Thursday, May 10, 2018

Strength & Struggle: Lessons in the Art of Growth

My 40s have hit me like a freight train. Actually, that’s probably not the right analogy. That implies I’ve been flattened by my 40s, which is the opposite of the truth. Or, if I was really going to stick with that comparison I should say, “My 40s have hit me like a freight train, but I’m like one of those inflatable pop-up clowns that you can’t knock down.”

But now I’m thinking about clowns.

Maybe I should start over.

I’m on the verge of turning 42 and, while I’ve never doubted Oprah, she was right when she said years ago that your 40s are the best. Or, to quote her more directly, that her 40s were where I've come to know that becoming more of yourself is the only route to authentic, lasting power.


The words “boundaries” and “authenticity” have become part of my everyday vocabulary. I’ve realized that for the first 40 years of my life, I have basically been asking permission from others to live the way I want to, rather than seeking that approval from myself. I am who I am and if you don’t like it, I have a lovely front door with a cute little wreath on it that I bought for spring where you can exit.

And I’m happy.

Make no mistake, though; this happiness didn’t come without struggle. In fact, I’ve realized that it’s here because of it. I recently bought this postcard and have it hanging in my office:

 What do you REALLY want out of life?

I’ve definitely entered into a new phase. I think I realized it one day when I was thinking to myself, “What is your one wish right now for your life?”

My old self would have said “happiness.” My new self said “growth.”

I’ve come to realize that happiness is fleeting…and it should be. To wish to remain in a constant state of happiness is nonsensical because to know that you’re happy, you have to know what it feels like to be unhappy or at least in a valley. It’s the moments when you are forced to sit still, evaluate, and then find a way to keep moving forward that actually serve you best.

I’ve very much been in a “seeking” stage; I’ve been digesting as many podcasts, books, and seminars as I can. Originally this was an attempt to silence all of the negative stuff that’s going on in the world (it’s a lot better to get your “news” when it comes with a good perspective, rather than shouted at you from CNN). But now I can't do without it. I'm addicted to self-discovery.

I’m back in therapy and when I made my first appointment in 3 years, I could hardly contain my excitement. I counted the days. And I must have been meant to be because during that break, my therapist wrote a book about boundaries that was EXACTLY what I needed to read.

Small Things that Lead to Big Changes

When this self-discovery phase started, I noticed an immediate shift within myself. To say that I felt better is an understatement. Reading or listening to other people’s stories and perspectives daily – even if was just for a few minutes while I ran the kids around or when I had my morning tea – gave me a peace I’d never known. I truly began to understand how insecure we all are in our own ways and how to not only overcome it, but to embrace it. How those people who have experienced the unthinkable have things to say rather than those who either haven’t or refuse to acknowledge it.

At the age of almost 42-years-old, I’ve discovered this well of strength and authenticity within myself that I didn’t even know I had. And knowing that I can dig into it at any time has made me surer of myself than I’ve ever been.

What’s been interesting about that is that it hasn’t just been the books or the podcasts that have changed me…it also has a lot to do with the people I spend time with now. Without knowing it, I’ve surrounded myself with strong women who have taught me that I no longer need to ask permission to be myself or create the life that I didn’t even know was possible.

Now I hunger for those friendships. I feel like my radar is on and I’m constantly seeking these strong women. I’m extremely vocal about what I’ve learned myself about strength and vulnerability. I can immediately see, when talking to someone about authenticity, if the lightbulb goes on. If it does, I know there’s a possible connection there.

The Concept that Changed Everything

Another part of this new connection has been church. I didn’t grow up in a religious family and, while my late husband was a dedicated Presbyterian, since he’s been gone our church attendance has been spotty at best.

But my oldest daughter wanted to go. She had some friends who attended a church nearby and so I started going with her. And while I still feel like I’m lagging in the faith department sometimes, I’ve truly enjoyed the message.

It was at one service when the pastor asked the congregation, “Do you know why trees get tall?”

That’s never something I’ve thought about, but I assumed it had something to do with water and light.

He explained that years ago, scientists created the ideal growing situation for trees in a covered facility with the perfect light and just the right amount of water. Then one day the scientists walked in and the trees that had been growing so well were all laying down. They’d all fallen.

It turns out that what makes a tree grow tall…is wind.

Wind requires the tree to develop a strong root system that will keep it upright. It’s that tension against the elements – that struggle – that actually makes the tree flourish.

Now, I know that as we stand in our own windstorm it sometimes doesn’t feel like we’re flourishing; it feels like we’re dealing with an F5 tornado. But these days I usually find myself leaning into those windstorms rather than allowing them to knock me down.

And now I know more than ever that they’re essential to my growth.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Fearing Joy and Dress-Rehearsing Tragedy

I’ve written other posts about happiness – mainly dealing with the idea that I wasn’t sure I deserved it. After all, happiness isn’t owed to any of us. The older I get the more I realize that happiness many times requires a conscious effort on our part.

But it never occurred to me that happiness and joy were something to be feared. I mean, really? Isn’t that what we all want? What is there about joy to be scared of?

Well…it turns out…a lot.

Dress-Rehearsing Tragedy

I was listening to Oprah’s interview with BrenĂ© Brown on SuperSoul Sunday when she talked about how joy is the most terrifying feeling we could possibly have.

I used to stand over my two kids while they slept, and just as a profound sense of love and joy washed over me, I'd imagine horrible things happening to them: car crashes, tsunamis. "Do other mothers do this," I'd wonder, "or am I unhinged?" I now know from my research that 95 percent of parents can relate to my constant disaster planning. When we're overwhelmed by love, we feel vulnerable—so we dress-rehearse tragedy. 

I sat in my car completely stunned. That was me. Time spent with my parents has always been clouded in my mind with, “What if I lose one of them?” A new client acquired is immediately followed by, “But what if I mess up?” or “What if ALL of my clients suddenly abandon me at once and I have no income?”

Don’t even get me started about the fear I feel surrounding my kids, who are happy, healthy, and do their own laundry.

I’ve been “dress-rehearsing tragedy” my entire life.

Yeah, but...

Of course, this would be a lot less complicated if I’d never actually experienced tragedy. One might say that I’m justified in worrying about that mythical shoe dropping because it actually has before. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, there were times during my marriage when I fearfully thought, “What if something should happen to him?”

And then it did.

Here’s the problem. All of that worrying about what I would do, how I would feel, should something happen to my husband didn’t actually help or prepare me for when it really happened. I mean, it’s not like I left the hospital thinking, “Thank GOD I spent all that time worrying about this moment. It’s really going to cut back on my grieving time!”

The only thing all of that worrying did was take me out of moments that I should have been fully feeling. I should have been enjoying holding his hand as we took our kids for a walk instead of worrying about losing him. I should have loved creating a home with him rather than spending time worrying about what I would do if he died. I even should have stayed in the moment when he told me he’d never liked my chicken parmesan, rather than thinking, “REALLY? Then why don’t you just go?”

Okay, that last point was reaching a little. And I do make a good chicken parmesan, no matter what he said.

Loss and Joy

I think people who have experienced loss either really get this or they really don’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from other widows about how they’ve possibly found a new love but are fearful of really investing in the relationship because they’re terrified of losing that person.

Dress-rehearsing tragedy.

I get it. When you’ve been brought to your knees by grief it’s hard to imagine risking your sanity again. It’s hard not to be scared, therefore, it’s hard to experience true moments of joy without fear. And we can’t help but visit that place in our minds sometimes – that’s a very real thing.
It’s just no place to live.

Okay. So now what?

BrenĂ© Brown’s recommendation is this:

The next time you're traumatized by "What ifs," say aloud, "I am feeling vulnerable." This sentence changed my life. It takes me out of my fear brain—i.e., off the crazy train—and puts me back on the platform, where I can make a conscious choice not to reboard. 

She also recommends finding a moment of gratitude in the midst of your panic. And that’s a good suggestion. Who am I to question a PhD who lands on an Oprah show?

But here’s my thought: As with so many things, I’ve realized that the root of my issues comes from not being in the moment. Fear, in many cases, is thinking about what might happen which means that I’m living in a future I can’t predict anyway. Recognizing that I’m having a moment of fearful joy means that I need to stop, shift gears, and completely focus on what’s happening right now.

After all, I now know that being fearful in a moment of joy doesn’t buy you any more time or peace of mind than just being present and enjoying it.

It just robs you of the moment.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Along for the Ride: Being the "extra" in a group of couples

I've written many a blog about being the third, fifth, seventh, or 21st wheel in a group of couples. 

Truth be told, it used to really bother me because I hated being single. A rectangular table on Thanksgiving where you're the only one who's sitting on one side is nothing short of excruciating when you're newly widowed.

But part of my journey into established singledom has been about coming to terms with it and - dare I say - actually being comfortable with it. I don't get anxious when I go out with another couple because I'm grateful they invited me. More often then not, I'm able to sit back and relax in a group of couples while at least two-thirds of them argue over petty little things and I'm able to just peacefully sip my wine. Seeing other couples around me no longer makes me feel uncomfortable and exposed.

I'm just me. And I kind of like that right now.

However, there is one area of single life that I think I'm not all that great at.

Standing up for myself.

Don't worry. I'm not being bullied or anything and, in most cases, I do speak up when I feel like I'm being screwed over (especially these days. I think I need to get my hormones checked). But a friend of mine recently brought to my attention that I might not be doing everything I can to act like the strong adult I believe I've become.

And that has me a in pickle.

I was raised in a no-conflict zone - at least for the most part. Yes, my parents had little squabbles when I was growing up and there were many times when I'd want to shave my older sister's head...but for the most part, I grew up in a pretty calm environment.

Sounds like hell, right?

But something that I've noticed about myself lately is that I've become kind of a doormat as an adult, particularly when I'm around other couples. The men speak up when they want something, their wives either agree or feel it's worth the fight, and I just sit there and wait to hear what's been decided.

And when it's something I don't agree with, I rarely say anything and now I'm questioning why. And I think it's this:

I don't want to rock the boat when I don't have someone else to rescue me.

Out to sea

There is no doubt in my mind that if Brad was here, I would be speaking up a lot more. It's true that there would be times when he would probably side with someone else, but for the most part I would feel a little more confident in speaking out. If anything, I would have that other adult I could go to and say, "Should I say something about this?" or who would take the brunt of my frustration and temper it a little before I went off on someone else.

The bottom line is that I would feel like I had some support.

So, while I've gotten more comfortable with most aspects of living on my own, this is one that has me feeling a little "out there" - like I'm just dangling on my own without any back-up. It's frustrating to feel like such a grown-up in most other areas and like a child when it comes to this ONE THING.

Here's the REAL problem

When I spoke to my friend about it, she did bring up something that I'm always concerned about: How does this behavior affect my kids when they witness it? Because no matter how frustrating the situation is, I AM participating in it by being so complacent...and many times, my kids are watching.

Have I confused the "maturity" of going with the flow with being somewhat bullied? In my effort to set the right example, have I actually done the wrong thing? Are they not learning effective communication skills...because I'm not communicating about it at all? And, worst of all, are they learning that what you should do in these situations is just shrink back when something happens that you don't agree with...and not do anything?

None of this is going to get solved right here, right now. I'm in the "awareness phase" of this new discovery. When I truly ask myself what my biggest fear about speaking my mind is, it's that I would be risking relationships that actually matter to me.

And that's no small thing when you don't have back-up.