CONFIDENT


stevejobsAs a professional woman who has spent nearly every day of my almost 25 year career feeling like I would be “found out” to be the fraud I really am, I have always been fascinated by the different ways men and women behave in the workplace.  Even long before I had kids or was even thinking of having kids, I struggled to understand if I truly lacked the tenacity that my male counterparts possessed or if I was stymied by something more significant.  Regardless, I have always suffered from a low supply of confidence at work and struggled to muster the courage to ask for what I wanted. Year after year the problem perpetuated and I became more disenchanted and equally perplexed by my difficulties. It was just a few years back – before Sheryl Sandberg started encouraging us all to “lean in” – that I began to realize that this issue was not unique to me.  It was more than just, perhaps, the lack of confidence-boosting during my upbringing or the low self-esteem that haunted me throughout my young life. There were women all around me in the very same boat. We all were feeling a few steps back, lacking the “balls” to make big decisions or stand up for ourselves.  And, while there have been many articles saying that women step on each other as they climb the corporate ladder, most of my experience has been that many of us cower in the corner and let the guys have a free reign. It seems uncharacteristic to the way I live the rest of my life but, for whatever reason, there is a hard-wiring that comes into play when I show up at work – even today – that prevents me from stepping up and taking the reins.  Even when I know it is the right thing to do.

This topic has resurfaced recently for me, particularly because I have suddenly seen a stream of articles coming out, including The Confidence Gap from The Atlantic, highlighting this phenomenon that holds many women back. And, to add to that, I hear my friends talking about it more and more. We are at that age where we have paid our dues and earned our stripes and are more than worthy of whatever we set our sights on and yet we still feel less than.  We believe that we might be more talented, more qualified, more capable, more efficient, more productive (I can go on and on) than our male colleagues but we still struggle to feel like we are worthy.

Last week I was out walking with one of my girlfriends – a working mom like me.  We were talking about our respective workplaces and the challenges we face as women and, in particular, women with children. Working mothers have the added challenge and pressure that is mostly self-imposed. We are perfectionists. Perfectionists who realize we cannot be perfect so we live in this constant state of underachievement. We disappoint ourselves and judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else ever would. Sure, we are constantly being pulled in multiple directions which leaves us feeling like we can never work hard enough to make sure that we are meeting the demands of every part of our lives. We are in a perpetual state of guilt. “I’m sorry” is a staple in our vocabulary. We are forever apologetic for actually doing more than most of the men in our lives do but not actually doing as much as we expect ourselves to do. Invariably, we feel like failures. This is not a new story for any working moms and it seems that, despite all the efforts that are put in place to create equality in the workplace and all the training and development offered to women to help them advance and all the time spent trying to help managers understand the complexities of trying to “balance” work and family obligations (not just for women, by the way), the problem never stops surfacing and the challenges never get easier.

Frankly, I don’t believe it is a workplace problem.  I think it is a societal problem. When my oldest son was just an infant, I attended a neighborhood block party and one of the moms, who did not work outside the home, asked me how I could possibly leave my child and return to work. I was startled by her comment because it was so rude and intrusive (I didn’t ask her how she could possibly stay at home and not provide financially for her family – an equally outrageous assertion) and because of how it was laced with so much judgment. I felt indicted. Everything I believed to be true was instantly in question and, despite the fact that I never once questioned whether or not I would return to work after my children came along, I suddenly had doubts about my choices. No one should have to feel that way. The problems only get worse as the children get older. Those of us who do work outside the home don’t necessarily have the same time to commit to school activities like plays and fundraisers and lunch aid duties and there is no shortage of guilt surrounding our absence – again mostly self-imposed.  (Well, the guilt can be fueled by some moms who constantly ask you why you never volunteer or offer the always delightful “Oh!  YOU’RE Tommy’s mom!”). If I am already programmed to feel bad about myself the minute I leave the house because I wrestling with the decisions I have made and worried about dividing my time between work and kids, I’m definitely starting off at a disadvantage.

But, take kids out of the equation. It is even bigger than that. We talk all the time about how girls are raised. Today, things are becoming different but we still live in a patriarchal world. And, even though women outnumber men obtaining degrees and they certainly outnumber men entering into the workforce, the air thins out substantially as you rise to more powerful perches. We are not demonstrating to women that they can be more. We are still struggling to teach girls how to stand up for themselves and feel empowered right next to the messages telling them to be sexy and cater to men. It is a constant struggle and I believe that we, as a gender, have evolved to become genetically hard-wired to not be confident when we are put in situations with men. We hand over power far too easily.  Yes, that might be a gross generalization but do the research. It’s all there. There are plenty of women who are powerful but I guarantee if you ask them what goes through their head, they, too, feel like frauds. They just do a much better job of covering it.

For me, personally, confidence comes and goes. Sometimes I walk around thinking I am the queen of the universe and have it all figured out and sometimes I am deep in a hole of self-doubt feeling voiceless and powerless against all around me. And, the struggle for me seems to get more difficult as time goes by.  I was certain that by the time my kids were old enough to walk home from school, tend to their homework without supervision and had cell phones to communicate with me that I would be able to exhale just a little bit. On the contrary, as my old boss at Working Mother magazine told me, way back when my youngest had just been born, the troubles only get worse. The demands only increase. The less your kids think they need you, the more they actually do. I couldn’t understand her point of view when I was struggling to get a full night of sleep tending to an infant and a preschooler but I never forgot her words. I knew implicitly that they would resonate for me at some point down the road. Today is that day.

I’m not sure what the bigger challenge is, frankly. First, the guilt over not being present enough or having the time or energy to commit as much as I would like to my mothering is omnipresent. Then, equally consuming is my inability to feel confident in how I am showing up at work. I just can’t get past the second-guessing, the emotional tug-of-war with my family and my inherent fear of being found out. I work with a guy who simply doesn’t care what people think. He’s polite and respectful enough when he needs to be but he pushes his way into situations when he believes he belongs there. I ask for permission. He makes a decision and deals with the repercussions afterwards. I ask for permission. He disregards other people’s expectations and does what he thinks is best. I ask for permission. He’s a foreign concept to me. I am probably really frustrating to him. Yet, we are both strong, smart, capable, experienced, accomplished, talented, visionary and, to different degrees, successful. He is confident. I ask for permission. When it comes time to stand up for myself, when the time is right for me to let my voice be heard, I am silent. I am fearful. I suffer a crisis of confidence.

When I was chatting with my friend last week, she shared her experience of self-doubt in her industry. I marveled at this because she has a PhD! She is as accomplished as anyone I have ever met. She is brilliant and savvy and has over 20 years of experience. What she told me was that she finally felt, after all the years in her industry, that she might now be taken seriously. All the degrees, all of the accomplishments and, at nearly 50 years old, she was just now beginning to feel confident enough to believe that she has the gravitas she deserves. And, if she were being completely candid, she would probably tell me that she doesn’t really have all the gravitas she thinks she deserves because she still has some self-doubt. It’s unbelievable to me and yet completely plausible.

While I always like to wrap things up with steps towards a solution, I really don’t have any in this case because it is a never-ending struggle. I take it day-by-day and situation-by-situation, hoping that it will only get easier over time. I know I have many reasons to be confident and often rely upon my husband to provide the male perspective and help me understand how my behavior might be perceived. Yet, theres on 12-step program to being a more confident female in the workplace or to being a better working mother. But, I have an awareness and sensitivity that hopefully makes me more aware of this for myself and others.

And, as everything always begins and ends with my kids because I am always a mother first, I reflect on a conversation with my younger son yesterday. My family was sitting together playing a game and it was clear that my younger son was about to lose. He looked around at us and very seriously said, “This makes sense. I would lose. I always lose. It fits me perfectly.” His face turned red and I wanted to throw up. I felt the pain emanating out of him and wanted to scoop him up and protect him from the world. “You are not a loser,” I said to him in the most comforting way I could. That boy is me and I knew exactly what was coursing through his brain. “You are confident and awesome.” He looked like he was going to cry and I knew he couldn’t feel my words. And I knew exactly what he felt like. He felt exactly how I feel when I am at work and am absolutely certain that I am making a mess of everything. I feel like a loser and I get to come home to him to remind me that I am confident and awesome.

DIFFERENCE


trailblazer quoteI have spent a lot of time in my life figuring out how to fit in.  How to blend in with the crowd.  I struggled to look like everyone else, act like everyone else and make people believe I was no different from them.  When I was younger, my only wish was to not be different.  I didn’t want to be defined as anything other than regular or ordinary.  Of course, this is because my life growing up was anything but regular or ordinary.  My life was abnormal.  My family was broken, I was broken.  I did not have the opportunity to have a childhood like so many of my friends did.  I never had the chance to be carefree and explore all the “normal” experiences of youth.  Instead, I was hiding, I was covering, I was shielding.

When I would write stories as a kid, I would create characters that resembled what I believed to be ideal.  They had two loving parents, lots of friends, beautiful dresses, and practically lived in castles with rooms filled with magical toys.  I always gravitated towards the girls who embodied this image…and they never liked me because I was so very different.  I was a square peg trying to contort myself to fit into a round hole.  I refused to openly hang out with the kids who were outsiders because I could not comfortably admit that I was really one of them.  It is probably why I was friends with so many gay boys who were deeply in the closet.  We had so much in common – we were hiding out together.

Fast forward the clock.  I’m now nearly 46 years old.  I have hiked up and down metaphorical mountains in my life, searching for my place, looking for answers, trying to identify my own identity.  I have explored every aspect of my personality and tooled around inside my mind in an effort to understand what makes me tick.  I have confronted my demons (and continue to) and revealed my vulnerabilities in order to force myself to come out of hiding and show myself to the world.  And, in the end, I know for sure that I do NOT fit in, I will never blend.  I am not a face lost in the crowd nor am I a voice drowned out by the chorus.

And, guess what?

I love that about myself.

Today, just today, this very day, I acknowledged something about myself that I never have before.  I accepted and honored the fact that I am different and I am so totally ok with my difference.  My difference makes me unique and makes me talented and makes me special and makes me ME.  And ME is pretty awesome.  I know that to be true.  It does not make me perfect.  In fact, part of my uniqueness is my ability to be so unbelievably imperfect and yet so extraordinary at the same time.  I don’t have a very big ego but I believe, without a doubt, that I am special and that I have gifts and talents that are so uniquely mine that I cannot try to compare or contain myself to anyone else’s paradigm.

Yesterday I was reading a really interesting article about how successful entrepreneurs have such distinct identities and how their embracement of their distinctions ultimately is part of their success.  I felt liberated in the very moment that I read those words because I realized that I have been trying to conform to so many other people’s idea of who I am.  For years, my mother would tell me that she knew me better than anyone and she would choose words – words that no mother should choose for her daughter – to describe me.  I was labeled with unkind words and suggestions that I was dishonest and deceitful when my heart told me that i was sincere and authentic.  Because I have a penchant for gravitating towards narcissists, I tended to be marginalized in my professional environments because I was always so gifted at elevating others while I was squashed underneath the weight of the massive egos I was bolstering.  I was rarely recognized for my talents but, instead, scolded for my unwillingness to continue to be cast aside or passed over.  When I tried to stand up for myself, I was brutally diminished because my needs to be whole were in direct contradiction with the narcissists need to be all-encompassing and overbearing.  I was left to feel small and minimal.

When I read the article yesterday, I felt light and airy.  I felt empowered to embrace my individual identity and explore those traits that are so uniquely mine.  Now, of course, yesterday was not the first day that I figured out that being unique was a good thing.  I have not been living under a rock for the last four and a half decades foolishly believing that blending in was the right strategy.  But, sometimes, the smallest thing – the simplest of words – causes a piano to fall on your head.  Sometimes a basic concept seems out of reach until suddenly it is not.

Once upon a time I was 45 years, 8 months and 15 days old and I stood up and believed in myself.  I was confident and strong and brave and realized that there is nothing I cannot do and no trail I cannot blaze.  I am different and unique and quirky and, sometimes downright odd.  And I am me.  Great, awesome me.

MISSING


“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown

I am currently working on a very meaningful project – coaching someone to help them uncover their story.  I love this for so many reasons but mainly because I am helping them find their story to authentically and passionately share with others the importance of the work that they are doing.  It is an exciting journey for them because they are being pushed to explore aspects of themselves in ways they may not have before and it is interesting for me because I am challenging myself to be present on their ride and partake in the same activities.  Part of my role is to provide journal prompts each day to encourage them to write.  The prompts are often benign and are intended to simply get them to explore some thoughts and put them down on paper.  I’m not particularly interested in what they write.  I simply want them to write.  But, of course, the mere exploration of thought creates pathways to information and the act of scribing creates further connections and suddenly stories are unfolding right in front of you.

Yesterday, I offered up a prompt to write about someone that you miss, dead or alive.  I put no parameters around this topic because I wanted them to explore on their own who they missed and why and, perhaps, what it meant to miss someone.  Do you miss someone because they are no longer part of your life?  Do you miss someone because they have passed on?  Do you miss someone at that very moment even if you are going to see them the very next day?  The exercise was intended to allow them to journey along all those lines.  As I am trying to parallel the exercises and simultaneously write on the very same topics, I commissioned myself to tackle the same subject…and fell short.  With each journal prompt, I also ask that we write about something that we are grateful for and/or something we are disappointed about from our day and, last night, I got really hung up on the first part.  I focused on my lack of gratitude, which was, conversely, a source of disappointment for myself.

Ironically enough, I am not someone who enjoys journaling because, for me, it sometimes seems forced and I am often harshly critical of what I write.  Because I typically write with the intention of having others read it, I am extremely focused on my choice of words, the deeper messages and having compelling content.  And, of course, that is exactly what journaling is not and exactly why I should spend more time on that activity.  Journaling is most powerful as a tool to allow for a free stream of thought to enable you to find those pathways to your inner voices.  I recognize that it’s nuts that I resist it and, as a result, I am forcing myself to take advantage of this opportunity to embrace the art of journaling if only to have some connection and authenticity with this project.  What comes from it will only be the icing on the cake.

Last night when I set out to write about someone I miss, I struggled.  I could not really come up with anyone that I missed so much that I wanted to write about it.  There are a lot of people that have been a part of my life that I do not have any connection with anymore because of life circumstances.  I do miss some of them and, sometimes I feel badly about the role I played in our disconnection.  I miss what they used to mean to me and I feel sad about the fact that, in many cases, I allowed the person to slip out of my life.  There are also certainly people who are currently a part of my life who I do not see very often and I surely miss them.  In truth, some of the people that I am closest to live at a great distance from me so I am constantly missing them but that has become a regular, ordinary characteristic of my life.  I don’t like to write about it because it frustrates me and also makes me very sad.  So, ultimately, I avoided the topic entirely and I ended up spending my time writing about my own disappointment in myself for not feeling more grateful and for letting myself continually get caught up in malaise rather than focusing on the positive aspects of my life.  The subconscious thoughts about how missing people makes me feel bad surely inspired a whole lot of negativity towards myself and was a perfect platform to display my deep levels of disappointment in myself.

This morning, as often happens when I am returning from dropping my kids off at school, I took a few minutes for some self-reflection and started thinking about the exercise again (yes, this is how this stuff works.  A simple little prompt can permeate your thinking and just sit with you for days.  It’s pretty awesome).  With a somewhat clear head, the loud and resounding noise was that the person I missed most right now was me.

I’ve gone away.  I have allowed myself to get caught up with the messiness in my life.  I focus on all the things wrong and nothing that is right.  I have become blind to the beauty around me like the rich fall colors and the fragrant aromas of the season that so often make me feel whole and connected.  I feel disappointment in myself in regards to many areas of my life.  I am harshly judging myself and critical of my thinking and endeavors. I am, as the brilliant Brene Brown would say, caught up in a shame spiral.   She says that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”  That is a potent message and, when I reflect on my life right now, it truly represents how I feel and why I miss myself.  I miss the person who rises above and feels tremendous gratitude for all the richness and texture that makes up my life.  I miss the strength that I typically exhibit to work through the clutter and chaos and the pride I feel for having muddled through and come out the other end feeling confident and powerful.  I miss waking up every day looking forward to the challenges before me and going to bed at night feeling tired but inspired and excited about what comes next.

I miss me.

The good news, I suppose, is that I can see myself in the distance and know that I am not far away.  And, chances are, it will likely not be too long before I return.  However, in the spirit of honoring this exercise, I will recognize that the person I miss is me and I will pine for myself and encourage myself to find my way back.  I will, like any good friend, extend a hand to help myself back up the hill, shout out directions as I traverse the rocks and catch myself if I slip.  And, until my return, I will keep on missing me and will remember another passage from Brene:

“Shame resilience [is] the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it.”

She says, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable…language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”  So, I guess this little exercise, this benign journal prompt is exactly what I need to help myself as only I can.

KEEP BREATHING


A few months ago, I shared my discovery of mindfulness practice which was teaching me to breathe.  For a variety of reasons, recently I have not been able to make it to my weekly sessions which has surely taken a toll on me. I’ve been feeling like I am walking through life holding my breath for fear that if I actually exhale, the air I release will shrink my armor and leave me vulnerable to all of the dangers in the world.  If I simply hold my breath and not let go, I can keep myself safe and secure.  I can wrap myself up with my own arms and not let anyone get too close to penetrate my force field.

Despite all of the self-reflection and analysis I undergo, I am never sure why or how I get all bunched up inside myself.  I am not sure why it is I forget to breathe.  I am not sure why I become so afraid of the elements out in the world, worried that the potential pain is too great for me to bear.  I never notice that I have shut the door, turned the lock and swallowed the key until I realize that I am standing motionless, breathless and locked inside a really dark room.  Often, I get to that place because I feel exposed and unguarded and, while I have been bravely dipping my toe into the ocean of vulnerability, I find myself crawling away from the water’s edge to safely retreat to my locked room where I cannot get sucked into the undertow.

I am notorious for beating myself up when I feel like I am regressing.  I convince myself that all of my hard work is in vain because I will ultimately end up back in the same place I started or worse.  Except, when I get back there now, I will be tortured by the knowledge that I have seen the other side and feel angry and disappointed that I could not sustain myself.  I try to remind myself that I am a mere mortal, capable of both great success and great failure.  And that I can go on to live yet another day to and try to do better.

I was texting with a friend this morning and she was sharing some personal perspectives with me.  Something she said resonated with me and made me think about my general approach to life.  I want to be joyful.  That is one of my most pressing agenda items every day.  I want to feel joy and bring joy to others.  Of course, this is not always possible, especially when I am in pain or those I care about are in pain.  Sometimes you just need to work through that suffering with the faith that joy is somewhere around the corner.  If you continue to have the intention that joy is your objective, you will always find it but sometimes it is a longer walk or is hidden in secret corners.  You have to look harder and be more intentional.  I have shared quite frequently that I have had a major focus this year on allowing myself to be more vulnerable.  I know that some of the most extraordinary highs I have experienced of late have come from me being completely unguarded and exposed.  The rawness that often feels so excruciating can also lead to connections and joy that are unparalleled.  However, for me, the double-edged sword of this is that, because of my history and my own deep wounds, vulnerability also leaves me feeling weak and unglued and often forces me to wind myself up tighter, build cement walls to privately fall down into my rabbit hole and stop breathing.  Sometimes the walls and wind-up are invisible to most around me and sometimes I have a neon sandwich board on my chest screaming “Back Off!”  I usually notice as my feet start sliding out from under me when I am falling down the rocky cliff into the hole but rarely will I ever scream out asking for a hand, a rope to pull me up or even just someone to talk me through it as I slide down.  There is some odd comfort in the loneliness that goes along with my isolation because it feels familiar.  It is a place I recognize and I know how to behave in that space.  I don’t have to think too hard while, ironically, my mind never stops racing.  I can bottle up all the anger and pain that I have experienced throughout my life  and quietly cast it out towards the world, assured I can trust no one, especially those closest to me who love me the most.

Inevitably, because I am fortunate – really, really fortunate – I am supported and my iceberg thaws, breaking down the walls and producing a ladder for me to climb out.  As the water pools up around me from the warmth and love that envelopes me, I feel guilty and sad that I cannot just embrace the love in my life.  I feel frustrated and disappointed that I cannot allow myself to just live and love and trust.  I want to trust that those closest to me are sincere and love me despite myself.  Or believe, as they do, that, perhaps, they see something so wonderful, so magical, so worthy of love and it does not matter if I understand it.  I just need to trust it.  I try.  I really do.  Sometimes it is just really, really hard – and I do not have language to explain why.  It just is.

So, today I am trying to exhale and then remember to breathe in once more and exhale once more.  Perhaps if I just follow my breath and focus on the simple act of breathing in and out, I can forget about worrying about whether or not I can trust or am worthy and just let it all be.

SHAMELESS


“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

My journey into the dark valley of vulnerability has been quite an interesting adventure.  I certainly did not book this trip completely without apprehension and, frankly, did it despite many deep reservations about how I would be able to tolerate the trip.  It has been a bit of a rough ride with some ups and downs but, I am beginning to see my way to a comfortable resting place where I can shed my cloak perhaps once and for all.  I have surprised myself in many ways including the recognition that much of my apprehension around allowing myself to be vulnerable was intellectual rather than emotional.  I have had a mental block masking an open heart.

All this searching I have been doing to both understand my capacity for experiencing vulnerability as well as to understand the roots of my blockages has had me winding down roads and turning corners allowing me to discover many more perspectives.  I feel like a young student soaking in as much information as my brain can tolerate.  I am constantly learning and this knowledge is bringing me power.  Last week, my new hero, Brene Brown, gave another TED talk, this time on the subject of shame.  This is a topic that interests me immensely because much of my life has been veiled by shame.  Shame has served as a huge obstacle in my life and, remarkably, I have not spent much time exploring it.  In her talk, Brene talked about the year following her breakthrough speech on vulnerability, which she readily admitted might have been the craziest thing she had ever done.  She, in her estimation, recklessly stood before 500 people and told them how afraid she was of vulnerability and, never for a second anticipated that millions more would be catalyzed by her words once the talk hit You Tube.  Her big a-ha from all this was that vulnerability is not a weakness.  In fact, she suggested that when you see vulnerability up close, it actually looks like courage. Pretty powerful stuff.

Last week I was sharing with a close friend my journey with this blog and my lack of perspective on how what I write impacts other people.  We all have our own lenses and sometimes it is really difficult to see the world through anyone else’s eyes – no matter how much they try to describe the picture they see.  He told me that he thinks what I am doing is brave and, not surprisingly, I did not see it that way.  I was extremely flattered by his comment but, in reality, I do not see courage when I feel the pain and struggle.  It feels hard and feels unpleasant.  It is the same way I have felt about vulnerability.  It is hard work to allow yourself to feel vulnerable – to expose yourself and be open to what might be coming your way.  However, to those around you, it is unbelievably courageous to watch as you open yourself up and allow yourself to feel and experience the world in a way that many choose to avoid because it is simply too risky and too painful.  The ability to take an emotional risk such as saying I love you when you are not certain if the sentiment will be returned is so brave.  The  confidence that comes from allowing yourself to be exposed with tremendous uncertainty of how you will be received is quite an accurate measurement of courage.  It is being truly honest and authentic and not fearing the consequences.  That is bold.  So, despite the fact that my perspective and humility refuse to allow me to see myself as courageous, I can appreciate where my friend was coming from and I acknowledge that this work is not easy.

When opening up the subject of shame in her most recent talk, Brene talked a bit more about vulnerability, crediting it as the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.  For someone like me, that is pure gold.  I live for innovation, creativity and change – and I struggle terribly to try to achieve any of it.  I have spent so many years locked behind doors, preventing me from unleashing my creativity because I could not be honest with myself. I was always creating a false, altered story that allowed me to avoid exposing the ugly underbelly that I feared I would be rejected for.  Over the past few years as I began to embrace some of my truths and become more accepting of myself, the veil began to lift and creativity started to flow.  This blog is the absolute evidence of that.  What I realized when listening to her talk was the role that shame has played in my inability to be open, even with myself.  The reason for me being locked behind the big steel doors that I caged myself in was because I felt shame.  According to Brene, shame is the ultimate focus on self and is the corollary of guilt.  When we feel guilty about doing something wrong, we might say that we are sorry that we made a mistake.  When we feel shame, we are thinking “I am sorry that I am a mistake.”  We feel inadequate and worthless and have no ability for compassion or love for ourselves because we do not believe that we are deserving.  Brene calls shame “the swampland of the soul.”  Put on your galoshes, walk through and find your way around.

Thinking about shame this way has been revelatory for me.  I do not think I feel shameful any longer.  I cannot begin to explain how major of a statement that is for me to make.  To have moved past something is seemingly impossible in my mind. It often feels like I will be burdened with my baggage until I take my last breath, focusing my energies on strategies to manage through it rather than move past it.  Yet, I believe, without reservation, that shame is not part of my current story.  It has been a sad truth for most of my life where I struggled to feel accepted and not feeling safe enough to admit that I was damaged and came from a very damaging place.  That is not my story today.  If empathy is the antidote to shame, then empathy is what I feel most of the time.  I empathize with myself and others who have struggled with their demons, addictions, weaknesses.  I have compassion for myself and understand that I am not defined by what has happened in my life but what I have done with it.  I remember writing a blog post not that long ago where I acknowledged that I struggled with forgiving myself.  I am beginning to feel that, perhaps, for the first time, I am prepared to cut myself some slack.

Last night I was talking with someone about a mutual friend who tends to complain about everything around her.  She is a bit of a downer and I find it tiring to listen to her steady dialogue of discontent, finding ways to put a negative spin on even the most positive experiences.  My friend and I talked about tactics for shutting down that type of behavior as opposed to indulging it or engaging it.  Negativity can be contagious.  In fact, it is much more easily spread than positivity because it requires a lot of work to be positive.  As someone who has made more than her share of snarky, cynical remarks about people and life, in general, I recognize how easily the words slip from my mouth.  I acknowledge how often I was perpetuating darkness rather than shining light to lift people up.  In fact, I also know how cynical I was of people who spent their time trying to bring lightness into other’s lives.  They were being brave and open and honest while I was hiding behind darkness to prevent myself from being seen and my shame being on display.  During the discussion with my friend, I thought a lot about the messages I want coming from me.  I thought about how I can be more intentional about being positive and trying to respond to negativity with positivity, thereby creating a force field to deflect the negativity.  It seems a bit superhero-ish but I believe it is a pathway to true happiness.  I knew, in that moment, that I could not change this other friend and would prefer to not harp on her unhappiness.  Instead, I needed to turn inwards and understand how I could counter it with my own positivity.

For many these are lessons that may have long ago been learned.  For others, like me, the doors are beginning to open and new opportunities and explorations are beginning.  And still, for some, they remain locked and closed off, struggling to find the pathway to trust themselves and others enough to let go and be vulnerable.  No matter where you are in this process, it is important to keep moving forward because it is worth the trip.  And, now that I like to write personal notes, I’ll send a postcard from my next destination!

YIN VS. YANG


I watched this morning as my children – two very different kids – got out of the car and headed off to the school. My older son who is so very self-possessed marched right up to his friends and they all quickly gathered around him to say good morning and see how his weekend was. My other son – younger, a bit more insecure little bit more timid – walked slowly and lazily around to the door where his second grade class enters. He waved to one or two children along the way but was busily living inside of his own head thinking about “stuff”.

I sat in my car and watched them both and I couldn’t help but think about what DNA went into each one of them allows them to be the people that they are. I also can’t help but compare it to what I was like when I was a child. I suffered through every morning, going to school wondering if any of the kids would even talk to me. I was so painfully shy, so painfully insecure, so certain that nobody would be my friend. As I look at my older son and his strut and his swagger as he moves up to see the other kids, I long to be back in school and to have his confidence and his power. On the other hand, I also appreciate the quiet intensity of my younger boy who is, frankly, oblivious to the need to be cool and cares only about the thoughts that flutter through his mind.  There is serenity in his demeanor and his lack of need to race to socialize with the other kids.  However, my child is no wallflower.  He will chat up children and adults but he does it on his own terms whenever he desires.

Over the last few days many of us saw the video of Susan Cain’s talk from last week’s Ted conference.  Susan recently released a book about the power of introverts called Quiet and her talk spoke to many of the same topics in the book which suggests that we, as a society, value extroverts and create professional and educational environments that cater towards their behaviors.  Susan suggests that, in contrast, there is a lot of power in the behaviors and styles of introverts.  Most of the world’s creative geniuses unleash their creativity in an introverted manner.  She talked about Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, who developed his ideas alone in his cubby at HP.  He later went on to collaborate with Steve Jobs but his original creativity was cultivated in a quiet introverted place.

I have always been intrigued by the notion of extraversion vs introversion.  I am a lifelong student of human behavior and it is my habit to watch people’s behavior and learn from understanding how others think and act.  For most of my life I considered myself to be an introvert with extraverted tendencies.  Because I have always been quite shy around strangers and never enjoyed networking, I defined myself as an introvert.  I spent the bulk of my early childhood alone, never having attended preschool, and did not make friends easily.  I was a voracious reader and had a rich fantasy life.  I wrote stories all the time, tapping into the creativity that introverts often nurture.  Even as I got older and became more social, it was not something that came naturally to me.  I often felt awkward despite my growing desire to spend more time in social situations but slowly became the life of the party.  Regardless of my evolving social status, my belief was that I was purely introvert flexing some extraverted muscles.  As a young adult, I would take quiet weekends alone for introspection.  When I began commuting into the city from the suburbs, I would opt for solitary reading time on the train rather than insert myself into the countless social circles that would be chatting away on the ride in and out of the city.

It was only a few years ago that I began to consider a different reality.  As part of my work, I was asked to take a personality assessment using the HBDI tool.  This tool, a bit different from others I have used in the past, measured my thinking style and looked at my personality from a whole brain perspective.  Ultimately, the test determined that I lean much more heavily towards extraversion than introversion.  Big surprise!  I really was quite surprised to learn that, after 40+ years of believing that I was an introvert that, perhaps, my tendency was towards extraversion and that my natural inclination was clouded by unnatural factors such as my experiences through childhood, insecurity, etc.  When in my most natural state and being most authentic, I am an extrovert with introverted behaviors.  I had to completely readjust my perspective about myself and, with this new classification, I actually came to embrace my extraverted self.  I spent a great deal of time exploring the reasons for my introverted behavior and decided to own the fact that I am an extrovert (which most people who know me well will say they knew to be true all along).

Yesterday I was having a great talk with a friend about this topic.  We were discussing important relationships in our lives and how we could potentially improve our interactions if we began to understand their personalities through this lens.  I talked about my husband who is very naturally social and, in my estimation, exudes confidence.  What I know about him after being together for 20 years is that he is more naturally an introvert.  He likes to think alone and needs quiet downtime.  While he is not a big reader, he enjoys sitting on the couch alone watching very cerebral television shows on the History Channel and the like.  He does not crave social interactions and does not feel the need to expel every thought from his head to socialize it with others.  This makes for an interesting dynamic in our house because I want to go out and socialize with friends as frequently as possible and I cannot process my feelings without some type of extraverted dynamic.  I surround myself with a large groups of people so there are always people around for me to talk to and gain lots of different perspectives.  On the other hand, I can also lock myself in a room for hours and write endlessly and feel a tremendous amount of peace with this.  For my husband, this would be a living nightmare. He’d rather sit at the bar at his restaurant and chat with the patrons.  It all seems a bit like a giant contradiction until you look at the most natural tendencies we have.  According to research, very few people are truly at one end of the spectrum or the other but, instead, most sit right in the middle leaning towards one end or the other.  So, for me, I am not 100% extrovert but I am probably in the 70-75% range with some tendencies towards introversion.  My husband is likely the polar opposite or leaning a bit closer to the middle as an ambivert.

Interestingly, when I read the results from my HBDI which listed one of my strongest quadrants as the one that focuses on interpersonal, spiritual and emotional behaviors, it suggested that I have both introverted and extraverted tendencies here.  My introverted self is expressive through writing or non-verbals and caring in a quiet way.  At the same time, my extraverted self is talkative and interested in bringing people together and sharing.  Both are equally true for me.  However, in my strongest quadrant which is the creative quadrant (which seems naturally introverted to me, by the way), I excel in an extraverted way in that I have a constant flow of ideas and love to have fun and experiment with others rather than the introverted corollary which is characterized by being off in your own world, doing your own thing and being a loner.  That is certainly not me.

This all is so fascinating to me because, as I continue to evolve my own thinking about human behavior and as I apply it to my work in dealing with individuals and groups in the workplace, it really is quite powerful.  As Susan Cain outlined, we put such a premium on collaboration both in schools and the workplace that we may be forgetting about the value that comes from quiet, independent thought.  That hit right to the core with me because I know that, without my quiet time, this blog would never exist.

So, as I look at my kids and their individual styles, I love and respect them both.  They each dip their toes into the introvert and extrovert styles and their personalities continue to evolve.  One thing is for sure, I am not about to push them in any direction that they are not already comfortably living in.

LEAP FORWARD


This morning I thought I would be clever and use the Leap Day as a metaphor for a post about moving forward in our lives.  Somehow, I thought I was the only one who would have such a remarkable idea and, before I could even formulate the opening words in my head, I stumbled across a plethora of posts using the same concept.  My favorite, without a doubt, belongs to an old friend (and great blogger) who summed up perfectly, in my mind, how to embrace this extra day of the year.

I am not about to let my lack of originality hold me back because I still believe there are important messages to be shared today.  I mean, how can we not recognize something that comes around only once every 4 years?  What I love about Leap Year is that this extra day is intended to help the universe catch up.  It is the extra day that allows us to balance out the calendar and ensure that we do not get too far ahead of ourselves.  I am also choosing to use Leap Year as a course correction day for myself and honoring it as such.  Like most of us, my life has its highs and lows and I try to be conscious of when I am experiencing each.  I try to appreciate the highs and ride them like beautiful and strong white caps and I try to ease into the lows, nurturing and comforting myself as the tide pulls back and I am sitting quietly on the sand.  My goal, always, is to keep some type of balance and appreciate that with every high there will be a low and vice versa.

I heard someone say recently that reflection is one of the most powerful tools of change.  If we can allow ourselves to spend some time in healthy reflection, holding the mirror close enough to see things clearly but not too close that we lose perspective, we can ensure ongoing learning, change, and growth.  I am choosing this  bonus day – as my friend has referred to it – to reflect and, hopefully leap forward.

We are already 60 days into 2012 and it feels as if the year just began.  I am still getting adjusted to writing 2012 on checks and I can almost still smell the pine needles from the Christmas tree.  Yet, at the same time, these 60 days have propelled me forward and provided a sense of peace and calm that I had not expected.  During this short 60 day timespan, my mother passed away.  It is a very matter-of-fact statement because, sadly, there was no heartbreak in the loss itself.  My mother and I had been estranged for many years due to a lifetime of conflict and abuse.  When I made a decision so many years ago to separate myself from her in order to begin my healing process, I began a journey of mourning for the mother I never had rather than the loss of a loving mother.  Several weeks ago when I learned of my mother’s death, I reached deep within my soul to search for pain and loss that simply did not exist.  I challenged myself.  I judged myself because I did not understand – despite having processed these feelings for so many years – how I could be so calm and unemotional about what would otherwise be a tragic loss.  There were and continue to be no clear answers because of the complexities that surround my relationship with my mother.  Regardless, I needed to conduct the exercise to test my feelings and endure whatever came my way.

I try to look at every situation in my life as a learning opportunity.  I cannot always appreciate when I am in the midst of a crisis or in pain but, usually, upon reflection, I am able to capture aspects of the situation that have pushed me forward in my journey.  While I certainly can be accused of over-analyzing stuff in my life, I am confident that my analysis generally leads to knowledge and growth.  In the weeks leading up to my mother’s death, I feared that I was not being truthful with myself about my feelings and that I would be unpredictably emotional when she finally died.  I explored and processed these fears, continually challenging my thinking and ultimately realizing that I had to trust myself and that only time would reveal my true feelings because there was simply no way to rehearse such an event.  Despite the overall sadness about the loss of a life and the additional sadness about a life wasted courtesy of mental illness and severe narcissism, I was uplifted by my own fortitude and the fact that I actually had clarity about my feelings.  For the first time – perhaps ever – I had complete confidence in my ability to know myself and trust myself.  That was an extraordinary outcome and a silver lining to an otherwise unpleasant and tragic occurrence.

Since there was no mourning period after my mother’s death and because it was difficult to share with others this complicated passing, I decided to take some solitary time to reflect and gain strength.  While I would never have chosen to have the mother I did or the relationship I did, I accept that this was my destiny in this lifetime and, if I did not learn and grow from it, it would be a wasted opportunity.  I have often said that I would actually not change anything in my life because it has helped me to be the person I am.  It is the same philosophy I use when thinking about my husband.  I love him deeply but anytime we are facing hard times and I question or doubt our relationship, I think about my children and recognize that, without him, they would not be who they are and I would not want to choose another option.  This is the life I am meant to have, those are the children I am meant to have so I need to accept everything that goes along with that.

Today, as I reflect on the last 60 days and try to leap forward, I must focus on what will catapult me ahead.  It is the people who share the journey that propel me.  Some I have chosen and some have chosen me.  Family has a different meaning to me than most and I find love and comfort in those around me who can appreciate my unconventional circumstances.  I enjoy the process of understanding how people come into your life and exploring why some are such perfect fits and others are jammed in because you want to squeeze them in.  And, of course, there are others that simply take up space that you could really use to free up.  As I often do, I want to honor those who are along for the ride.  Despite the fact that I might have always been a motherless daughter, I am not alone in the world and I am grateful to those who give me the strength and courage to grow and test my limits.  I only hope I am and continue to successfully pay it forward.