Martha on Oprah: The Truth Will Set You Free

Recently Martha joined Oprah for a live webcast after the episode “The Truth Will Set You Free” from Oprah’s new Lifeclass series on OWN.  With her signature blend of humor, science, and spirituality, Martha helps us understand how lies and secrets affect relationships, self-esteem, and even our health. Both Martha and Oprah then offer their keen insight and clarity on how to to speak your truth so that you can live the life you are meant to live.

Clicking on the video above will redirect you to oprah.com. 

When People Are Mean

When Mean People Suck TeeThe first time I saw a T-shirt that said “mean people suck,” I thought, Now, there is a heartfelt sentiment, succinctly expressed. I only wished I’d been the author. I mention this because recently I’ve encountered several mean people, and I’ve had to remind myself that the concept of authorship is key to surviving these experiences.

I don’t know about you, but my favorite ways of reacting to mean people are (1) getting mean right back or (2) lying down quietly to display the word welcome! written where my spine used to be. Annoyingly, my job constantly reminds me that there’s a more responsible and effective way to live. That’s how it is for us authors. I say “us” because you’re an author, too. Not all of us write for publication, but every living person has the power of authorship when it comes to composing our lives. Meanness emerges when we believe that we have no such power, that we’re passive receptors of life’s vagaries. Inner peace follows when we begin responding to cruelty—our own and other people’s—with the authority we’ve possessed all along.

Why are people mean?

Here’s the short answer: They’re hurt. Here’s the long answer: They’re really hurt. At some point, somebody—their parents, their lovers, Lady Luck—did them dirty. They were crushed. And they’re still afraid the pain will never stop, or that it will happen again.

There. I’ve just described every single person living on planet Earth.

The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine, depending on how they “write” it. The moment we begin tolerating meanness, in ourselves or others, we are using our authorial power in the service of wrongdoing. We have both the capacity and the obligation to do better.

We perceive our life events as story lines. We continually (though often unconsciously) tell ourselves tales about life, and since no story can include every tiny event, we edit and spin the facts into the stories we prefer. Many of our stories are pure fabrication, and all of them are biased, dominated by our flair for the dramatic, our theories about life, and our fears. A typical mean person’s story line goes like this: “I am a victim; people want to hurt me; I must hurt them first to be safe.” This is why mean people may turn ugly when you say something like “Please pass the salt” or “Hey, it’s raining.” They immediately rewrite whatever they hear to support their story line (“She’s saying I’m a bad cook” or “He’s bringing up the weather to avoid talking about us”). The story, not other people’s behavior, both motivates and excuses their hostility.

If we react to this type of meanness with cruelty of our own, we climb onto the wheel of suffering that drives all conflict, from lovers’ spats to wars: You’re mean to me so I’m mean to you so you’re meaner to me so I’m meaner to you….

We’ll stay on this sickening merry-go-round until we decide to get off—and please note that I did not say “when others stop being mean to us.” We can ride the wheel of suffering when no one else is even present (telling ourselves the same old sad story again and again), and we can leave it even in the midst of violent persecution. The way out is not found in changing our circumstances but in the power of authorship.

Here are some ways to use that power…

Like any work of fiction, your life story begins with description. Try sitting down and writing a one-page account of your life (no stressing over style; this is for your eyes only).

Now go get a hat. That’s right, a hat. When you wear this hat, you become the Reader, a different person from the Author. Put on your hat and read what you’ve written, pretending you’ve never seen it. Ask yourself, Is this the story of a hero or a victim? Is it a tale of the terrible things that have happened to the central character (you), or does it speak in terms of the choices you’ve made to create those circumstances? Do you dwell on vengeance or gratitude? Do difficult people and situations appear as forces who control you or as problems you are busily solving?

Now take off your hat and get a second piece of paper. Write another description of your life, one that is more heroic than the last (if your first story was valiant, make this one even more so). Mention times you chose wisely, instances when people were kind to you, moments you knew that no matter how bad things looked, you were going to succeed.

Don your hat, read your new history, and see how it compares to the first draft. I suspect that you’ll find it much more interesting and enjoyable. You’ve just exercised the storytelling talent that will take you off the wheel of suffering: the power to write your character as a hero rather than a victim.

This skill not only keeps you from being mean to others—if you’re consciously composing your life as a hero’s saga, you won’t excuse your own cruelty or anyone else’s—but also guides you to healthy options when others are mean to you. You’ll respond bravely but compassionately to the villains you encounter. You may need practice, but you can compose your hero’s saga with your actions, not just the written word. Feel hemmed in by obligations to children, siblings, parents? You are free to say no, even if it rocks the family boat. Trapped in an unenlightened culture?

You are free to act on your own principles, whatever the response. Take your liberty. Use your power. Rewrite every memory of your own victimization as a hero’s adventure.

“Mean” can also be defined as “small.”

Mean people live small, think small, and feel small—the smaller, the meaner. The belief that we are smaller and less powerful than others underlies most meanness, even when that belief is delusional. But we can also use our author’s imagination to size things in our favor. Think of a person who’s been nasty to you. Imagine that person shrinking to one inch tall. Picture your enemy stomping around in the palm of your hand, yelling or sneering all the customary cruelties. You’ll find that if your critic is making a valid point, it will still sound accurate, but mere verbal abuse is hilarious when squeaked in the voice of an inch-tall Mini-Mean.

Whatever your reaction to this tiny villain, that’s probably the best way to react to your life-size challenger. If the insults are laughable, just laugh. If the mean person has a point, tell her that you get it, but she could stand to work on her people skills. Practice what you would say if you felt big and invulnerable, then say it, even if you’re scared. Be “big” by responding to cruelty with honest calm rather than aggression or submissiveness.

Ernest Hemingway claimed the most essential talent for a good writer was simply a “built-in, shockproof shit detector.” Great authorship is all about truth. To write the stories of our lives as honestly as possible, we must thoroughly reject crap. This is especially useful when cruelty masquerades as kindness. Some of the most merciless behavior ever perpetrated looks very nice. The sweeter a lie sounds, the meaner it really is.

“Honey, people are whispering about your weight.” “Stop talking back, or you’ll lose that husband of yours.” “Oh, sweetheart, that’s way too big a dream for you.” Statements like these may be well-intentioned feedback—or spite. The difference is that honesty, even the tough stuff, makes you feel clearer and stronger, while meanness leaves you mired in shame, despair, and frailty.

This is true physically as well as psychologically. I sometimes make my clients do push-ups while repeating feedback they’ve been given, such as “I need to lose 20 pounds” or “I should be nicer.” If the statement is false, the strength literally drains from their bodies. If it’s true, they become stronger. One client, a couch potato in her 60s, started cranking out literally hundreds of push-ups once she rejected the feedback she was getting from her husband and chose to believe what her heart was telling her. Try this yourself to see what your internal detection system reveals about the feedback you’ve received. Trust, remember, and revisit honest advice. Muck everything else right out of your mind.

If you opt to write your life consciously, you’ll find that a tale acknowledging your hero’s strength feels truer than one depicting you as a victim. You’ll see that whatever your physical size, you really are a bigger person than any bully. You’ll learn that the truth, no matter how hard, always strengthens you more than a lie, no matter how nice. On the other hand, if you don’t take up your authority, you give mean people the power to write your life for you. In the end, they will make you one of them. That should give you the motivation you need to take up your authority, because let’s face it: Mean people suck.

Taking the Blame

It’s a scene we’ve watched a hundred times: A public figure glares into the camera with an expression of outraged innocence and declares, “I am not a crook!” or “It was dehydration, not a drug overdose!” or “I have never had an affair!” Most of us in the viewing audience used to give these folks the benefit of the doubt, but not anymore. We’ve grown jaded watching a succession of well-known people make bold disclaimers that later proved to be flat-out falsehoods.

Of course, this always makes me conscious of my own weasel-ish tendencies. It’s so easy to commit the occasional sin of omission, to tell the little white lie that conveniently precludes taking the blame for my mistakes. But even when I’m doing this, I know it’s a short-term solution with disastrous long-term effects. Avoiding responsibility for our actions is the single most effective way to get stuck—or stay stuck—in a life that doesn’t work. It turns all the energy we might use for problem solving into keeping us insulated from the very experiences and information we most need to learn and grow.

Recognize when it’s not your fault. While some folks avoid blame, others apologize for everything, from their allergies to global warming to the Spanish Inquisition. Accepting blame for things over which we have no control is just as counterproductive as dodging the blame we deserve. It’s not surprising that many people take the blame when it doesn’t belong to them. Females, in particular, are often socialized to hold ourselves responsible for other people’s feelings and behavior, thinking that if we don’t take care of them physically and emotionally, their bad moods or reprehensible actions are our fault.

Watch your language. If, like yours truly, you sometimes get confused about what is or is not your responsibility, you might want to use a very simple and effective method of differentiating between things you can’t control and things you can. All you have to do is pay close attention to the way you talk—specifically, the way you use the phrases “I have to” and “I can’t.” Pretend you’re wearing a shock collar and you get zapped every time you use these phrases when they aren’t literally, physically true.

“I have to finish this report.” Zap! No you don’t. Take it from me: If you really put your mind to it, you can go a long, long time without finishing anything. The truth is that you’re choosing to finish the report because that will create positive consequences.

“I can’t say no.” Zap! You just said it, so we know you have the physical ability to pronounce the word. What you mean is that you’re reluctant to say no because you’re afraid how other people might react.

“I can’t make it to the meeting; I have to go to the dentist.” Zap! Zap! The dentist isn’t abducting you at gunpoint. You could cancel the appointment and attend the meeting if you really wanted to – but you don’t and that’s okay.

Being this ridiculously literal may seem like splitting hairs, but these weasel words can be deadly when used without awareness. When you sound like a passive victim of circumstance, you come to act and think the way victims do. The power to determine your own thoughts and actions goes out the window—and with it, your chance at a fulfilling life.

Try this verbal discipline for a week or so. Instead of saying “I can’t,” substitute more accurate phrases like “I choose not to” or “I don’t want to.” Rather than “I have to,” say “I choose to” or “I’ve decided to,” or simply “I’m going to.” Suddenly, you’ll see a wide range of choices and options available to you in situations where you once felt powerless. This isn’t always comfortable, but it is incredibly liberating. Instead of nice, fuzzy cheesecloth of excuses, you’ll be staring at some hard realities: Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes you make choices you later realize were just plan stupid. Sometimes you know a choice is stupid right from the get-go and you make it anyway. Ouch.

Taking the blame stings, like most disinfectants. But the longer you wait to deal with your mistake, the more miserable the process is going to be. Better to accept responsibility the way you’d clean a wound: quickly, thoroughly, with no nonsense whatsoever. This means fully admitting a mistake, apologizing to anyone you may have harmed by your actions, and making any amends you possibly can, without wallowing in shame or acting pathetic in a bid for leniency.

If you take the blame this way, the results will be far more positive than you’d expect. I’ve almost begun to look forward to taking the blame and I’ve become acutely aware of how much easier life is when I’m getting useful feedback, instead of pouring my energy into excuses and cover-ups. Compared to facing new challenges and learning effective ways to shape your own life, the Weasel Dance is boring and repetitive. What’s more, everyone looks terrible doing it. I’ve wasted way too much time on it myself – and make no mistake about it, I have only myself to blame.

Cry Freedom!

This month, perhaps through a series of coincidences, or perhaps through something else, I’ve seen dozens of different people being set free in dozens of different ways.  Oh what the hell, I don’t believe for a minute that it’s a coincidence.  Something is changing in the collective Zeitgeist, or the “Spirit of the Times.”  We are moving into a time when transparency, authenticity and openness (what my coaches call “TAO” or Chinese for “The Way”) is critical.  Being transparent, authentic and open is not fool hearty social behavior, but the only safe way to success.

I am beginning to believe that radical openness is the single characteristic that will differentiate successful people from unsuccessful people as time goes on.  According to Kevin Kelly, a leading theorist in technology and social change, as technology continues to transform our lives, privacy will become a thing of the past.  This is obviously a daunting thought.  The comfortable margins of anonymity and secrecy that have been normal for humans thus far are disappearing.

As I coach many people from many walks of life in to what I call “this wild new world,” I find myself reaching one inescapable conclusion over and over:  If you want to live peacefully, joyfully and abundantly in the years to come, you must walk your talk.  Why?  Because everyone will be talking about your walk.  If there is any level of hypocrisy in your life, you are in “danger” of exposure – but this is like the danger of having a wound cleaned or a broken bone set.  As Byron Katie says, “It is not happening to you, it is happening for you.”  So don’t resent or resist people who expect you to behave in a way that is consistent with the values you express.  Instead, wherever there is dissonance between your value system and your actions, change one or the other to make them congruent.

Let me give you an example:  If you occasionally say negative things behind someone’s back while acting ingratiating to that person’s face, and you say you value honesty and want others to be honest with you, either stop the gossip altogether or learn to say kindly and clearly to someone’s face what you would also say if they were not present.

The word “integrity” shares its root with the word “integer,” which means one indivisible thing.  To have integrity means to be the same person, to say the same things, in almost the same ways, no matter what situation presents itself.  “Duplicity” means to be two things.  If you plan to live a duplicitous life, prepare for your hypocrisy to be known.  It is the revelation of duplicity in those who are not honest and the revelation of integrity of those who are honest that I’ve seen freeing people all around me during the past few weeks.  I believe this is a wave of social change that will ripple through all our lives, removing forever the possibility of living in duplicity while ostensibly championing integrity.

To me, these crazy times are breathtaking and exciting.  The challenge to live with more integrity myself is like learning to ski a steeper slope than I’ve ever negotiated before.  I have loved examining my own life, finding out where I have been wrong, and working to bring my values and actions into closer and closer alignment.

For those of you interested in “manifesting” a wonderful life, this scrupulously transparent, authentic, and open life will open the floodgates.  The pressure to be honorable is here to make you powerful. This very day, do something brave to reduce any duplicity in your life. Stand up for yourself with someone who you’ve allowed to bully you. Apologize to someone with whom you may not have been entirely honest.  Immediately – this is a promise – you will find the things you have been longing for drawing nearer to you.  The TAO (The Way) of integrity puts the Law of Attraction on steroids.   It brings hope, peace, clarity and love from everywhere in the Universe.  Walk this bold path and watch your life blossom.