Master Class

I’ve been captivated by the extensive research that explains how childhood experiences shape our personalities and impact our ability to cope with life’s inevitable adversities. It intrigues me on several levels. One, it helps me unpack a lot of mystery and confusion about relationships I have had since childhood. And two, it fuels my advocacy for children, mental health and the importance of personal growth.

I’m extremely grateful for the work that Dr. Bruce Perry, Brene Brown and many others have been doing over the past several decades that is culminating in a greater awareness and deeper understanding of our hard-wired need for love and belonging. Research is shedding a lot of light on all the ways people go about trying to fill these deficits of worthiness, trust, and connection — and what goes wrong more often than not.

The cause of these feelings of deficit are often rooted in our childhood experiences and even the culture of the time.

Acceptable and normalized punishments for “bad behavior” from my generation have thankfully evolved. As is so often the case, because we did not understand basic brain functions, we were making things worse — for ourselves and our children. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We are now beginning to understand that a child’s bad behavior is not a choice, but a natural limitation due to childhood brain development.

Our personalities and our behavioral patterns are all shaped in early childhood. They are a direct result of our lived life experiences. We develop our coping mechanisms and behavioral patterns as a child to to keep us safe all while also seeking to be accepted, to be valued and to be heard. We need love and belonging to grow and thrive.

As we make our way into the adult world, we subconsciously take these childhood experiences and patterns with us.

Imagine how many relationship problems could be resolved in a supportive and meaningful way if we actually addressed the “right’ problem. Between the armor we have all piled on to protect ourselves from childhood trauma and insecurities — and the behavioral patterns that become walls to scale, we truly do get in our own way of achieving a wholehearted life.

When I left a failed relationship six years ago, I decided I needed to unravel whatever it was that I was doing that was blocking my success in rebuilding my relational life after Skip’s death. I had no idea how invaluable that broken relationship would become as a reference point for educating myself about the complexities of living an authentic, wholehearted life.

One of the most revelational tools I discovered was the Enneagram.

The enneagram was the equivalent of having an MRI to uncover my learned behavioral patterns and the core motivation driving them. When I took my first enneagram test to determine my type, I found it to be remarkably accurate. It dovetailed perfectly with my childhood experiences, and the people pleasing skills I carried far into adulthood. It was a helpful starting place for me to unpack the “why” questions. Why was I a “rescuer”, why did I avoid conflict and why was I so afraid to express my own needs.

As I began to recall childhood memories, I saw the pattern of frequent occurrences of painful experiences. In order to navigate the chaotic uncertainty, I developed coping skills to mitigate adverse consequences. I was also witness to the experiences that my two younger brothers had and as the big sister, I felt a responsibility to protect them.

The enneagram evaporated all the beliefs I had that I was somehow irreversibly flawed. It allowed me to realize that the behavioral patterns I’d developed were simply coping skills intended to protect me. These now irrelevant behavioral patterns were the product of my environment. I was not a product of my environment. At the core, I was a big-hearted, tender, spirited girl.

My personal growth work was to reconnect with that girl — and step out of the armor I no longer needed.

I don’t think my story is all that unusual. A hardship or a heartbreak causes pain and self-reflection. Some of those events bring about change that cannot be avoided, like me having to get on with life after Skip died. Some become the catalyst for proactive change and that can be a job, a divorce, a diet, a move — or personal growth. Self-awareness, personal accountability and acceptance can all feel very vulnerable and overwhelming.

It is often a family member or close friend who becomes the emotional glue when we are in that vulnerable state. They care for us through the healing. They encourage us through the transition. It just takes one trusted, caring human being to make a meaningful difference.

Dr. Bruce Perry has repeatedly stressed the value of having one trusted person that we can confide in, who will provide the scaffolding we need as we work through the awareness, the healing and the growth. In fact, professional therapy may not even be required for most people.

I was so blessed in this department — for some unknown and incredible reason, my friend Judy and I reconnected at that very vulnerable point in my life six years ago. Although our lives had taken remarkably different paths, we found ourselves in the same place at the same time. We both were knee deep in some personal development work. We initially stuck our toes in the pool of vulnerability and self-disclosure and once we discovered how safe and therapeutic it was, we took deeper dives.

Honestly, we didn’t know then just how helpful and transformational our deep friendship would be for our personal growth. We did not know about Dr. Perry’s research. We bumbled along for a while without the benefit of the enneagram, peeling back layers with the encouragement of Brene Brown, daily devotionals, inspirational quotes and self-help books. Our trust in each other grew organically and our healing came naturally. We forged a rare sisterhood built on our mutual commitment to become better versions of ourselves and we held each other accountable to the work, to our progress and to continued learning.

I was recently listening to a podcast with Dr. Bruce Perry where he was describing a “teaching” experience he had twenty years ago, but didn’t realize it at the time. He needed to have more experiences, more knowledge, more insight to extract the wisdom from that teaching moment. This really resonated with me because I too have very recently become aware of the master class I was enrolled in during chapters of my life.

It is only now, as I sit on the other side of a lot of hard personal introspection and the work done to heal and transform, that I can look back and see others through a much better lens. If I step way back from those confusing, dysfunctional relationship issues, I am aware that we were often addressing the wrong core problems. We were attempting to treat the consequences of behavioral patterns. We should have been addressing the key motivations.

This is precisely why it is so imperative that we each “do our own work.”

I was often puzzled why people in my life could not see and feel how much I loved them. I would wear myself out, doubling down on my efforts to help, to rescue, to solve, to soothe. The truth is, they were not in “receiving” mode — they could not take in what I was offering and accept it unconditionally as proof positive that they were loved, valued and seen. All the armor they wore, all the core beliefs they had about being unworthy, unloveable and not belonging blocked any possibility that they could absorb these affirmations and confirmations. It underscored my belief that I was a failure. Two people trapped in old history, false narratives and blind spots. Mother and daughter, husband and wife, brother and sister. Nobody wins in these scenarios.

Dr. Perry talks about how the wheels get set in motion in early childhood years — a disregulated stress response system contributes to poor coping skills and emotional regulation later in life. Learned behavioral patterns close us up to receive what we need the most, so that even when we get it, it is foreign to us and we feel vulnerable. This is the root cause of emotional triggers, PTSD and panic attacks. Left unaddressed, these factors will set us up for a cascade of problems throughout our adult lives.

Overlay Brene Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability on top of Dr. Perry’s findings and you get a profound sense of why her work resonates with millions of people all over the globe.

Brene has taught us that when we numb all these hard emotions in an effort to get some relief, we also numb the joy in our lives. This is yet another example of not being in “receiving” mode. Numb the pain and check out for a while. It means we “disconnect” so we just double down on what causes the problem. Disconnection, isolation, not being present in the moment — we are treating our pain with the very stuff that causes it.

Sitting with our real feelings, even the hard painful ones, is our brain and body’s way of processing. It builds resilience and it helps us self-regulate in a healthy way. We use the phrase “No pain, no gain” for our physical health, but we shy away from it for our mental health. As Dr. Perry says, no one gets out of life unscathed. We will all suffer loss, health issues, heartaches, adversity. We can — and we should — do hard things.

We have the tools to do this in a safe, healthy, productive way. It can start with a trusted friend. Asking for help is not an admission of weakness — it is a sign of strength and a desire to overcome whatever is holding you back from enjoying life and building resilience. This is precisely why Brene calls vulnerability the birthplace of courage and creativity.

I believe that the enneagram is another invaluable tool for self-discovery. Just as it evaporated my false beliefs about who I am at the core, it can have that same impact for others. It diffuses all that negativity and heavy emotional investment we have around our sensitivities and needs. It turns the spotlight onto the core motivations and that gives way to clarity and understanding. I believe we all really do want to support and help each other, but it gets so hard, so frustrating and self-defeating if we put all our time and energy into solving the wrong problem.

The more I learn about all nine types in the enneagram, the greater my awareness of what makes others tick. I have a clearer sense of what drives their behavior especially if I am familiar with some of their life history. A little awareness, coupled with a healthy dose of empathy can go a long way in creating the scaffolding for anyone who wants to get a foothold on their own personal growth.

Life is always providing lessons for us. The more we know what we don’t know, the greater the motivation to discover. I started out just trying to make sense of my own life six years ago and now I find myself a part of something that will greatly benefit my children and grandchildren. Imagine how we can all benefit from these game-changing, transformational shifts in how we raise children and how we support with each other.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

The Malleable Brain

Can you imagine hopping into your car and expecting it to fly? What if you tried to start your car’s engine with the house key? What if your inner child, say around age 4, was in the driver’s seat as you pulled into the stream of traffic? Now that I have your attention, let’s unpack how we are subconsciously doing just that in our lives because we really do not understand how our brains work.

I hope you will stick with me as I curate some of the most revelational insights from Dr. Bruce Perry about neuroscience and how incredible our brains really are. You will start to piece together why there is such a growing interest in meditation, unpacking childhood trauma and discovering dynamic new ways to treat mental health issues.

Neuroplasticity is the term that is used to describe the malleability of the brain. It is the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. This is why we can learn new things, enhance our existing cognitive capabilities, recover from strokes and heal from the emotional impact of traumatic events.

Neuroplasticity plays a key role in healing people whose stress response systems are not functioning well. Dysfunctional stress response systems are often the root cause of mental health issues. We make matters worse by not understanding how the brain works and having unreasonable expectations as a direct result.

We can help people heal and reset their stress response systems but we must go about this in a much more (w)holistic way. My goal is to shed some light on valuable information so that we can have better advocacy for mental health.

Dr. Bruce Perry has been doing research for over 30 years on the effects of trauma in childhood. His findings reveal that the first two months of life are crucial for brain development and establishing the regulatory set point for our stress response systems. Consider this the “factory settings” for our brains.

Infant brains are truly astounding. While the baby appears so helpless, the infant brain is undertaking incredibly rapid changes in those first few months of life. The quality of maternal interaction, bonding and connection is crucial during that timeframe. If an infant has attentive, attuned and responsive caregiving, the stress response system becomes very resilient and that child will be better equipped to handle future adversities.

It is the timing of developmental adversity that is key.

If an infant has high developmental risk in the first two months of life, and then is given a more stable, caring environment for the next 11 -12 years, that child’s outcome will be much worse than if the situation were reversed.

If an infant has a nurturing, connected and stable environment for the first two months of life, and then has 11 – 12 years of neglect, abuse or dysfunction, that child will have a better stress response system and will be better able to cope with life’s adversities.

“If an infant has chaos and unpredictability in those first 2 months, the stress response systems are discombobulated. That person will have incredible vulnerability and a cascade of problems that have origins in that first two months of life,” says Dr. Perry.

Dr. Perry shares that a major roadblock in the way we are collectively addressing mental health is that we are treated as if we are all the same.

The complexity of the brain and its functions, along with the incredible differences in each of our life experiences is a clear indicator that this needs to change. Consider that there are 86 billion neurons in the brain. Each one of those neurons has thousands of synaptic connections. Dr. Perry points out that if you visit a children’s mental health clinic, there will be only 6 basic diagnoses — “6 little boxes to put all those diverse problems in.

Contrast that with our approach to heart conditions. The heart has 16 billion cells and only one major function — to pump blood. A visit to a pediatric cardiology clinic would reveal hundreds of unique diagnoses.

As we become better educated about the complexities of mental health, we can become effective advocates –for ourselves and for others. We can help move the field of mental health forward.

Let’s start with basic neuroanatomy, the relationship between structure and function. How does the brain actually work and how does it process information? Picture the brain as a floret of broccoli– the top of is the cortex, the most human part of the brain. The middle part is emotional and the lowest part is regulatory. Self-regulation is the ability to adapt our emotions and actions to situational requirements and to internal standards and norms.

Traditional adult perspective is that the brain is rational, that it is a “top down” process — a misconception that the cortex is running the show. But this is not at all how the brain processes information. A fundamental principle of neuroscience is the concept of “bottom up” functioning.

Getting up to the cortex means going through the lower part of the brain first. Dr. Perry describes the lower part of the brain as Grand Central Station for regulation. It is where our five senses get ignited, and changes occur in our oxygen levels and heart rate.

Are you beginning to understand why your heart races, your face flushes or you feel like you can’t breathe in a sudden high stress situation? This is happening subconsciously and our reptilian brain is trying to keep us safe.

Dr. Perry makes this stunning observation: The lowest and dumbest part of our brains (the part that can’t tell time) is the secret to understanding stress.

Wait, there’s more. A key component of the activation of our stress response is that it immediately begins to shut down parts of the cortex. So the very tool that “top down” people expect us to use to self-regulate is shut down and made less efficient by the very act of becoming disregulated.

And lastly, the cortex doesn’t fully mature until we are about 30 years of age.

Let’s review: As adults, we pride ourselves on self-control and executive function. We can more readily self regulate and use our cortex to prevent us from saying or doing something stupid. That is, if we have a cortex that is mature and organized. We’ve had years of practice, not to mention a boatload of mistakes when we did lose control of our emotional regulation. The consequences of losing our tempers resonated in a way that made helped shift us from “reaction” to a more controlled “response.”

Children and young adults are works in progress. The same is true for adults with low set points for self regulation.

This is the very reason that we struggle to understand why young children are misbehaving. We think they are making a conscious choice to misbehave! Frankly, it is also a critical piece to the puzzle of mental health for adults. According to Dr. Perry, many mental health professionals, educators and most parents are unaware of this game-changing concept of “bottom up ” subconscious functioning.

There’s one more piece to the puzzle that we are often missing. Even when the set point for stress self regulation is very low, Mother Nature equips us with a natural calming mechanism. Why then do we “over-ride” that feature in children? Let’s unpack this:

Rhythmic patterns are hard-wired in utero and the brain instinctively relies on them as a basic self-regulation tool. Dr. Perrry explains that when in utero that little body is sending signals to its brain continuously –“I’m not hungry, I’m not thirsty, I’m not cold”. Those signals send the message “I am safe. I am regulated.” The signals that come in from the sensory part, through tactical, vibratory and auditory routes, are the syncopated rhythms of mom’s heart rate, and the opening and closing of valves. The tiny body makes an association of patterns and rhythms with being well regulated.

After birth, mom will rock her infant at 60 – 80 beats per minute and the baby calms down. We do this instinctively for newborns — we rock them, play music for them, have them listen to sound machines, take them for stroller walks and car rides.

Then our children become toddlers, preschoolers and adolescents. We tell our kids to sit still, stop tapping their foot or wiggling in their chair. Guess what? These little actions are tools of self-regulation for kids. As unaware adults, we make matters worse by chastising them for utilizing their innate tools of self-regulation. We “over-ride” Mother Nature’s factory settings.

We try to get kids to use “top down” regulation and no kid can do that. Not even the kids who are well regulated can do that. Remember that Dr. Perry explained that parts of our cortex gets shut down when we are deregulated. This impacts attention span and the ability to actually open the cortex to absorb what is being taught.

“The irony is that we are not proactively teaching children how to self-regulate,” says Dr. Perry.

When kids lose interest or are unable to focus, they can also dissociate. Every one of us has also experienced dissociation — when we tune out and go to our inner world. We do it when we are in conversation with others, we do in a classroom, we do it at work. We even do it while driving!

By now, I am hoping that you are beginning to connect the dots about why mindfulness and meditation has become so popular in recent years. As more neuroscience knowledge gets distilled in a way that we can wrap our heads around it, we discover that we “check out” in many ways as we routinely go through our daily lives.

We subconsciously let our emotions and the lowest part of our brain direct our lives. We let our minds wander and miss important content and context. We get caught in a loop of anxiety, rumination or imagined fear that is not serving us well for dealing with reality and making good decisions.

Most of us are doing all of this with pretty good factory settings for our stress self-regulation. Imagine how hard it is for those who struggle with poor emotional regulation set points.

I’ll stick with the car analogy to drive home an important point — we are diligent about taking our vehicles in for regular maintenance. The wear, tear and age of a car takes its toll. We have an opportunity to expand the understanding and the treatment of mental health in that same context. Mental health education, tools and support are the ongoing maintenance we need to improve the overall quality of our lives.

The good news about mental health breakthroughs and advancing the field, is that neuroplasticity means that we can “reset” faulty set points for self-regulation. New neural pathways can be created and sustained using the same standard operating tools we are born with — somatic rhythmic patterns and repetition. That is what is meant by “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

There is however one key component that is rarely discussed. That is the over-arching value of having a strong human support system. Dr. Perry calls this “scaffolding”. We gain tremendous healing benefits from having a person with whom we feel safe who will scaffold us through our “reset” and growth process.

All learning has some discomfort associated with it and a fear that we are not going to master it. As a young child, we learn to crawl, walk and ride a bike because someone scaffolded us through the learning curve. We need that same type of scaffolding for our mental wellness and personal growth. Dr. Perry says that “if you want to heal a lot, go slow.”

He explains the concept of low dosing — an easing into healing and resetting. A person gets out of their shell (leaves their comfort zone) for just a little. It’s a small, controllable dose of discomfort. Then they return to their shell. This is repeated over time, a little dose at a time. Over time, with this slow and steady repetition, they will change and grow. It is important to remain open to these little doses of learning.

Slow, repetitive low dosing and scaffolding is something that each and everyone of us can do for someone else.

And here is a pro tip — two seconds of eye contact sends a signal for a new neural direction. Just two seconds of eye contact can be a wonderful bonding connection. Eye contact when you are scaffolding someone is the best tool in your box.

Dr. Perry believes that while a weekly therapy session is a major entry point, it is the collective support we get from our family, friends, teachers, coaches and others who foster our long term healing process.

I love this image that he shared — a therapeutic web — a collection of people in our lives who give us these tiny doses of kindness, affirmation, information and loving support.

A clear understanding of how the brain works coupled with awareness and intention is the foundation for addressing mental health in a more meaningful way. The more mindful we are, the better we are able to show up and support others. All of us an actively participate in that supportive therapeutic web.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

WiseGirl YouTube interview with Dr. Bruce Perry

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Odom2J9wprg

As Born for Love reveals recent changes in technology, child-rearing practices, education and lifestyles are starting to rob children of necessary human contact and deep relationships — the essential foundation for empathy and a caring, healthy society. Sounding an important warning bell, Born for Love, offers practical ideas for combating negative influences of modern life and fostering postive social change to benefit us all.

Recommended Resources:

YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxi4Ub8BAy0

Be the Difference

I watched every episode of Oprah and Prince Harry’s documentary “The Me You Can’t See…The Path Forward” I felt so many emotions washing over me as I listened to each story unfold. I could literally feel the connection being made between me and the storyteller as they shared intimate details of their personal experiences. Fragments of my own life story resonated so deeply with theirs. Yes, I could feel it in my bones — the empathy, the understanding, those big emotions we all share in times of great adversity. Our shared humanity.

The transformational power of all these courageous people sharing their stories to raise our awareness for the impacts of mental health and well being cannot be underestimated. Each and every one of us possesses the gifts and opportunities to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. And especially when someone is in deep struggle.

However, I think we let unconscious roadblocks get in the way of making a positive difference. We label, judge, fix, dismiss, ignore or placate what others are experiencing and feeling. This is not helping anyone.

While it may be true that a string of poor choices is leading some folks to disastrous results, when we judge, shame and blame, we are doing them a great injustice. We push down any possibility that they will be able to see their truth — that it is their poor choices causing the trouble — not the core human being that they are.

Th biggest shift for me over the past six years of my own personal growth journey has been learning that I am not here to “fix” things for others. I can’t and I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t jump in and solve somebody else’s problems because I stunt their own growth. I not only disempower them, I am often fixing the wrong core problem. Each and every one of us is responsible for ourselves, our actions and our choices. As my awareness around my natural tendency to jump in and “fix”, grew so did my awareness of the places where I too was guilty of judging, soothing and dismissing (all with good intentions), and getting in the way of other’s growth by solving their own problems.

While this became very freeing for me as I released my reactive urge to problem solve, it also became the source of deeper fulfillment. I always wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, but often my old ways turned out to be just a box of bandaids. My new and improved ways of supporting others is yielding meaningful, lasting and empowering personal growth.

One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes is “when we know better, we do better.” This is flowing both ways now. I know better how to help others just by being present, without judgment, and really listening. Others are digging in a little deeper and exploring their own strengths, increased awareness, and experimenting with new strategies.

A key takeaway from watching “The Me You Can’t See” documentary is the significant difference that just one person can make in another’s life — and especially in times of great difficulty.

It just takes one trusted, caring and interested human being — offering presence, non-judgment and holding space for another. It sounds simplistic. In reality, it is so much more. The hidden benefits to our mental wellness are astounding.

I found myself captivated by Dr. Bruce Perry’s assessment that professional counseling may not even necessary when someone is in struggle if we have a trusted confidante. We may just need to be able to share our stories and feelings with someone who makes us feel safe and valued. Many times, we do possess the internal fortitude to get through a hard time but what we need is someone who can give us a boost.

Throughout the episodes, I also learned a lot about significant ways our brains can be reset in positive ways to enhance our ability to emotionally regulate and build resilience.

I’m going to share three of my own stories when mental wellness got turned upside down for me and my family. First I will share the stories and then I will circle back and tell you what happened with some caring intervention.

I remember when the young mommas of my grandchildren were in struggle with breast feeding issues, sleepless nights, pure exhaustion and the heavy anxiety of this major responsibility of a helpless newborn. All too often, people are prone to label this as postpartum depression. Step back and take a fresh perspective on the full scope of the childbirth experience and you’ll quickly realize the overarching complexities of motherhood. Try starting the most challenging job of your life — after one of the most strenuous physical accomplishments humanly possible, without an instruction manual and extraordinarily high expectations. These young mothers were tired, overwhelmed and anxious — with good reason.

I was only 40, in my bed, curled into a ball, listening to Yesterday by the Beatles on repeat for hours, barely recognizing myself with a bald head and part of my body now gone. So weak and nauseated from chemo it didn’t really matter what I looked like. There was no component of my cancer treatment that addressed my mental health. I was caught between scared out of my mind and being strong for my three children. That was the secondary battle I fought right along side the one with breast cancer.

When my beloved husband Skip died suddenly at only 57, it was not only me who grieved deeply. My 15 year old daughter was devastated and shocked by the loss of her beloved stepfather, the one man who made her feel safe. Our world stopped on a dime and it changed forever. But in less than two weeks, we were both expected to return to work and school. We had too much grief and too many adjustments coming at us fast and furiously. She was in boarding school so we weren’t even able to spend our evenings together. Each weekend I’d drive hundreds of miles roundtrip so we could be together. Our grieving process always seemed to be on a start and stop cycle. My boss asked me when I would be well again.

Now I will share what happened when a guardian angel showed up in each of these vignettes — that one person who showed up and made a profound impact on the course of events. I’m adding the insight that I gained from the documentary about meaningful contributions to our mental health and brain functions because it is so relevant.

The lactation specialist who showed up to support my daughter had a warm and kind demeanor. She sat and listened to my daughter for a very long time. No judgment, no advice, just letting her release all that stress. She put my daughter at ease and shifted her perspective in such a positive way during that first visit. Both momma and baby were calmer and more relaxed. My daughter formed a bond with this woman almost immediately and by the time she left, my daughter was laughing. Do you know that laugher completes a stress cycle? Are you aware that babies’s brains are impacted significantly in the first few months of life by their environment. Releasing the stress overload supported my granddaughter’s brain development. Most people would just be looking for results — was the baby nursing now? So much more happened in that transformational visit. My daughter got a much needed boost in her own confidence and abilities, she got a release from anxieties born of unrealistic high expectations society sets for new mothers, and she was set up for success with new methods to try. One person, one visit — big difference.

It was a flat-chested, bald woman with bright lipstick and stunning statement earrings that shifted me from anxiety and despair to determination and hope. She was at the tail end of her cancer treatment and was winning the fight. She had a firm conviction that if she could do it, then so could I. One powerful honest conversation and a bucket of tears changed my perspective and I am convinced it changed me on a cellular level too. My body and my attitude joined forces to beat the odds. I would have never guessed that my subsequent path would lead me to be a motivational speaker for the American Cancer Society and an integral part of a corporate launch of breast cancer awareness for CoreStates Bank. I did know that I had a responsibility to help others just as that woman had helped me.

That thread of hope and possibility was so strong that it later pulled me out of my depression over Skip’s death years later and gave me the courage to launch Annabella’s, my lingerie and breast care boutique in Main Line Philadelphia. My staff and I touched lives in a meaningful way and it rippled out to others. I watched women in all stages of their cancer diagnosis and treatments helping each other every day in my nurturing boutique. All of this was set in motion by that one beautiful, inspirational woman with the bright lipstick and awesome earrings in the chemo room in 1992. One caring stranger — big difference.

It was our next door neighbor, Helen, who touched my daughter’s heart and helped her after Skip died. It was all the happy, silly, heartwarming encounters that Helen had with Skip that she poured into my daughters heart and memory. Being able to recall the effervescence of Skip and the joyful way he lived his life brought back laughter and tenderness. What I did not know at the time was how important this was in creating new neural pathways for my daughter — shifting from attachment to the grief to a more positive one of priceless happy memories. This is where acceptance with grace occurs. It is where the seeds of resilience get planted. One loving neighbor — big difference.

I believe that we can all participate in clearing and creating an easier path forward for mental wellness. As Dr. Bruce Perry says, no one gets through life unscathed. We will all face times of adversity and we will all be grateful for the help we get in those moments.

Millions of people around the globe are struggling in silence. Encourage conversations.

Pain, suffering and need for help is universal. It takes courage to ask for help. If someone trusts you enough to ask for help, listen without judgment.

No one heals alone. Families, friends and communities play an integral role in sustainable recovery. We can educate each other, share stories and offer support.

The road to recovery is not a straight line. Hope lies in awareness, acceptance and action.

Isn’t it remarkable that some of the most unlikely change-makers are the ones who have overcome some of life’s hardest adversities. They often champion a cause, establish support groups, raise funds and awareness and shift collective perspectives. Watch the documentary. You will see courage in action.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

The Me You Can’t See — Apple TV and YouTube

https://tv.apple.com/us/show/the-me-you-cant-see/umc.cmc.4amwght1qtt8ioilwr0mgnf6d

Untangled

The definition of mental health is simply this: a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.

What is not so simple is the complex and intricate ways our psychological and emotional well-being get out of balance.

When I started on my personal growth journey, I wasn’t thinking about my mental health. I was thinking about my heartbreak, my derailed dreams and my utter exhaustion. After slogging through a lot of self-help books and meditation magazines, I began to understand mental health in a new light. We contribute to each other’s mental health in our daily interactions and responses. Poor emotional regulation, lack of self awareness and old habitual patterns can suck us into a complex web of familiar but dysfunctional chain reactions. I began to realize the interconnection of members of my blended family and how we were inadvertently triggering each other’s most vulnerable emotional memories.

I could see how my own unconscious behavioral patterns and resulting coping mechanisms were in fact affecting my mental health. As I overlaid how members of my family were also operating unconsciously, what came to mind was the image of intricate, delicate necklaces all twisted and knotted together. Untangling all of this was going to take a committed effort — and it had to start with me. Our mental health was at stake — and it was affecting everyone’s quality of life.

I had plenty of evidence that my anxiety level was high. Stress was running the show and running me ragged. I was now a chronic ruminator, prone to stress eating, had trouble sleeping and was becoming forgetful. I credit my long-time fascination with neuroscience for preventing me from going into denial about the connection between stress overload and old behavioral habits feeding the cycle. I stumbled onto Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D and his teachings on the neuroscience of happiness.

I began learning about rewiring the brain to break the anxiety cycle and create new neural pathways. I discovered that strong emotional intelligence — the conscious ability to regulate our emotions — contributes to better psychological health and lessens the risk of anxiety disorders and depression.

At the same time, I was also absorbing what Brene Brown was uncovering about shame, vulnerability and our need for true belonging. Her research revealed all the things we do to avoid revealing our imperfections — and how debilitating those things are to living a wholehearted life.

Numbing anxieties is not the solution. The point that Brene Brown makes that when you numb pain, you also numb joy was very evident in my personal life. I felt my joy draining from me like the battery on my iPhone when I was in high stress situations. We can numb pain with food, drugs, alcohol, work, suppression and avoidance. None of these choices will solve the root problem. And when we numb joy, we lose sight of the blessings in our lives, the love and support that is already present. Joy provides balance and ballast for our lives.

I have lived with family members who had very poor coping skills and tried numbing to ease their pain. It ultimately led to dysfunction in their day to day lives, illnesses and addictions. Not only did they suffer greatly both emotionally and physically, there was a lot of collateral damage to others whom they interacted with at home, work and even play.

Failure to address and manage our stress will only amplify anxieties and insecurities. It clouds our thinking, distorts reality and creates confusion. Ignoring our emotions and over-reacting to our emotions deteriorates our mental health and impacts our physical health. As Brene teaches, we armor up. In doing so, we just keep adding to our growing iceberg of our core issues. You’ve probably heard that saying “the body keeps the score.” Chronic and life-threatening health issues can develop due to stress overloads.

Here again I had personal experience — extended periods of high stress in my life were the precursors of breast cancer at age 40 and then 18 years later the sudden development of lymphedema in my right arm.

I began to clearly see the big picture and understand the direct correlation between physical health, mental health and overall quality of life. Focusing on getting to the healthy end of the mental health spectrum became a top priority for me. It was neuroscience and rewiring the brain that created the framework for my personal mental health improvement plan.

All mental activity — your thoughts and feelings, joys and sorrows –require neural activity. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Repeated patterns of mental activity require repeated patterns of brain activity. Repeated patterns of brain activity change neural structure and function. You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind…..to benefit yourself and others. — Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D, Author of The Neuroscience of Lasting Happiness.

The infrastructure I built inside that neuroscience framework consisted of mindfulness to expand my awareness of my behavioral patterns; meditation practice to help me recognize and stop the patterns in their tracks; meditation practice to learn how to let go of racing thoughts, rumination loops, and attachment to strong emotions. I supported my mental health goals with a lot of reading, journaling and deep vulnerable conversations with my trust buddy, Judy.

Brene Brown calls friends that you can confide in with complete honesty and trust “marble jar friends”. You only need one or two of these deeply rooted friends to help you gain traction in personal growth work. They are life jackets and air bags for all of life’s turbulence.

Brene Brown’s grounded research reveals how we have similar behavioral patterns and how/why we developed them. Dr. Rick Hanson teaches us how to retrain our brains to let go of those old patterns and replace them with more beneficial responses. Behavioral science and neuroscience come together to help us diagnose the problems and then heal them.

I took myself out of the entanglement. I acknowledged to myself what was tripping me up. I asked my family to help support my efforts and I held myself accountable for needed change. I blogged about my experiences, the trial and error and the discoveries.

The greatest gift is being a much improved resource for my family and friends now. I was not able to do that in a meaningful way five years ago and I wasn’t even aware of it. The more I learn about myself, the more I am able to discern when others are in struggle. My empathy, acceptance and non-judgment of others has grown exponentially as a direct result of doing my own work.

I am grateful that there is a dedicated collective effort taking place to de-stigmatize mental health. It is a collective problem — we truly are impacting each other’s mental health in how we show up in life. If we continue to drag around unprocessed emotions and trauma, to numb or hide it, we will not break the cycle of impairment. Taking care of our mental health is as fundamental as taking care of our physical health.

We can become advocates of our own mental health just as we are for our physical health. We can also help advance the cause to destigmatize mental health. Mental health is not an “either or” proposition — you are either mentally healthy or you are not — is totally inaccurate. We are all on the spectrum of mental health, just as we are with our physical health. As events and circumstances in our lives change, so does our mental and physical health.

I started on my personal growth journey because I wanted to be “at my best” for whatever the future held for me. At the time, I envisioned grandchildren, milestones and health issues — the good and the bad. I naively thought that “at my best” meant being physically strong and well-rested, no drama and a positive attitude. I was blind to how my past was impacting my mental health and how I was unconsciously reacting to myself and others. I certainly was unaware of how interconnected we all are with regard to mental health. We can do a better job of taking care of each other.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Greater Good Science Center, Berkley, CA – Four Things to do Everyday for your Mental Health https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_things_to_do_every_day_for_your_mental_health

Trauma experiences leave traces on minds, emotions and biology. Sadly, trauma sufferers frequently pass on their stress to partners and children. — Bessel van der Kolk, MD

https://www.rickhanson.net

Dr. Martin Seligman: Check out this interview:

https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/positive-psychology

Fresh Start

As we are easing our way back into some post quarantine normalcy, take some time to reflect on any changes to your former routine and lifestyle that you might like to make. What have you learned from the last 15 months that will inform your choices going forward?

Unlike any other time in recent history, we have all had chance to view our lives through a much different lens. Working from home gave many families a rare opportunity to see the entire landscape of their busy lives all converging at once –from their living room. When we blindly run on auto-pilot, we are often unaware of the needs and nuances of our other family members. It is only when something goes wrong with the well-oiled machinery of our daily lives, that we pay closer attention. The pandemic and quarantine brought us to a screeching halt and kept us there for over a year. If we haven’t determined something that could use a change as we return, we may be missing a golden opportunity.

Pivotal moments like this can be a dynamic catalyst for making meaningful changes. Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist and Wharton professor, calls it “the fresh start effect.”

“There are moments throughout our lives when we feel like we are facing a chapter break or a new beginning. It could come from a major life event like a new job or moving to a new home. Or something as small as the start of a new week. These fresh starts provide a break from the “old” you”

Fresh starts are a really potent motivator, and really effective if we can use them as a springboard towards change. Right now, as the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, there’s an opportunity for a collective fresh start. I hope we won’t let the moment pass, that people will be deliberate.” — Katy Milkman, Wharton professor and author of How to Change.

“What will you do differently?” has become the hot topic of conversation lately. Ideas run the gamut from better work/life balance, to saying no more often to things we really don’t want to do, cultivating high quality friendships, less time on social media, reviving family game or movie night, and more home cooking than take out.

Some are re-assessing how their children are educated, childcare options, working from home permanently, relocating to be closer to family, re-allocation of personal financial budgets or changing careers. Many of these decisions are based in a renewed desire to pursue a more enriching quality of life.

Today I listened to a Dare to Lead podcast with Priya Parker who deftly articulated the complexity of changes that businesses are facing during this re-entry. Businesses made adaptations throughout the pandemic to meet the needs of employees and customers under unusual circumstances. Now they are taking what they have learned and restructuring business processes and reallocating budgets. There is no master blueprint for pulling all of this off seamlessly. This is truly a collective “fresh start” for businesses and organizations all across the globe.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how we can all choose to “show up” in this moment of seismic change. We will be called upon to “show up” in a variety of ways — for ourselves and families, for friends and communities, at home, at work and out in the big wide world. Drawing on what I have learned through mindfulness, here is some food for thought:

There are bound to be some new ideas that have flaws or are not executed well. Be open-minded rather than critical. Look for what is working and build on that. Ask thought-provoking questions about the barriers to successful implementation. Reframe a situation. Curiosity opens the pathway for creative solutions. Remember the old adage – don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Letting go and not being attached to the outcome are powerful launching tools for innovation. When we cling too tightly to just one vision of what a good outcome would be, we create blind spots, often missing something unfolding that is even better than our original plan. Embrace a new idea with positivity and supportive efforts to help it gain traction. Be receptive to making changes. We most definitely will be learning as we go.

Keep a broader perspective in mind before reacting. Putting ourselves in another’s situation helps us to gain greater insights about the big picture. Ask more questions to gain clarity and understanding — and “hold space” for someone to really think before they answer. This is how we foster empowerment in others to make good decisions for themselves. Asking meaningful questions helps them identify their own barriers and come up with solutions they’ll invest in. Avoid giving unwanted advice and helping too much. Holding space when mistakes are made is also going to be invaluable. Mistakes are part of the process of change.

Learn from the past but don’t let it tether you to outdated ideas. We are evolving every day. Stay open to trying new things that better suit the present moment.

I’ve had a few of these fresh start moments in my personal life, and I have been the benefactor of some of the greatest relationships in my life after I committed to meaningful change.

Collectively, we have the most incredible “fresh start” possibilities awaiting us in this present moment. Let’s make it count.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

CNBC Article – 3 Science Backed Tips for Creating Change

https://www.cnbc.com/amp/2021/05/14/science-backed-tips-for-creating-change-in-your-life-according-to-a-behavioral-scientist.html

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-priya-parker-on-how-we-return-and-why-it-matters-part-1-of-2/

NPR Life Kit Segment: How to Achieve a Goal (with Katy Milkman, Author of How to Change

https://www.npr.org/2021/05/14/996939779/a-behavioral-scientists-advice-for-changing-your-life

Life’s Unfinished Business

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.”

Breaking the Chain

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.

OPRA

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

The chapters in this book offer a meaningful personal growth framework: Self-Awareness, Unbinding, The Love Between Us, Growing, A New Life

Happy Mother’s Day

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 is indeed a Happy Mother’s Day.

Beautiful Cheetahs

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?

Constant Companion

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.