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Is Your Anxiety Looking for a Place to Land?

When my son went away to college, he lived in a small campus residence with three other young men. One of them was struggling emotionally. One Saturday night, the roommate drunkenly stabbed his arm in the bathroom and left a bloody mess.

What I remember most clearly about this was a deep anxiety and troubling thoughts. Drunks do all kinds of irrational things! That kid is full of rage! He might stab my son! My son is in a dangerous situation! Something needs to be done about this!

I asked my son to go to the housing administrators at his college to report the incident and have this kid removed from their room. “I’m not going to do that mom,” he said. “He’s not going to hurt me. I don’t want to make trouble for him. He’s already a mess.”

So full of heart and forgiveness, my son. But my worry remained.

I called the school myself. They told me, rightfully, that they couldn’t discuss other students due to privacy concerns. I hoped they’d hear me anyway and remove him. They didn’t.

My anxious feelings continued until after the holiday break when the young man dropped out of school and a new roommate moved in. I finally could relax.

For a while. Before long, I was worrying about something else and I was upset all over again.

I began to see that I felt anxious pretty much most of the time. As soon as things settled down with my son’s roommate, I was anxious about something else. And when that passed, I was anxious about yet a new situation, about myself or someone or something I cared about.

I realized that this was the way my life had gone for a long time. The anxiety was in me and had been all along. Only the situation provoking me, changed.

As I began working as a coach, I noticed the same thing in others. Many clients moved from one anxious situation to the next. Their stressful feelings remained more or less constant, and the resolution of one anxious situation gave rise to another, often without real evidence of actual trouble.

Why is this? Why do we do this?

Our wonderful brains love stories. They help us make sense of the world and our experience in it. So, the brain takes snippets of memories and information from all over the brain; that’s how we store memories–as fragments in various locations. Then it fills in the blank spaces to create a complete narrative, much like we can see an image of a circle when looking at a series of slotted lines.

This is how we make assumptions without real evidence. This is how we create stories that are often wildly untrue. This is how our anxiety–a feeling stored in our body–makes sense of itself.

And this is how I came to conclude that my son was in grave danger based on no evidence.

For those of us who grew up in less-than-ideal circumstances, it’s easy to go there. It doesn’t take much for stress to overtake us and to create stories to explain our stressful feelings. The anxious feelings live in us, and they amplify easily.

It’s a system meant to protect us. Stress is actually deeply protective. However, it compromises our ability to think clearly.

The inability to think clearly and logically is a natural consequence of stress and fear, which impels us to protect ourselves from danger. The ability to do long division is of no use when we are being chased by a bear. So the brain literally diverts energy from our logical minds to our physical bodies. We need resources to run or defend ourselves–this is known as fight or flight–and how we protect ourselves from physical danger. Like bears.

But few of us encounter real bears.

Our powerful imaginations–for example, my son is in grave danger–can provoke the same stress response and the same shut-down of logic and clarity that actual danger does.

I have a retired client who thought that she would be stress-free once she left her job. Her never-ending to do list overwhelmed her. But her body still carries the anxious feelings, and she’s now stressed about the volunteer activities she’s involved in. Her totally voluntary to do list seems as overwhelming as it was when she worked.

The lesson here? The external circumstances of her life weren’t the cause. They usually aren’t.
Her body has carried anxiety for years. It didn’t stop when she retired. She found new explanations for the feelings inside her, feelings she’s carried all along.

The solution? It begins, like all transformation, with awareness.

We can begin by acknowledging our feelings, feeling them fully, and doing what we can to calm ourselves. Then we can ask ourselves this question: Is this stress coming from certainty? Is this really a dangerous or difficult situation, or am I creating a story that may not be true?

Either way, a calm mind is in a better position to deal with whatever is happening. And we better equipped to see through a story we might be creating about a bear that doesn’t exist. Or a roommate who might be deeply troubled, but isn’t a danger to others.

And, I’m happy to report, my son graduated from college and never once got stabbed!

Anxiety’s Big Lie

Olivia, a kind, soft-spoken woman with an allergy to conflict, is about to jump out of her skin with anxiety.  She’s in business with a former friend. “She can have it,” she told me at our first meeting. “I think I just want out.”

Olivia is in a startup with a former friend. The friend has a hot temper and a less than professional way with words. Instead of discussing opposing viewpoints, the partner bullies Olivia, calling her a liar in business meetings. She’ll tell Olivia that an idea is stupid, using that word. Not surprisingly, the business has stalled and can’t grow.

The business was Olivia’s idea, she told me. It’s deeply personal and meaningful to her and she’s done the lion’s share of getting it up and running. Moreover, if it grows as expected, it’s got the potential of being sold in the high six figures.

“And you really want out?” I asked.

“Not really,” she said, “but I can’t stand feeling like this. It’s not worth it to me. I’m creative, I can come up with another idea. That’d be easier than living like this.”

I suggested that we start with some simple tools to quell her anxiety. “If you make decisions while you’re feeling like this, you are likely to make poor ones.”

I explained how stress compromises our thinking and leaves us exhausted. Our bodies think we are in physical danger and respond with fight or flight hormones that impact our brains. When anxiety has us in its grip we’re unable to think our most critically or creatively. We can’t communicate clearly and powerfully. It’s draining, too—our energy is easily depleted.

I know from personal experience that when we’re caught in a difficult situation, anxiety is a horrible feeling. Our hearts race, our minds roil, our stomachs churn, we lose sleep. When I’ve been anxious like that, I pace in circles, going nowhere, lost in visions of a dreaded future.

Often, anxiety urges us to do something. Sometimes it shrieks. It says it will go away and leave us alone if we HURRY UP AND DO SOMETHING. Frequently it suggests that we give up and run away from a difficult situation.

I first noticed this as an attorney handling divorces. Then I went through one myself.  Anxiety screamed at me. Give up. Get out! Give him everything! He can have the house, the bank account, your clothes-anything! Everything! GET THIS OVER WITH!

And then the biggest lie of all: You’ll feel so much better if you DO SOMETHING.

Anxiety told me it would go away and leave me alone if I took swift action. It told me I’d manage somehow, raising two kids as a single mom with a fraction of what I was entitled to. So I did exactly what my clients did–I told my lawyer to settle the case any way she could. Luckily she prevailed over my irrational pain and fear.

I explained the same thing to Olivia–that anxiety might be telling her it would leave her alone if she took abrupt action, but she’d have to deal with it again at some point, during the buy-out negotiations or later, when reality set it and she realized what she’d given up. Or next time she was faced with conflict.

Because when we run from a problem or conflict in order to manage our anxiety, we’re bound to get into another situation where it comes right back. We walk away from what we are entitled to, settle lawsuits for pittances, or quit jobs abruptly without a back-up plan.

Then we deal with the new situation–we’re divorced with limited resources, we’ve given away our business, or we’re looking for work under pressure.

Sure, we might get some temporary relief, but it’s typically short lived. Why? Because we’re making decisions and taking action at our most compromised. Our beautiful minds, hobbled by powerful fight or flight stress hormones can’t find what is truly in our best interests or how to get it.

So what’s the answer when we feel like we’re about to jump out of our skin? The same thing we do with any intensely unpleasant feeling. Name it, feel it, and move.

Here’s a simple, effective way to work through anxiety and it’s DO SOMETHING NOW messages:

  1. Name what you are feeling—anxiety, upset, tension, stress. Give it a name.
  2. Drop the narrative, the words, the story of why you’re anxious. Obsessing with words, the situation, the who did what, the dreaded future, the I should haves. Stop thinking and drop your attention into your body.  When we drop the story of why we’re anxious—the he said, she said stuff—we’re able to feel.
  3. Feel the sensations in your body. They’re not really as bad as you think they are once you pay attention and yield to them. The resistance and the avoidance of our feelings is actually much worse than the bodily sensations themselves are. Feelings come for a reason—to be felt.
  4. Feel what you are feeling all the way through. Feel without words or diversions like food, alcohol, television, internet shopping or whatever temporary distraction may be calling you. Typically, an unpleasant feeling will intensify and build to a peak, and then slowly subside like a wave pulling back from a beach. So stay with it through the peak and to the other side. This can happen in a span of a few minutes.
  5. Practice non-judgmental awareness. It doesn’t serve us to trade one story for another, for example, I shouldn’t be so sensitive or I should have known better or I’m so screwed up. Attacking yourself for being human or having feelings is simply another way to prolong them.
  6. Move your body. Those shaky, vibrating sensations need release. Animals lie in the grass and tremble after a threat passes. They’re releasing the stored up stress hormones that they didn’t need for fight or flight. We need to do the same thing to fully function.  So after you’ve really felt what you are feeling all the way through, stand up and shake it off. Literally. Arms, legs, torso. Shake, shake, shake. A few moments will do wonders. A two-minute dance break to raucous music will do the same thing if you let yourself move.
  7. Allow the truth to come into your awareness as the feelings pass. Realize that there is very likely no emergency action to take, nothing to do in this moment, no reason to act right now. Slowly allow yourself consider the situation with a clear mind and a calm heart.

Typically, with these steps, anxiety will settle down within about five minutes. Sometimes we may need to repeat them, if the Do Something Now stories pop up again. And be aware that I’m not talking about the kind of debilitating chronic anxiety, usually driven by trauma, that requires treatment by a therapist. If that’s what you are dealing with, get the professional support you need. But the kind of anxiety that comes with life’s curve balls can typically be resolved on your own.

Then, when your body settles down, and your brain comes back on line, you can decide what to do about the situation. What’s the truth here? What is the best decision for me? What options do I have? What do I need to say to this person that is going to solve the actual problem? Is there something I can do to improve this situation?

When the brain is no longer compromised by the running tape of the story, the brain shut-down of fight or flight, or the numbing from food or wine, solutions we may never have considered can come to us. Our true desires can be felt. We can take action, or not, based on our best interests.

As for Olivia, after a few sessions and some practice with the above steps, she went to her next business meeting with a plan. She calmly told her partner that they needed to end the partnership and that she, Emily, was prepared to buy the business. The partner shouted, name-called, and tried to bully her into continuing the partnership, but Olivia stayed steady. Within about twenty minutes, she was shocked when her partner agreed to sell to her.  She stayed steady as she spoke. They agreed to hire a business evaluator and start the process immediately. Olivia still has more work to do, both inside and out, but she’ll get to keep the business she loves. Importantly, too, she’s learning how to deal with conflict, to stand up to a bully, and to deal with her own anxiety.

So next time anxiety comes galloping in to your life with all of its awful feelings and a Big Lie to DO SOMETHING,  don’t believe it. Instead, let the truth arise. Try these simple steps and see what happens. Like Emily, it might surprise you.

A Time to Speak Up

I StandAs I’ve watched the events of the last two weeks unfold, I’ve felt deep pain and horror. Like you, I’ve felt angry, sickened, and paralyzed as the racism and injustice in our country has been exposed and protested around the world.

And yet, I’m a white woman. I cannot possibly understand the experience of living in this world as a black person, any more than a man can understand my lived experience as a woman. I can feel my own pain from the sexism I’ve endured, I can listen to black voices and provide support where I can, but I cannot ever truly understand what it’s like to be black. For I have the privilege of walking in the world in white skin.

Because I’m white, I can forget the color of my skin most of the time. I can go where I please without suspicion. I don’t worry about my son’s safety when he visits a convenience store. It’s all too easy for me to forget the realities that have been going on around us for years, realities that I can no longer forget or ignore.

The videotaped murder of George Floyd made it indelibly clear and impossible to forget. He was only the latest in a long line of others that I too easily forgot about: Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, LaQuan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.

This time I will not forget. And I will do better. An important step is to be absolutely clear about where I stand.

I am facing my white privilege more transparently. For me, it’s deeply personal. I was raised in the segregated South by a black maid. I loved her deeply, more than my biological mother. Her labors contributed to my privilege. I was fed, dressed, and cared for by her because my own mother couldn’t. I slept on clean sheets, wore clean clothes and did my homework in a clean bedroom because of her daily efforts. Her work, for which she was undoubtedly poorly compensated, gave me a stability that allowed me to do well in school and go on to higher education. And I never thought twice about it.

I grew up in a neighborhood forbidden to her to live in, ate food she prepared at a table she couldn’t sit at with me, and went to shiny, well-appointed public schools forbidden to her children. And I never thought twice about it.

I am now committed to understanding more deeply what it means to be anti-racist. That means I must do more than to silently believe in racial equality and justice. I must be active about it. And so, I write this post, a small action in that direction.

Below are resources that can help you, if you are white like me, understand these issues more deeply.

I encourage you to search your hearts and join me.

The Power of Telling Our Stories


A couple of years ago, I began participating in Lip Service, a literary event here in Miami, similar to NPR’s The Moth, where storytellers share true personal stories in front of a 600-person audience.

I’ve done several shows and have exposed some very revealing, very tender parts of my life and my inner world. And it scares me silly every time I do it.

Why? you might wonder. Why stand in front all those strangers in a dark theater, with a video camera rolling, revealing your secrets?

When I began, I had absolutely no idea why. The moment I heard about Lip Service though, a strong pull came over me and I thought, “I want to do that. No, I have to do that.”  I knew I had to, even though I’d never done anything like it. I’d done lots of public speaking before, but it was professional and carefully curated. Safe.

This would be different. Risky. Messy. Scary. But despite my reservations, I listened to that inner voice and now I know why my intuition was so spot-on.

Telling the whole truth about yourself is the most liberating thing you can ever possibly do.

When I explore my personal struggles, large and small, the places I’ve been hurt, confused, or upset, I can dig down to the radical truth about myself and the situation.

I find my mistakes, my bruised feelings, my anxieties, to be sure, but as I keep exploring, I also find the places I was not seeing reality clearly. My vision unclouds and the truth shines through.

I look at my childhood with new eyes and see where I carried the pain and chaos from it into adulthood. And how I don’t need to do that any more.

I find solutions to problems I thought were unsolvable. Sometimes the solution is simply to get it off my chest and out into the world.

I see the humor and the everydayness of things I thought were Oh-So-Huge and Dramatic and Terrible.

I find forgiveness for those who wronged me and see where I needlessly harbored resentment.

By admitting my vulnerability, I understand myself better. I find my true voice, my authenticity. I don’t have to pretend or hide with anyone, even myself.

Ultimately, it’s deeply compassionate work.

Sharing those urgent places with an audience makes it even more powerfully transformational. It leaves me feeling courageous and proud of myself.

Audience members tell me how they understand how I felt and that they relate to what I did. They say that my story helps them understand their own stories.

There’s a lot of healing in knowing we’re not alone, that we’re not the only one who feels afraid, guilty, or foolish. We’re all in this together.

Even when something frivolous gets under my skin, if I explore why I’m obsessing about it, something deeper and universal is invariably revealed.

Last May, I went onstage for Lip Service and told a lighter story about me, myself and my hair. As I learned, even a light story, when looked at truthfully, can have depth and meaning to it.

So here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

Getting Back to “The Real World”



“Back to the real world tomorrow,” my friend Jen lamented. We’d spent the last ten days in Peru with a small group of friends, sampling the restaurants, art galleries, and nightclubs of Lima, and exploring the Amazonian jungle. We’d laughed and talked and been completely absorbed with our adventure. Wi-fi was almost impossible to access, and we’d been truly disconnected from our daily lives.

But if life at home with our jobs and laundry and email is the real world, then what is the world we’ve been in? And why do we resist leaving it?

On our bus ride back to the airport from our lodge in the rainforest, I had the great fortune of sitting next to one of our guides. Carlo, a bright, cheerful man in his mid-thirties, is an expert in the traditional herbal medicines of the jungle and had given us a tour of the lodge’s medicinal garden, deep in the rainforest. He’d shown us plants that cure a wide variety of ailments, from arthritis and cancer to headache and difficult childbirth. He had a sweetness that made listening to him a delight.

Carlo had pointed to a small square indent in the ground, about six feet on each side. He’d lived in a small structure on that spot for a year, he’d told us.  His mentor had instructed him to do so as part of his training as a medicine man.

On the bus ride, I asked him to tell me more about his experience living alone in the jungle. He said he went to the lodge only for meals and stayed in the jungle the rest of the time. It had been a spiritual journey for him—a time to go inward and to come to terms with adulthood, with life, with himself. He learned to communicate with the plants as well, by living with them and observing them.

He left his jungle house the day a jaguar visited him, scratching at his thin walls.

“Did you enjoy your time alone in the jungle?” I asked him.

“Very much,” he said. “It was very spiritual and I learned many things.”

“Were you sad to leave?” I asked.

“Oh no,” he said. “The jaguar was a sign. It was time to go.”

For Carlo, there was no thought of “back to the real world.” He hadn’t resisted staying alone in the jungle, either.  For him, each was simply the right time to move on to his next experience. He told me he’s now married and has two young children.  He said he loves his life now as much as he loved his year in the jungle.

What if we could approach our experiences and transitions like Carlo, without resistance? What if the line between “the real world” and “vacation world” was not subdivided into drudgery and stress versus fun and freedom? What if, when our vacations are ending, we could see it as Carlo did when the jaguar arrived, as time to go?

I think that there’s a key element that, at least for me, allows an ease in transitions between adventures and “the real world”: gratitude.

Gratitude is the foundation that allows us to enjoy and appreciate every aspect of our lives. Gratitude for our adventures, gratitude for the opportunity for us to see beyond our routine experience, and equal gratitude for our daily lives. Gratitude for life itself and for all it brings.

I think Carlo would agree.


The Gift of Presence

magic gift box with lights in their hands

Daddy?  Daddy?  Daddy!  DADDY YOU WEREN’T LISTENING!”

“Yes, I was,” my father answered.  “You said that you have a spelling test and you’re going to have a Christmas party at school.”

“You’re just being a parrot.” I’d say.  “I don’t want to talk to a parrot!  I want to talk to you, Daddy.”

I had this conversation with my father many, many times in my childhood.  It was always the same.  Even as a small child, I knew when he wasn’t really listening, even though he could repeat my words back to me with the precision of a tape recorder.

But I knew when he wasn’t present.  And it didn’t feel good.  It felt empty and bewildering.  It made me question the value of what I had to say.

The times when he was really listening and engaged were wonderful and felt very different.  And I remember them distinctly.  It’s what I always wanted from him, more than a new bike or a doll or a potholder loom.  And it was the one thing that was so elusive in our relationship–his presence.

It’s the same thing we want from each other as adults.  We want more than a warm body pretending to be with us.  We want a here-and-now presence, where we know the other person isn’t distracted, multitasking, or politely waiting for us to finish talking so they can have a turn.

I recently led a workshop on presence and asked a group of about 50 women what they wanted for the holidays.   They initially said things like “a clean house” and “finishing the holiday cards.”  After we dug down a bit, here’s what they said they really want:

  • to enjoy their favorite people
  • to re-connect with folks they haven’t seen or been with lately
  • to show appreciation for others
  • to show love
  • to feel connected to others in a meaningful way.

In other words, as these women discovered, what we want is each other.  We humans are social creatures.  Our relationships matter to us.  The human connection is one of the major cornerstones of high life satisfaction.

And now when we are here at that “most wonderful time of the year,” it’s easy to lose sight of that.  We get busy decking the halls, cooking up a storm, shopping ‘till we drop, and partying like it’s 1999.  And we forget why we’re doing it in the first place.

The good news is that the easiest and most delightful way to both get and give the gift that everyone really wants, is not with our presents.  It’s with our presence.  It’s a gift that is 100% free and the stores never close.

And here’s an extra bonus—when we give the gift of presence, we’ll never have to dread those credit card bills in January.

It’s Only a Mat

There was a surprise waiting when I went to yoga Sunday morning. We regular students keep our mats rolled up on a bank of narrow shelves in the back of the studio. The shelves had gotten so crammed full that if one mat was pulled out, a half dozen other mats came with it. They call ‘em sticky mats for a good reason.

While our teacher Natalie was on vacation, some of her helpers moved dozens of nameless mats up to the tiny front check-in area and piled them on the floor. When I arrived, a half-dozen people were scrambling through a candy-colored jumble in search of their mats. I stood back to let the crowd thin out.

Within a few minutes, only one woman was left ahead of me. She was bent forward at a ninety-degree angle, pushing, pulling and struggling. She straightened up, turned towards me and heaved a big sigh. She was young and beautiful, but her brows were kitted and her mouth contorted. “This is so stressful,” she said. “And I came here to get rid of stress.”

“Take your time,” I told her. “It’s only a mat.”

She smiled weakly and turned back to her plight. About ten seconds later she retrieved a bright fuschia mat and hurried into the classroom.

There was a time when I would have reacted exactly like that. I would have forgotten that I was young and beautiful. I would have forgotten that I was healthy and strong and had two incredible arms and legs. I would have forgotten that it was a blazingly brilliant Sunday morning in Coconut Grove, and that I had just walked in a light breeze under mahogany trees filled with dancing leaves and trilling mockingbirds.

Yep, I would have started yoga class upset and frustrated because my mat had been moved and it took me an extra minute or two to find it.

Stressing out is virtually our national pastime. Eight in ten Americans report workplace stress. Seventy-five to ninety percent of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. Almost half of us lie awake in bed at night due to stress, and about two-thirds of us will have hypertension by the age of 60.

Granted, people sometimes face serious and stressful problems–a life-threatening illness or the loss of a loved one. But how many of us are stressed because we arrive at yoga class and the mats were moved? Or because we jump in our cars to go to the grocery store and an accident ties up traffic for five minutes? Or because we’ve misplaced our keys? Or the dryer won’t start?

Our stress response is provoked over and over all day long, from things no less trivial than these. Then, the “stress wiring” in our bodies becomes stronger and more efficient. Over time, it takes less and less of a circumstance to push us into a stress state. The “set point” for our stress response to kick in actually lowers and we respond by pumping out stress hormones from smaller and smaller provocations.

In short, we create a hair-trigger stress-response system by reacting so dramatically and consistently to trivial inconveniences. We’re not very happy campers, either, while we are going about creating both acute and chronic health problems.

What’s the answer? One obvious solution is immediately available to all of us. If something is going on that you can’t control, let it go. Arguing with reality never succeeds—we always lose the debate as well as our health and well-being.

If the mats have been moved or the traffic is tied up or your flight is taking off late, let it go. If the rain is messing up your hair or if the lack of rain is drying out your flowerbeds, let it go. Two or ten or twenty extra minutes, frizzy hair, and wilted flowers are not worth compromising our happiness or our health.

Next time something unexpected happens and you’re delayed or inconvenienced, you might want to remind yourself that you are uselessly (and perhaps harmfully) stressing about something you can’t control.

When it was my turn at the mat-pile, I found two identical Mandukas—thick, grey, high-end talismans owned by those who take yoga very, very seriously, or like me, just need some extra knee cushioning. I considered what to do for a few seconds, then heard Natalie’s sweet voice.   Class was starting.

It was time to take my own advice.  I grabbed one of the two mats, pushing aside thoughts about whose sweat and grimy footprints other than my own might be lingering on it.   When I get home, I told myself, I’ll have a hot, soapy shower and scrub the mat clean. Then I’ll write my name on it with a black marker so this won’t happen again.

“After all,” I reminded myself, “It’s only a mat.”

Beautiful Mistakes

I’ve spent most of my life doing my best to avoid mistakes.  At all costs.  It seemed like a good strategy–a good way to stay “out of trouble” and the best path to success.  Then some smart, successful, and very talented people began encouraging me to make mistakes.  On purpose.

It started about fifteen years ago in a portrait photography workshop with a well-known, gifted teacher.  She gave me a weird assignment: spend a week taking photographs the wrong way.   Cut off heads, hands, and feet in awkward places.  Get too close, overexpose your shots, and ignore the rule of thirds. 

It was hard to do.  It felt strange.  But by the end of the week, I was experimenting and shooting with way more spontaneity and abandon.  Many of the photos were useless, but a few were downright lovely.  Beautiful Mistakes. 

Photography has always been easier and more fun since then.  I shot the photo above this post last summer in Woodstock, New York.  I was with my family and the backseat of the car we’d parked next to was so Woodstock, chock full of 60’s hippie stuff—drums, tie-died t-shirts, Indian blankets.  I wanted a photo of it and I had only a few seconds because everyone was hungry and waiting for me.  I grabbed my iPhone and quickly took one shot.  I didn’t realize the reflection of the car window would show my hands and the trees behind me. But I think the result is far more interesting than what I’d planned—a Beautiful Mistake.

Then I met Martha Beck, my wonderful mentor, who insisted that not only should I break the rules I’d been operating under, I should create my own rules.  At every turn over the last eight years, Martha has lovingly been in my face, pushing me to trust my inner guidance, make my own rules, and be willing to fall flat on my face.

Martha introduced me to improv in our Master Coach training.  Improv can only be done successfully when you are willing to look like a complete idiot.  You must be totally spontaneous–improv moves way too fast to plan anything.  It was fun and I thought it might help me with my perfectionism and “avoid mistakes at all costs” tendencies.

So I took a couple of improv classes locally with Carey Kane here in Miami.  At first I dreaded my turn. My lines often fell flat.  But the more I did it, the more comfortable I got with looking like a complete idiot.  By the end of the classes, I was consistently having fun and sometimes zinging out some pretty funny lines.

Now I’m in a memoir writing class with the awesome Andrea Askowitz of Miami’s Lip Service.  Each week, we’re given a couple of provocative prompts (a time you wish you spoke up and didn’t, how you edit the truth when talking to friends, a time you knew you shouldn’t have had sex and did anyway).  We dive right in, writing spontaneously for ten minutes without editing anything.

Then the real fun begins—we read our stories aloud to each other. We give each other feedback—what’s interesting, what needs clarification, what doesn’t fit.  We cannot criticize our own work or skip our turn.  The only comment Andrea allows us to make before we read is, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.”

The stories written by my classmates are consistently poignant and horrifying and heart-wrenching and funny and often downright brilliant.  They seem to feel the same way about my stories.  We discover things about ourselves we weren’t aware of.  We’re often surprised when the group laughs or cries when we read something we thought was stupid.  We see ourselves in each other’s stories—the universal messiness and glory of being a human.  Each week, I fall more deeply in love with these wonderful people who are so willing to expose themselves in the name of creativity and self-exploration.  The mistakes of our writing and the mistakes of our lives are on full display and it is truly beautiful.

I’ve discovered that my willingness to make mistakes has served me far more than my commitment to avoiding them.  Here’s a list of some of the advantages I’ve found in my adventures in Beautiful Mistakes:

1.    Creative projects are much easier and more interesting.
2.    I’m bolder and have more self-confidence.
3.    I’m more spontaneous and self-censor less.
4.    I don’t cringe so much when I goof something up.
5.    I have more fun at everything I do.
6.    I’m more willing to try new things and to experiment.
7.    I’m better at brainstorming when I work with a group.
8.    It’s easier to apologize when I’m wrong.
9.    I’m more vulnerable which makes my relationships richer and more authentic.
10.  Best of all, I feel a greater connection and love for others and a huge tolerance for their mistakes.

It’s been a pretty good payoff, I think, for doing things wrong.  These days, I can’t wait for my next Beautiful Mistake.  How about you?


What to Do When Your Head is Up Your Ass

A coaching colleague recently asked this intriguing question in a private online forum.  Here’s my answer:

QUESTION:  When you realize your head is up your ass and has been there for quite some time, how do you go about the process of removing it and moving on with your life?

ANSWER:  What a wonderful question!  It’s actually an essential question for those of us born with heads and asses.  We do indeed stick our heads up there from time to time.  How to remove it and move forward is essential to the ability to live bravely, fully, and joyfully.

Here’s how to do it:

1.  Give yourself a big gold star for realizing where your head is.   Our proprioception–an inner GPS that lets us know where our body parts are without seeing them–is especially challenged when our heads are up our asses.  Not only is it dark in there, we’re in a state of utter confusion.  Many of us spend a lot of time with our heads in that dark crevice and never even know it.  So recognizing that your head is up your ass requires accurate proprioception under extremely challenging circumstances.  Congratulations!

2.  The removal process is done in a straightforward way and with the kind of tenderness you’d use with your bewildered elderly aunt with dementia when she’s wandered out of the nursing home and gotten lost.   Be kind. Be gentle. Be patient.  The extraction might be a little painful, so remind yourself of the great pleasures and possibilities awaiting you.

3.  Welcome all emotions as you go about your task—rage, tears, anger, sadness, fear.  Whatever arises is perfect.  Feel it all the way through.  Run, howl, growl, wail, and dance it out of your body.  Shake your fists and stomp your feet.  Some ugly, discordant music can be very useful.  This is all best done once your head is freed from your ass.

4.  Don’t waste any time or energy telling yourself that your head should never have gotten up your ass in the first place, how you knew better than to put it there, how you didn’t listen to your body, did it again, ignored your intuition, blew off the red flags, etc., etc., etc.  Coulda, shoulda and woulda will only keep your head firmly stuck right where it is and delay your progress.  Don’t do it.

5.  Same goes for blaming others—don’t waste your time or energy.  It doesn’t matter one whit that someone else lied, tempted, cajoled, fooled, cheated or tricked you to into putting your head up your ass.  Blame is a distraction.  Whatever shameless, exploitative, narcissistic, or manipulative thing anyone else did is done and over.  File it under “Good to Know” and move on.

6.  At least for now, don’t spend time pondering how your head got up your ass, how to keep it from getting up there again, or any of the larger lessons that can be learned from your adventure.  The deeper meaning and the life lessons will reveal themselves when your head is completely out of the dark and your eyes have readjusted to the light.  Then you can look back with curiosity and wonderment and maybe even learn something.

7.  Celebrate!  Celebrate that you have a head and an ass and that they found each other!  Celebrate that hard as your head tries to convince you that it has all the answers, it really doesn’t, and now you have rock solid evidence that many of your other assumptions can safely be rejected!  Celebrate that on some level, your ass was only trying to help out by providing a refuge!  Celebrate that your spirit has been in search of experience and has achieved it’s goal!  Celebrate the Holy Fool that you are!

8.  Reconnect with the most luminous parts of yourself–your heart, your soul, your essence.  Go for a walk in nature.  Buy flowers.  Sing in the shower.  Look for the beauty all around you. Inspiring commencement addresses are particularly useful right now.  Like a recent college graduate, your head has been stuffed to the brim with learning, but you don’t quite know how you are going to use it in the world. Revisit books, poems, quotes or works of art that moved you in the past.

Once you’re purring along nicely again in your beautiful life, realize that it’s probably not the last time this will happen. Putting our heads up our asses seems to be an inevitable part of the human experience.  We forget, misjudge, goof up, and inevitably do it all over again. Successful living is more about process than avoidance—put head up ass, notice, remove, rebuild, learn, repeat.  Over and over through a lifetime.

It’s not a bad way to live if, over the course of time, we can we discover it more efficiently and get it out with more dignity and aplomb.  The sooner we just go ahead and admit it and begin the extraction and rebuilding process, the greater the chance our head will stay firmly upon our shoulders more of the time where it does us the most good.

Happy New Year!





The Trouble with Enlightenment

“I cheated on my wife with her best friend.”
“I married a man I didn’t love for his money.”
“I raped a woman.”

It was the first day of my first personal growth workshop. We had entered a darkened hotel ballroom and were handed a blindfold and led into circles, eight people on the outside, eight on the inside, facing each other. Blindfolds in place, we stepped towards the person opposite us, drew close and whispered in their ear the thing we had never before told anyone, the thing that most haunted us in the middle of the night, the most shameful thing we’d ever done.

We repeated our confessions to each person in the opposite circle. Eight times to eight strangers.

“I gave a child away for adoption when I was nineteen. I was too irresponsible for birth control and too selfish to raise her.”
“I cheat people in my business.”
“I beat my children out of frustration with my life.”

Anguished sobs filled the room.

Eight times we whispered. Eight times our confessions were witnessed. Eight times we heard whispered back to us: “I sincerely and completely forgive you.”

Then we switched places, forgivers became confessors, confessors forgave.

Sixteen confessions, sixteen forgivenesses. A wrenchingly powerful healing, part of the work of the late, great Debbie Ford.

One confession I heard that day was markedly unlike all the rest:

“I don’t meditate enough,” a woman sputtered through hiccupping sobs. She was as filled with shame and remorse as the liars, the cheaters and the abusers.  I considered that she was making it up, but her anguish was real. She was truly in a lot of pain.

I now know pain like hers is not uncommon. Many of us that are drawn to personal development work expect ourselves to think and act like the Buddha at all times. Anything less than that kind of perfection is bad, wrong, and deserving of remorse, regret and self-flagellation.

In my coaching practice, clients routinely say things like:

“Good mothers never yell/lose their tempers/want to get away from their kids/etc.”
“You can’t be spiritual if you are jealous/don’t meditate enough/make a lot of money/have ugly thoughts about your boss/etc.”
“It’s shallow and wrong to want a big house/designer clothes/a prestigious job/etc.”

These statements are all coming from perfectly lovely people who are engaged in the business of being human and who believe their intolerance for themselves and their desires and behavior is a necessary step in their path towards self-improvement.

When you cross perfectionism like this with a quest for “enlightenment” you get a perfectly miserable person, someone wracked with hiccupping, shamed sobs because they don’t meditate enough or ate a bag of Skittles or yearn for a new BMW.

What that aspiring meditator didn’t get that afternoon, and what we all need to keep in mind is that growth and wisdom never means abandoning acceptance and faith in where we are right now in our process. In fact, the first thing we need to ditch in our quests to be wiser and kinder and more fulfilled is our impatient and intolerant drive to be enlightened and wise.

Being human is a messy job. We have conflicts within us. We make the same mistakes over and over. We intend to skip dessert, walk outdoors every day, and meditate regularly. Then we don’t do it. We want to be spiritual and embrace noble values and we also want designer shoes and to look hot. We yell at our kids when we’re tired, even though it violates our intentions and well-considered principles.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do better, to be better, to show up more nobly in the world. In fact, it’s extraordinary and it’s admirable. But when we are judgmental and intolerant of the way we are right now, the unimproved, “as-is” version of us, we suffer needlessly and actually postpone our growth process.

It takes time to change lifelong habitual behaviors, an open mind to understand why we continue to avoid doing the things that will help us move forward, and a curious, experimental process to grow into fuller, richer versions of ourselves. Sometimes it takes insight we don’t yet have. Sometimes it takes a metaphoric two-by-four upside the head.

It always takes acceptance of where we are and where we’ve been.

And that was ultimately the point of Debbie’s brilliant work. We are all imperfect and will continue to be. We’ve all done things we wished we hadn’t. We’ve all lied, cheated, manipulated, abused, at least in our minds if not in the world. We’ve all had ugly thoughts about ourselves and others. We’ve all coveted material goods. We’ve all treated people badly and we’ve all made promises that we haven’t kept.  All of us. We may as well admit it.

When we make ourselves wrong for being human, we become intolerant and ashamed of that part of ourselves. We hate these parts of ourselves, we disown them and pretend they don’t exist by shoving them out of our conscious awareness. Jung called it our shadow.

Then, as Jung said, “What you resist, persists.” The very act of hating, denying and hiding parts of ourselves gives them more bite, more power over us. We stay disappointed in ourselves. Our inner voices grow mean and scold and chastise us. We are unhappy and frustrated. All of the energy we use in this inner struggle with ourselves keeps us stuck.

Sometimes we see our problem everywhere else. We project our shadow onto others, and fixate on their imperfections. We’re intolerant of those who just won’t meditate enough, or do whatever it is we are hiding in our own shadows. We know what’s wrong with them and exactly what they need to do to get their act together. Then we beat ourselves up for being too judgmental.

This all diverts our attention and energy from what’s essential and true and good about being human, and about being just plain us. If we can just admit it, admit we’re imperfect, we’re good to go. It’s actually a big relief. Our inner voices of scorn and derision can take a break. We are more authentic, more self-accepting, and kinder. More present. Our energy is liberated in that spaciousness and we can consider our options in each moment. We can do better when we are not locked into battle with ourselves.

It takes courage to stand tall and admit we are imperfect. It takes courage to forgive ourselves. It takes courage to be vulnerable. This was the point of the exercise in the hotel room.

Yet this is how we become whole. Whole humans who can look with curiosity and self-compassion to accept what we see, find what we can learn from our feelings and thoughts and behaviors and desires, and from there, find our path towards doing better.

So let’s set our sights on being whole, being fully who we are in this moment, and admitting that we are humans—sometimes magnificent, sometimes messy.

And that’s perfectly okay.