FIGHT


boxing glovesI’ve been trying to figure out what to write about.  I blew off a lot of steam at the end of the year and hurled myself into the new year filled with positivity and intention.  And, I’m working it!  But, I’m always looking for a story, an angle, an intersection to look around and find some unique image to share.  Thanks to my good friend Claire and her Project for Kindness blog today, I found something fun.  It’s a very simple writing prompt.  Another blogger, Lisa-Jo Baker heads up what she calls a “flash mob for writers” on Fridays where she selects a topic and asks other writers to pull together a piece in 5 minutes.  So, I just have 5 minutes to write on the topic du jour – FIGHT.  Freewriting, no editing, no thinking.  This will be pure free-association.  I apologize in advance for typos!

Here we go!

The word fight connotes such negativity for me.  I think about my entire childhood.  Fighting was the norm.  My parents fought, my siblings fought, we all fought.  It was constant and brutal and ugly.  I hated it.  I hate fighting.  I do it myself.  I cannot deny that my husband and I have had some of the most brutal, relentless fights I have ever experienced.  And I hate every second of them.  I am a peaceful person.  I would rather discuss and negotiate and acknowledge and appreciate.  But, I am hot-headed and half Italian and stubborn and, sometimes, looking for a fight.  As much as I hate them, I sometimes will them on.  And I really dislike that about myself.

The fighting has subsided in recent years.  It has calmed down a lot.  Mostly because I think about my kids.  I don’t want them to be as uncomfortable with fighting as I am.  Fights feel like a dead-end.  There is no easy way back.  They are so violent and hurtful.  And, often, so unproductive.  I want them to see healthy alternatives to fighting.  I want them to think about the word fight as an internal drive.  I will fight my way to where I need to go.  Rather than I will fight with someone I love.

I cannot stop the fighting.  My kids do it constantly but they have an amazing ability to love each other and move on.  There is resentment but it is not deep.  There is no true hostility.  It is silly fighting.  It is pushing each other’s buttons.  They don’t fight productively but they also don’t fight abusively.

I add to my 2014 list of intentions to try to fight less.  I’m hanging up my gloves for a while. This was a great reminder.

SITTING IN THE DIVIDE


sitting in a chasmOver the weekend, as I was completing my morning rituals of looking at emails and texts and checking social media, I was a bit confused when I opened my personal Facebook page and it directed me to my posts from a day in December in 2011 rather than my most recent updates. Because I believe in serendipity, I suspected that this was no coincidence. However, I had no clear understanding of why that day or that year. I started scrolling through the posts, suddenly abandoning my growing distaste for the uselessness of Facebook and found myself swept back to my life 2 years ago. This exercise required that I read between the lines of my posts and photos to get the real story in an attempt to understand what was happening and why, by chance, I had found myself revisiting this time in my life. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and sent myself back to that place in time.  Unfortunately, though, I made no connection so I kept scrolling down, now highly intrigued. I suddenly realized that I was in search of information that would enlighten me about changes in my life.  I was looking for something more than different hairstyles, friends that had fallen in and out favor or the various places I had visited.  I was looking for a landmark moment when life was so different from what it is today that there was a palpable shift I could feel. I was looking for a demarcation that might indicate a before and after. A touch point for me to measure change. I feverishly started scrolling through my posts, year after year and then I found it.

It was calling out to me the whole time. It forced me to travel down the road to find it.

It was a day.

A day that, on Facebook, looked like any other day. I was commenting about the banalities of my commute into New York City. I was annoyed by the early morning hour that I had to get on the train. It was no longer de rigueur for me to be out of the house that early and it happened several times that week. I had no idea what was in store for me that day and, when the day concluded, I didn’t know that my life had changed. In fact, on that day, there was no obvious shift. It was not a noteworthy event. There was no groundswell. No fanfare. No fireworks. It was just a day. But it changed my life forever.

I find this remarkable.  I try so hard to be aware of events as they are occurring to save them in my mind for posterity yet, sometimes, we have no idea that something is happening.  There are no clear signals that you are supposed to pay attention.  No giant banners waving across the road to grab your attention. I spend so much time recollecting and I rely upon those valuable moments to help me with my memories.  And, frankly, I find it even more amazing when I get to go back and visit those moments like I did the other day because I was not paying attention that day.  It was a complete surprise.  It snuck up out of nowhere.  I love that what often seems like an ordinary day, a simple occurrence, a forgettable moment in life becomes significant, extraordinary and, even, life-altering. You just don’t know it at the time.

All of this is relevant because, as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, I am working to become more aware of how I process information. There are days that I believe I am losing my mind, for sure. Times when I think that my thinking is harmful. I fight my own internal yin/yang battle between acceptance of my hard-wiring and all the benefits that come along with it versus the level of self-torture it produces. My sense of nostalgia, my need to go back and revisit the little pieces in order to pull them into the larger picture can be a gratifying and fulfilling experience yet it can also drag me down into places that are painful to visit. But they all are critical for my story. They are all parts of the narrative and the absence of any of it leaves me searching for answers.

Similarly, I am working to pay attention to experiences as they happen in order to learn how to process in the moment more effectively.  I am trying to learn how to manage my own challenges in a more productive and meaningful way in order to grow and improve rather than continually falling into the same hole in the ground again and again and again and again.

After writing The Divide, as often happens, I reread my post and thought a lot about what motivated me as I was writing it and what some of the deeper and more poignant points were for me.  Yesterday, taking a moment to revisit it, I sat at my dining room table and had to quiet my mind. There was so much noise. The kids had been home from school for some time and there was an endless chant of “Mommy, can you…” “Mommy, I need….” “Mommy, where is…” All typical behavior, especially on those more chaotic days. My younger son was anxiously anticipating the creation of the brownies he would bring to school today for his birthday. My older son was in search of his basketball uniform. Both children were wanting snacks, help with homework and to tell me about the myriad random thoughts they had during the day. It was a typical evening in my home. But, for me, I was still sorting through stuff. I have been traveling for work quite a bit this month and feel like I have one foot out the door at all times. I never just settle in because, regardless of where I am, it’s almost time to leave to go to the next place. This month, my house is less like a home and more like a waypoint. A stopover en route to someplace else. There’s no time to make connections, just transactions. Get done what needs to get done until you move to the next thing that needs to get done. Low value yet high priority. As I sat down, just staring at my computer screen, I felt lost.  I felt aimless and ungrounded.  I was hoping an email would appear to guide me to a purpose because my mind was fuzzy and I felt myself slipping. I was falling right into the divide that just 24 hours ago I had written about – the very chasm that I reportedly was careful to avoid. Despite it being right there, right in the forefront of my consciousness, I was falling into the trap. Had my posting the night before actually been a warning bell? Were the words a hidden message to myself that I was at risk of slipping? Was it no coincidence that my friend posted the quote that sparked the inspiration that marinated the thoughts that pushed the words to the surface? Probably serendipity indeed.

But. But, but, but. This was different. I quickly understood that I was struggling from being a man without a country. I struggled to reclaim my identity. In this moment I was my children’s mother, earlier I had been my work partners’ partner, later I would be my husband’s wife. And, sure, I move in and out of those roles quite seamlessly most of my days but yesterday I was missing my anchor. I was missing the root that holds all of that together. While I often effortlessly move between my two selves that I described in The Divide, sometimes I get lost somewhere in between. I forget my way back or need a reminder of who I am when I am in the different lanes of my life. Sometimes I simply want to be the other. I want to switch sides or I linger, filled with melancholy about the other side. Yesterday, as I sat there, trying to piece myself together, I resisted falling into my old habits of just filling the gap, numbing the pain, creating a quick solve rather than just silently, powerlessly slipping down into it. Perhaps the right option was to just go down there for a time out. Maybe, sometimes, you just have to experience the less-than-enjoyable experience of being stuck in the middle of your life.

After my father died in 2011, I could not find a path to cope, a friend told me to sit with the feelings. Very sage advice for someone like me who tends to want to remove the problem from the oven before it is fully baked. I want to test it out which rarely involves just sticking a toothpick in to see if it comes out dry. I want to taste it. I want to eat it. He encouraged me to let it cook just a little bit longer. Perhaps just a little more time in the oven might bake it out further and give me a different perspective. I thought about that yesterday as I was sitting in the gap. Perhaps I need to get a view from this angle. Maybe that’s an important lens to have in order to help me understand how to better navigate my lanes.  Maybe the view from inside the divide – the place I am most scared to be – will bring all kinds of new perspectives.  Maybe the fear of being trapped can only be mitigated by my ability to get out.

Back to that serendipitous moment over the weekend when I was directed to that moment in time, that rather unextraordinary day that led to such a life-changing encounter.  I’m always looking for the big high. I seek out those high times that will linger in my mind, carry me from memory to memory, fill me up, make me remember.  I’m no fool, though.  I know the biggest moments in life are the itty-bitty small ones.  The surprising ones.  The littlest things that leave the largest footprint.  But I forget.  I get lost in my life.  I forget how the smallest things – the gut-busting laugh I shared with my teenage son in the car this morning, the feel of my husband as he wraps his arms around me before we fall asleep each night, the goofy looks from my 10 year-old, the stolen hour with a good friend to drink coffee and catch up, the quiet time I get to sit in front of my computer and unleash my thoughts – those are the ones that linger.  Those are the ones that seep into my cells.  Those are the ones that transform my life.  But, as I said, I’m a seeker.  I’m always looking for the high.  But maybe, just maybe, the lesson that found its way to me was that sometimes I need to sit in the low place.

Sometimes I need to sit in the divide to look at all the ends of my life to appreciate its richness in all its simplicity.

THANKFUL


be thankfulI don’t have a lot of memories of Thanksgiving from my childhood.  In fact, there is only one Thanksgiving that stands out and I was already an adult.  My mother was living in her apartment in Queens and we were cramped into her tiny dining room around the big table that sat much more comfortably in our old house.  I suppose she had a connection to this furniture because it represented a little piece of the life she left behind and because it was one of the rare expensive items she procured while she was still married to my father. Most of the items in the old house were sold at a yard sale or tossed out in order for her to make a clean start in her new home.

This holiday was one of the few occasions I recall my brother, sister and I being together as adults.  My mother usually made a half-hearted attempt to pull us together – especially when we were older – but, invariably, someone was not speaking to the other or we were celebrating elsewhere.  Throughout much of high school and college, I desperately sought refuge at my friends’  homes in order to escape the dysfunction of my family.  I certainly wished for opportunities for us to come together to play out my fantasies of a happy family but our dysfunction would always leak through.  We could not hide how broken we were and, as hard as we might have individually tried, there was no space for compassion, empathy or kindness.  Our family was dog eat dog.  Survival of the fittest.  Last man standing.  It was a requirement for our survival to take the others down.  Every occasion resulted in fighting, tears, mayhem.  We simply did not have the mechanisms to join together and find gratitude and love for one another.  We had so much pain to sort through and our mixture created a chemical reaction that was explosive and harmful.

The last Thanksgiving I had with any of my family members was in 2000 – the year my older son was born.  He was just a month old and I was still basking in the glow of new motherhood.  I had a protective coating that shielded me from any of the typical drama.  I was focused on only one thing – my gratitude for this child.  My euphoria for the intangible gifts he offered when he entered my life.  I sat at the head of the table that day, holding him in my lap and just soaked in my surroundings.  I was peaceful because I knew I was creating a new reality for myself and committed to providing him with a completely different experience than my own.  I don’t think I was truly capable of understanding at that time how much everything changed in that moment.  Even though I was happy on that day, I did not have the perspective to see that I had taken a detour in my journey.  I was walking down a new road that might have looked similar to the old one but was definitely different.  It was a new pathway and, if followed correctly, I would arrive at a new destination.  However, I am a creature of habit.  I like familiarity.  Each and every time I noticed that the road looked different, rather than embracing the change, I struggled to get back on a path I knew.  Despite my desire for new outcomes, I was afraid to stray too far from what I knew.  I was not really ready to explore these unchartered waters.

Over the years, I have struggled with letting go of the memories of my childhood holidays that are seared deep within me.  And, while I have not understood that I was psychically battling the forks in the road that offered me new lanes to travel, I consciously told myself to let go and accept that I now have a loving family and that is all that matters.  I have carried around this idyllic vision of what holidays should be rather than accept that, whatever it is my family is doing together, is the perfect way to celebrate.  Whether there are 4 people around the table or 40, the fact that we can sit with one another, filled with love and appreciation, we are blessed and have all the makings for a beautiful celebration.  Intellectually I know this to be true but, emotionally, I still struggle with putting a premium on joy.  The antithesis of what I had seemed so large, so magnificent.  In fact, it is simple.  Joy does not require big, gift-wrapped packages.  Sometimes, it is the small token that sits quietly to the side that sparkles the brightest, that holds the greatest value.

Last year was a terrible Thanksgiving for me – and a turning point.  I was battling a bad case of depression and could not appreciate the bounty of my family.  I was unconsciously traveling back down the other road.  I was replaying the familiar instead of braving the new course.  There were three people around me who loved me unconditionally.  Three people who wanted only to be with me.  Three people who felt complete with me rounding out as the fourth.  They didn’t care what we did, who we did it with, what it looked like.  They craved the simple pleasure of turning off the rest of the world and being grateful for that moment, that treasure that is our family.  I was too dark and too lost to embrace that or engage.  I was broken down and wallowing in sadness and pain rather than valuing and appreciating all the gifts that life has brought me.

This year, I worried that the onset of the holidays might bring me back to that place.  I feared that I would fall into that same trap of looking at the lack rather than acknowledging the abundance.  Often, the holidays are a time of mourning for me rather than a celebration because I can’t help but recognize all that has been lost when I see that my extended family is nonexistent.  But, thankfully, I have worked really, really hard to change my thinking.  I have opened myself up and found the courage to walk down the new road, knowing that it will bring new challenges and force me to pay closer attention and work that much harder to find my way.  There are no route signs.  There are no markers.  It requires me to put on a new set of glasses but utilize the tools that I already possess.  It requires me to snuff out the fire that typically burns inside me and find warmth and comfort in the sun shining down.  Yes, something shifted for me this year.  Something really extraordinary moved me.  In order to embrace this new road, I needed to accept that the old one – the one banked by an outdated paradigm, a deconstructed construct – no longer exists.  It simply is not there.  It is not available for me to travel.  And, it has been gone for so long.  I have trudged along, trying to gain my footing and could not understand why I was tripping and falling.  The ground was collapsing beneath my feet.  I was being told to move on, move away, find a new pathway.  And I have.

For the first time, I can see the new footprint that defines my children’s experience.  I recognize that they have neither rose-colored glasses nor blacked-out goggles that keep them living in darkness.  Their reality is love.  If I commit to traveling down this new road with them, we both win.  They get to experience the joy that I so desperately sought out as a child and I get to watch them do it.  Everybody wins.  It is so very simple.  They have a family who loves one another and everything else fits easily into their puzzle.

As Thanksgiving is all about gratitude and being grateful has been my mantra for this year, I am delighted to reach this day – nearly 11 months into my journey – feeling filled to the brim.  I have gained my footing and my view is clear.  There are finally no obstructions.  I have a crystal clear perspective on all that I have to be thankful for.  I broke things down and dug deep to my core to find what I needed.  And, as a result, I am supremely blessed with bounties beyond anything I could have imagined as a child.  I give thanks for my people.  The ones who challenge me to grow, show me part of myself that I never believed existed and who offer me a radiant reflection of myself.  I am grateful for those who allow me to be a better person and provide me with a palette to create the most exceptional painting.  A beautiful portrait of a life that I could not be more appreciative of.

VULNERABILITY – PART 3


Trapped_inside_my_mind_by_rebecki[1]“So many bad things have happened to them that they can’t trust the good things. They have to shove them away before someone can get it back.”  ― Wally Lamb

One of the things I most value about my life right now is the fact that I have surrounded myself with some really deep thinkers.  I have opened myself up to others who are willing to tilt their head, step back, walk around a little and dig a bit deeper to get a different perspective on themselves and others.  They are bold and brave and daring enough to go below the surface, knowing that drowning is always a possibility.

One of those people is my friend Kim who I met through the coaching group I started at the beginning of the year.  Kim is an outlier.  She walked into the group with her hard shell firmly intact.  No smiles, no warmth, no gratuitous platitudes to set the tone.  She simply made her way to her chair, locked and loaded, and observed.  In return, I never felt any pressure, any need to step up my game.  I soaked her up and, in full consciousness, made the decision to pull her in.

I am intrigued by people like Kim.  I am fascinated by those who have complexities and layers that allow me to go diving deeper and deeper.  Those that require me to fill up my oxygen tank for I know I will be down for a while.  The individuals who allow me to explore them in order to explore myself are the ones who catch me in their nets.  They engage me, provoke me, inspire me, frustrate me, challenge me and, ultimately, move me.  They change my life.  Always.  Unfailingly.

The first day of our coaching group chills ran up and down my spine when Kim spoke.  That is not a very common experience for me but one that I know to pay attention to.  It was not the sound of her voice, the cadence of her speech or, quite frankly, even the words.  It was the soul behind it that I was reacting to.  I implicitly understood her and my brain was sending me clear messages telling me to pay attention.  And I did.  And I continue to.  Yesterday, Kim, a reluctant but brilliant blogger, published a post that convinced me that she has a wire tap into my brain.

For months now I have been struggling to source the root of some very destructive anxiety.  It has been surfacing and meddling with my well-being.  Reluctantly,  I looked at it, invited it in and then, ultimately, begged for it to leave, to no avail.  My recent bout with the anxiety has taken many shapes and forms.  It has ranged from generalized stress, sadness, loneliness, fear, abandonment all the way to irrational conclusions about some critical aspects of my life.  It has had my mind working overtime, set it into overdrive and catapulted me into the air, soaring into the darkness with no parachute, no soft landing in sight.  The most frustrating aspect to this anxiety is that I have been working so hard to pull myself up and allow myself to be more open, to embrace vulnerability and experience a deeper level of intimacy with others in my life.  And, in retrospect, I fear that this vulnerability that I so willfully incorporated into my life has turned on me.  I suspect that allowing myself to walk around without my shield, my protective armor, I exposed myself to the elements and put myself in the direct line of fire.

It’s a complex balance for me.  Vulnerability allows me to experience the fullness of my life.  It allows me to feel my emotions deep in my bones.  It offers me connection points with others that I so desperately crave.  I feel courageous and energized by my ventures down avenues that would have previously been closed off for me.  On the other hand, being vulnerable removes the safety mechanisms I have spent decades building, keeping me safe from my own feelings, my own very fractured psyche.  My shell has allowed me to lock away all that is scary, hurtful, dangerous.  It has given me a way to live what I believed to be a meaningful life without being constantly derailed by my own self.  It has provided me with a pathway that kept the wolves at bay rather than having to run, always looking behind me to determine how far I needed to go, how fast I needed to move for safety.  Well, that all seems great but, of course, all of this is smoke and mirrors.

It’s all bullshit.

At the end of the day, there is no way to straddle the fence.  Either you are in or you are out.  You can’t be vulnerable and hang on to your armor.  You can’t really experience those emotions while quickly suppressing them, shoving them down when they disrupt your balance, sending you toppling over.   Those are the moments that count.  Failure is the pathway to success.  Falling is the only way to learn how to get up.  For me, the missing link in all of this is trust.  The connective tissue between vulnerability and solace is the trust that when you do get hurt, when you stumble, when you screw up in a way that seems so fatefully unrepairable, that you will be able to pull yourself up, stand tall and all will still be intact around you.  You will still be breathing, you will still be able to stand, you will still be loved.

I struggle to trust.  I don’t have faith.  And therein lies my battle.  Trust is my demon, the monkey on my back.  I can look you in the eye, hear your words, feel comforted by your love and then turn around, walk a few steps and it all slips away.  Then, slowly, I implode.  I begin the dreadful descent, watching helplessly as I fall, deeper and deeper, afraid to ask for help, never calling for a strong hand to pull me up.  How can I?  I do not have the trust that you won’t extend your arm and then pull it away just as I reach for your grasp.  Contrarily, how can I expect others to dive deep with me if they do not believe that I trust them?  What guarantees am I offering if I am ready to bolt at any instant, fueled by my belief that all relationships are transitory?  While I do not believe that I serve up my cold, stone, hardness for most to see, the ones that matter the most get a bird’s-eye view when I am free-falling into the abyss of mistrust and anxiety.

So, I say this.  I need to be vulnerable.  I need to experience all that life has to offer.  I need to keep my heart exposed to capture those incredible moments that come along only when you are open and willing to accept them.  Sure, that is actually the easy part.  I can do that.  It is the moments that follow, when the after-glow begins to dim, when the darkness sets in that really matters.  In those times, when there are no fireworks displays, when all I have is the distant memory of the meaningful moments, can I simply be buoyed by the trust that it was all real and not simply a shooting star to be seen just a few times in life?  Can I have faith that not everyone is going to hurt me the way I was so traumatically hurt during some of the most critical years of my life?  Will I be able to believe that I am worthy of being loved, consistently and completely?  Am I brave enough to stare my mistrust in the face and send it away rather than welcoming it in because it is a familiar face.  I know what it likes to drink and eat.  It is an easy guest.  Until it shows it true self.  Once we move beyond the pleasantries, mistrust will decimate me.  It sets out to destroy every piece of my foundation.  It takes its jackhammer and loudly and painfully drills holes through my core.  Its disrupts my footing and drops me into the hole.  Do I have the strength and courage to look it in the eye and tell it that I need to make new friends?  It is time for us to part ways?  Will I be able to see the sheep in wolf’s clothing that appears before me looking like comfort and solace, familiarity and understanding?  I know that is the true test of bravery and of willingness to change.

I have been walking around for months, for years, for a lifetime with a steel cage protecting me from the rest of the world.  When things get tough, I pack myself up and move on.  I rarely unlock the doors and let myself step outside to see what the air feels like, smells like.  From my distant perch behind the bars, I assess every situation and test the water using a long stick rather than my own fleshy toe.  The heat can never scald me because I will never get close enough to be damaged.  Yet, I am setting fires all around me, scorching my flesh.  In my locked cage, I am cutting and bleeding, safe from the danger that lies outside.  When I see smoke in the distance, I know it is time to escape but somehow I seem to miss the heat that it is right under me.

I wonder what it looks like to look inside my prison.  Can you see through the walls?  Is there a cement enclosure or am I sitting in a glass house?  Are my endeavors obvious to all who care to observe or have I discreetly masked my masochistic tendencies?  When I am in full battle with the demon of mistrust, I lose all perspective.  I have no idea what is obvious and what is happening so loudly inside my mind.  When I am kicking and punching, struggling to stay afoot, I lose all peripheral vision.

Yesterday, when I read Kim’s post, I could feel her own battle.  I heard her inner voice comforting her, telling her it was ok to be guarded, to be locked down and I felt her overwhelming desire to set herself free, to find a new pathway.  That moved me.  It hit me in the face like a wayward baseball, soaring at 100 miles per hour.  It made contact, right between my eyes, shattering my skull and opening up a new space – a space ready to be filled with love and gratitude.  A space desperate to absorb the love and support that sits waiting for me.  I can see it.  I can really see it.  But I am afraid to touch.  I am afraid to reach out and embrace it.

Because, what if….

FEAR


diving boared“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

Today,  my younger son did something I had never dreamed imaginable.  He, without provocation from me or anyone else, volunteered to jump off the first tower of the platform diving boards at our community pool.  Now, this may not seem like a big deal to many other parents of 9 year-olds who hold their breath or close their eyes as their children deftly take on new challenges.  While I would never refer to him as cautious because he has a personality that is larger than life and he throws himself into the mix with his older brother and his friends, I would suggest that he is rather unadventurous.  With just about everything in his life, he avoids taking on anything new.  He will push the limits of anything that feels familiar to him but, rarely, does he willingly jump into unchartered waters. He sets defined limits on the risks he will take and handily manages to skirt through life avoiding the curves and finding a safe straightaway where he can drive really, really fast.

My son applies this principle to just about everything in his life and will explain to you, with conviction, why his logic makes sense and is appropriate.  He refuses to try new foods (although he recently, surprisingly, agreed to add cheese to his burgers) and, when forced, twists up his face with disdain before his taste buds are even remotely engaged to register any form of reaction to the food barely touching his tongue.  When we try to encourage him to take on a new activity, such as a sport other than the ones he has been playing for years (and feels relatively confident about), he politely says “no thank you, I’m good.” without even looking up from his handheld device.

This is not to say that he lives his life trapped inside a plastic bubble.  He plays sports (and is fairly skilled at those he plays) and is quite the popular kid at school.  He just comfortably sets his limits and sees no reason to reach beyond them.  He’s sort of like a crotchety old man who is set in his ways and will not be provoked to change.  I appreciate this about my son because, if I am being honest with myself, he is quite like I was at his age.  Except, of course, he has a million times more self-confidence than I did and doesn’t struggle with his decision to disengage around certain things – he has his mind made up and wavers only when he sees a legitimate reason to budge.  For me, my limits in life were self-imposed out of fear.  I was always afraid that I was not capable of doing things so I avoided them rather than step out of my comfort zone.  I refused to put myself into situations where I could not anticipate the outcome.  Even as a young girl in elementary school, I understood that I was different from other kids because I was chubby and awkward and did not have much athletic prowess.  Not only was it uncommon for girls in my school to play sports (and there were very limited options even if you wanted to), there was no one in my family encouraging me to do anything because it was not our culture.  No one in my family played sports or was particularly active – even my brother skipped Little League because my parents were too involved in their own lives to pay attention to him and give him that opportunity.  As a result, not only could I not turn a cart-wheel, I would never even dare try because the fear of failure was too overwhelming.

My son sees the world through a different lens.  His body is bigger than most kids his age and he has a harder time running fast and certainly is nowhere near as agile as most of his buddies.  But, this does not stop him.  He will still stand in front of the basketball hoop and jump up high trying to out dunk his big brother.  He believes he has the mad skills to do what it is he wants to do.  He just picks his battles and eliminates those areas that seem too far out of his reach.  While I was afraid and avoided humiliation and shame, his excuse is typically apathy and a bit of laziness.  Fear may come into play for certain things but he is certainly not afraid to make a fool of himself and, when he is ready to take something on, motivated by some unknown driver, he just does it without worrying about what others might think.  While I can relate to him on some level, I am truly in awe of him.

One of the greatest gifts of parenthood, for me, was the ability to see myself through a whole new lens.  Once that child is placed in your arms and is now in your care, your ego begins to shrink as you recognize there is something so much bigger than yourself that matters in the world.  Your needs are no longer primary and your fears often must be tossed aside to ensure that you can do whatever it is you need to do to love and protect this person that is now solely dependent on you for its care and safety.  Their outcome is in your hands and they come first.  For me, what this meant was that I could no longer indulge a lot of the anxiety I struggled with in my life.  It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own fears and limitations as a kid and begin to both liberate myself from them while trying to encourage my own children to embrace life and take on new challenges and experiences.  Amazingly, somewhere along the way a shift occurred for me.  A very powerful and meaningful shift that allowed me to gain courage and confidence from my children in order to tackle some new avenues for myself.  After I turned 40 and my children were now in elementary school and starting to become just a wee bit more independent, I saw some space in my life free up.  I had already spent close to a decade focusing steadfastly on ensuring that my children were given the right foundation to feel good about themselves, had confidence and security and could make bold choices for themselves as the opportunities arose.  I was determined to not have them live inside a bubble of fear that prevented them from believing in themselves, resulting in the paralysis that defined so much of my childhood.  For me, growing up, there was no climbing trees, no jumping in lakes, no hiking up hills.  I was afraid my body would not do what I needed it to do and that I would fail or get hurt, leaving me both physically and emotionally wounded.  Instead, I opted out and, like my son, suggested “no thanks, I’m good.”  But I really was not good.  I was always running scared.

In less than a week I will be 46 years old.  It is an overwhelming notion for me.  Suddenly, I can imagine myself turning 50.  I see myself as being as old as the parents of my friends growing up.  My older son is becoming a teenager this year and my sweet younger boy is turning double digits.  My life is half over and the first half is so distinctly branded by fear.  Fear has ruled my life, crippled me, caused me to avoid, disengage, disconnect, run away, hide out, lock up, look away, and, worst of all, fail to live.  Over the last few years I have noticed something happening in myself, probably as a result of my children giving me the space to fill with something new and my newfound confidence that comes with middle age.  Nowadays, I am looking at challenges and risks and I’m intrigued.  Where my life never involved adventure that included things like zip lines, hang gliding or kite boarding, these activities suddenly capture my attention.  I no longer worry that I am too awkward or too fat or simply incapable and am now curious about pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone to see what lies on the other side.  I am beginning to believe that my body, still chubby (and now way more jiggly), has strengths and capabilities that I have not dared to explore.  Because I know that I can count on me and don’t need to rely upon others to always hold me up, I trust that my body will be there to do what I need it to do when I need it to do it.  I believe that I have more strength that I ever dreamed possible.

Yesterday, on the 4th of July, one week before my 46th birthday, I tackled something I never imagined I could.  I ran a 5K.  This body pushed through incredible heat and humidity and crossed the finish line – dead last.  I did not run every step of the way but I ran more than I walked and I never gave up.  I was so far outside my comfort zone that I was afraid I would never find my way back.  And, frankly, I might have just thrown away the map back home because nothing has felt as good as the moment my sweaty and exhausted body stepped across the finish line.  For 45 years I have never competed in any athletic challenge for fear that I would lose or fail.  For 45 years I shut out the idea that I could push myself beyond my limits and still live to see another day.  Well, I survived and made it to today and feel great.  Yesterday, as I passed all the locals sitting on their porches or gathered on the curb to cheer on the runners, I raised my arms and yelled “It’s my first time!”  I was so proud and never once cared that I was the last one in the pack and was sure to be the last one to finish.  As I looked at the race clock when I was crossing the finish line, I saw my time at a little over 47 minutes and felt immense pride.  In my mind, I expected it to take an hour.  In my mind, I expected my lungs to give out, forcing me to walk the whole way.  In my mind, I feared humiliation as everyone saw my jiggly body that did not fit in with the other long and lean runners.  But, in reality, none of it mattered.  I ran the race, pushed myself to do the best that I could and I finished, feeling stronger and prouder and more determined than ever before.  I was supported by friends in the most amazing way (that is surely another blog post about the power of the people who come into your life when they do) and felt exhilaration that, if bottled, would make me a very rich woman.  And, I knew, for the first time, that I could do so much more than I ever dreamed possible.

Today, still high from yesterday’s accomplishments, I sat on the edge of the diving pool with my younger son as we watched the kids going off the tall towers.  His older brother had just accomplished the feat of jumping off the first tower last week, which surprised me but I sort of expected that he eventually would once all his friends pressured him enough.  I expected that my younger son, like me, would look at that tower and determine it was not worth the risk.  It was not a required goal.  Instead, he looked at me and asked me if I thought he should give it a try.  That was a no brainer.  I encouraged him to do it and he hesitated, suggesting that perhaps he would another day.  Then, as the life guards called last call for the towers, he yelled across to his older brother and said” Will you go with me?”  My older son enthusiastically nodded and prodded his brother just a little bit.  They got on the long line which I feared would give my son enough time to turn around and rejoin me at the side of the pool but, instead, he hung in.  He climbed the ladder, determined and, when he reached the top, I held my face in my hands, worried that he might get hurt or, worse, might chicken out and take the walk of shame back down the ladder.  But not my son.  He now had his mind made up and he took his little chubby body to the edge of the platform and, without hesitation, jumped and did the most glorious belly flop into the ice-cold pool.  And, right then, my excitement and exhilaration topped the feeling I felt when my feet crossed the 5K finish.  I was proud and thrilled because I knew that my son, at the ripe old age of 9, was overcoming his own fears – way ahead of schedule.

WOMEN’S ADVANCEMENT??


“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.
Life’s a bitch.  You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou

Here’s the deal. I am getting more and more frustrated when it comes to talking about equity for women in the workplace.  The statistics are not improving, women are opting out more than ever before and I have to wonder if there is a real solution to the increasing challenges women face in terms in having equity in the workplace.

For years I have been studying this topic.  Back in the early 2000s when I worked at Working Mother Media, we looked at the topic from the lens of working mothers and struggled with the notion of workplace flexibility.  It’s disappointing and scary that nearly 10 years later we are having the very same conversations and nothing has improved.  I have to ask the question of why.

Yesterday, as I was partaking in my daily ritual of tweeting and catching up on all the current news I can absorb in 140 characters or less, I came across the youtube video of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 TED talk on why we have so few women leaders in the world.  Coincidentally, on this same day, I came across on Facebook, courtesy of my friends at Flexpaths, a story from CNN about Sandberg admitting that she leaves work at 5:30pm.  Why is this news?  In my opinion, if it was about a male Fortune 500 CEO confessing that he slips out of the office early to spend time with his kids or attend their soccer games, that would be groundbreaking and would set a different tone, certainly in his workplace.  In reality, however, Sandberg telling her story is the equivalent of preaching to the choir.  Despite the fact that she is a powerful and busy COO, she is still a woman and it is expected that she would figure out a way to try to balance work and family.

Sandberg had some very clear views about what is holding women back and cited some interesting facts in her talk:

  • Out of 190 heads of state in the world, only 9 are women
  • Of all the Parliament members in the world, only 13% are women
  • Women represent only 20% of the leaders of nonprofit organizations (bucking the theory that nonprofits are a place where women can excel into leadership roles)

I’ll add to this my own stats:  Less than 3% of the Fortune 500 CEO’s are women.  (Although, curiously, of the 100 most successful companies in the world, 6% are run by women which makes me wonder if they are more successful because of the greater presence of women leaders….).  Women represent only 16% of equity partners in law firms and 16% of the seats in Congress.  16% has long been this magical number for women.  We seem to hover right there in terms of significant representation.  When we look at Board seats, the answer is 16% representation by women.  Let’s face it, this is all terrible news.  In the 10 years since I started tracking this data at Working Mother, nothing has changed.  Nothing at all.  Well, nothing except that the problem is getting worse because we are not making any headway.

Sandberg suggests that there are several critical issues that need to be addressed in order to change the reality for women in leadership.  First of all, we need to keep women in the workforce to ensure that they ultimately gain access to the high income jobs.  We know that women are opting out of the traditional workforce at higher rates than ever before.  Whether it be to stay at home and raise a family or to start their own businesses, women are not willing to play the game.  This exodus from corporate jobs creates a void of potential women leaders.  Of course, we should celebrate the fact that women feel empowered to change their career paths, take risks and become entrepreneurs but this fact is hurting our economy because there is no doubt that women leaders yield strong business results.  Without a rich talent pool to draw from, businesses suffer and lose the opportunity to both increase gender equity in the senior ranks as well as benefit from the strengths that women uniquely bring to the table.

Another challenge Sandberg identified as an obstacle for women is that they underestimate their own abilities.  This is one I can certainly relate to on a personal level as I am sure many women can.  It is very hard for women to promote themselves in the same way that men do.  Sandberg cited research that suggested that while men will frequently take credit for their own successes, women often attribute it to other influences or the fact that they got lucky.  In addition, women are less likely to negotiate for themselves when it comes to compensation which directly results in the gender disparity in pay.  It has been reported that 57% of men negotiated their first salaries compared to only 7% of women.  (I shared this stat with a group of women this morning and, after shaking their heads they agreed that this is very accurate.)  Sandberg attributes a lot of this to social influences because, as a society, there is certainly more pressure and expectation put on mean to succeed.  Stay-at-home dads are not always celebrated and working moms are often criticized.

Women are challenged with the likability factor, which is a key obstacle as well.  Success and likability are positively correlated for men while it is negatively correlated for women.  In other words, the more successful a women, the less likable we perceive her to be.  Sandberg cited one study that illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. In it, Columbia Biz School prof Frank Flynn and colleague Cameron Anderson at NYU offered their students a case study of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. But she was only called Heidi in the case study given to half their students; in the other, Heidi became Howard.

And guess what happened?

While the students rated Heidi and Howard equally competent, they liked Howard–but not Heidi. In fact, according to a synopsis of the study, students felt Heidi was significantly less likable and worthy of being hired than Howard. Why? Students saw Heidi as more “selfish” than Howard.

Is it any wonder we don’t want anyone calling us ambitious?

The final factor that Sandberg cited was that women often leave before they leave.  Ironically, the actions women take to try to stay in the workforce ultimately lead to them leaving.  For instance, if a woman is thinking about starting a family or is recently pregnant, she is likely to pass up opportunities for stretch assignments or promotions.  Recognizing that she will have to step aside for a period of time after the birth of the child, a woman tends to feel morally obligated to say no rather than take on the assignment or new role and deal with it when the baby is born.  As a result, between pregnancy, maternity leave and the ramp-up period after returning to work, women are often losing close to 2 years of opportunity for engagement and advancement in their careers as a result of building their families.  We are doing this to ourselves because we tend to lean back even when we are thinking about having a baby.  These rules need to change.

Overall, the most concerning part of Sandberg’s talk, for me, was her realization that this generation will never see equity in the workplace.  The divide is still so great and we simply do not have the time or the numbers to make up the difference.  It is up to the young women – and men- who are just now entering the workforce to change the game.  And it is up to today’s leaders to be open to look at the problem differently.  Women are always going to have babies and, even though we know that only 1/3 of executive women have children compared to 2/3 of executive men, that is not going to change.  In fact, we know that millennials are even more interested in having families and want to do so at a younger age. They reject the idea that women need to establish themselves before they can start a family.  Perhaps the corporate culture will change their thinking about that but I hope the millennial women – a sizable force to be reckoned with – will buck the system and prove that career and family are not mutually exclusive for women or men.

And, most importantly, it is time for the guys to have a voice in this revolution.  The men are still in charge and have the power.  By becoming role models for how we look at work and making sure to support women as they climb the corporate ladder and navigate the challenging terrain of carrying on the human race while also helping to keep the economy afloat, men are perhaps the secret sauce.  We often keep them out of this conversation as if they are our mortal enemies but, perhaps, they are the allies we have forgotten to embrace.

I am going to keep pining over this issue and will keep getting on my soapbox about it and, hopefully before my voice gets too old, I will see some real movement in these numbers.  In the meantime, we will continue to develop programs to support women and the men that can change their fate.  Stay tuned for some cool new programs coming from Ingenium Strategies to help build our future women leaders!

VULNERABILITY – PART 1


Earlier this week following my post about leaping forward, a friend of mine texted me asking two questions:

a) How does it feel now that it is out there? 

b) What were you expecting to happen?

He was referencing my sharing that my mother, with whom I had been estranged for nearly a decade, had died.  It was surprising that I chose to talk about her passing since I had only shared it with two very close friends and most of my larger circle of friends and acquaintances had no idea.  I knew that it might be a bit jarring for some when they read it but my sense of perspective on it was that it was not an emotionally traumatic event for me so nobody should react.  I was very frustrated with my friend’s questions because I could not summon any answers.  I did what I normally do in that kind of situation – I avoided the questions altogether.  I changed the subject, made some jokes and hoped to not think about it again.  Not so easy.  In fact, I have been haunted since receiving the text messaged questions.  I have been having trouble sleeping and have been having nightmares.  Something has been stirred up and, like any good researcher, I will not rest until I figure out the answer.  However, in this case, I am not investigating a story or mining for data, I am searching my soul for answers and that requires a level of truth and openness that is, frankly, a little bit scary.

In my state of avoidance (conscious avoidance, that is, because my subconscious has been working triple overtime), I reached out to a few friends to distract myself with idle chit chat.   One of them, coincidentally, suggested that I check out a video from a TED conference last year featuring Brene Brown (who’s quoted on the homepage of my blog).  I really did not know much about Brene except that she had some amazing quotes that really resonated with me.  I decided to follow the direction of my friend and sit myself down for 20 minutes to watch her talk.  Wow.  Yet another example of a friend knowing me almost better than I know myself because she was pointing me right in the direction of the answers I was searching for.

Brene’s talk was on The Power of Vulnerability.   Just the title makes me uncomfortable because the word vulnerability is very loaded for me.  I am very aware that I overtly avoid feeling vulnerable whenever possible.  While I have an intimate relationship with my husband where I emotionally expose myself and allow myself to be vulnerable, it feels safe because we have been together for so long.  With others in my life, I am much more guarded and protective of myself.  Brene sums up my sentiments perfectly.  She calls vulnerability excruciating.  Let’s face it, we spend so much of our lives hiding so as not to be vulnerable.  And why wouldn’t we do that?  The dictionary definition of vulnerable is:

1. capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon: a vulnerable part of the body.

2. open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.: an argument vulnerable to refutation; He is vulnerable to bribery.

3. (of a place) open to assault; difficult to defend: a vulnerable bridge.
None of those definitions describe anything that appeals to me.  I try, at all costs, to prevent being wounded or getting hurt – emotionally or otherwise.  I do not want my morals attacked nor do I want to be criticized.  Who would?  Interestingly, Brene points out that the ironic counterpoint to all of the perils is that vulnerability is the very thing that allows us to be joyful, creative, loving and to feel a sense of belonging.  I quickly realized while watching her video that I am screwed.  The very thing that I am avoiding is the answer to some of my most basic needs.
Brene conducted some research to understand what she called “wholehearted” individuals.  She wanted to know what characteristics are shared by the elite group of individuals who feel a strong sense of love and belonging.  They are:
  • courage to be imperfect
  • ability to forgive themselves
  • authenticity and connection
  • ability to embrace vulnerability

This group of people suggested that what makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful.  And, they believe that being vulnerable is neither comfortable nor excruciating but, instead, necessary.

If, indeed, it is necessary to be vulnerable than I am really screwing up.  With the exception of authenticity, I embody none of these characteristics.  I am an insane perfectionist. It pains me to not excel beyond reason at everything that I do.  I can never forgive myself and even wrote a blog post about this topic several months ago.  And, as you can tell, I certainly do not embrace vulnerability.  I value my authenticity and my ability to make connections with people but now wonder if allowing myself to be vulnerable would take those connections to another level.  And, getting back to my mother, should I have shared the news of her death, despite our estrangement, in order to expose my close friends to an authentic aspect of my life?  In fact, I was at lunch with several girlfriends in the days following my mother’s death and I had thought about sharing the news with them in the context that it was a celebration of the end of this horrific part of my life.  I wanted to respect her passing but also embrace a new freedom, allowing me to experience life with a different perspective.  I never shared the information because it was complicated and I did not want my friends to feel obligated to console me when I did not need consolation in the traditional sense.  Perhaps, however, I needed a different type of consolation but, without exposing myself, I could not receive it.

The topic of vulnerability came up in a discussion several months ago with my therapist.  We were analyzing my relationship with a friend.  I told her that, while I had a deep connection with this friend, the relationship made me feel very uncomfortable.  Not because of anything the friend did but because of how I felt when I was around them.  I felt vulnerable and it made me very scared.  I felt out of control.  I feared that I could get hurt.  I wanted to run for the hills.  I struggled with this and continue to do so.

I completely understand my resistance to and discomfort with vulnerability.  Given the environment I grew up in, it is no surprise.  In my family, vulnerability was exploited. My mother was a narcissist and needed to control me and my siblings.  She used my vulnerability as a weapon against me which resulted in my need to guard and protect myself in order to feel secure (which, of course, I never did).  I looked at vulnerability in the negative sense as Brene describes it – the core of shame, fear and lack of worthiness.  I never felt worthy.  I was filled with shame because I was different, my family was different, my life was different.  Of course, through an adult lens, I understand that difference is all around us and difference is powerful.  As a child, I was certain that my difference made me unworthy of being loved.  So I hid.  I got more adept at covering my vulnerability while still desperately searching for more meaningful connections and a chance to be raw and honest with other human beings.  I wanted a safe haven to allow me to bare myself and be accepted.  This contradiction has led to a lifetime of chasing my tail.  I am afraid of vulnerability yet, subconsciously, it is all I crave.

So, back to the two questions my friend asked me.  I am not sure that I have the answers which is why I call this Vulnerability Part 1.  This is going to be a bit of a journey for me.  I know that revealing this truth about my life – the truth that my mother died and that I did not cry or hurt for her – made me vulnerable.  It allowed me to reveal something about myself that I might otherwise feel shame about.  It also allowed me to share this information in a very impersonal way, thereby reducing my vulnerability at the same time.  I don’t think I put any conscious thought into what I expected to happen except that I knew I was telling a very personal story, as I am now,
and I thought it was important for me to do.  As for the outcome, I am still not sure about how I feel about it.  I know that the universe is telling me that in order to propel forward in my journey, I need to address vulnerability.  The same friend that asked the questions suggested that this will be a breakthrough topic for me this year.  Maybe he is right.  Maybe this is the time and this is what is required for me to reach another level of consciousness and understanding about myself so I can do what I am intended to do in life.  Maybe.

Maybe I just want to crawl back under my rock and hide away so no one can see what I don’t want them to see.  I suspect that is not the right path right now.  More to come…