Balancing Act: The Dance of an Unbalanced Life

Here is typical scenario from when my children were younger: It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’ve been awake for about 23 hours, having struggled vainly to fit in writing between yesterday’s tasks: getting the car fixed, taking the dog to the vet, answering email, grocery shopping, driving my kids to music lessons, seeing clients, picking up deli sandwiches for dinner, and cuddling one of my children through some of the horrors of growing up. I finally sat down at my computer around midnight—and looked up just now to see the sun rising. 

Since I’m up, I decide to set a historic precedent by preparing breakfast. All goes well as I awaken my children and head to the kitchen, at which point I remember how much I hate to cook. I even hate to toast. The kids arrive, yawning, and ask what I’m planning to serve them. I think for a minute, then say, “We have Oreos.” 

My children roll their eyes. 

“We have cocaine,” I venture. I’m pretty sure they know this is a joke. I’ve never seen cocaine, much less tried it—although frankly it’s beginning to sound like a good idea. Isn’t that how Sigmund Freud got so much done? 

Understand three things: (1) I don’t have a job. I am a writer, which means I procrastinate and get away with it; (2) my children are not young. They walk, talk, bathe, diagnose their own viruses; and (3) I’m kind of supposed to be an expert at combining career and family. I conducted years of sociological research on the topic, wrote several big fat books about it. Plus, I’m a life coach. You’d think I could live a balanced life as a 21st century American woman. 

Ha. In fact, having done all that research, I can tell you with absolute assurance that it is impossible for women to achieve the kind of balance recommended by many well-meaning self-help counselors. I didn’t say such balance is difficult to attain. I didn’t say it’s rare. It’s impossible. Our culture’s definition of what women should be is fundamentally, irreconcilably unbalanced. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the very imbalance of our culture is forcing women to find equilibrium in an entirely new way. 

Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Walden recounts two years the author spent living in solitary harmony with the wilderness. The book’s premise is that all humans could live simply and naturally, as Thoreau did. As a teenager, I loved Walden. Years later, as an exhausted working mother, I learned something Thoreau failed to mention in his journal: The entire time he was roughing it, his mother and sisters helped care for his needs, hauling in food and hauling out laundry. The reason Thoreau didn’t write about this is that he took it for granted. Like most thinker’s of his generation, he saw “women’s work” as a product of natural female instinct: Birds fly south for the winter, and women show up to wash men’s underwear. Okay, so I’m a little bitter—but only because this attitude pervaded American culture well into my own lifetime. 

Early American feminists fought for the right to participate in the workforce by assuring everyone that it was easy to do women’s work—perhaps with one’s toes, while simultaneously performing jobs traditionally reserved for men. I once believed this, and I have the colorful medical history to prove it. Women of my generation thought we could have everything; experience taught us we could have everything but sleep (one sociologist who studied an early cohort of working mothers wrote, “These women talked about sleep the way a starving person talks about food”). Bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan while never letting hubby forget he’s a man turned out to be a logistical challenge to rival the moon landing, but without support from Houston.

Three Ways to Lose Your Balance 

I spent the last decade of the 20th century interviewing American women and found that no matter how they sought balance, virtually none of them attained it in their culturally prescribed role. Some of these women were like Meg, a stay-at-home mother who sacrificed her career to care for her children, only to feel devalued by a society that equates professional achievement with fundamental worth. Others resembled Laura, a 43-year-old lawyer who never got the marriage or children she’d always expected. Laura’s heart ached every time she attended yet another baby shower. At work, married people dumped extra work on her, figuring she had no life. But most of the women I spoke to were like Stephanie, who had a good job, two children, and chronic fatigue. For years Stephanie’s boss complained that her work was inadequate because of the time she devoted to her family, while Stephanie (and her relatives) worried that her children were suffering because of the energy required by her work. 

Many of these women were haunted by the fear that others were judging them negatively. They were right. Our culture does belittle women who cannot be both professional high-achievers and traditional moms. It questions the devotion of women who attempt to combine the two roles. My conclusion? Balance, schmalance. Trying to establish a harmonious equilibrium between our society’s definition of What a Woman Should Be is like trying to resolve the tension between two hostile enemies by locking them in a room together. But there is hope. 

The Joy of Being Unbalanced

If someone condemned you because, say, you failed to prevent Hurricane Katrina, you wouldn’t dissolve in shame or work to overcome your inadequacy. You’d probably conclude that your critic was nuts, then simply dismiss the whole issue. That’s the wonderful thing about seeing that our society makes impossible demands on all women. You free yourself to ignore social pressures and begin creating a life that comes from your own deepest desires, hopes, and dreams. You’ll stop living life from the outside in and begin living it from the inside out. 

That’s what happened to Meg, Laura, and Stephanie when each lost her balance in a dramatic way. Meg, the stay-at-home mom, hit the end of her rope when her husband left her for a “more accomplished” coworker. Laura’s turning point was an emergency hysterectomy that meant she would never have the baby shower of her dreams. Stephanie finally realized she was trying to do the impossible the day her mother-in-law scolded her for working too much and she was fired for being too concerned with her personal life. 

There will moments when you really “get” that the expectations you’ve been trying to fulfill are unfulfillable. This epiphany was terrible, because it meant relinquishing the goal of total social acceptance. But it was also the beginning of freedom, of learning to seek guidance by turning inward to the heart, rather than outward to social prescriptions. After her crisis, Laura discovered a passion for gardening that led her to quit her corporate job and start a floral nursery business. Meg spends her time contributing to the local schools and developing relationships that help her see her own value. Stephanie got a new job by developing a proposal that showed how she could add value to a company while working from home. 

On the surface, these aren’t revolutionary acts. But they filled each woman’s life with authenticity and satisfaction. If you feel trapped by contradictory demands, you may want to join this gentle rebellion. You can help create a new cultural paradigm, one that replaces conformity with honesty, convention with creativity, and judgment with kindness. That, in the end, is the gift of the disequilibrium that society has bequeathed to all of us. Being forced to seek balance within ourselves, we can make our unsteady, stumbling days feel less and less like disaster and more and more like a joyful dance—the dance of a wildly, wonderfully, perfectly unbalanced life. 

A Fair Fight: Healthy Conflict Creates Healthy Boundaries

Until I was about 30, I spent most of my time trying to make sure that no one ever became upset with me. I tiptoed around disagreements, swallowed my opinion, tried to read other people’s thoughts, and ran away at the slightest hint of discord. Not fighting was ruining my relationships.

Arm WrestlingIf this sounds weird to you, you don’t understand intimacy. Conflict in close relationships is not only inevitable, it’s essential. Intimacy connects people who are inevitably different – as the saying goes, if two people agree about everything, one of them is superfluous. Conflict is the mechanism by which we set boundaries around these differences, so that each party feels safe with the other. Whether the fight is an all-out brawl (someone jumps you in an alley and you struggle physically against that person) or the mildest tiff (“What’s with the sexist comments?” “Sorry. Won’t happen again.”), conflict is the way we say, “You may go this far with me, and no further.” Until we know we can make and hold such boundaries, we never become comfortable enough to relax, be our true selves, open our hearts.

Why is conflict management so important? Because many of us, when upset, go coldly silent, flatten into a doormat, or explode like Vesuvius. Even if you never react this way, I guarantee you’ll have to deal with people who do. The only way to keep the unpleasantness to a minimum is to learn the delicate art of managing conflict.

The first step in learning to fight right is a conceptual one: We need to fully understand that conflict is not a rare and evil force but an unavoidable and potentially positive one. Before I realized this, I shared a behavior pattern that is ubiquitous in our culture. Because we assume that “good” intimate relationships will always be conflict-free, we refrain from setting boundaries in order to avoid fights and we withdraw or blow up emotionally when unexpressed grievances become too intense to tolerate.

I can’t count the number of relationships I’ve seen destroyed by this pattern. Addressing issues the moment boundaries need to be set is a much, much better way to build lasting intimacy. In fact, I guarantee that every time you successfully discuss a problem and set a boundary with someone you care about, the two of you will feel closer after the “fight” than you did before it. This is only true if you know what you’re doing. Here’s some advice on how to do just that:

Agree on the Rules of Engagement

No matter what the scale of disagreement, all the parties concerned should sit down—at a time when they’re not arguing—and agree on what constitutes a fair fight. Ideally, the participants will actually type up a list of rules, post it in a visible place, and promise to abide by it. This isn’t something you need to do with every minor acquaintance, but in an intimate relationship, it’s invaluable. I’ve watched seemingly doomed marriages recover and thrive after both spouses collaborated to create and post combat rules, like “No name-calling,” “No threats,” and “Express feelings, not insults.” These rules protect against abusive behavior and force combatants to actually discuss their disagreements and hurt feelings – the process that lies at the very heart of intimacy.

Follow a Strategy

Having a strategy for conflict is a way to keep your own interpersonal battles brief, clean, and useful.

First, vent “hot” anger; act on “cool” anger. Conflict creates anger, and anger creates a strong “fight” reaction. Acting on this impulse will help you avoid ulcers and feel better—but do it before, not during, a confrontation.

Second, tell the person exactly what’s upsetting you. This information must be very precise and concrete. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t respect my individuality,” you should pinpoint actual behaviors: “When I expressed my opinion at the party, you said, ‘You don’t really believe that,’ and went on to tell everone what I did believe – as if you knew better than I did! I felt incredibly devalued and angry.”

Third, describe exactly what you need to feel better. This is the most important part of a healthy conflict strategy, the place where you take responsibility for helping your friend or loved one know how to meet your needs. “Let me be me!” is a useless demand because it doesn’t specify any clear action. Instead, give instructions like “Next time you disagree with my opinions, go ahead and say so, or ask me to explain where I’m coming from. Don’t tell me what I think, especially in front of other people.”

Fourth, explain what the consequences will be if your needs are not met. In case the other person won’t agree to your terms, you must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to meet your own needs without their cooperation. “If you keep dominating me during conversations, I’m going to call you on it, no matter where we are or who’s watching. Then I will walk away.”

It’s important that the consequences you describe are what psychologists call logical and natural. (For example, screaming hysterically at someone who wants to drive drunk is not a logical and natural consequence; confiscating the car keys is.) Don’t make overblown threats, and always follow through. Crying wolf creates diminishing returns – you’ll have to bluster even more ferociously, with less and less success, leading to lengthy, ineffective conflict.

After practicing the fine art of a fair fight, you’ll begin to notice an odd paradox: The more comfortable you become with fighting, the less you will feel compelled to do it. 

Putting the “Fun” in Dysfunctional: Saving Your Sanity This Holiday Season

[Hello, Team! This is a reprint of my article from the December 2002 issue of O Magazine, where I first introduced “Dysfunctional Family Bingo”, a staple for surviving any family event. My team put together a bingo card for you and your favorite people to play along. Enjoy and good luck out there!]

In the Uncle Remus story of the tar baby, Brer Rabbit picks a fight with a lifelike doll made out of tar and turpentine. The tar baby is so gluey that when the rabbit punches it, his fists get hopelessly stuck. He tries to kick his way free, trapping his feet, then finishes off with an infuriated head butt that renders him utterly helpless.

I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for family life in the 21st century. There’s nothing in the world as sticky as a dysfunctional family. You can put half your life’s savings into therapy—good therapy, effective therapy—and, 15 minutes into a holiday reunion, you still become hopelessly enmeshed in the same old crazy dynamics. Your assertiveness training goes out the window the minute your brother begins his traditional temper tantrum. A mere sigh from your grandmother triggers an attack of codependency so severe you end up giving her your house. For many people, family get-togethers require strategies for staying out of such sticky situations. Before you head over the river and through the woods, give some thought to the following suggestions.

Strategy #1: Give Up Hope

Most of us go home for the holidays thinking (along with comedienne Abby Sher), God, grant me the ability to change the things I cannot accept. Even if we don’t consciously realize it, we want our families to cease and desist from all the things that affect us like fingernails on a chalkboard. We don’t ask much—just socially appropriate behavior, dammit, and minimal reparations for the more damaging incidents in our past. Although come to think of it, things would certainly go better if our relatives would listen openly, communicate honestly, and agree with us on all significant issues. And possibly offer money.

The hope that our families will act perfectly—or even reasonably well—sets us up to whack the tar baby, to be incapacitated by the dysfunctions we’ll almost certainly encounter. Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you’ll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses.

Strategy #2: Set Secure Boundaries

Given that your family members will probably go on being their same old selves, you need to decide how much contact with them you really want. Are there certain relatives you simply can’t tolerate? Are there others you can handle in group settings but not one-on-one? How much time and intimacy with your family is enough? How much is too much?

It’s crucial to answer these questions before, not during, a family gathering. Prior to the event, think through various boundary options until you come up with a scenario that makes you feel comfortable. Would you be more enthusiastic about a get-together if you planned to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One? Would you breathe easier if you rented a car so that you could get away without relying on relatives for transportation? Would it help to have a friend call you on your cell phone halfway through the evening, providing an excuse for a graceful exit?

Strategy #3: Lose Control

You’re in the middle of a holiday feast, enjoying your favorite pie and eggnog, when your mother leans over and whispers, “Honey, have you tried Weight Watchers?” Those six words may wither your very soul, challenging every ounce of self-acceptance you’ve gleaned from myriad self-help books, support groups, and several enlightened friends. You might feel desperate to make Mom recognize all the hard-won truths you’ve learned about the intrinsic value and beauty of your body. You’ll want to argue, to explain, to get right in there and force your mother to approve of your appearance. You are coming perilously close to whacking the tar baby.

Remember this: Any attempt you make to control other people actually puts you under their control. If you decide you can’t be happy until your mother finally understands you, her dysfunction will rule your life. You could spend the next 20 years trying to please her so much that she’d just have to accept you—and she still might not. Or you could hold her at gunpoint and threaten her into saying the words you want to hear, but you’ll never control her real thoughts and feelings. Never.

The only way you can avoid getting stuck in other people’s craziness is to follow codependency author Melody Beattie’s counterintuitive advice: “Unhook from their systems by refusing to try to control them.” Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don’t waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother’s opinions are wrong for you—as are your grandfather’s bigotry, your sister’s new religion, and your cousin’s alcoholism—hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.

If you’ve been deeply wounded by your family, you can stop trying to control them by accepting full responsibility for your healing. I’m not suggesting you shoulder all the blame, but rather that you acknowledge that you and only you have the ability to respond to injury by seeking cures instead of furthering pain. Whatever the situation, accepting that you can control only your own thoughts and actions will help you mend more quickly and thoroughly.

Strategy #4: Become a Participant Observer

Some social scientists use a technique called participant observation, meaning that they join groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those people do. Back when I was training to become a sociologist, I loved participant observation. People I might normally have avoided—criminals, fundamentalists, PTA presidents—became absolutely fascinating when I was participant-observing them. Almost any group activity is interesting when you’re planning to describe it later to someone who’s on your wavelength. Here are some approaches to help you become a participant observer of your own family.

Queen for a Day

This little game is based on the old TV show in which four women competed to see who had the most miserable life. The contestant judged most pathetic got, among other things, a washing machine in which to cleanse her tear-stained clothing. My version goes like this: Prior to a family function, arrange to meet with at least two friends—more, if possible—after the holidays. You’ll each tell the stories of your respective family get-togethers, then vote to see whose experience was most horrendous. That person will then be crowned queen, and the others will buy her lunch.

Comedy Club

In this exercise, you look to your family not for love and understanding but for comedy material. Watch closely. The more atrocious your family’s behavior is, the funnier it can be in the retelling. Watch stand-up comics to see the enormous fun they can have describing appalling marriages, ghastly parenting, or poisonous family secrets. When you’re back among friends, telling your own wild stories, you may find that you no longer suffer from your family’s brand of insanity; you’ve actually started to enjoy it.

Dysfunctional Family Bingo

This is one of my favorite games, though it involves considerable preparation. A few weeks before the holidays, gather with friends and provide each person with a bingo card. Each player fills in her bingo squares with dysfunctional phrases or actions that are likely to surface at her particular family party. For example, if you dread the inevitable “So when are you going to get married?” that question goes in one square of your bingo card. If your brother typically shows up crocked to the gills, put “Al is drunk” in another square, and so on.

Take your finished cards to your respective family gatherings. Whenever you observe something that appears on your bingo card, mark off that square. The first person to get bingo must sneak off to call the other players, and announce her victory. If no one has a full bingo, the person who has the largest number of filled-out squares wins the game. The winner shall be determined at the post-holiday meeting, where she will be granted the ever gratifying free lunch.

Strategy #5: Debrief

Even if you don’t play any participant observation games, it’s crucial to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really “gets” you, call him after a family dinner you’ve both survived. If you don’t trust anyone who shares a shred of your DNA, report to a friend or therapist. Generally speaking, you can schedule a debriefing session for a few weeks after the holidays, when everybody’s schedule is back to normal. However, you should exchange phone calls with your debriefing partners within a day or so of the family encounter, just to reconnect with the outside world and head off any annoying little problems, such as ill-considered suicide.

All of these strategies, from relinquishing hope of transformation to mimicking your relatives in riotous conversations with your friends, are designed to help you love your family unconditionally, in whatever way works best for you. They help you greet the tar baby with genuine affection, then walk away clear and happy. And that, in the end, may be the best holiday present you’ll ever give to the people you cherish most.

Seeing Your Emotional Blind Spots

Most of us have such psychological “blind spots,” aspects of our personalities that are obvious to everyone but ourselves. There’s the mother who complains, “I don’t know why little Horace is so violent—I’ve smacked him for it a thousand times.” Or your gorgeous friend who believes she has all the seductive allure of a dung beetle. Or the coworker who complains that, mysteriously, every single person he’s ever worked for develops the identical delusion that he’s shiftless and incompetent. As we roll our eyes at such obliviousness, some of us might think, What about me? Do I have blind spots, and if so, what are they?

You can find the answers if you care to—or more accurately, if you dare to. This is the roughest mission you can undertake: a direct seek-and-destroy attack on your own pockets of denial. Denial is far trickier than simple ignorance. It isn’t the inability to perceive information but the astonishing ability to perceive information while automatically refusing to allow it into consciousness. Our minds don’t perform this magical trick without reason. We only “go blind” to information that is so troubling, so frightening, or so opposed to what we believe that to absorb it would shatter our view of ourselves and the world. On the other hand, becoming fully conscious of our perceptions—simply feeling what we feel and knowing what we know—is the very definition of awakening. It creates a virtually indestructible foundation for lasting relationships, successful endeavors, and inner peace. Hunting down your blind spots is a bumpy adventure, but it can lead to sublime destinations.

Identifying your own blind spots is an exercise in paradox, because if you’re aware of a problem, it doesn’t count. It’s like tracking the wind: You can’t observe the thing itself, only its effects. The tracks that a blind spot leaves are repetitive experiences that seem inexplicable, the things that make you exclaim, Why does this always happen to me? For example:

1. You keep having the same relationship with different people.
All of Macy’s friends are “takers,” emotional parasites who drain her and give nothing back. Steve’s three ex-wives all had extramarital affairs. No one in Corrine’s life—her children, her coworkers, her mother—ever responds to her feelings.

These people don’t know that they carefully choose friends and lovers who match certain psychological profiles or that their behavior elicits similar reactions from almost everyone they encounter. It would take you about five minutes with Macy to see that she’s so self-effacing she actually resists normal friendships, gravitating only toward takers. Steve’s friends will tell you he falls for women who remind him of his mother, an enthusiastic practitioner of promiscuous sex. Corrine is so reserved that even the most intuitive people can’t read her moods. All three have gone through life blaming their relationship patterns on other people’s shortcomings.

2. Your luck never changes.
Over years of life-coaching, I’ve become more and more convinced that we create our own “luck.” I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as blind fate, but I am saying that choice is far more powerful than chance in determining the pattern of our failures and successes over time.

Many of my clients have lost jobs in the recent economic downturn, but those who were previously doing well in their careers are finding ways to learn from their experience and bounce back. Those who complained of relentless bad luck before being laid off have slid further downhill. A client I’ll call Shirley recently complained, “When my sister was fired, I thought we’d bond because we both had the same bad luck. But then she started her own business, so it turns out that for her getting fired was good luck. Just like always, she gets all the breaks.” As I punted Shirley to a psychotherapist, I wondered if they train Seeing Eye dogs for people with her kind of blindness. If so, Shirley will almost certainly develop a dog allergy.

3. People consistently describe you in a way that doesn’t fit your self-image.
If tracking patterns in love and luck isn’t enough to reveal your blind spots, there’s another way to go after them. You just have to notice what people tell you about yourself—the things you have always cleverly ignored or routinely discounted. Complete the following sentences as accurately as you can, and you might be closing in on a truth you haven’t fully acknowledged.

  • “People are always telling me that I’m…”
  • “I get a lot of compliments about…”
  • “When my friends or family members are angry with me, they say that…”
  • “People often thank me for…”

If you heartily agree with all the information that pops up in response to these phrases, you’ve simply reinforced an accurate self-concept by recalling times when others have validated your perceptions. But if any of the descriptions seem strange, incongruous, or flat-out false, consider the possibility that your image of yourself may not be accurate—and almost certainly doesn’t correspond to what other people perceive. By the way, you may well discover that you’re blind to your positive characteristics as well as negative ones. Some people (especially women) may be so biased against being arrogant that they overlook or dismiss their own best qualities.

Getting Rid of Your Blind Spots

If the evidence suggests that you have blind spots, you can try to eliminate them with a simple mindfulness exercise. You already know what’s in your blind spot; it’s just that looking at it makes you extremely uncomfortable. Only by being very gentle with yourself will you become able to tolerate more awareness. So as kindly as you can, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What am I afraid to know?
  2. What’s the one thing I least want to accept?
  3. What do I sense without knowing?

Whatever comes into your mind, do nothing about it. Not yet. If you feel even a hint of some new realization, you’ve taken a huge step. More insights will arrive soon, and the kinder you are to yourself over time, the more likely you are to experience major breakthroughs.

Hunting for your own blind spots, like trying to examine the back of your own head, is much less efficient than soliciting feedback from others. This process combines the attractions of strip-dancing and skydiving, making you feel completely exposed yet energized by the sense that you could be catastrophically injured. I known how valuable honest feedback can be, how much precious time it can save in my struggle to awaken. I still have to force myself to go looking for it, but when I do I almost always benefit.

Try this: For a week, ask for blind-spot feedback from one person a day, never asking the same person twice. Just say it: “Is there anything about me that I don’t seem to see but is obvious to you?” You’ll probably want to start with your nearest and dearest, but don’t stop there. Surprisingly, a group of relative strangers is often the best mirror you can find. I’ve worked with many groups of people who, just minutes after meeting, could offer one another powerful insights. Like the emperor in his new clothes, we often believe that our illusions are confirmed by the silence of people who are simply too polite to mention the obvious. Breaking the courtesy barrier by asking for the truth can change your life faster than anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Handling Feedback

Any feedback is scary. The kind that addresses topics so uncomfortable you’ve stuffed them into a blind spot can be almost intolerable. That’s why, before you even ask for an honest appraisal, you have to have a strategy in place for processing it.

1. Just say thanks.
When others discuss your blind spots, you may have a violent emotional reaction. Remember: All of the upheaval is a product of your own mind. You do not have to dissuade or contradict the other person in order to feel calm. Instead of launching into an argument, just say thanks. Then imagine yourself tucking away the other person’s comments in a box. You can take them out later, examine them, decide whether or not they’re useful.

2. Dismiss useless feedback.
There’s real feedback, and then there’s the slop that’s merely a reflection of the speaker’s dysfunction. Fortunately, you can tell these things apart because they feel very different. Useless feedback is nonspecific and vague, and has no action implication. It demotivates, locking us in confusion and shame. Useful feedback is specific and focused. It can sting like the dickens, but it leads to a clear course of action; when you hear it you feel a tiny lightbulb going on upstairs.

“No one could ever love you” is useless feedback. “You project a lot of hostility, and it scares people” gives you information that you need to make healthy changes. It’s safe to assume that useless feedback is coming from people who are themselves shame-bound and blind. The best thing to do with it is dismiss it and focus on the information your gut tells you is valuable.

3. Absorb the truth.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about a man who, virtually blind from early childhood, had an operation that restored his sight when he was middle-aged. Though the man’s eyes now took in visual information, his brain wasn’t used to making sense of it. He couldn’t differentiate between a man and a gorilla until he touched a nearby statue of a gorilla; then the difference became immediately clear.

This confused state is similar to what you’ll feel when you’ve accepted feedback about what lies in your blind spots. You’re not used to this new set of eyes, this novel image of self. After my first revelation of how I can be very dominant, I felt incredibly clumsy. I felt a little as if I were talking while listening to headphones: I couldn’t correctly gauge how I was coming across to others. Slowly, asking repeatedly for feedback, I began to see my own behavior more clearly. My false image of self gave way to a more accurate model, and I learned to avoid accidentally stomping on people with my conversational style.

Deliberately, methodically eliminating your blind spots simply intensifies the natural process we all endure as life teaches us its rough-and-tumble lessons. If you undertake this accelerated journey, you will learn much more in much less time (albeit with a few more scrapes and bruises) and achieve a deeper level of self-knowledge than you otherwise would have.

Just observing the truth about yourself without judgment or spin will begin to change you. It’s well-nigh impossible to see yourself more and more clearly while continuing to act without integrity, or in contradiction to your life’s real purpose. Eventually you may come to see what Marianne Williamson meant when she said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” To see your truest nature is to recognize that you have a capacity for goodness far greater than you ever dreamed, with all the awesome responsibility that entails. It’s a difficult proposition, but in the end the view makes it all worthwhile.

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.

I Approve: The Value of Equality

Woman gazes in mirror.There are those rare individuals who cannot be distracted by the external markers of success—things like social rank, wealth, education level, and professional status. These individuals behave in ways that quietly but effectively elevate the lowly and humble the arrogant. How do they do it? They ignore two common misconceptions and act instead on bedrock truths about equality and individual value.

Misconception #1

Each person’s value is determined by rank on the pyramid of social success. Your worth as a person increases or decreases as you accumulate (or fail to accumulate) prizes like wealth, power or fame.

Almost all of us believe Misconception #1 at some point in our lives, and it’s no wonder: We are approval-seeking machines. From our infancy, everything we do — crying, playing, using the potty – brings either praise or reprimand from the grown-ups around us. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s the only way to socialize children. But is also conveys the pervasive idea that our value depends on behaving in ways that others see as praiseworthy. Success-driven behaviors can undermine the very thing we think they will provide: the certainty that we are important, lovable, good enough. If you’re waiting for the one achievement that will give you this certainty, prepare to wait forever. The only way to create such inner peace is to replace Misconception #1 with the following truth.

Truth #1

Each person, including you, is infinitely precious. No success or failure can ever alter that fact.

We may give lip service to the idea that every human consciousness is equal and invaluable. But in practice we go on ranking everyone according to external measures of success, surreptitiously comparing their achievements to ours. And deep down, most of us conclude that we’re a bit (or a lot) less equal than everybody else.

It is this lurking sense of inferiority that makes us lust for success, consider ourselves pond scum, or both. Ironically, this mind-set is precisely what keeps us from acting in ways that would elicit natural validation of our true value from the world around us.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel worthless, think about the most powerful hero you can imagine, and how they would react in your place. Now consider this: your hero isn’t the one coming up with this new, self-confident behavior—you are.  Whatever you see your hero do in the fantasy you’ve created is precisely what you can do in reality, once you choose to believe in your own value.

Misconception #2

People will value me to the extent that I affirm the superiority of people who rank above me in the social pyramid, and my own superiority over people who rank below me.

Success is a currency that is not accepted by the heart: You can’t buy love. Only people who are caught in the same misconception will bond with your accomplishments. Success-based relationships are parasitic, and they vanish when the fame, money and power do. To forge caring connections, you don’t need a stronger résumé; you need Truth #2.

Truth #2

People will value me to the extent that they believe I value them.

Virtually all arrogant, domineering people spent their childhoods being cruelly devalued. As adults, they are starving for validation, and they try to force people to acknowledge their significance by sucking up to the powerful and dominating the weak. This tends to create the very hostility they fear. There are much better ways to get the acceptance we crave. One of the easiest is what I call “tossing the fish”.

If you’ve ever been to Sea World, you’ve probably seen trainers reward the dolphins and seals by feeding them fish. Sea mammals will do anything for anyone who’s carrying a bucket of what they love most. They’re a lot like people that way – and you just happen to have a bottomless bucket of what humans love most: approval.

Often people treat approval as though it were a severely limited resource. They give it stingily, if at all, as though every bit of approval aimed at someone else leaves less for them. But the more we express genuine approval, the more we motivate positive behavior in those around us, the more approval we’ll receive from them. (By the way, it’s crucial to fully internalize Truth #1 before  you set out to toss fish. Otherwise your compliments and new-found interest will come across as a Machiavellian ploy.)

In order to keep Truth No. 1 at the forefront of your thoughts, there are two techniques you may find helpful. First, rather than picturing intimidating people in their underwear, try to imagine them as their “bare selves” – as all those things that worry or motivate them. That way you can offer encouragement or support, just as you would with your peers, colleagues, or subordinates.

You may also try a technique I learned from Barbara Browning, a brilliant media trainer who teaches people how to come across on television. Barbara tells her clients, “treat the interviewers as though they were guests in your home.” This is exactly opposite  of most people’s first reaction. When the cameras roll, all their mental functions cease and they just sit there drooling (I speak from experience). But when you enter the mind-set of the “gracious host or hostess,” you equalize your own perception of the intimidating person’s power versus your own. The more lowly and inferior you feel at these particular moments,  the more important it is to get out of that frame of mind and into reality. The “host/hostess” trick can help you make the transition.

It may take you several months of practicing these techniques before they come to feel natural. However we are all inexperienced travelers on this uncertain voyage through life, and we cling to the twin myths of inferiority and superiority out of fear and fear alone. To transcend that fear and connect honestly with others, priceless soul to priceless soul, is to succeed in the truest sense of the word.

How to Love the Bad Mother in You

By Amy Pearson, Guest Contributor

After eight rounds of Artificial Insemination and two rounds of In Vitro, there they were at last.

Home from the hospital, sleep deprived and surrounded by breast pump equipment, bottles, feeding schedules, diapers, formula, nursing pads, pacifiers and books titled things like What to Expect the First Year, I sat there staring at my two perfect babies. I didn’t feel joy, I didn’t feel happiness, I didn’t even feel gratitude.

I felt shame. A shame so big, it filled the room.

I hated this new life. I hated the sound of crying. I hated being awake at all hours of the night. I hated being responsible for another person’s survival. But most of all, I hated myself for hating it all so much.

Shame.

The dictionary defines it as a painful feeling that comes about from the consciousness of something dishonorable or improper, done by oneself or another. The root of the word can be traced back to an older word meaning “to cover.”

And this is what we do. We hide our shame. We cover it up so nobody finds out. We keep it out of sight, which makes us blind to how it fuels our decisions and our actions.

I expected to fall into motherhood gracefully, to be entertained and delighted by my babies; to be a radiant new mother. I couldn’t admit to the shame I felt for not living up to my own expectations, especially after all I’d been through to get them.

So I hid my shame, from myself and from the rest of the world.

I compared myself to the “good” mothers out there and threw myself into the role. But it didn’t make me happy and it didn’t make me a better mother. I became more and more exhausted trying to prove to myself and to the world I was a good mother. The harder I worked, the more exhausted I got and the less I enjoyed my children.

The turning point came on Mothers’ Day. I lost my mom six months into my pregnancy. There I was with no mother and two babies of my own when I stumbled upon an article entitled, “Mother Yourself.” It was like fireworks exploding in my head.

I needed to mother myself.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “You get your confidence back… by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.”

A mother, after all, stands militantly on the side of her children.

My children taught me I could hate my life, the lack of sleep, the sound of crying, the endless second-guessing and the intimidating amount of responsibility that comes with being a mother, and also be deliriously in love.

So, in the same way I still love my son after he uses my arm to wipe his nose and I still love my daughter after she throws a fit in Costco and won’t get off the floor, I can love myself for being human.

I admit, sometimes after wiping applesauce off the wall for the third time in a day, I still yearn for life without kids. But then my daughter says to me in her precious three-year-old voice, “Thank you Mama for making me food” and I realize I’d wipe up an eternity of applesauce for my kids.

I’ve learned how to have a life of my own and be my own kind of mom in a way that feels good to me.

You can too. Here’s how.

Step 1. Acknowledge your feelings

Unexamined shame will motivate you to do things that will make you even more miserable. End the cycle. Be honest with yourself about what you’re feeling.

Before I realized the shame I felt for being such a miserable mother, I drove myself to prove how good I was. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t shower. I didn’t ask for help. It left me exhausted. As a result, I was less able to be the mom I wanted to be.

Step 2. Expose Your PERFECT MOTHER

You no doubt have an image of “the perfect mother” in your mind. Describe her in as much detail as possible.

Even though I consider myself a “modern woman,” my perfect mother is very 1950’s. I can see her now… perfect hair and makeup as she gracefully removes fresh baked cookies from the oven.

Step 3: IDENTIFY BLACK OR WHITE THINKING

Look at your description of the perfect mother and think about how you’re different. Are you buying into black or white thinking? You may not be like your version of the perfect mother in a lot of ways but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good mother YOUR way.

Back when I was hiding my shame, I would take my kids to Story Hour at the local library and compare myself to a certain mom who always showed up looking great, her little girl dressed to perfection with braids in her hair. My kids still sported remnants of breakfast on their clothes and face. Instead of being proud of myself for getting them out of the house, I’d compare myself to her and conclude I was a bad mom.

Step 4: DISCREDIT THE PERFECT MOTHER

When you believe there’s only one way to be a good mom, it’s hard to think of how to be a mother in your own way.

Consider these questions:

  1. Can you think of anyone who did NOT match your image of the perfect mother who was wildly successful at it?
  2. What’s funny about your image of the perfect mother?
  3. What surprises you about your image of the perfect mother?

There are so many amazing moms out there who do not match my 1950’s cliché: Martha Beck, Hillary Clinton, Marian Wright Edelman, Harriet Tubman, my own mother! The funny and surprising thing about my stereotype is that it’s very Leave it to Beaver. When I think about all the amazing moms on my list above I realize that they did so much more than just devote every waking moment to their children. The work they did in the world and the example they set enriched the lives of their children in ways that June Cleaver never could.

 

Step 5: IDENTIFY YOUR ASSETS

Recognize how being different than your perfect mother actually serves as an asset.

My mother used to break out into spontaneous dance at the grocery store. It used to embarrass me. Now I laugh out loud when I think about it. That’s the kind of mom I want to be. I may not be well groomed but I love to laugh and that’s an asset in my book.

Step 6: BE NICE

Being militantly on your own side means loving yourself unconditionally. So…Be nice! Notice how you talk to yourself. Forgive yourself for being human and treat yourself with compassion, understanding and encouragement.

Some mornings, when the twins hit each other over the head with kitchen utensils, and the baby cries because she wants to be held, and I find myself wiping apple sauce off the wall again, I don’t make it mean I’m a bad mother for thinking I’d like to jump a train to the next state and start anew. I find the funny in the situation, I think of what I’m grateful for, or I think of how best I can mother myself in that moment.

Step 7: REPEAT AFTER ME “I DON’T HAVE TO BE BETTER THAN I AM.”

When you wish you were different, more mothering or more patient, for example, you’re essentially telling yourself you’re not good enough just as you are. Accept yourself exactly as you are in this moment and repeat, “I don’t have to be better than I am.” My guess is you’ll be a much better mother when you let yourself of the hook.

When I lose my cool I scream. I used to feel so terrible about it, wishing I could just keep it together. But now, I forgive myself. I’m passionate after all. And you know what? I find myself screaming a lot less.

Step 8: GIVE PEOPLE PERMISSION TO JUDGE YOU

This is a tough one. We all want other people to think of us as good mothers. But letting the opinions of others dictate your self worth is a losing battle. There’s a great deal of freedom that comes when you can allow others to have negative opinions about you, your actions, or choices, without needing to explain yourself or feel defensive.

This morning I took my kids to the park. One mom didn’t seem very friendly. I found myself annoyed. “Is she judging me?,” I thought. “What the hell did I do? Why wouldn’t she like me?!” Then I stopped. I remembered that what she thinks about me is her business. It’s what I think about me that really matters. And that was that.

Bryon Katie writes “You can’t be free if you’re hiding. And in the end, the things we’re ashamed of turn out to be the greatest gifts we have to give.”

My shame has been a gift.

I can see myself now… under the spell of unexamined shame. My hands sore from endless futile attempts at a decent French Braid, charred cookies strewn about the kitchen, well groomed children wandering aimlessly through the house as I iron my dress and apply my lipstick. Instead I faced the shame – it taught me how to mother myself and to be my own unique brand of mother, and a happy one too.


Amy Pearson is a Martha Beck Master Certified Life Coach who helps women lead their lives from a place of self-love and confidence so they can play big in the world. Click here to learn more about Amy and sign up for her free e-course called “I Don’t Need Your Approval! How to Overcome Your Inner Approval Addict”.

Let ’em Run Their Own Business

Each relationship we have is paradoxically all-important and completely unnecessary. Understanding that paradox can save a world of heartache for us and our loved ones. 

First, I want to acknowledge that relationships are the most important human experience available to us. I realized in my twenties that the meaning of life is not about what happens to people; it’s about what happens between people. Learning to connect with each other, to experience empathy, to step outside our own experience, and to experience love in all its forms — these, I believe, are the experiences for which we became human. One thing I have always told clients is that it’s worth throwing away ten great things if it helps create one great relationship.
 
As our first crop of Relationship coaches are nearing the end of their training, I’ve been impressed once again by the way relationships open us up to growth and healing in every area of our lives. That said, I also believe that our culture makes us attach to relationships that are destructive at both a personal and inter-personal level. Whenever we believe that our happiness comes from some other person, we are in grave danger of turning that person into a demigod and losing ourselves, or trying to force our loved ones to do more than any other human being has the power to do for us. We think that the people we love should make us happy, make us feel loved, help us face the world, take away our loneliness, and in a thousand other ways, do for us the emotional work that we can only do for ourselves. I’ve watched so many clients discard one relationship after another because their continued unhappiness was “proof” that they had not yet found the right person.
 
During one of our Relationship coaching calls, Master Coach Terry DeMeo mentioned that when she was trained at Byron Katie’s nine day school, she kept insisting to her husband that “it can’t all be about your business and my business. There’s got to be an our business” If this were true, relationships would be almost hopelessly fallible. But the fact, as Terry finally concluded, is that if we always tend to all our own business, and allow other people to deal with their business, relationships thrive. If you commit this month to meeting all your own needs, and that you cannot force your loved ones to be anything but what they are, you will find your own life becoming much more peaceful and your relationships finding their optimal pattern, whether that means increased intimacy or the acceptance of distance. Not all relationships can “work” in the way we think they should, but all your relationships are happening for you, not to you, and no matter what the other person does, you can be sure the relationship will get you where you need to go.

What NOT to Do During the Holidays

Statistically, the most likely time for an American man to die is just before Christmas. For an American woman, doomsday comes just after New Years. My theory about why this is so is that people let themselves off the hook when they finally get a chance for a well-earned rest. Men exhaust themselves in the period leading up to the holidays and then let go; for women, the holidays themselves represent a brutal overload of work. This year, I say we stage a revolution. Let’s turn this holiday into an actual holiday! 

Every now and then, I am asked to write recommendations about what we should allow ourselves not to do. For most people, this is more challenging — but more productive — than a “to-do” list. I’ve never done such a list specifically for the holidays, until now. So, if you’re onboard with our holiday life-saving strategies, read on!

  • Don’t cook. I mean this; you will receive approximately 45,000 calories of holiday goodies this year. Desperate people who have no gift-selecting ability are praying that you will actually want the cheese log or the moose munch that they picked up for you. It will only make these people sad if they find you elbow deep in cookie dough or fruitcake. For goodness sake, have some compassion.
  • Don’t send cards. Every hour, human beings chop down an area of primordial forest the size of a football field. Why contribute to this carnage just so people can glance at a holiday greeting and immediately consign it to landfills? Christmas cards are evil. Do not send them.
  • Do not buy gifts for people you do not like. Honestly, why send the wrong message? The body is a natural lie detector and it loathes hypocrisy. Do you honestly want to grow weak and sick purchasing a foot massager for a boss whom everyone knows is going to hell? Stop the madness!
  • Don’t go to horrible parties. By the time we’ve passed Thanksgiving, you’re almost certain to feel deeply stressed about fitting into your little black dress or cummerbund. This is the time to lie down quietly and reflect on ways to eliminate excess calories so that January does not find you deeply mired in self-loathing. You know perfectly well that you react to social anxiety by eating like a grisly bear preparing to hibernate. Going to bad parties is simply putting your body in harm’s way. That’s not, in my opinion, what Baby Jesus would do.
  • Don’t be virtuous. If you’re virtuous all the time, go ahead and sustain it during the holidays. But if December is a time you go into a frenzy of Scrooge-after-the-ghost generosity, you will disrupt your psychological homeostasis, and potentially, as we have seen, cause your own death. This is no holiday gift to give your children! This year, vow to be as nasty and selfish as your truly are.

I know some of you may be shocked and indignant after reading my recommendations — so please be cautious. Your blood pressure may already be at dangerous levels. Seriously, the holidays are about renewal, kindness, and joy. Judgment and oppression are the enemy of these sentiments. Just see how much more genuine holiday spirit you’ll generate when you follow your own bliss, rather than someone else’s holiday traditions.