Is life just one damn thing after another?

by Pamela Slim

My cellphone rang yesterday.

“I can’t believe I’m calling you,” a woman I will call “Beatrice” said. “I don’t know where else to turn.”

“I read Martha’s North Star book a few years ago and, while pursuing a dream job on account of a man, actually made tremendous progress in my career. I have since received national awards for my work. I never thought it would be possible to get paid for work I love, but I made it happen.”

“Now my romantic life is a disaster. Today was a breaking point. I was in the Disney store with my daughter and saw an ad for a cheesy movie about a robot who finds love on another planet. I thought “Even a freaking robot finds love. Why can’t I?” and I started sobbing. My 25-year old daughter looked at me like I had lost my mind. I have been divorced for years and have gotten to a point where I am devastatingly lonely. I don’t even know where to begin to fix it. Can you help?”

This situation, while extremely painful for Beatrice, is a very common occurrence.

How is it that you can be really together in one area of your life and a wreck in another? Why can one area of your life skyrocket (career, love life, finances) and the other tank (health, relationship with kids, level of grunge in ring on bathtub)? Is it just a big conspiracy to keep you from being happy?

I think it is actually a kind and gentle way that life lets you chip away at improving different parts of yourself at different times. In the complex web of your brain, heart and spirit, all parts of your life are not always in similar states of health and harmony. This is why you see cases of:

  • The blockbuster actor going to prison for 3 years for tax evasion
  • The successful governor cavorting with prostitutes
  • The supportive husband and excellent father sticking with a dead-end, miserable job

We all become ready for change for different reasons. For Beatrice, her “Disney meltdown” was a cry for help. She realized that if she did not attend to this long-neglected part of her life, she was going to lose her mind. I have witnessed or experienced the following catalysts for major life change:

  • A father finally making a career change after learning that while he was working 200 miles away, his 3-year old son was crying for him in the middle of the night. Realizing how much he missed growing up with his own father, who had died in the Korean War, he got chills realizing he was not present in the lives of his children. So he quit his high-paying job the next day, and started a career working from home.
  • My own health crisis spurred by a toxic relationship. It took me getting severe pneumonia to finally take action to leave a poisoned relationship. Lying in bed, wheezing, with a strong fever and not even enough energy to reach the remote control that was one foot away, I realized it was time to change my life. I picked up the phone and told my best friend for the first time how bad things really were.
  • A successful young career woman radically changed her work and lifestyle after the untimely death of her mother. A now thriving entrepreneur who travels the world for a living told me that what finally moved her to quit her “secure” corporate job was the death of her mother. Suddenly, it became clear how fleeting life was, and she realized she was in charge of her own destiny.

Whatever spurs you to change, once you are ready, what do you do?

Martha’s Finding Your Own North Star is the robust road map for doing this work, and clearly lays out a methodology for how and what to do. Her new book Steering by Starlight expands and deepens this work. But if you don’t have a lot of time to read, here are a few shortcuts, drawing from some previous posts on this blog:

  1. Commit to working on this part of your life. Beatrice’s Disney meltdown moment was powerful enough for her to pick up the phone and reach out for help. She is interested in working with a coach to help her navigate what feels like the shark-filled waters of attracting a loving partner. Your defining moment will be different than anyone else’s, and may not even be voluntary, but it is worth it to step into the Ring of Fire.
  2. Examine your thoughts and feelings on this topic. Beatrice and I spent a short time on the phone, but I could tell that she had some powerful thoughts and feelings about love and relationships that were causing her a lot of suffering. Common limiting beliefs in the area of relationships can be things like:
    -All men are dogs
    -I am not lovable
    -In order to have a strong relationship, I have to give up my own needs
    -I will find love only when I lose 50 pounds/clear up my acne/finally get a nose job
    -Love hurts
  3. Once you zero in on some thoughts or beliefs that cause you suffering, apply the 4 questions from The Work:
  4. 1. Is it true?
    2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
    3. How do you react when you think that thought?
    4. Who would you be without that thought?

    and

    Turn it around.

    Master Coach Brooke Castillo put together some more tools and information on Self Coaching here.

  5. Leverage the strength you have in one area of your life for others. Beatrice told me that she totally amazed herself with the progress she made in her career. Although the process she used to get there was not ideal (In her words, “I want to make sure that I point out that I wound up with the job of my dreams because I wanted a relationship with the man I worked with. He is one annoying human being and I drove myself to reach far beyond what I ever I had before because I was trying to prove to him I could do it and I wound up proving it to myself in the process. I wasn’t exactly trying to become what I became, it just happened and then I realized 18 years ago that it was secret desire I had harbored all along. I just literally came to the point where I couldn’t keep waiting for him but by that point I was at the top of my field. I’m not sure if you’d want to recommend that method to anyone – however I think it does fall along the lines of what Martha mentions about being so attracted to someone or something that it leads you where you’re supposed to be.”)
    Regardless of how you got there, if you feel ease and strength in one part of your life, use it to remind yourself that you are capable of taking on huge challenges and succeeding.
  6. Create a positive, supportive Everybody to help you along. In Is there a conspiracy by The Man to keep you down? I describe the broad, generalized, highly judgmental “Everyone” that keeps many people from making progress in their life. You know that you need to do some Everybody juggling when your soul screams out “I must make a change in my career!” but your mind says “But everyone will think I have lost my mind if I change my job! When you surround yourself with good thoughts and supportive people, the process of change is much more manageable.
  7. Take turtle steps. Making major life changes (starting a business, looking for a life partner, cleaning up financial chaos) can bring up a tremendous amount of overwhelm and panic. If you try to tackle the whole thing, you will most likely end up on the floor of your bedroom in the fetal position. We are very fond of turtles around the virtual halls of Martha Beck Inc. (hence the photo!) and have seen the power of slow, steady, steps for making significant change. For a cool tool, try a 4-Day Win.

I am honored that Beatrice had enough trust to share her innermost fears with a total stranger (me). And that she agreed to let her own struggle be a point of education and support on this blog for others (you) who face similar challenges in your own life.

An encouraging sign? Beatrice and I are already laughing in our email exchange about the Disney meltdown moment. She was the one that suggested her pseudonym: “Call me Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing!” When you start to laugh at what has felt deeply painful and frightening, you know you are squarely on the path to your own North Star.

Happy travels Beatrice — we are cheering for you.

If you have any advice or encouragement, chime in with your comment!

Why would you want to walk through the Ring of Fire?

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by Pamela Slim

It may seem a bit strange to brag about coming from a proud lineage of divorced relatives. But proud I am:  my parents and every single aunt and uncle in my family got divorced and remarried.

“That explains it!  I always knew something was a little ‘off’ about that Pam Slim,” you say.  “Coming from a broken family like that.”

Fascinating interpretation.  And dead wrong.

What I gained by watching my parents and relatives go through painful, gut-wrenching, excruciating divorces was the realization that by walking through hell with an open mind and willing heart, you come out a freer, happier and more whole person.

Martha calls this hell the “Ring of Fire” in her forthcoming book Steering by Starlight.

What is the Ring of Fire?

The Ring of Fire is part of a bigger picture shown here:

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Martha describes each component:

The Shallows (Material Reality):

“The exterior shell of our life is what I call the “Shallows.”  You might also call it the world of form, of physical objects and the thoughts that cluster around them.

When your consciousness is fully attached to this realm, you are a material girl or boy.  You’re mentally trapped in your concept of yourself as isolated, limited and separate from all other things.  Your socialized beliefs and your lizard-fears direct your actions, which consist of running from things you dread and grasping at things you desire.  Maddeningly, no matter what you do, danger is never fully averted and desire is never permanently fulfilled.  Life is a bitch, and then you die.”

The Core of Peace (The Stargazer):

“At our very cores, unperturbed by the disturbances of the shallows, lies that Stargazer self.  No untruth can exist at this level of awareness: no apparent separation from the fabric of the universe, no pain, no fear, no death.  The real reason we feel so starved in the shallows is that we aren’t made to be satisfied with material possessions, or with concepts of ourselves as famous, noble, smart, handsome, righteous, influential, blah blah blah.  What we really want is the peace of the Stargazer.  The irony is that this is already present in every single one of us, though it’s obscured by the dense matter of our lives at the shallowest.”

The Ring of Fire:

“The Ring of Fire is the emotional process we must go through to reach the Core of Peace.  There are only two ways to accomplish this.  We can disbelieve any false ideas that are causing unnecessary pain.  Any unavoidable pain — loss of health or a loved one for example — we must grieve.”

My family’s Ring of Fire ignited around our
kitchen table in 1971.  I was five years old.  I can still vividly recall every detail of the moment: the red and white checkered table cloth, the feel of my Mom’s lap and the look on the faces of my siblings as my Mom and Dad told us they were getting a divorce.
Although they said a lot of things, only one phrase from that
conversation stuck with me for decades afterward:  “We love each other,
we just cannot live together,” they said.

My stomach dropped and I felt a heaviness in my chest.  My safe, ideal, neat, organized world was blown apart.

My Mom describes the next 10 years as being filled with pain,
depression, anxiety and fear.  “There were many days I woke up and
didn’t know how I would get through the day,” she says.  She was living in
the Ring of Fire, as were each of us in our own way, and in our own time frame.  Although it was not pain that she or my Dad wanted to experience, nor to share with their kids, it happened, and we all became stronger people as a result.

Divorce is certainly a common precursor for the  Ring of Fire, but there are many other triggers such as:

  • death of a loved one
  • financial hardship
  • loss of a job
  • illness
  • victimization from a crime
  • labor without an epidural (having just gone through this, I can vouch for it!)
  • plain old desire to feel better

What kind of people avoid the Ring of Fire?

Sane ones of course.  But two types in particular referenced in Steering by Starlight:

  • Story fondlers get so enamored with their tragic stories from the past that they are unable to give them up and move forward.  They say things like:
    • “My life was great until that bastard left me!”
    • “My Mom never loved me!  She always paid more attention to my big brother.”
    • “I never would have gone bankrupt if I didn’t have to bail out my siblings all the time”
  • Fire-fleers are so afraid of feeling the pain and grieving that is associated with the Ring of Fire that they keep up a frantic pace to avoid dealing with it.
    • “I know my Mother died yesterday, but really, I am ok.  I am ready to come back to work.”
    • “I know I caught my husband in bed with my best friend last week, but I am past it.  I have a new boyfriend, and I am sure he will never cheat on me.”
    • “No, my breast cancer diagnosis is not scary at all.  I’m tough – I can take it!”

How do you make it through the Ring of Fire?

Martha offers the following prescription for both profiles:

For story fondlers:

“If you have a tendency to story-fondle, pick up something you complain about often, stop discussing it and take action to change it. If you’re underpaid, ask for a raise, or quit.  Stating clearly to your boss “I won’t continue to work here unless I get a ten percent raise  by March” is very different from telling all your coworkers how bad the boss is, and how miserable it is for you to be paid so little.  Similarly, if a certain friend  mooches off you, stop saying yes -say no and mean it.  If a loved one is addicted and it’s ruining your life, stage an intervention, or go to a codependency group.

For fire-fleers:

“If you characteristically run from feelings, or if there are a few awful things in your life that you’ve never allowed yourself to think about, stop running.  In fact, stop doing anything, for at least a couple of hours a week.  Stop smoking, drinking, eating, working, drugging, jogging, cleaning, gossiping, reading-halt all activity that distracts you from your felt experience.  Find a compassionate witness who’s willing to listen, and then talk about the things in your history and your heart that you least want to talk about.”

Regardless of which profile you lean towards, when you start following this advice, you most likely will feel yourself engulfed by fear.

This is no garden variety anxiety or worry, but the kind of all-consuming beast that opens its foaming mouth and shows you its sharpened fangs. This kind of fear is what animals can smell.  It has a form, shape and spirit, and if it scares the hell out of you, you are on the right track.

Doing the Thing You Think You Cannot Do

Martha says:  “The advice I’ve just given you is the opposite of the usual logic that people adopt when something goes wrong, and the flames start licking at their toes.  Creating change, causing a ruckus, facing up to bullies, rocking the boat, taking action, is the last thing story-fondlers want to do.  Sitting still and feeling grief or fear while not moving at all, is the last thing fear-fleers want to do.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  This turns up the heat in the ring of fire so that your limiting beliefs, your outer-limit identities, your mental dungeons burn like tinder.”

How do you get through it?

When you dive into this degree of fear or pain, you must live in the present.  Your gut reaction is going to be to grasp for anything — sitting on a bed of nails, gargling with Drano — that feels better than experiencing your fear.  Resist that, and just try to stay focused on what you feel.  Don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow or even the next 10 minutes.  Whatever you are feeling, feel it fully.  You may sob, fall to your knees, throw things, vomit or curl up on the floor in a fetal position. “Say Yes to the Mess” is how Martha describes it.  Then, just keep doing the thing that scares you most. After awhile, you pick up momentum and the challenge is not as great, the dread not as thick.

Some people make it through the Ring of Fire alone, but most require some combination of great friends, therapy, coaching, spiritual support or at least a really great “I left Ike so you can make it out of here too-inspired” Tina Turner song.

How do you know you are close to coming out of the Ring of Fire and into the Circle of Peace?

My Mom described a moment when she woke up one morning, on a day just like so many others for the past ten years. But on this morning, she felt different.  There was no dread and sadness.  She was peaceful.  She saw a positive future.  She felt strong.  She had made it through the Ring of Fire.

This feeling of calm will fill up every part of your being.  And you will be fundamentally changed for the better, reflecting your secure, joyful and authentic Stargazer self.

My parents, aunts and uncles are healthy, warm, funny, optimistic and caring people.  They all have happy and supportive “Round 2″ spouses.  This is not by chance:  instead of hanging on to bitterness, addiction, unfit relationships and self-defeating thinking, they chose to burn them up in the Ring of Fire.

And because I saw their courage and resilience, I am not afraid to step into the heat.  That makes me not a “child from a broken home,” but a fire walker.

So if you are teetering on the edge of the flames, feel the fear and jump anyway.  You won’t regret it.