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.


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

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.


CNBC Article – 3 Science Backed Tips for Creating Change

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