An old fear monster has been hanging out in my brain a lot these last few months. I have an inspiring, well-written and edited book available for publication (The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times). There even is a proposal ready to be sent, should a literary agent or publisher be interested. Yet, I have been dragging my feet (procrastinating, “alternatively productive,” busy with client work…. ie. scared) about taking the next step—sending out letters to potential agents.
My rational brain knows that a rejection letter wouldn’t mean my book is unworthy of publication. Literary agents are not infallible when it comes to picking potential best sellers. I know this is true because I Googled it (20 Famous Authors Who Were Rejected).
And it certainly wouldn’t indicate that I am not good enough (the current old fear at play here). In fact, logical thinking continues to point out that Brené Brown (best selling author of some amazing books on vulnerability and finding our courage) had her first book turned down by literary agents and publishers.
And while this takes the whole “they know more than I do about my book’s worthiness” pretty much off the table, it hasn’t been enough to move me into action. The part of me who still carries the old fears about not being good enough has been stalling, hoping for an easier (read: highly affirming/rejection free) path to publication.
The other day, while listening to a podcast by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Big Magic”) and Brené Brown on creativity and whole-hearted living, I found the key that has moved me from fear of rejection into purposeful action. *
Brené said three things that have been pinging around in my head:
“Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world.”
“The only unique contribution we will make to this world will be born of creativity.”
“Unused creativity is not benign.”
Just lately, these quotes have moved into my heart, inspiring it to speak louder than my fear. Brené’s words remind me that my soul came here to help others survive, heal, grow—even find their best selves–from the obstacles and crises in their lives. Furthermore the wisdom I have gained is unique to me—no one else can bring it into the world. And if, as Henry David Thoreau points out, I do not want to go to my grave with my song still in me, it’s time to get moving.
So, here I go into the world of query letters—holding on to Brené’s example and inspiration with both hands. All help, suggestions, or introductions gratefully received!
*Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcasts are called “Magic Lessons.” The one with Brené is Episode 12, “Big Strong Magic.”
I hit that magical 60th birthday in July this year and, since my family tends to stay active until their 80s and 90s, figure I have at least 25 years of productive living in front of me. That recognition has birthed a couple questions that seem to run through my head a lot—“If not now, when?” and, with apologies to Mary Oliver, “What else do you want to do with this one wild and precious life?”
Those questions have led me to thinking about the obstacles I continue to stumble over in my life. These are the personality traits and well-entrenched behavioral tendencies that ride herd on my dreams and plans, slowing them down, often to a standstill. For me they are self-doubt, fear, perfectionism, and an obdurate* tendency to want to tell the Universe how to run things.
While I can claim some genetic predisposition to this last trait (family members, you know who you are) I think it has more to do with a fear that if I don’t stay on top of what is going on around me, bad stuff will happen.
Those of you who know a bit about my life (if you don’t, and want to, click here) know that this is both illogical and a bit comical. Given what has happened in my last decade alone, apparently I’m really bad at running things, the Universe isn’t listening, or the Universe dances to a much more complex set of variables than I am capable of understanding or orchestrating. I’m inclined to believe the latter.
I also used to believe that playing Universe Hall Monitor would make me more love-worthy. Preventing potential crises seemed like a great way to prove my value. As it turns out, having “the” answers for people’s lives isn’t nearly as appreciated as one might think. Some people can even get a tad irritated by it.
This brings me to what I’m working on right now—trusting in the flow of life and seeing myself as lovable and perfect, even when what I do isn’t. It means giving up the idea that I can win lovability points or prevent the scary stuff by what I do. It’s a difficult process for me and often involves prying my grasping hands off of the reins of my life or someone else’s. I still catch myself in mid-sentence giving unsolicited advice more frequently than I would like to admit.
What makes it possible for me to consider retiring from my role as She Who Can Fix Things? Well, I’ve come to deeply believe three things about this human existence:
- We were born perfect and lovable. All you have to do is look at babies to know that. What child is unworthy of love? And if our parents and other important people in our lives didn’t reflect our perfect lovability back to us as children, it was about their own fears and doubts–not our worthiness or perfection. What we do or fail to do will not and cannot alter that core lovability.
- We are loved beyond measure by the Universe/God/Howard.** You figure out what that means to you, but to me “a love beyond measure” looks like the love I have for my son, immense and incalculable, and then multiplying that times Infinity. I figure when Someone loves you that much, They have your back–even if it doesn’t always look like it at the time.
- If I let the Universe handle the creative details, S/He will delight me. My boyfriend is a sterling example of this principle in action. I had no idea that it was possible to find a smart, loving and nurturing man in Dallas Texas who is a liberal, cooks beautifully and doesn’t like sports. Who knew? Apparently, the Universe did.
So, bottom line–I don’t have to be in charge to 1) win love or 2) prevent disasters. Don’t get me wrong. Bad stuff will happen though I really, really, really wish it wouldn’t. Normal, human safety precautions aside, the truly crappy events or situations seem to show up in everyone’s life at some time. At least, that’s been my experience and that of everyone I know and love.
But….numbers one through three (above) still are true, even when the scary, out of control, heart wrenching events of our lives come barreling through.
Lean on those ideas and consider, just for today, loosening the reins just a little bit, ok? I’m right there with you.
*obdurate–love that word—it means, among other things, pigheaded. Sometimes an apt description of my unwillingness to let go.
**The Universe/God/Howard–as in “Howard be thy name”–thank you Anne Lamott!
Like Albert Einstein, I believe that the Universe is a friendly place, conspiring to help us at all times. What I struggle with is the difference between what I think the help should look like and what the Divine has in mind. I have the tiniest problem with wanting to give the Divine fairly detailed instructions about how things should go.
You would think I might have overcome this small issue when Nick, my son, got cancer at 16. That certainly wasn’t the outcome I was writing over and over again while waiting for the results. But, as I’ve said before (mostly to myself), I think the Universe dances to a more complex set of variables than I can possibly imagine.
One of the ways that I know I’ve made progress in trusting God/The Divine/The Universe (insert the word that makes the most sense to you) is when I say “Yes” to the random opportunities that show up in my life–you know, the ones that I hadn’t planned.
I did that several months ago when Vicky Townsend contacted me through Twitter and asked me to do a webinar with her on her program for TheCafeD (an Internet community of support for people going through divorce). Training is something that I’ve done for years, but a webinar? What was the Divine thinking? But, it was just random enough that I suspected that God might be behind the weirdness. So I gulped and said yes.
It turned out just fine–not perfect. I said “yeah” a few too many times and struggled with technology a bit. But, all in all, it was pretty ok, even fun (after I got over all the anxiety I brought to the preparation process). In fact, I might just do another one someday soon. If you are interested, you can click here to watch it.
Yesterday morning, the Universe struck again. I had gone for a walk with my boyfriend and ran into one of his neighbors. She and I connected over some life philosophies in our brief discussion and the next thing you know, I had said yes to attending a meeting with her that morning at a church nearby. I didn’t know much about what to expect. When she asked me if I wanted to go with her, I heard a very clear, “Say Yes”–so I did. Although the service was a bit more churchy than my Unitarian, “I’m spiritual but not necessarily religious” leanings, the speaker was interesting, passionate and authentic in his message.
My neighbor had mentioned that at the end of the meeting, people were often given messages from the Divine by a couple of the regular attendees. That was both intriguing and compelling to me so I was pretty interested in what was going to happen when the prophets came up front. I have to admit, I was hoping to get a message but not really expecting it–it was my first time and I figured Divine messaging might be, well, a membership kind of thing. You know, show up five times and you get spiritual guidance?
You probably have figured out by now where this is going. I received not one, but two messages from the prophets yesterday and they were spot on. One was an answer to a request for assistance that I had made earlier that week and the other was confirmation of a message I had received a variety of times, most recently the day before.
I’ll share the latter one with you because it’s relevant to this blog. The prophet told me that I had, “in previous seasons of my life,” felt like I had to do everything perfectly in order for it to be “good.” Yet the Divine wanted me to know that I was more powerful when I was both authentic and imperfect–speaking from my heart.
As a recovering perfectionist, I struggle with old habits and stories of “I’ll do it wrong and they’ll be mad” so this was a fairly important message for me to hear. It’s easy for me to talk myself out of saying yes when I’m afraid that I won’t do it just right.
I thought I would share this because I figure I’m not the only one who gets nudged by the Divine and talks herself out of saying yes sometimes. I’m also probably not the only person who is trying to move beyond old stories or perfectionism. We’re all pilgrims on this path of personal and spiritual growth, learning to let our most sacred and beautiful spirits shine forth.
But in the message yesterday from the Divine what I heard was “Go ahead Susan. Just show up, be yourself, and don’t worry about making mistakes. I like you that way and I’ve got your back.”
Say Yes. See where it takes you. Suspect the Divine when random, weird, and slightly scary opportunities come your way. And don’t be surprised when something really cool happens. Remember, in the words of Anne Lamott, “God is such a showoff.”
One of the traits I’ve worked hardest to release in my life is the tendency to harbor a grudge. Listening to my clients’ stories of wrongs done by childhood friends, mistreatment by bosses, and ancient family wounds that have never been healed, I learned that forgiveness doesn’t come easy to many people. Grudges, in fact, are often one of the first signals I receive from a client that there is psychological territory to be covered. Sticky and smelly, a grudge continues to mark the place of an earlier injury to ensure that it is not forgotten.
The cost of resentment
Lately, I’ve found myself looking at grudges in a different way for several reasons. Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “Positive Energy”, talks about all of the ways that we “pour out our stores of energy.” Her point is that our personal vitality has to be consciously managed or renewed and that anything that saps us of that is ultimately harmful. With less energy to squander now than I had earlier in my life, I find I am no longer willing take the time and energy a grudge seems to require for its maintenance.
“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
I was once privileged to work with a torture survivor who, at the age of 21 was imprisoned and tortured for the crime of marrying a man who was the political enemy of the government in charge. Repeatedly raped by some of the prison guards, she lost the baby she was carrying. The day before her slated execution, she escaped, aided by a guard she knew from her village. To save her life, she fled her country, leaving behind everyone she knew and loved. In our work together, she found the courage to forgive the guards who had tortured her. A devout Muslim, she was willing to let go of the hatred that could have kept her imprisoned the rest of her life.
Forgiveness is not accepting what the offender did was “ok.” Rather, it means choosing to release that person’s power over you so that your life can go on. As long as you allow resentment of old wounds a place in your life, the offender stays in residence in your psyche. Do you really want him or her there?
Interestingly, research shows that there are not only psychological but physical benefits from forgiveness. Families from Northern Ireland who had lost loved ones to violence and then participated in a forgiveness training program showed significant reductions in stress related symptoms—including headaches and stomachaches as well as lowered blood pressure.
Forgiveness doesn’t just release you, it can create unanticipated and far reaching ripples. When African American family members of the members of Emanuel AME Church chose to forgive the white racist who had shot their loved ones in cold blood, they did not minimize their own pain. But that spectacular act of courage and empathy set into motion reflection and dialogue that has brought down more confederate flags. Or, as my so very eloquent friend Barbara says, “Racism in the face of that grace became intolerable.”
Tips for letting go of a grudge
- Examine the impact that the grudge is having on your life. Has it brought you closer to the people that you love or put distance between you? Is it making you stronger or weaker?
- Imagine yourself without the grudge. Do you feel lighter? That’s probably a good sign that the grudge is sapping energy from you.
- Figure out what exactly the grudge is about. Often at the root of it is a personal fear that we are unlovable or unworthy. Or, it may be a fear that if we let the memory go, we will be in danger of it happening again. It may be time to work through that belief with someone that you trust.
- Create a ritual or ceremony for letting go. I use affirmations, visualizations, letters that I burn rather than send, and prayer. My favorite affirmation comes from Catharine Ponder. “I let you loose and let you go.”
- Laugh. Humor always helps get perspective. Comedian Buddy Hackett perhaps said it best. “I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.”
Most of us carry old stories from our childhood. As small beings on this planet, we watched our families and other important people in our lives for input about how we needed to act to get the love and attention we instinctively knew were critical for our survival. In the process of figuring out how to get and keep our early caregivers’ approval, we accepted information we were told—about our personality flaws, the nature of other people, or the way “the world works” as true.
Three most common, self- limiting stories
The late Debbie Ford suggests that information we gained in childhood solidifies into one of three core stories we come to tell about ourselves—“I’m not good enough”, “I might be abandoned or rejected”, and” I can’t trust” (people, life, God.) Those stories, carried into adulthood, are at the basis of the limitations we set on our lives as well as at the core of the relationship and career issues we face.
Think about it for a minute. Do you hesitate to ask for what you want? That is likely the story that “I’m not good enough” to have what I want or “I’m afraid I’ll be abandoned or rejected” if I ask for anything. Do you find yourself micromanaging or controlling others actions? That often is an “I can’t trust” story.
When those self-limiting stories are triggered by an event or another individual, they typically bring strong feelings of anxiety, fear, or perhaps anger with them. Because those feelings are so uncomfortable, we learned ways to make them go away—by stopping what we are doing and focusing on something else, blaming our discomfort on someone else, or avoiding the situation that triggers them. The problem with this strategy is that it is a short term solution but does nothing to address the core issue. In fact when you avoid facing the story or dealing with it, those beliefs tend to gain strength in your life. The more powerful these stories become, the more they limit your life. If you think you might be betrayed, why would you trust someone enough to fall in love? If you think you might be abandoned or rejected, you may create a more socially acceptable version of yourself for others to see, hiding your true self from view.
Instead of distracting yourself from feeling the uncomfortable feelings, the next time one of those stories is triggered and the uncomfortable feelings arise, try this. Imagine that you are a house with both the front door and the back door wide open. Then get still and say to yourself, “I release my resistance to experiencing this feeling of ……..” As the feeling swells up, visualize it traveling through you–drifting slowly but surely from the front door to the back door and back outside again. Don’t try to figure out the feeling or why it’s there, just let it float through. You may experience a brief intensification of the feeling– like a ball shooting up after being held under water too long. That’s ok, just hang with the feeling and ride it out. Avoid, if you can, rushing the uncomfortable sensation through the house, just let it move at its own pace. The feeling will typically begin to dissipate, leaving a greater sense of calm. If it comes back, just repeat the exercise. You’ve spent a lifetime trying to hold these feelings down—it will take some time to let all of that pent up energy fade.
As you become more aware of those stories, and more skilled at letting the feelings just flow through you, the stories lose their potency in your life. Knowing how to let those sensations of anger, anxiety, or fear pass through you allows you to make decisions based on what is true for you now. After all, that is where you are living, right?
The past is supposed to be a place of reference, not a place of residence!
Focus on the positive. It’s hard to believe that a serious life crisis and the word “blessing” would come in the same sentence. When my son and husband had cancer, idea of looking for something positive in our family’s experiences probably seemed hyper-religious or Pollyanaish in the extreme to some people. Spiritually, I viewed it as a form of radical surrender to an organizing framework of my life; practically, it kept me sane.
Tune down the victim thinking. Leaving behind the “poor me” mentality meant walking away from the norm. After all, my family was going through hell. Didn’t I deserve to throw myself a pity party and invite a few friends? Yet, as comforting as it seemed initially to wrap myself up in the cold comfort of victim thinking or anxiety, or as easy as it was to allow the fears take over my day, I always came away from those internal, negative conversations wearier than before. And I couldn’t afford to add to my exhaustion.
So, logically, anything I could do to grow the positive in my life made more sense to me than focusing on the negative. I needed all the infusions of energy I could get and I found that looking for and counting my blessings filled me up. Gratitude turned out to be the best antidote I could find for fatigue, anxiety, self-doubt and dread.
Cultivate gratitude. Research bears the importance of gratitude. The Greater Good Science Center, citing the research of more than 30 scientists and graduate students, has found that gratitude impacts not only our emotions with increased happiness, joy, optimism, compassion, and generosity, it can also lower blood pressure and improve the immune system. Robert Emmons, a leading expert on gratitude, suggests a few ways to increase the time we spend being grateful:
- Using a visual cue (such as a picture or even Post-it note) to remember to take the time to be grateful.
- Keeping a gratitude journal—what happened today that filled you with a sense of appreciation?
- Learning prayers of gratitude as ways to incorporate more gratitude into your life.
Hang on to the good a bit longer. The author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson, suggests “taking in the good” as a way to counter the brain’s natural tendency to hang on to the negative thoughts and too quickly let go of the positive ones. Whenever something good happens, he suggests that you first fully experience it. Notice that the sky is bright blue after a week of clouds or the delightful smell of fresh baked cookies in the bakery that you’ve just passed.
Once you’ve noticed, focus your mind fully on the experience. Second, keep your attention on that positive experience. If your mind tries to shift away, bring it back to the deliciousness of what you are thinking, feeling, sensing, seeing or touching. Finally, visualize those lovely thoughts, sensations and emotions flowing into your entire body. See them and feel them filling you up until you are full to the brim with all that this experience has to offer.
Next week. More ways to cultivate resilience and make your crisis just a bit better.
Gratitude bestows reverence..changing forever how we experience life and the world.