I learn from those experiences? Could I have made better choices? Could I have trusted my intuition? Could I have established boundaries? Was I still playing a role I had assumed in my childhood even though I was now decades older? Ah, yes — the answers I got to those questions set me free from rumination. I moved from feeling like a “victim of someone else’s unresolved pain” to a better informed “me”. I committed to regular meditation practice to re-wire my brain and break free from the strong urge to fall back into rumination. This was a gamechanger for me. I began to sleep soundly and I found that I broke the spell of being attached to a very sticky past.
My daughter and I were recently chatting about the day to day routine of life and how especially in the past year of Covid, it all gets so monotonous. The reality is that laundry needs to get done, bills need to get paid and meals need to be cooked and eaten. We can easily get stuck focused only on the boredom. A tool I learned from mindfulness was to “reframe a situation.”
An old memory came to mind and I shared this story with her: I was in my early 40’s and stuck in the hamster wheel of the daily life grind. One morning I realized that on my commute to work, at the very same intersection each and every day, I would rest my head on the steering wheel of my bright blue Achieva and lament “I am soooo tired.”
After several weeks of this, it suddenly dawned on me that I was stuck and I had this little chat with myself:
“You have been saying this very same thing every day for weeks, at this very same place — and girl, it is getting you no where but even more tired. Something’s gotta change!”
The next morning, as I put my foot on the brake pedal of my blue Achieva at that very same intersection,I decided to change my self-messaging. I did not lay my weary head on the steering wheel. I looked out at the sunlight streaming through the canopy of trees. I proclaimed outloud “I love my life and my family.” I made a promise to myself that I would state that positive affirmation every day at that intersection.
Little did I know just how meaningful that shift in attitude and perspective would become. Those ongoing daily tasks were contributing in many positive ways to my family and were my expressions of love for them. My relationship to them changed from draining to rewarding — and my energy got in sync with that positive reframing.
As I shared with my daughter, another trick I would occasionally use back then was to imagine someone else having my life. Would they be grateful for the very things I was complaining about? Often giving myself that kind of perspective was all that I needed to put a little gratitude in my attitude.
What I love about these conversations with my daughter is that it reveals how from one generation to the next, little has essentially changed about building independent adult lives and raising children Babies grow through all their stages the same as they have since the beginning of time.
However, so many aspects of our contemporary daily life has dramatically changed. Technology alone has had a major impact, good and bad. My daughter and I both recognize that we can easily get “stuck” to our phones and get caught up in the drama, energy and emotions of news cycles or the latest post. We’ve had some very good conversations about how even the news cycle gets “stuck” and how we see others getting “stuck” based on their social media feeds. Once you become more enlightened about ways that we get “stuck” you start to see the patterns popping up everywhere.
After more than a year of quarantine, when I see people out for dinner, shopping or having coffee meetups, I’m so surprised to find most folks are staring at their phones — not the faces of their friends and family, not looking around and taking in the music, the conversations, the collective energy of others. They are stuck, held captive by a phone that they can stare at all by themselves at home alone. What do we miss when we are not paying attention to all that is around? What fun things could we be taking in if we turned our attention away from the phone. If you have ever drank your entire cup of coffee and then realized that it was empty but you weren’t even aware that you drank it, then you know just what I am talking about. Remember what you long for about the old “normal” and steep yourself in that when you are out and about.
Deepak Chopra shared another compelling example of where we can get stuck. He termed it a “second hand experience”. In other words, we acquiesce the essence of a present moment to someone else. We let another person become the author of our experience. He offers the ways in which this can happen:
when we do what someone else tells us to do
when we live up to someone else’s low expectations
when we do things that are not really true to who we are
Often in these situations, we will feel unsettled, frustrated and pressured. We feel a sense of relief when we can get out of that kind of influence and can just be ourselves. There have been numerous times in my life when I felt this way and now I am aware that the cause was my strong desire to be accepted, or to ensure someone else’s happiness at my own expense. Having boundaries prevents these experiences from recurring. Paying attention to our internal “warning signs of discomfort” helps us to get back on track and to enjoy life firsthand.
Deepak offered this awesome insight: “One reason people are thrilled to fall in love is it feels new, exciting and original. You should have some flavor of that in your everyday experiences too.If you can say, I love this moment even when nothing big is happening, you are enjoying first hand experience.”
There is no one better at first hand experiences than my brother. He is such a positive guy and extremely grateful for moments that many of us take for granted. Being around my brother is like having a magnifying glass to ensure that you don’t miss one drop of the good stuff that life is doling out. Whenever I need a reminder to change my perspective or reset my vision, I just think of him. I’ve come to realize that the reason he is so resilient to all that he has weathered in his life has come from his continual harvesting of gratitude. Dr. Rick Hanson tells us that if we can just hold onto those moments of joy for 30 seconds — in the moment they are happening, then we create a reservoir of resilience for the future.
So many people are feeling overwhelmed these days with the ongoing uncertainties that we are collectively experiencing with Covid, quarantine, working from home and more than a year of virtual school. We are all feeling the effects of the strain in one way or the other. It is easy to get “stuck” and it is easy to get writer’s block about our life experiences and the stories we tell ourselves. In a recent Dare to Lead podcast, Brene Brown and her guest, Dr. Angela Duckworth, confirmed that there has been a very sharp rise in mental health issues over this past year.
Take heart that we are not alone when we get stuck, struggle or just become listless. So much honest conversation about what we are collectively feeling is supporting our efforts to break free from old stories and mental loops. Take advantage of the many tools, therapy and friendships that support our efforts to reframe experiences and expand our perspectives.
There may never be a better time to revisit our old narratives and give them a “refresh”. We can use this time as a springboard to write a healthier, honest and evolving life story.
Places I find inspiring, encouraging and chock full of good ideas for perspective taking:
TYPOLOGY PODCAST with Ian Cron
Awesome episode with David Nurse, NBA Life & Optimization Coach and author of a new book entitled Pivot & Go. We can all draw from his coaching and learn to “pivot” when we need a new field of vision.
DR. RICK HANSON, Author of Neurodharma is my go-to resource for a rare combination of neuroscience and mindfulness. He’s relatable, informative and encouraging. Here’s an endorsement from Lori Gottlieb that captures the essence of his game-changing book:
LOS ANGELES TIMES BESTSELLER • “An easy-to-follow road map for creating day-to-day inner peace in today’s increasingly complex world.”—Lori Gottlieb, MFT, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
In this Youtube video, Dr. Hanson offers the 7 practices that enhance higher levels of happiness in our lives.
I’m celebrating another milestone today — I have been blogging for 5 whole years! What initially was a rather daunting commitment to myself has become a source of great joy. I have reawakened my love of creative writing through a blog that I started as a means to hold myself accountable to personal growth.
I’ve written 81 posts over the course of the past five years and admittedly I am proud of that. I’d set myself a goal of one a month and I have met and slightly exceeded that. While I once was a determined over-achiever, the old me would probably have dutifully cranked them out driven solely by that initial goal.
The “evolving” me has come to appreciate that it is far better to be fully committed and stay the course using the goal as a guideline, but not letting it rob me of the joy of the creative process. My approach to writing each of my blog posts has shifted rather remarkably over the course of five years. What initially felt like work and a public confessional, has become a source of pure joy for me. I love writing and I forgot that. I became disconnected from my love of writing and my own creativity that I naturally possessed as a young child. Blogging about my personal growth journey has reconnected me to my “inner child” in ways that I never would have imagined. Trust me when I tell you that I possess a wild imagination….I’ve come to realize that I was not using that gift wisely.
Personal growth work requires a solo walk down memory lane, hand in hand with that very young child we once were, and being courageous enough to revisit the places and events that impacted us in ways we were far too young and too innocent to comprehend. If you are a fan of This is Us, you probably are beginning to see through this current season’s episodes how our childhood experiences and our young child’s perspectives can entangle us and our relationships all throughout our adult lives. It is the perfect real life example of why this personal growth work is so necessary. We carry all those childhood perspectives, immature coping mechanisms, and emotional roadblocks into our adult lives and wonder why we keep treading water as we try to build our own futures. We are bogged down by that baggage and it tethers us to the past. Personal growth work untangles us from that labyrinth and frees us up to embrace the flexibility of being our most authentic selves, making better choices and living with grace and compassion for ourselves and for others, in the present moment.
Over the past five years, one blog post and one emotional layer at a time, that is what I have come to see so clearly.
The reward for all that hard work is feeling at age 69 like the 5 year old I once was — back in touch with the wonderment of an innocent child who marveled at the intricacy of a delicate spiderweb in the morning dew and thought it was the fanciest doily she’d ever seen. I was too young to be afraid of spiders. I saw only the beauty. Today I embrace the paradox of life — and I can see both the beauty of the spider’s craft and his painful bite.
Father Richard Rohr writes about this transformation into maturity and the inherent gift of paradox that comes through learned wisdom in his book Falling Upward. When I first read it, I was intrigued and desired that kind of wisdom. I am now realizing that I am given those opportunities to grow into that maturity more naturally almost every day. The key is to be “aware” and then to be childlike in my “exploration and observation”. Honestly, I am delighting in this fresh approach to life and especially how I show up for others. A small child can touch our hearts in the most simple yet most profound ways. A small child lives in a healthy state of paradox.
Just the other day, my 4 year old grandson was watching his beloved mom struggle with a massive to do list and more than a few things going wrong. He looked at her so tenderly and said “Go ahead and cry mom. It’s okay.” My heart melted into a puddle. He was holding space for her, acknowledging that a good cry will release the tension, is often soothed with a hug, and will pass. This is the very gift she offers to him every day when he is overtired, frustrated, overwhelmed. He mirrored it back to her with a wisdom that comes from the heart. A heart that is not entangled with all the armor we adults accumulate.
If you want to examine this real life example from an unaware adult perspective, think about a spouse that is also juggling a similar overflowing plate and the natural response “We all have a lot to do, get it together.” Or the well intentioned grandmother who says “Oh honey, look at all the good things you have and the stuff that is going right”. Both responses seem benign on the surface. The wisest is the innocent four year old who sees the situation for what it is — the present moment with honest feelings. That’s love and understanding that comes from an open heart, not an armored heart. It also comes from truly living in the present moment and being aware of it. Do you know that my little grandson remained calm through it all. He’s only 4, yet he didn’t let his mom’s emotions override his own. He’s too young to realize what a superpower that is. He just operates that way naturally.
This is the inner child I am reconnecting with myself. I will be completely honest and tell you that it was incredibly hard work and very painful at times. Yet each time I took my younger self back to revisit the past, I accompanied that innocent version of me as a caring, supportive, trusting adult. The one that was missing in my young life experiences. At times I even discovered that there were rather remarkable adults who did show up in my earlier years and offered me guardrails, a beacon of hope and some cliff notes about life. My appreciation for what those guardian angels did for me has deepened exponentially.
These childhood revisits have illuminated the ways I began to sabotage myself with an armored heart and protective but ineffective coping skills as I moved through my adult life. Oddly enough that concept of paradox has proved to be the rarest of clear lenses to view the past. I can now see where my blind spots were and how I contributed to things not going as smoothly as I’d hoped. I can see where I got in my own way often and where I let others take advantage of me. And I learned (with more practice than you can imagine) to let it go. The more I shed the old layers of self-doubt, armor and triggers, the lighter I felt and the more in touch with my true nature.
I’ve often used the phrase “freeing up the real estate” to describe that internal space I’ve gained in my mind, my heart and energy, when I let go of the past, of how others operate and of hoping that reality could be different than it is. What I happily discovered was that when I freed up that real estate, better things began to move in. And that is where I re-discovered my own tap root of creativity.
As a young child, I was quite naturally creative. I made the most elaborate sand castles at the beach and my beloved aunt would marvel at them. They were complex in structure and decorated with the most unusual treasures I could salvage from my beach hunts. I learned to make forests by creating layered sand trees, letting sopping wet sand dribble from my loose palms into the landscape around my castles. Sand and water, shells, driftwood and a feather. Simple raw materials turned into magical kingdoms of castles, gardens, forests, tunnels, and moats. I’d forgotten just how much I thrill to create all kinds of mixed media art from things I find in nature. I’m playfully reconnecting with that now and sharing it with my grandchildren.
Just like my young grandchildren, I loved to sing and I often made up songs as I played. But I only recently remembered how much I did that as a child and I even recalled a song I wrote as a teenager. That song is lighthearted and playful, full of hope that love would always be exciting and fun. I still recall every word and the catchy melody. Today I am infusing my daily life with more music. I cherish the memories that are evoked from favorite songs and I relish in the discovery of new artists and songs. And rarely a day goes by that I am not making up some whimsical little song for my grandchildren as they tidy up a room or wash up for dinner.
All throughout elementary school, I sang in the choir at church and for a long while, I used to sing solos on Sunday mornings at various churches throughout Lancaster and Lebanon Counties in Pennsylvania. I recall the highlight of my singing career happening in middle school when I was named the lead mezzo soprano for the school choir. It was a short lived moment of joy and accomplishment since that was also the very day my mom left my dad and we moved. I stopped singing for quite a while after that. Today that memory serves as a reminder to pay close attention to when I stop doing something I love, when I feel my joy or creativity waning. While another’s actions or a life circumstance may be the intial cause, what can I do to return to those parts of me and my joys? That is where my agency lies. It is also an anchor to my true nature — if I give up the very things that fill my heart I won’t be living in the joyful, playful part of me. The reality is that I won’t be able to be my best self. I have doused my inner light when I stop being creative and appreciative of life’s little marvels.
I wrote poetry when I was in elementary school and my grandmother was my biggest fan. She’d read everything I wrote and then she would read it out loud to me. Hearing her voice place emphasis in different places than I did made me aware of how personal writing is to both the writer and the reader. Art in any form is a creative wonder for both the artist and those that are drawn to it — and often it speaks to us in the most profound ways. A painting, a book, a song or a play — all land in our individual hearts where we have space for them. Space to heal, space to feel. I recently decided that I would try my hand at poetry again. The inspiration for this came from a gauzy-feeling idea that came to me as I woke up one morning. I jotted it down in my bedside journal and found myself giggling. It felt amazing to be so aware of the joy coursing through me simply by writing an inspirational short poem. I now have a pretty pale blue notebook dedicated for my poems. As I have expanded my awareness of ideas coming to me, I jot down these fleeting moments as they happen if I can. Sometimes I will write a whole poem, and other times I will just have a framework for something that requires deeper reflection. I imagine that I am feeling the way an aspiring cook feels when she creates a new recipe and delights in savory tastes that linger in her mouth.
My teen years were really hard because of choices my mother made and responsibilities that I assumed. I wish I had journaled then or kept up with writing poetry. I think it would have been therapeutic for me. Looking back, I think I lost my creativity due to the multi-levels of darkness in my family. I turned my creativity toward resourcefulness and resiliency for the pragmatic things in life. So I read instead, escaping from my circumstances and living vicariously through empowering stories.
After hearing the podcast with Brene Brown and Dr. Angus Fletcher about the marvels of literature, I became very aware that the books I read filled the places in my life where I was not getting, but truly needed, some aspiration and a clear path for building a better life for myself. I also realize that my love of “self help” books probably originated from the realization that my family was a Petri dish for unhealthy issues. Even in my early 20’s that’s the section of the library or book store I was often drawn to visit first. That remains unchanged almost 50 years later — I am still a work in progress. What’s changed is my perspective about it. I am not trying to “fix” my imperfections anymore. I am embracing them and learning from them. I am excited that at this late stage in life, I still have room to grow.
To celebrate my 5 year blogging milestone, I decided to reflect on the places where my reconnection with my inner child’s creativity merge with that child-like sense of curiosity. On purpose, I work very hard to replace judgment with curiosity. We learn to be judgmental — of ourselves and others. We can unlearn it and replace it with curiosity. Picture an iceberg and realize that most of us go through life showing only what we want to project out into the world. It is the parts of us that are hidden under the surface that are often guiding our life trajectory and the birthplace of blind spots. Now that I have spent so much time getting to know myself, I have a much greater appreciation and awareness of what others may have under their own surface. There is no doubt that it has organically expanded my empathy and compassion for others.
I now have that beautiful example of my young grandson offering the gift of space, compassion and present moment awareness to use as a poignant reminder to stay in the present moment, to remain grounded and calm, to honor what others are truly feeling, and to hold space for others.
My childhood life experiences created a lot of layers of armor that I brought into my adult life. The armor tethered me to a past in ways that went unexamined for far too long. I somehow got the message that I was on this earth to fix things for others. I am not here to fix things for others. I needed some serious pruning shears to get all those brambles and entanglement cleared away to find that truth. Yet letting go of striving to fix and wanting to fix things for others allowed me to clearly see that the best gift I can give to others in their time of struggle is that of truly being seen, heard and valued. This I learned though over five years of hard personal growth work and over 80 blog posts I have shared with all of you. My 4 year old grandson reminded me that we are born with it. “Out of the mouth of babes,” comes the greatest wisdom — and they live in a constant state of present moments.
Today I am grateful to have rediscovered my inner child and to be delighting in exploring the many ways creativity is beginning to show up in the real estate I have cleared in my approach to life. Let’s just say that the new tenants are so much more fun, energetic and inspiring!
Its not unusual to get a knowing chuckle from a friend or family member when I announce that I have officially retired from chief problem solver. Don’t get me wrong, I do love to solve problems. I still readily show up when someone needs my help. But now I am more of a ‘guide” helping others empower themselves to find their own solutions. I credit the Enneagram for helping me to discover a rewarding new path for my natural inclination to be a “helper”.
The Enneagram provided a good blueprint for me to better understand my approach to life, and most importantly, my motivations. As a Type 2, often referred to as the Helper, I was motivated to gain acceptance and love by “helping others”. In other words I believed that I had to “earn” love, trust and acceptance.
Looking back over the years, I can most definitely see this pattern play out over and over again. Sometimes it worked. Most times it didn’t. Diving deeper into understanding myself, I freed myself from falling into the trap of “helping too much.”
I’d been blindly operating on the principle that If those I cared about were happy, then I would be happy. Yet it was my over-involvement when problems cropped up that got in the way of others discovering for themselves what that really looked like. And it often left me feeling like a failure in my biggest hopes of making a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Classic “unhealthy” Type 2 paradox.
Beatrice Chestnut, a renowned authority on the Enneagram and also a Type 2, helped me gain a deep perspective on the pitfalls of the “unhealthy” patterns that my Enneagram type can easily migrate to and why. She also came up with a new moniker for “helper” that shines a light on the best part of healthy Enneagram 2’s. She calls us the “befriender.” I liked the sound of that — the “befriender” and it become a good framework for this shift I was seeking to achieve.
I had overcome my fair share of adversities in life and always hoped to be a shining light of inspiration for others. I wanted to be a good friend, a good role model. While I was resilient, positive and always willing to help, I had a big blind spot. There was one critical missing piece to my personal puzzle — the person I need to trust, love and accept the most was — myself.
Brene Brown’s ten guideposts in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, became an invaluable aid to accepting myself fully — embracing my imperfections and becoming rooted in an unshakable belief of my own worthiness. My challenging childhood set me up for simply accepting “being less than” and “unworthy” for a very long time. Brene’s book unlocked the fallacy of this messaging and set me in a new direction.
As I took both Beatrice’s wisdom and Brene’s research to heart, I had an eye opening moment. It dawned on me that in the past when I was jumping headfirst into solving other’s problems, I actually had a very vested interest in the outcome for my own reasons. Let me share a few examples:
I was so uncomfortable in conflict situations that I’d rush to calm everyone down. Instead of letting them blow off steam and get the problem out in the open, I was focused on me achieving peace and a calm environment where I would feel safe.
I’d often feel guilt when something was left undone though it wasn’t mine to do. I’d get right to work and undertake tasks on my own without even asking if help was wanted or needed. It was me that was feeling uncomfortable about unfinished business.
I would often agree to do things that I really did not want to do, or outwardly agree with others just to keep the peace. While others were often happy with that approach, my own internal peace and values were often in conflict.
The Enneagram enabled me to understand the underlying reasons for unconsciously choosing these options. There is no doubt that many were rooted in coping mechanisms related to my childhood experiences. Being the oldest child, I grew up too fast in a volatile environment, always striving to protect my younger brothers by being one step ahead of the impending and inevitable trouble created by our parents.
I became a compliant, responsible, harmonizing peacekeeper, entrusted to care for those who couldn’t defend themselves and diligent enough to cover for irresponsible adults. A perfect recipe for a helper with no boundaries who was comfortable in co-dependent relationships and skilled at people pleasing.
Here’s the rub with this ineffective “comfort zone” I had acquired. It was not serving me well at all in my adult life and it certainly was not beneficial to those I loved and genuinely wanted to help. Once I was enlightened about my problematic “comfort zone of unconscious responses” I definitely started paying attention to them with greater awareness.
Looking at the examples I shared above, I gained a lot of clarity about how my coping mechanisms landed on others:
When I would swoosh in to calm tempers and diffuse a tense situation, I’d actually be derailing getting the real issue out in the open. Some could feel that I didn’t value them because I shut down the opportunity for them to share their perspective. Some could feel a sense of superiority because they escaped accountability. My intervention was not productive and often not welcome.
Doing unfinished tasks could feel like micro-managing to others. Or, give an impression that I viewed myself as more capable and efficient. While that was not all my intention, I can surely see that so clearly now. Not to mention the fact that some people like to have “works in progress” rather than rushing to complete a task.
My lack of boundaries and inability to say no caused a lot of confusion for others. They really did not know just how far they could push me til I’d lose my temper. Neither did I. No wonder others would often tell me I was “too sensitive” when I’d lose it over something minor (because I had stuffed a lot of bigger things for far too long). If I finally found the courage to draw a line in the sand, few people actually believed I’d actually adhere to it.
You could say that the Enneagram gave me a full 360 perspective about the way I was “showing up” in life. It made me aware of how the armor I was using to protect myself from being hurt was really getting in the way of building healthy, flexible relationships. It was also problematic for actively engaging in life in an authentic, whole-hearted way. While I had good intentions, what I also needed were grounded, healthy emotional tools. I found the Enneagram enabled me to get very clear about where I needed to focus my attention to make positive changes.
The Enneagram is often used in individual therapy and couples counseling. And just like Myers-Briggs and DiSC, it is now being used in the workplace and career counseling. It honestly takes a lot of the emotional attachment and defensiveness out of the equation when it comes to our unique personality traits. Understanding how we are naturally hard-wired and how our “motivations” move us through the range of healthy and unhealthy behaviors is a big key to acceptance. We can accept ourselves as we are. And when we can do that, we are more open to accepting others as they are too.
The heartwarming “aha moment” for me was the realization — and the affirmation — that I could “fully embrace my natural born passion of a helper” and be more in alignment with my true nature and life purpose just by moving toward the healthy spectrum of being an Enneagram Type 2. Honestly, I laughed and cried simultaneously when I made this discovery.
So let’s go back to my three examples and take a look at the work I had to do:
I had to learn to get comfortable with confrontation. I could not let it trigger me anymore. Meditation really helped with this one. It took a long time and lots of practice, but I have a mental image of “dropping my anchor” into my core of calm and I ground myself with three deep breaths. The game-changer for me is not being sucked into my own emotional vortex just because there is confrontation. It enables me to truly be “other” focused and to listen attentively to what is being said. I do have to remind myself mentally turn down the volume if there is shouting involved. Oh and the most meaningful change — if it doesn’t involve me, I stay out of it. True confession here — the more I have practiced this in real life situations, the better I have gotten at it. I keep a few gold stars tucked in my pocket for times when I realize just how far I’ve come.
I am an anal organizer and have a hard time sitting still. If there is laundry or dishes to do, I’ll be on it. But just because I run my household that way does not mean that everyone else wants to. I’m also aware that it was my own undoing as a young mother that taught me how to get more organized and prioritize things. So now, when I find myself itching to becoming the cleaning Tasmanian devil in someone else’s space, I pause and take those three deep breaths again. And I do nothing. And oh my gosh it is hard, but only for a few minutes. My discomfort with unfinished tasks has waned. I’m growing to like this new feeling of respecting others space, the way they like to do things and the control they have over their own life. If I sense that they could use a little help, I ask before jumping in. “How can I best help you?” is my new “go-to” question. I have learned that some people thrive in the most creative ways in an environment that might feel out of control to me. I’m learning so much about consequences and accountability since I stopped doing things no one asked me to do.
This brings me to boundaries. If you read my last blog post, Growth Spurts, you will know that I came to a deep understanding of the value of boundaries and how they actually supported me in becoming a better version of myself. Boundaries are a form of self-care for me. Most importantly, they really clarify for others what is acceptable and not acceptable for our relationships. As Brene Brown has stated, “Clear is Kind” — and my boundaries make perfectly clear what my values are. Here’s the surprising twist — personal boundaries actually give me improved agency to be more flexible with others. I credit Dr. Rick Hanson and Nedra Tawwab or teaching me this.
A big gift of the Enneagram was a deeper understanding of all nine types — what motivates each type, their unique attributes and the places they feel less comfortable. Having some basic knowledge of how others show up in life and why, it becomes a lot clearer to see what their hot buttons might be. Truthfully, it takes a lot of unnecessary emotion and drama out of the equation when you have greater awareness of others basic needs. As I shared above, this is a great opening for “acceptance” of our differences and a bridge to finding creative solutions to recurring disagreements and misunderstandings.
As I have reframed my helping proclivity to that of a “befriender”, I rely more heavily on curiosity, acceptance and non-judgment when interacting with others. The better I get to know myself, the more I want to discover about others. We are all complex human beings with so many stratifications of emotions and experiences accumulated over our lifetimes.
While empathy and compassion come naturally to me, I am keenly aware not to dismiss another’s feelings by reminding them of their blessings. I know I did that in the past and while well-intentioned, it was not helpful. We all feel how we feel. Our feelings are legitimate and neither right nor wrong. We respond differently because we are uniquely different and our life experiences are not the same. We have no idea what another’s history might be and why they are sensitive to things that may never hit our radar screen. I’m learning to listen carefully and talk less. I’m learning to ask questions to gain understanding. I’m also learning to ask questions for which I don’t need the answer, but my friend may want to sit with for a while.
Little did I know when I started my personal growth journey six years ago, I would become better skilled and more effective at the very things I loved so much but that once got me into a lot of trouble and some very dark spaces.
I wish I had learned much earlier in life to look inward first and to remove the obstacles that were no longer needed as I did in fact “come through” an adversity, a setback, a painful loss. I wish I had given myself grace when I was just being vulnerable and healing. I wish I had learned to trust myself and my worthiness. If I had loved myself as I was loving others, I think I would have reached this peaceful, joyful, grateful, grounded space much sooner. The learning and the growing never stops which I find delightful. I feel more in alignment with my gifts and I genuinely feel I am making a meaningful difference in a much healthier way than I ever did.
The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge by Beatrice Chestnut