So here I sit amidst my remaining possessions, all of which have to fit into a house on my new property that is about a third the size of the house I live in now. I’m moving soon, headed to a less arid climate and a lifestyle with which I’m totally unfamiliar. I learn new startling things about this lifestyle every day. For example, gophers are evil. Who knew? Turns out they chew the roots out from under young trees and create holes that are exactly the right size to swallow a horse’s foot and break its leg. There are literally thousands of new gophers on my new property. This ranch is to gophers what Manhattan is to Americans. I plan to address this with diplomacy, but I have been warned that St. Francis himself would have taken up arms if there had been gophers living in Assisi.
But the anti-gopher offensive has not yet been launched. Because right now I’m in the process of ending my old life, not yet beginning my new one. My coaches will recognize this as Square 1, a time of death and rebirth. We train to deal with many clients in this state of change, because it scrambles the average person’s brain like an egg. I’m used to it, and was expecting it, which always helps. Nevertheless, every death, from the death of the smallest hope to the death of the physical body, throws most people into the cycle of grieving: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance. This is not a clean, linear process. It’s more like taking all those emotions, adding a huge dollop of fear, and blending the entire mixture like a green smoothie of psychological anguish.
When people ask me “What would you do if you only had one year to live?” I never come up with the exciting bucket list they expect. I would spend that entire year trying frantically to take care of everyone I would be leaving behind. This, believe me, is a bad choice. So I have reframed my current minor death as weaning.
Weaning is indeed the death of one situation—nursing—and the birth of a new way of life for both nurser and nursee. Far from being a catastrophic separation, it sets mother and baby free to embark on separate adventures, so that between them there will be a far more interesting assortment of experiences. Baby gets to develop self-sufficiency and empowerment. Hooray! Mother gets to sleep and shower without interruptions. Hooray, Hooray! So it’s all good—but it has to be done right.
There are two steps to successfully weaning yourself off any situation. The first is tostep it down. Not to gross out those of you who have never given birth, but if you have ever fed a baby in nature’s way, you know exactly why cows make that horrible sound when someone forgets to milk them. You can’t go cold turkey in a relationship in which much nourishment has been exchanged at any point. It’s painful. It hurts the mother, and it starves the baby. A better way to proceed is to subtract one of your daily nursing sessions, and hold the new level for four days. Then subtract another nursing session, repeat for four days. Etc. (Why four days? I wrote a whole freakin’ book about it. Just take my word for it, it works.)
As you step down the amount of nourishment being given and received, you move on to the second step: substitutes. You must obviously find something else to feed the baby. Trying to be a martyr, to get along with less, is a noble but unworkable enterprise. If you are losing a situation that nourishes you, finding other nourishment should be at the top of your priority list. (By the way, if you are in relationships that don’t nourish you, something is wrong, but that’s another column.) For example, I am accustomed to receiving weekly energy treatments from a magical healer named John Parker. Sure, I can survive without this—but to do so would probably affect my overall health. But I can’t just substitute any old massage therapist for John Parker; he’s one of a kind. (Plus, if I ever had a massage therapist come to my new property he or she would immediately be eaten by gophers.) So I have to get creative. I have to come up with something so physically, emotionally, and spiritually renewing that it will create the same net effect of a John Parker treatment. At the moment, I’m thinking this may involve Quaaludes and a very clever monkey. I’ll keep you posted.
I can tell you some additions I’ve made to my life that are beginning to make up for this loss, and they may not be what you’d expect. (They never are.) One of my substitutes is downloading entire seasons of TV series I’ve never seen and watching them on my computer. I’m also into visiting sites online where I can find tutorials on drawing the human body in extreme perspective. Another is cooking with my friends who will be living on my property. I’ve never cooked before, but for some reason being several miles away from the nearest Starbucks has inspired me. Also, I’ve stumbled upon a new system for memorizing piano music. What does any of this have to do with energy healing? Not a damn thing. That’s the point of weaning. You are going to a whole new source of nourishment, not just moving from boob to boob. I mean seriously, how is milk like grass? It isn’t! Eat it anyway!
So as your life changes—because everyone’s life is changing—use step-downs and substitutes to wean yourself off whatever you are losing. You’ll never find things going back to the way they were—but you will find yourself forced into discovering delicious new things you may have never even imagined. For example, gopher hunting.
“Don’t worry, hon,” said Theresa’s husband, Guy, when she failed to extinguish all her birthday candles in one breath. “A woman your age has to be in shape to make wishes come true. You just don’t have the lung capacity.” Guy chortled. Theresa’s face turned scarlet. The rest of us chuckled nervously. We were used to Guy, to the jocular way he planted and twisted stilettos between his wife’s ribs. Like most of Theresa’s friends, I’d always found him just charming enough to be tolerable. But as I watched him serve Theresa’s cake, something dawned on me: Guy was a mean person. He’d intentionally humiliated his wife, and he did such things often. It was like that moment in a horror movie when you understand that the rogue car, rather than simply straying off course, is actively pursuing children and puppies.
I recall an urge to kick Guy in the throat, which I controlled by reminding myself that it was both illegal and difficult to pull off in heels. I was studying karate at the time, and though it didn’t occur to me then, I would eventually realize that the basic principles taught at my dojo could be used to fight evil not just in action but in conversation as well. I think of it as martial arts of the mind, and if you’re subject to subtle stabs, deliberate snubs, or cutting remarks, you might find these techniques an effective defense against the Guys of your world.
Principle 1: Find Your Fighting Stance
Every form of martial arts requires a fighting stance that’s fluid, flexible, and centered. Standing this way makes you much less likely to lose your balance, and if someone jumps you, you can quickly duck or dodge in any direction without falling.
Physical fighting stances involve balance, alignment, weight distribution, and posture. A psychological fighting stance is all about emotional balance: self-acceptance, abiding by your own moral code (something you’re probably doing anyway), forgiving yourself for failing to reach perfection (this is rarer), and, finally, offering yourself as much compassion as you’d give a beloved friend (I suspect some of us need work in this department). Simply put, you must never be mean to yourself.
This works because cruelty, to be effective, has to land on a welcoming spot in the victim’s belief system. Guy mocked Theresa’s age and lack of physical fitness because he knew she hated those things about herself. If she hadn’t already believed his insults, they would have left her feeling puzzled but not devastated—the way I was when I learned that calling someone a “turtle’s egg” is a horrific insult in China. She would have seen Guy as the pathetic head case he was. And that may have led her to our second principle.
Principle 2: Practice the Art of Invisibility
I once purchased a book that promised to teach the ninja’s fabled “art of invisibility.” I was crestfallen to read that the first step in a technique called vanishing was “Wait until your opponent is asleep.” The whole book was like that: Get your enemy drunk, throw dust in his eyes, thump him on the head with a wok, then tiptoe away, forever. Well, I could’ve told you that.
Nevertheless, I recommend these ninja techniques for dealing with mean people. Get away from them, full stop. Sound extreme? It’s not. Cruelty, whether physical or emotional, isn’t normal. It may signal what psychologists call the dark triad of psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian personality disorders. One out of about every 25 individuals has an antisocial personality disorder. Their prognosis for recovery is zero, their potential for hurting you about 100 percent. So don’t assume that a vicious person just had a difficult childhood or a terrible day; most people with awful childhoods end up being empathetic, and most people, even on their worst days, don’t seek satisfaction by inflicting pain. When you witness evil, if only the tawdry evil of a conversational stiletto twist, use your ninjutsu. Wait for a distraction, then disappear.
“But,” you may be thinking, “what if you’re stuck with a mean family member, co-worker, or neighbor? What’s poor Theresa supposed to do?” Well, Grasshopper, that’s when the martial arts of the mind really come in handy.
Principle 3: Master Defensive Techniques
All martial arts teach strategies to deflect different attacks. For instance, I was taught to defend against a lapel grab with a punching combination called Crouching Falcon, follow that with a multiple-kick series known as Returning Viper, and finish with the charmingly titled technique Die Forever. (I prefer my own techniques, such as Silent Sea Slug, which entails lying down and hoping things improve, or Disgruntled Panda, which is mostly curling up and refusing to mate.)
I also learned this closely guarded martial arts secret: Although there are countless techniques, most fighters need only a few. For instance, judo star Ronda Rousey has clobbered numberless opponents using the Arm Bar technique. Her opponents know she’s going to do it, but that doesn’t keep her from snapping their elbows like dry spaghetti. Each good technique goes a long, long way. The following are a few that I highly recommend, in order of degree of difficulty.
Yellow Belt Technique: Trumpet Melodiously
I’m a lifelong fan of “Japlish,” English prose translated from the Japanese by someone whose sole qualification is owning a Japanese-to-English dictionary. One classic Japlish instruction, which I picked up from a car rental company, advised: “When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.”
I borrowed the phrase “trumpet him melodiously” for your first anti-meanness technique. It’s meant to nip hurtful behavior in the bud. Use it when someone—say a small child or an engineer—makes a remark that may or may not be intentionally cruel: “You smell like medicine,” “I can see through your pants,” “Why don’t you have a neck?”… You can trumpet him melodiously by saying, “Hey, dude, that’s kind of mean. Back off, okay?” If the behavior continues, tootle him with vigor by saying, “I’m serious. You’re out of line. Stop it.”
Practice these lines until you’re saying them in your sleep, with clear delivery, calm energy. Then, when you use them in real life, a normal person will react by immediately ceasing all hurtful behavior, and even mean people will be taken aback by your directness. They may even begin to behave themselves. Mission accomplished.
Brown Belt Technique: Zig-Zig
As a martial artist, you’ll need to get used to doing the opposite of whatever your enemies expect. For example, if someone were to push you backward, you might push back for a few seconds, then abruptly reverse, and pull your assailant in the direction he’s pushing. He’d be toppled by his own momentum.
This is zig-zigging. It works beautifully on mean people. They expect a fight-or-flight reaction from their victims—either angry pushback or slinking away. The one thing they don’t anticipate is relaxed discernment. Scuttle their plans by zigging instead of zagging, cheerfully accepting any accurate statement they might make while ignoring their malicious energy.
You can observe this technique in the movie Spanglish, when a young wife, played by Téa Leoni, lashes out at her mother, “You were an alcoholic and wildly promiscuous woman during my formative years, so I’m in this fix because of you!” As the mother, Cloris Leachman nods and says pleasantly, “You have a solid point, dear. But right now the lessons of my life are coming in handy for you.” This response stops the daughter cold, partly because it’s true and partly because it contains not a whiff of pushback. The mother zigs when the daughter expects her to zag. The result is peace.
Black Belt Anti-Meanness Technique: Wicked-Kind Parent
If you keep a balanced stance and surround yourself with normal people, you’ll eventually master the black belt skill I’ve named Wicked-Kind Parent. Mean people are adept at adopting the tone of a critical parent, making others unconsciously regress into weak, worried children. To use this defense, refuse to be infantilized. Instead, use the only thing that trumps the emotional power of a bad parent: the emotional power of a good one. This is what happened at Theresa’s birthday party. As Guy served cake and cruelty, Theresa’s older sister Wendy spoke up.
“Now, Guy,” she said, in precisely the tone Supernanny uses with kids on TV, “that kind of petty meanness doesn’t become you. Show us all you can do better.” Guy tried to laugh, but a glance around the room silenced him. Wendy had called on her good-parent energy to tap a great resource: normal people. Kind people. Outplayed and outnumbered, Guy slunk away, leaving Theresa to enjoy her birthday. This is virtually always the outcome when a mental martial artist encounters a Mean Guy. If you choose the way of the warrior, it will happen for you.
Principle 4: Walk the Way of the Warrior
Being a martial artist is a way of life. You can’t use your skills in an emergency unless you practice them every day. And such daily practice may lead to unexpected adventures. You’ll no longer watch helplessly as some Mean Guy emotionally abuses his wife—even if you happen to be the wife in question. Where your prewarrior self would’ve simply wilted, your warrior self will speak up or, if you’re the wife, walk away.
This may require drastic changes in your life. Are you ready for that? Well, you are if meanness has pushed you to the point of anger or despair. You are if you want to be the change you wish to see in the world. You can begin today. Adopt the stance of dauntless self-acceptance, avoid combat when possible, and practice your techniques until they become second nature. Though it might be helpful to remember that it really does help to wait until your opponent is asleep.
I am going to assume that y’all are already on board with my obsessive belief that we are undergoing a transformation of human consciousness. I could be wrong, but let’s just say I’m not. It seems that this change is imminent, if not already upon us. In Eckhart Tolle’s image, blossoms are opening in individual human beings all over our flower-field of a planet. This is beyond exciting! It’s also slightly more than terrifying if you are going through it. So here are a couple of concepts to calm and comfort us all.
The first is what I call “culture versus compass.” If we are meant to continue living on this particular planet, we must switch—very rapidly, now—to a way of thinking and living that has never before existed. This is necessary because the conditions we now face as a species are utterly unprecedented. What this means is that no culture—I repeat, no culture whatsoever—can give us full instructions on how to embody this new consciousness. Every culture provides hints, but none by itself could possibly be complete.
So how does one steer a path that does not yet exist? Since there is no cultural map, we have no alternative but to rely completely on the internal compasses we all carry in our hearts.
This sounds dangerous, even to me. The human heart seems full of bugs and errors. I have a firm faith in destiny but have never thought it wise to trust humans too much. Tough! The heart is all we have left to guide us. The ongoing miracle I have been experiencing recently is the discovery that our hearts are being guided more benevolently and helpfully than I ever dreamed possible. Even people who set out to harm others end up accidentally helping them. (I call this the “nemesis phenomenon”; the villain who sets out to destroy the hero, but without whom the hero could never discover the limits of his superpowers.) So all of this is just to say that any decision you are facing is best made in the deepest confines of your own body and brain. They are instruments miraculously calibrated to lead you; you must trust them now more than ever. For further information on this, please read everything I have ever written.
The next most useful tool in these chaotic times is what I call the rumble strip. A rumble strip looks like this: your dog dies on the same day your car is totaled, your daughter joins a cult, your best friend moves away, and your refrigerator explodes. In other words, it’s a barrage of seemingly unrelated catastrophes so severe you cannot ignore them. You have no idea what’s happening or why, only that this feels too freakishly bad to be coincidental.
I believe that, as the phrase suggests, rumble strip experiences are designed not to torture or punish us, but to steer us. We are headed in the wrong direction, not through malice or even intent, but simply by mistake. We’re like drivers who have fallen asleep at the wheel and the fates are conspiring to awaken us. If you encounter a rumble strip, from a morning of small annoyances to a year of crises, please realize that part of your awareness is asleep. By this I mean it is tied up in erroneous assumptions. Assumptions, by definition, shape the way we see the world. We are as unconscious of them as a sleeping driver is of sleep itself. That’s why the rumble strip feels so chaotic: it is jolting, jarring, and breaking apart the basic foundations of our worldview.
The best response is to slow waaaaaaay down. Begin to see where the thoughts you believe most deeply no longer serve to explain the chaos in your life. The rumble strip is pointing out the assumptions you must question, and in its elegant mercy it paints them so vividly with emotional pain that they will be hard to miss. For example, my first rumble strip was the year I described in my book Expecting Adam, when I was afflicted by everything from a nearly lethal illness to high-rise fires to lice. Fun! And then there was my son’s Down syndrome diagnosis. It took all that to smash apart my assumption that the value of my life was my intellect. You may have different assumptions but, trust me, some of them will not work in the months and years ahead.
The transformation we are feeling will only speed up from here. So please pay close attention to your inner compass. If you stop steering by your compass you will hit a rumble strip. Don’t panic. Just question your assumptions and you’ll be back on the road in no time.
At times in my life, I have felt utterly lonely. At other times, I’ve had disgusting infectious diseases. Try admitting these things in our culture, and you’ll find they evoke identical responses: Listeners cringe with a mixture of pity, revulsion, and alarm. In a culture where everyone wants a happy family and a sizzling relationship, the phrase “I’m lonely” rings like the medieval leper’s shout of “Unclean! Unclean!”
Fortunately, we now treat disease not by isolating its victims, but by diagnosing and healing them. Finding those who can comprehend the emptiness of your heart, diagnosing and ameliorating its ailments, can keep you productively engaged when your loneliness is at its worst.
The Time-Tested BLD System
Allow me to introduce the Beck Loneliness Diagnostic System, which is based on years of research I’ve conducted by brooding about my own problems during bouts of emotional eating. My system divides loneliness into three categories—absolute, separation, and existential—each of which has different remedies. I prescribe two courses of action for each type: quick fixes (to feel better immediately) and long-term solutions (to banish it for good).
Type 1: Absolute Loneliness
This malady occurs when we believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is no one who understands us and no one who wants to. Absolutely lonely people have few personal interactions of any kind. Isolation creates indescribable despair, for which typical self-help advice—”Have a bubble bath! Try aromatherapy!”—is ridiculously inadequate. The only saving grace of this state is that it often hurts enough to motivate people to try the following prescriptions.
Basic human contact—the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words—is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain. If you’re feeling abandoned by the world, interact with anyone you can—today. If you can afford it, hire a good therapist; if you can’t, hire a bad one. Attend a 12-step group, claiming codependency if you have no addictions. Sift wheat from chaff later—right now, it’s “Hail, fellow! Well met.”
If you’re living completely on your own, you must find understanding somewhere, somehow. No matter how scary it is to learn and use social skills, absolute loneliness is scarier. The best method to break out of solitary confinement is to seek to understand others, and help them understand you.
A simple three-step communication strategy is the most effective way to accomplish this. When you meet people, show real appreciation, then genuine curiosity; offer an honest compliment (step 1) followed by a question (step 2). Say “Cool hat. Where’d you get it?” Most often this approach will result in a brief, pleasant chat. Occasionally, though, someone will answer in such an interesting or charming way that you’ll want to respond by volunteering information about yourself (step 3), such as “I can’t wear hats—they make me look like a mongoose.” Repeat these three steps, and you’ll gradually connect at deeper and deeper levels.
The key word is gradually. Understanding is a dance of seven veils in which strangers take turns revealing a little more about themselves—not everything at once. Be patient, and the three-step combo can take you all the way from discussions of headgear to conversations like “You’re amazing. Shall we get married?”
Type 2: Separation Loneliness
If you force yourself to communicate with people appreciatively and curiously, you’ll eventually emerge from absolute loneliness. However, you’ll still experience what I call separation loneliness. Traveling, empty nesting, and almost any job will distance you from friends and family. Only since the Industrial Revolution have most people worked in places away from their homes or been left to raise small children without the help of multiple adults, making for an unsupported life.
Use separations to remind yourself how wonderful it is that you have people to miss. Solo time can motivate you to demonstrate that love. Focus on communication over distance. Tell interesting stories on the phone or in an e-mail about your day. Let your favorite people see life through your eyes. Ask them about what they’ve been experiencing, and listen or read with total concentration. You’ll come to know one another in new ways, and absence really will make your hearts grow fonder. Once that’s done, I recommend finding understanding by doing what the song says: If you can’t be with the one you love…love the one you’re with. Use your appreciation-curiosity-openness combo on the folks around you.
This remedy requires facing some hard choices. If you’re continuously aching to be with people you never see, the rewards of your career or nifty home in the exurbs may not make up for the sacrifice. Many of my clients decide that their horrible jobs aren’t worth forfeiting years with their family. Others stop hanging out with people—even relatives—who drain them, in order to be with those who inspire them. You don’t have to make such decisions immediately, but you do have to make them. Every day brings new choices. If you want to end your isolation, you must be honest about what you want at a core level and decide to go after it.
Type 3: Existential Loneliness
The final type of estrangement is a bedrock fact of the human condition: the hollowness we feel when we realize no one can help us face the moments when we are most bereft. No one else can take risks for us, or face our losses on our behalf, or give us self-esteem. No one can spare us from life’s slings and arrows, and when death comes, we meet it alone. That is simply the way of things, and after a while, we may see it’s not so bad. In fact, existential loneliness, the great burden of human consciousness, is also its great gift—if we give it the right treatment.
One word—art. In the face of great sorrow or joy, love or loss, many human beings who went before me learned to express themselves sublimely through clumsy physical things: paint, clay, words, the movement of their bodies. They created works of art that remind me I am not alone in feeling alone. Seeking the company of people who have learned to transcend the isolation of an individual life, who have felt as I feel and managed to express it, is the best treatment I’ve found for existential loneliness. (Notice that this advice is the opposite of the quick fix for “absolute” loneliness; you may need both prescriptions.) Make your own artistic connections. Read novels, listen to samba, watch documentaries: Seek art from every time and place, in any form, to connect with those who really move you.
Same word—art. The quick fix is to appreciate others’ artistry; the real deal requires that you, yourself, become an artist. I’m not asking you to rival Picasso or Mozart, but I would challenge you to think the way they thought, to put aside convention and embarrassment and do whatever it takes to convey your essential self. Use anything you can think of to understand and be understood, and you’ll discover the creativity that connects you with others.
If you begin to apply these prescriptions, whether by drumming up the courage to connect, choosing a moment of love over a moment of work, or creating something as silly as a bad cartoon, you’ll soon find yourself stumbling across beauty and communion. Loneliness, far from revealing some defect, is proof that your innate search for connection is intact. So instead of hiding your loneliness, bring it into the light. Honor it. Treat it. Heal it. You’ll find that it returns the favor.
Imagine this: You’re putting together a nifty jigsaw puzzle—say, your favorite Elvis montage painting on black velvet—when one of the pieces suddenly morphs into an entirely different shape. Aside from the unnerving quantum-mechanical implications of this event, you’ve got a problem—the surrounding pieces no longer fit. You could try to alter those pieces (a troubling prospect, since it will require distorting all the ones around them) or give up on the puzzle entirely—unless, of course, you could get the little sucker to resume its former shape and size.
This sort of situation arises in every human life. We live in social systems—families and neighborhoods, offices and nations—that call for continuous, complex interconnection. Any person who undergoes a dramatic shift creates a ripple effect, requiring change from others around her. The fact that you’re reading this suggests that you’re inclined toward personal growth. I’m guessing you’ve been this way for years, whether it’s a trait you celebrate every day or a dirty secret you ruminate over while churning butter with your Amish kinfolk. The problem, as you may have noticed, is that not everyone you know, love, or work with is overjoyed to tread the path of change along with you.
Because we are a species that fears the unknown, most people reject the continuous transformation that is human reality and try to lock others into predictable behavior. “Promise me that you’ll never change,” lovers whisper to one another, though only a model from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum could keep such an enormous promise. In short, anyone who thinks new thoughts or does new deeds is likely to garner disapproval and criticism from someone.
How to Handle a Change-Back Attack
Women who are undergoing changes are likely to experience “change back” messages from their nearest and dearest. The messages come in many forms: sabotage, cold silence, shouted insults, refusal to cooperate. But all convey just one idea: “I don’t like what you’ve done. Go back to being the way you were.” This might seem baffling in the face of positive achievements like losing weight, falling in love, or learning new ideas.
But change-back attackers aren’t really thinking about the person they’re pressuring. They’re fighting for their lives—or at least life as they know it. These people are motivated not only by their own fear of change but by the pressure of other “puzzle pieces” that surround them. The force of a change-back attack has the weight of all those relationships. Resist successfully, and you may end up affecting people you’ll never meet.
First, a basic attitude adjustment: Most people who are on the receiving end of change-back messages go into fits of guilt or defensiveness, then revert to familiar behaviors. This, of course, is exactly what the disgruntled party wants. Part of every personal evolution strategy should be a determination to greet these messages with pride and joy, as a sure sign you’re making progress. Call a friend, a therapist, a fellow self-improvement devotee, and report the good news: “Guess what? I just got six blowbacks in one conversation! I must really be making progress!” Once you’ve made this attitudinal shift, you’re ready for a systematic defense.
Begin Your Systematic Defense
Step 1: Pay respectful attention.
When someone launches a change-back attack against you, refrain from resisting or submitting; just pay attention. Remember that whether you realize it or not, your actions may be forcing this friend to either make personal alterations or give up on “fitting” with you. Noticing their fear may calm you, and this may go a long way toward calming them.
If someone comes at you with a direct, obstreperous argument, try these unexpected, attentive responses: “Tell me.” “I’m listening.” “I hear you.” “Say a little bit more on that.” Attentiveness is a mobile, fluid stance that allows you to observe and respond without sustaining much damage. As Mark Twain said about doing right, it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
Step 2: Take time to find your truth.
So you’ve paid attention. You know that the bag of bacon cheeseburgers on the table is just evidence that your loving husband is afraid he’ll lose you. You’ve listened calmly as your angry teenager or judgmental parent lambasted you for your new achievements. Find a private moment for yourself. Now breathe and relax. Recall the chain of events that motivated your metamorphosis in the first place: the fat, the loneliness, the illumination. Honestly consider the feedback you’ve just received. Maybe it feels absolutely right; if so, reverse course. Maybe it’s partly right. Fine, alter your direction. Or maybe the complaint is just plain wrong. In that case, you must keep going, trusting that the best gift you can offer others is the resolute embrace of your own truth.
Step 3: State your position for the record.
If your change-back attacker is sober and in a reasonably receptive frame of mind, you may want to respond to her argument. Even when you’re dealing with a nasty, non-communicative person, stating your position may be a powerful step in your own development. It may not make the slightest impression on your unrelenting foes, but hearing the truth spoken in your own voice can clear your head and buoy your heart, at which point you’ll have won the battle.
Vanquish Your Change-Back Attackers
Step 4: Unconditional Love
There’s a secret weapon in the change wars, one that can fill the gaps and soften the edges of our constantly morphing identities—and I don’t mean leaving your whole social system or forcing others to conform to you at every moment in time. The answer is unconditional love, and I encourage you to use it with ruthless abandon.
You’ll know you’ve vanquished your change-back attackers when you can love them completely without agreeing with them at all. You can’t force this feeling—it will happen naturally when you’re ready—but when it strikes, express it, without acquiescing to others’ verbal jabs. Doing this cheerfully and unabashedly will confound your average saboteurs by giving them nothing to oppose.
At best, this approach will cause your adversaries to stop, ponder, and perhaps feel less scared of making their own improvements. At worst, it will render you flexible, able to fit in with many people and social systems without getting stuck in any one position. The more you claim your own destiny, the easier it will be to love unconditionally. The more you love, the more comfortably you’ll fit in with all sorts of people. Ultimately, situations that once brought on horrendous change-back attacks, that once appeared to you as utterly unworkable puzzles, may end up barely fazing you at all.
Disclaimer: CAUTION! You will either like this post, or comment to yourself that I have truly climbed off the crazy station and onto the crazy train. So if crazy doesn’t work for you, just stop now.
So I just got back from yet another delicious and astonishing experience, this one at a ranch in Montana owned by a dear friend. This is the same place where I experienced the original Pronghorn event. This year, because I now know that Pronghorns frequent the area, I decided to up the ante: “Wolves!” I thought to myself. It’s WAY harder to attract a wolf than a Pronghorn. Then I realized this was a ridiculous thought, since calling a wild wolf requires exactly the same amount of effort as calling a Pronghorn—in other words, practically nothing.
When I got to the ranch, I asked if there were any wolves living in the area. My friend said she thought a few had been seen 18 months prior. I invited everyone in the group to call in some wolves…and at 9 o’clock that night, guess who started howling outside the cabin? Oh yes they did! Some people heard them all night long. I, like an idiot, got too attached and did not hear them myself. Damn you, tenacious ego! Still, it was one hell of a “coincidence.”
Oh, and by the way, the day the whales came (see last “Insight from Martha”), it was covered INTERNATIONALLY. My friends in Africa saw it and called to tell me they figured I was on that beach.
This is all so normal.
But enough with my obsessive animal stories! The point is that I am experiencing what many of you are, too: an increasingly powerful conviction that what we once thought of as the world “out there” is in fact as intimately connected to each of us as our own heart. On one hand, my own physical body feels more and more like an animal that happily lives its life without obeying any of my conscious intentions; on the other hand, my consciousness feels capable of creating physical events that seem distant and impossible.
In Expecting Adam, I wrote about a moment when, exhausted, sick, and heartbroken, I sent out the thought “I just can’t do this. Maybe you should drive.” I didn’t know what I was talking to, and I still don’t. But whatever it was, it surrounded me with an inexplicable sweetness. It picked up my heart and held it like a baby. Ever since, there have been moments when I have climbed out of the driver’s seat, only to grab for control again when my inner lizard raised its fearful, scaly head.
These days, I simply don’t feel like driving. The passenger seat is much more fun. I watch my own body and mind playing ecstatically with the illusion of form.
Have I lost you yet? If so, I respectfully and lovingly do not care.
Recently, several clients have told me that they have an odd sense of being disconnected from their bodies. They still feel sensations, but find themselves acting strangely in their own eyes. They have stopped driving. The journey has been taken over by what we, in our coaching system, call their essential self. Some people seem to be able to stop this from happening deliberately, others invite and enjoy it, and others, weirdly, are observing it as it happens to them without any conscious decisions on their part. I’m sure this has always been possible, but I’m just warning you: these days, our essential selves are growing more and more powerful. The blissful game of consciousness clothed in matter is getting faster and more delicious. So if this is happening to you, and it’s freaking you out, relax. Let the wolves drive.
When my friend Riley and I met for coffee, I was feeling somewhat gloomy, looking forward to a little emotional support. As I sat down, however, Riley recounted a harrowing tale. Only hours before, as she was chomping happily on some caramel corn, one of her front teeth had snapped off, right at the gum line! Her dentist glued it back in, but I mean… The horror! The horror!
My bad mood disappeared as I grilled Riley about every detail, told her it was perfectly normal that the incident upset her more than global warming, and affirmed that her teeth looked great (they did). After a while, Riley drew a deep breath, exhaled, and relaxed.
“Now,” she said, “what’s going on with you?”
Immediately, my previous unhappiness resurfaced. Riley did some heavy therapy on my private psychological issues, which was no doubt recorded and posted on YouTube by the bored baristas. No matter—I felt worlds better by the time we parted. So, she said through her totally normal-looking teeth, did Riley.
To me, this was friendship at its best. Riley and I spontaneously and easily switched roles, taking care and being taken care of. But not all relationships (certainly not all of mine) flow this smoothly. Many friends have unspoken but ironclad rules about which person will do what share of the emotional and logistical work.
Right now, scan your mental files for friendships where the roles never change: She’s the talker, you’re the listener; she’s the star, you’re the screwup; she never calls you, you always call her. Imagine what this friend’s response would be if you stopped playing your part or stepped into hers. Would she be shocked or angry? Would she ice you, scold you, drop off your social calendar? If so, I’m afraid that particular connection isn’t exactly a friendship. Rigid roles enforced by social pressure add up to something else—something I call a naiad dyad.
What the Hell’s a Naiad Dyad?
Naiads are mythological nymphs who ruled the rivers and springs of ancient Greece. One of these watery demigoddesses had a famously handsome son named Narcissus, who attracted many admirers, none more admiring than himself. He fell so madly in love with his own reflection that he did nothing but stare at it. Narcissus’s friends found this daunting—all, that is, except for another nymph named Echo, whose curse (naiads were highly curse-prone) was that she couldn’t voice her own thoughts, only repeat words spoken by others.
In their twisted way, Narcissus and Echo were ideal companions. Both were obsessed with the same person (him), and both expressed the same thoughts, ideas, and opinions (his). I’m sure the next-door satyrs thought their relationship was perfect. Not so much. In one version of the story, Narcissus, unable to work out the logistics of being in love with himself, plunged a dagger into his heart and was transformed into a flower. Echo, devastated, wandered off to haunt canyons and glens, repeating random sentiments shouted by strangers.
Question: Do you see any similarities between your rigid-role “friendships” and the Narcissus-Echo relationship, or do I have to bash you over the head with them? Answer: Too late. Brace yourself.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, unhappy friendships are all different, but those inflexible relationships almost universally signal the psychological dynamics of narcissists and their echoes. On the surface, these friendships look idyllic—as Jennifer Coolidge’s dim character says of such a relationship in the film A Mighty Wind, “It’s almost as like we have one brain that we share between us.” Since no two individuals are identical, such unanimity is always an illusion; the “one brain,” or at least the dominant will, belongs to the person both friends implicitly agree is more important. The echo voluntarily surrenders personal needs, ideas, and even rights in exchange for the narcissist’s “love,” which is actually directed at her own reflection. “Enough about me; let’s talk about you,” she says with words and actions. “What do you think about me?”
Such relationships exist because narcissism is a basic factor of human consciousness, beginning in infancy. Tiny babies literally can’t focus on anyone but themselves. As children grow, however, they realize that others have feelings, needs, and rights. They learn to share and care.
There are some individuals who never outgrow infantile self-obsession. Throughout life, they take without giving and expect others to give without taking. Even when they have their own children, they can’t focus on anyone but themselves. One woman told me quite seriously that her 3-day-old son was “a selfish brat” because “he cries when he knows I’m trying to sleep.” Extremely narcissistic parents often have echo spouses, who limply accept unfair treatment from everyone, including their children. “Don’t mind me, sweetheart,” sighs the echo parent. “Here’s money for cocaine—I’ll stay here, knitting you a sweater from my hair.”
Children raised by such parents grow up unconsciously assuming there are only two possible relationship modes: Some become thoroughgoing narcissists, others eternal echoes. (Some bounce between these two states, acting oppressively in some of their relationships but groveling in others, like the middle manager who trashes subordinates but toadies up to the boss.)
When two people who fall into this kind of dyad meet, they bond instantly, like Krazy Glue. “I feel as if I’ve known you all my life,” they say, basking in the familiar narcissist-echo energy. There are no arguments, no awkward uncertainty about who should do what, because the echo immediately begins reflecting the narcissist. She stops listening to rap, catching her new friend’s polka fever.
Even more important, the echo assumes all the subtle work of friendship: initiating contact, arranging activities, offering compliments and other forms of nurturing. She doesn’t mind things being one-sided; she’s just grateful—ecstatic—that she’s being adored by a replica of the parent who couldn’t love her. And the narcissistic friend really is adoring—not of the echo, as they both mistakenly believe, but of her reflection in her new friend’s eyes. It’s all fun and games, right up until someone gets stabbed.
The Bitter End
I’m devastated,” whispered my echoey client Naomi. “My best friend just…dumped me. I don’t understand; we’re so close. We went to each other’s weddings. We talked every day. Then out of the blue, she tells me I’ve changed, I’m getting selfish, she’s done with me. I don’t think she’ll ever speak to me again.” Baffling as it may seem if you don’t understand narcissism, Naomi is probably right. Her long-standing friendship is likely over.
This is how naiad dyads often end. For instance, when Naomi the echo finally became so unhappy she hired a coach, she began to see herself as worthy of reciprocal friendship. She started drawing boundaries and making small, gentle requests. Her supposed friend, a true narcissist, saw this as a selfish betrayal of their implicit arrangement.
Even if Naomi had kept echoing like an empty cistern, this naiad dyad would probably have ended. Because narcissists don’t give love, which is half the equation of a genuine emotional connection, they always become increasingly unhappy over time (remember Narcissus’s suicide). Many blame their echoes: “You’re not making me happy anymore!” Whether the echo gets better or the narcissist gets worse, the relationship may suddenly and completely fracture, the Krazy Glue bond breaking as quickly and completely as it formed.
Real friendship never does this because it’s extremely flexible. Friends take turns performing and receiving “friendship maintenance” tasks, from making phone calls to buying presents. When Riley’s tooth broke, she got my immediate attention: I “echoed” her. Then we switched roles, and we discussed my problems. This simple turn-taking is what naiad dyads lack, and it leads to catastrophic failure. If you suspect that one of your friendships is actually a naiad dyad, try one of the following fixes.
Let’s say you’re in a rigid friendship where you call all the shots and do none of the work. You might be a narcissist, which probably means you don’t care and won’t change. My only advice? Avoid daggers.
On the other hand, if you’re disturbed by receiving one-sided VIP treatment, you might want to talk to her and explain that her excessive selflessness is troubling, that you need to give as well as receive to feel like her friend. I’m haunted by the fact that I never had this conversation with a college buddy who years later committed suicide. Maybe I could have helped by insisting she learn to receive as well as give. You can’t force a confirmed echo out of her role, but it’s worth trying.
And what if you’re playing the echo role? You could ask your friend to do something that’s usually “your” job: “You know, I’d love it if you’d drive over to my place today, since I always drive over to yours.” A normal friend may be surprised, but she’ll comply. A narcissist will go cold, angry, or passive aggressive. This won’t immediately end your inner child’s adulation for her, but it will horrify you enough to begin seeing reality and disengaging.
If you can’t just end a naiad dyad—say your friend is also a co-worker—there’s another option. You can train her like a sea mammal, as author Amy Sutherland reported in her New York Times article “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.” Narcissists hate being ignored—and crave praise. A combination of indifference and adulation can powerfully shape their behavior. When your co-worker shouts that the coffee you made is too hot, don’t react at all. Later, when she’s calm, spontaneously exclaim, “You’re projecting so much authority!” or “You look great!” The narcissist will react like a junkie inhaling opium and probably increase the behavior you’re rewarding. Is this healthy? God, no. But it’s better than helpless echoism.
Making Friendship Blossom
These methods can get you out of truly sick naiad dyads and improve marginal cases, moving them away from strict role division toward reciprocity and flexibility. The more fluid and balanced your relationships become, the more you’ll see that friendship, unlike Narcissus, can flower without anyone’s getting hurt. As someone who’s been blessed with marvelous friends, I can assure you this is worth the effort. But enough about me. What do you think about…you?
So, we just finished our very first Wayfinder Workshop. It was a FABULOUS experience for me—and let’s face it, who else matters? (I am kidding!) By targeting my last book to people who already feel their magic, I appear to have achieved two things: convincing most of the reading public that I am certifiably insane, and inviting the most awesome people on earth to come play with creating a new way of being in the world. We held the seminar on Pismo Beach, California, for reasons I will describe in a minute.
The first day, as we stood on the beach, some of us used the animal-calling exercise described in Finding Your Way In A Wild New World. By the following day, so many whales were surfacing off Pismo Beach that it made the national news. I watched them playing for an hour during our lunch break. My partner, Karen, insists that this is a coincidence, and it probably is. I’M JUST SAYING.
The fact is that real magic does not require the grandiosity of a Hollywood movie. When it arrives, one can always trace the way it happened in the physical world. The miracle is always a coincidence in which God chooses to remain anonymous. Magic is glory, not what I call “gloriola.”
On that same note, I want to thank anyone who gave so much as a glancing thought to my story about wanting a ranch where I could live close to nature. That miracle is finally a done deal, although I’m still waiting for it to land. This is not a story of “rich person buys a ranch.” This is a story of “wacky person feels compelled to buy something she absolutely cannot afford which she is then somehow able to buy.” Seriously, you guys, I do not know how this happened. All I know is that I can now sit on my front porch watching wild turkeys, deer, foxes, skunks, and potentially a bear (some of the coaches saw him down the road a bit, and there is nothing stopping him from visiting me). Best of all are the bobcats that live on the land. I like to think of them as starter leopards.
In short, I live in a three-dimensional miracle—and so do you. Before the Wayfinder Workshop, several tribe members gathered with a Shaman to dedicate the land to the objective of “Restoring Eden”—healing animals, ecosystems, and humans, in any way possible. At one point the Shaman took me aside and said, “Martha. Stop trying.” Without words, she helped me find an incredibly deep flow wave of movement in my lower torso. “There,” she said, “that anchors you and you can let others anchor there as well. Then, let it heal them.”
She didn’t say what ‘it’ was, because on one hand it is inexpressible, and on the other hand, once you’ve felt it, there is no need to describe it. It is the TAO. It is Love. It is saturating the air you breathe as you read this. Be still until you can let it find you. That is your only job. And then, what the hell, call some whales. Because that’s AWESOME.
You’d be wholeheartedly thrilled with that gift, that compliment, that declaration of affection—if it weren’t for the wary little voice in the back of your mind wondering how you’ll ever be able to reciprocate…or did the giver really mean it…or what’s the catch?
In the long run, we can’t stay emotionally healthy without accepting gifts, both concrete and intangible. Refusing to receive leaves us chronically empty, prone to addiction, obsession, codependency, or an eternal psychological hunger that’s never quite satisfied. The healthy alternative is to stop merely closing down and learn to receive wisely, fully accepting good gifts without being damaged by bad ones.
The secret is this: No matter what happens, keep your heart open. Here’s a way to practice: Take a bill from your wallet that’s large enough that you’d be upset if you lost it—maybe $1, maybe $100. Go to a public place, like a park or mall, and find a spot with sporadic foot traffic. Wait until no one’s looking. Place your money on the ground and retreat to a spot nearby, where you can see whoever finds it. The money is your gift to this person.
Observe your own mind as you wait. You’ll probably find that you’re running an inner monologue on subjects like worthiness, appropriateness, justice. You may hope a poor child finds the money, while your heart clenches at the thought of an addict buying drugs with it, or a lawyer sliding it into an Armani pocket. But no matter who discovers the cash, just watch them pick it up, then silently wish them well. If your giving capacity is out of whack, your receiving capability is likely jammed, too, which means this won’t be easy. What it will be is highly educational. It’s none of your business who finds it, or what they do with it. The goal is to reach a place where you could watch happily as an Enron executive pounced on your ten bucks.
Why should you want this to happen? Because the judgments that constrain your giving are the very demons that are keeping you from receiving. “You don’t deserve that.” “You’d better put it to good use.” “Now you’re obligated.” “You’d better earn it, buddy….” As you teach your own charity to outlast such opinions while giving to other people, you’ll release yourself from having to meet certain criteria (repayment, neediness, poverty) when you are given something.
Receiving What’s Already Yours
Once you’ve learned to give with an open heart, it’s time to receive something. Start with something easy: a gift that’s an accident of birth. Perhaps you’ve accepted your own gifts from time to time, but only in covert moments. If you happen to have gorgeous feet, you may occasionally find yourself gazing at them appreciatively. When you think your way through difficult problems, you might think, “Wow, cool!” Then you clamp down, attack your own ego, search the environs for any witnesses you may have to kill, lest they report to the world that you’re full of yourself.
This isn’t humility; it’s denial. You know darn well what you’ve got, but you’re refusing to receive it, because you believe this protects you from judgment—your own and that of others. It’s time to thank yourself for having this fabulous quality. Say it, out loud or in your head: “Thank you for being so talented!” “Thank you for having great hair!” Don’t be surprised if, once again, you find yourself plowing through the stages of grieving on the way to full acceptance. You may get angry at yourself for your arrogance. You’ll bargain—yeah, you won the Pulitzer, but you didn’t deserve it (this isn’t a hypothetical example; I heard it from a real Pulitzer Prize winner). You’ll get depressed about the fact that your parents don’t really see this gift in you, or that they do but someday they’re going to die. No matter what judgments fly at you, keep repeating, “Thank you for this gift.”
Once you’ve begun accepting your own inherent gifts, you’re ready to receive a present from someone else. Find a physical object someone has already given you: a flower, a card, a ring. Stunted receivers have a lot of mixed feelings about such items. You may not feel worthy of the gift, or you may be haunted by fear that you now owe the giver something enormous.
You know the drill by now. Sit with the gift, physically touch it, and say, “Thank you; I accept.” Here it will come again, the emotional whirlwind: denial (“I’m not good enough to deserve this”); anger (“He probably expects me to sleep with him now”); bargaining (“I’ll give her a pie; then I won’t feel so guilty”); depression (“I bet he hates me for not writing a thank-you note”). Touch the object. Say “Thank you; I accept.” Until you really do.
Receiving the Big Kahuna
On the heels of accepting a physical present comes the real prize: accepting the love that motivated the gift. Few givers are perfect, so few gifts come from absolutely pure affection. But if you’ve practiced receiving with an open heart, you’ll be a better judge of which gifts are genuine and which are Trojan horses. When a gift comes with manipulative strings attached—if it’s not really a gift but a disguised bribe—it will feel unpleasant. You can either politely refuse or accept it without becoming vulnerable to exploitation.
The process should be familiar by now. Look back on a time someone gave you a gift of love—even imperfect love. Whatever the gift was (a compliment, companionship, confidence in your basic worth), hold it in your mind and say to the person who gave it, “Thank you; I accept.” Sit still. Hold the gift in your heart. Say “Thank you.”
The worst-case scenario here is that what you thought was love actually wasn’t, that the person to whom you opened your heart was offering no real love at all. In that case, receiving openheartedly will leave you with hope: the shape of love not yet experienced, the DNA-deep knowledge of what you’re meant to have. Once that channel is opened, you’ll be amazed how many gifts are waiting for you to receive them.