[Download] A Guided Meditation for Conscious Leaders

Tara Reads Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Letter to a Young Activist

Note: This is Part 4 of a series of posts inspired by Clarissa Estes’ work. It has emboldened my voice and my leadership, and I believe it will bless you, too. ~T

Part I: Souls on Deck: My Call to Action to You, Conscious Leader
http://www.taranicholle.com/souls-on-deck-my-call-to-action-to-you-conscious-leader/

Part II: What Conscious Leaders Do In Dark Times
http://www.taranicholle.com/souls-on-deck-part-ii-what-conscious-leaders-do-in-dark-times/

Part III: Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times – Full
http://www.taranicholle.com/clarissa-pinkola-estes-letter-to-a-young-activist-in-troubled-times-full/

Life Grows. . . And Then Contracts, So It Can Grow Some More [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 22]

I started this writing challenge thinking I’d spend a lot of time cracking myself open, pulling out the blood and guts and carcasses of my old traumas, mucking them out publicly. I felt like I needed to do this to be more vulnerable and transparent about my journey, as so much of it has only ever been revealed in a relatively polished, “After” picture sort of way.

Life Grows. . . And Then Contracts, So It Can Grow Some More

So I went there. And for the first few days, I spent a lot of time revealing old messes in a way that I thought would replicate the resonance, relatability and uplifting connectedness I’d experienced in one-on-one conversations about these subjects.

But then, naturally, I noticed my posts evolving in the direction my spirit and mind have over the last few years. I just wanted to write from my experience. And my experience is driven by this super woo-woo, cosmic principle that goes like this: “That was then, this is now.” My now experience is incredibly fun and delicious. It’s not a perfect life, in terms of circumstances, but it’s perfectly beautiful to live. And I’ve discovered how to let life unfold easily, and how to be in and savor the delectable moments and experiences of it with love and joy, even when things aren’t going the way I thought they would, because I know things are all working out for me.

So my posts naturally veered into that tone, the tone of my current life and experience.

I was talking with my coach about this this morning, just expressing how many things I worked on, nose-to-grindstone, for so many years were not the right things. And how so many of the best things in my life have been the things that came with ease, sometimes with effort and other times not, but they weren’t the hard things, was my point. And how I’ve learned to see “hard” as a flag that the thing is probably not the right thing. And how I’ve learned to even be grateful for that “hard” as guidance, and as necessary.

And she reminded me about science. About how contraction is necessary for expansion: think of your heart, as it beats. All your muscles, really, and how they work. About how our bodies contract in order to give birth to our young.

Even a seed must crack open and die in order for a seedling to emerge.

This is a brilliant principle, if you can catch and apply it to your world. There are really two premises built into what she was saying here which, if you accept them as true, can change the ease with which you experience life, eliminate fear and shift your experience from depleting to constantly, continually energizing:

  1. That life grows, grows and expands, always. Things grow, markets grow, people do, too.
  2. That contraction is required for expansion to occur.

If you accept both these premises, you can find incredible peace and energy in their combined meaning. Things will grow and expand, and generally in an upwards direction. But some contraction must happen, at seasons, between seasons of growth. If your investment accounts were looking down in 2008, but you’ve held onto them, you’re in good shape with those same investments now, in 2016.

This principle means you can be a reasonable, wise adult and take a peaceful, long-term view of your life. It means you can focus on setting a conscious, general idea of what you want to be about and create in your life, and then have a lot more ease and expectation and patience and peace as you do your work and see what options show up. It means you can say no to things without fear. It means you can release the depletion that results from being constantly worked up and wound up over The Drama of the Day and instead make it the Sport of the Day, and handle it like an expert, infinite game player.

This principle means you can sit rooted and grounded in your clarity and confidence that things are working out. And it means you’ll make better decisions, take the risks involved in being a fearless, wise communicator and experience life more abundantly, as a result.

Contraction must happen for expansion to occur. Science says so. Spirit does, too.

At Home for The Holidays? Here’s How to Survive Your Parents [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 21]

A teacher of mine once said that the advice we give others is actually the advice we most need ourselves.

From Fraught to Freedom: Advice on Having Truly Happy Holidays

This is always in the back of my mind when I share what I’ve learned or what I think with people who’ve asked for my advice. I try to think of it as though I am my own, amazing, free advisor, but that the sport of the day is to figure out which of my own issues the advice I’m giving at any given moment might apply to. And almost always, life presents me with a rich opportunity to apply it. 

The other day, I was doing the four-hour drive to see my parents, in Bakersfield. My family celebrates Thanksgiving a week in advance of the actual holiday, so I get to miss traffic and a few other folks and their spouses always get to see both sides of their families.  

While I was driving, a young relative of mine called, and we caught up while I was driving. She shared that she had a lot of anger with her parents for preparing her for a post-college world that no longer rewards education the way it once did, and for constantly pestering her about working several (great) part-job jobs, versus getting a “real” job and staying at it until pension-time, the way they did.

I shared with her from my experience as offspring that I think the issue is generational, and that it’s certainly not limited to her parents. My parents, too, worked the same jobs for 30 years, and have looked at my own career path with equal parts concern and awe. For their parents, success was just making ends meet. For her parents and mine, success was having a “good” job, ideally with a governmental entity or a large corporation, and staying at it long enough to get a pension. One of her parents and one of mine had actually made it to college, later in life, and managed to elevate beyond their own expectations, at their “good jobs”.

The incremental increase our parents hoped and worked to real-ize for us was that we would go to college and get great jobs, but ideally still with a government entity or big company, and ideally still with a pension. They simply could not have foreseen, I told her, the Great Recession and the devaluation of a basic college degree. They could not have foreseen that their daughters, she and I both, would go on to get master’s and doctorate level degrees, and then pursue something other than the traditional career path from those degrees. They could not have foreseen—and still don’t understand—the massive disruptions to what a “good job” is that have been driven by Silicon Valley, the Internet, the death of the pension and the gig economy.

She expressed frustration that her mother wouldn’t stop criticizing her path, even after she told her Mom in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t choose a career like her mother’s, even if she did have the choice. To that, I told her that she should feel free to express herself, but also should know that her mother is not in a position to share her mental frames for “good job”. I told her that trying to control others’ behavior or allowing it to dictate our own emotional states is a losing battle. And I shared with her that she has lots of choices for how to handle this that she might find much more emotionally satisfying, including expressing her POV, minus the anger and vitriol, without the expectation that her mother will change her behavior. And also including just no longer having that same tired old script of a conversation with her mother.

I told her the developmental stage of disindividuation is only successful when we see and feel those boundaries, the distinctness of what we want and are as separate from what are parents want and are. I told her from that perspective, the system has worked, in her case. And in mine.

In fairness to her Mom, I told her I know from experience as a parent just how hard it is to stop giving unsolicited life advice to your children based on your own mental frames. Even when your own thinking no longer applies to your kids or their peers. I told her parents do this because we are concerned for our kids, and want the best for them and, because the only ways we can see the situation from is through our own lenses, our own mental frames, for what is good and right.

Shortly after she and I hung up, I pulled into my mother’s driveway. “Ah, so,” I thought. “Here’s the part where I’m going to have a bunch of ‘rich opportunities’ to take the advice I gave Henrietta (names/changed/protect/innocent/etc).”

But you know, a funny thing happened. Maybe because I was thinking this advice was really well-timed for myself, or maybe because that conversation with Henrietta had put me into parental compassion mode, my parents didn’t get to me on this trip. There were tiny seeds that could have caused friction, but I dealt with them in a bold, decisive way. I dealt with them with clarity, honesty and no expectation in the moment, based on what seemed right.

My Dad said some things I disagreed with, and I told him so, but gently and without any expectation that he would change. I explained why I disagreed and shared my own experiences that were the basis for my disagreement. I added a little dose of humor, without self-deprecation, just to lighten the mood. He respected my opinion and even agreed with me.

My Mother refused to do some things I’d have liked her to. And I just let it go, instantly. Her “important” and mine don’t have to be the same. When someone asked me about it later, I’d actually forgotten the incident had even happened.

I had some conversations that should have been challenging with my Dad, but approached them thinking about the advice I gave Henrietta. I didn’t just hit him with my opinion. I shared my appreciation for his journey and his sacrifices, and shared with him my 10,000 foot view of the situation, offering him the clarity of an outsider’s perspective. I asked him to have a little more compassion and generosity with himself in a hard situation, and encouraged him to make some choices that don’t jive with his mental frames for “good” and won’t be popular but are the right thing to do. I told him I’d back him up. And he could hear me.

This time, it was real that the advice I’d given was the advice I needed. But there was something bigger than this principle at work here. Something in the energetics of having released the desire to change the situation, of having accepted and allowed my parents to be who they are and need to be, and of remembering how many times wise adult Tara has made great choices in terms of engaging in non-mission-critical battles with my parents actually shifted the whole atmosphere around these relationships. It defused it entirely. People behaved better, way better, that normal.

And that felt good. It actually felt great.

Call me woo-woo if you want to, but during Thanksgiving, there was a moment when some of my relatives were getting into some stressful, turbulent, conversational topics. It was cranking up to be one of those conversations that gets gossipy and outraged, but goes nowhere. I dreaded it, because it would either suck me in or put me in a position to have to figure out how to be the wise adult Tara in the conversation. But a funny thing happened. Just at that moment, my 4-year-old cousin Bella popped up. She basically flew at me with open arms, yelling “COUSIN TARA!!!!!!” She marveled at how my hair was braided like her hair, and how we were basically the same because she’s 4 and I’m 41. We took a selfie. She asked me (to my horror) if I had Snapchat. She grabbed my phone and started voice searching for songs to dance to on YouTube. She insisted that we dance. She said “Let’s dance!” and I looked over at the crazy conversation people, looked back at her, and said “Ok! Let’s dance!” And so we danced.

Finally she yelled out—no joke, ya’ll—“I LOVE CHALLENGES!” Challenges, of all things. I almost said, “Hey, that’s my shtick!”, but I thought better of getting into that with a four year old. So instead, we made a whole bunch of videos of her “show,” wherein she introduces herself and tells viewers all about the “Princess Book Challenge” or the “Gymnastics Challenge.”

By the time she was done, and released me from my service (!), the crazy conversation I’d dreaded dealing with was naturally breaking up. It was over, and I didn’t have to engage or break it up. It was as though the decision to accept, allow and change my own behavior vs. trying to manage anyone else’s had gone ahead of me and paved the path for that trip with ease and calm, at least in my experience of the trip.

I share this in hopes that it reaches you before your own Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s or other holiday family gathering that might normally make you crazy. I dare you to try on this new possibility, the possibility of extending compassion and acceptance to the hard nuts to crack, in advance. There’s a very real possibility that doing so might shift the entire atmosphere from fraught to freedom.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. I wrote this post on Day 21 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

Excellence vs. Perfectionism: Notes on How to Play the Sport of the Day [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 19]

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” ~Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Excellence vs. Perfectionism: Notes on How to Play the Sport of the Day

I’ve written before about the time Serena Williams messed me up. It wasn’t intentional. In fact, she had no idea that she was involved. One day I watched a video of her working out. I think it might have been this video. The day after I watched it, I was in the gym, at a performance boot camp. Kettle bell swings, box jumps and battling ropes, all of my favorite things. The thing is, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and once my braids were swinging around, there was a moment in which I met my own eye in the mirror and thought: I can go just as hard as Serena. So I went harder, and harder, and had an incredible workout. Pushed way past what I’d normally do. 

It was fantastic.

Until the next day. And the day after. And the day after that. Days later, I was still so sore that I couldn’t even rotate my trunk enough to look over my shoulder and parallel park. Thanks, Serena. 

I love this story, though, because it surfaces the difference between excellence and perfectionism. 

Perfect is the enemy of done. 

Perfect, in fact, is not real. Perfect is the enemy, period. 

Perfectionism is rigid, hard and creates shame most of the time, because almost all of the time, we will fall short of perfect. 

But excellence? Excellence is doing your best. Excellence is about pushing to the limits of your capacity, and then growing capacity. But excellence is not hard or rigid. It’s juicy and energized. It’s fun. 

In sport, we know that our minds give up and will tell us to stop way before our muscles are tapped out. And knowing this allows us to push harder, to know that our capacity is greater than it might feel like it is, when we’re in the midst of a crunch. 

In sport, we know that, ultimately, it’s all just a game. The stakes are not life and death. But we still take the game seriously. We train, we visualize, we practice and we pour ourselves into the game. But we have fun, too. We play the game, we don’t work it or grind it or dread it. 

We also know that one way to help keep our minds in the game, and to override the message to stop, is to see inspiring others, to hear and watch their stories, or even to hear them cheer us on. Excellence happens when others coach, inspire or keep us accountable. Perfectionism is often self-imposed, and often isolating. Excellence connects us. 

Excellence is inspired. One of my heroes is Daniel from the Bible, who was favored because of his devotion to God and also because “an excellent spirit was within him”. Inspiration means to be animated by the spirit of something, to literally breathe in a spirit. Daniel’s spirit of excellence emboldened him to hold himself to different, higher standards, with discipline and leadership, than the culture and community in which he lived, without critiquing or judging anyone else. Excellence is inspired and inspiring, and it keeps you running your own race, minding your own business, and being your best. 

Excellence was my workout, at crazy next levels, inspired by one of my other heroes, Serena. It was fun, exciting, juicy and alive in the moment. Years afterwards, I recall that workout as one of my favorites ever. (Side note: this was my #1 Favorite Workout Of All Time.)

Because excellence is about you doing your best, as I’ve matured, I’ve also realized that excellence involves all the self-care, nourishing and beauty that helps me operate at peak whatever I’m focused on: peak performance, peak prosperity, peak fun, peak joy, peak fun. Excellence requires knowing that “your best” will be different on different days. That it—that I—will ebb and flow. It requires rest. I developed and received more and more of my spirit of excellence when I learned that there are different seasons for different sorts of work: seasons for envisioning, for sowing, for cultivating and for harvesting, in every single area of life. Perfectionism drives us relentlessly to go harder, harder, harder. Excellence pulls out our long-term best, inspires us to build a beautiful vision, but with grace and with even some ease and softness around the journey it’ll take to get there, and the daily, weekly, monthly ebb and flow in the power, force and direction of our efforts to build it. 

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer coaches us through the process of learning to rewire our natural tendency to tense up and harden around emotional pain. When we learn to soften and allow it to pass through us, and allow past hurts and pain to come up and burn out, we gradually dissolve our touchy subjects, resolve unfinished business, and live into a place of freedom from emotional triggers and thorns. We learn to be unconditional in our love for life, love for people, exuberance and general joy. 

But being able to exist in a state of grounded exuberance, regardless of your external conditions, does not mean that you don’t address problems or challenges when they come up. Singer says that when you get untethered, instead, the challenges and issues that inevitably arise in your life don’t read as problems. They read as the sport of the day. Your sport of the day, your game for the day, becomes how to have that challenging conversation with an employee, or how to deal with the trouble your kid is stirring (/raises hand).

For me, the sport of the day is often how to translate my gut intuition into conversations and interactions that open new possibilities for transformation in my clients’ businesses, within their teams, or even with their customers.

The sport of the day is not always to fix or change conditions, and it’s never to fix or change other people. The game is how to be who you want to be and live into what you want to create, which sometimes requires being responsive to current realities without getting entangled or stuck in them. 

I’ve grown over time to go from seeing my past dysfunctional patterns are cringeworthy problems I wish I’d never had to seeing them as the sport of the day. So now, for example, when someone close to me starts stirring up drama, I note my wobble between enabling them and abandoning them, and I spot the opportunity as a treasure to play a new, lighter game: the game of finding that middle path for how we relate today. 

And I know—I’ve discovered—that the sport of the day, and my energy for playing it, is fresh and new every single day. You’re not bound or limited by the game you played yesterday anymore than the matches she’s lost have stopped Serena from soaring to victory the next day, or even later the same day. She’s no joke. And neither are yo.  

We don’t play the sport of the day with perfection, or with perfectionism. Because, at the risk of belaboring the point, perfect is not real. We can play it with excellence, though. And we can have fun doing it. When you learn to play the sport of the day and to play it with excellence, it’s so much fun that you’ll never want to go back to the time when perfect was your aim, even if you are too sore to parallel park the next day.  

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 19 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

Parents Are People, Too (Even Yours) [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 18]

I once was trying to advocate to a friend that she should experiment with puppy parenting before she tried on a human kidlet. Puppies can be left at home alone, from day one, I argued. They’re generally already walking before you bring them home. Oh! And you can potty train them in a couple of weeks, I went on; my son was almost three before he got it together. 

Parents Are People, Too (Even Yours)

Human children rely upon their parents, with life or death stakes, for a really, really long time, compared with other mammals. Years. 

And maybe it’s precisely because we once relied on them for life and death. Or because in the earliest stages of our nervous systems’ wiring process, if they neglect us (regardless of why), it feels like we’ll die, and if they smother us, it feels like we’ll suffocate. And so those feelings linger and transfer over to other relationships, well into adulthood.

Maybe it’s that. Or some combination. Jung had some ideas. Freud did, too. 

Because of all of these things and some I’ve omitted, we give our parents a very outsized character role in the narrative of our lives. We attribute our traits to them, good and bad, silly and grave. We ascribe our relationship dynamics, bad habits and unhealthy food fetishes to them, too. And even if we’re not the type to blame them for our life’s story arc, per se, we still talk about the things they said to us one time or a million times, the dynamics of their own love relationship(s), and the way they felt and talked about their bodies, our bodies, our smarts and their hopes, dreams and disappointments in us as pivotal moments in defining who we are and how we live.

When we start the work of trying to heal our lives, and resolve unfinished childhood business, we often remark on these things. We spot these moments, and we may realize how our feelings of smothering or abandonment are still playing out, 50 years later, in every relationship. This might all be very fair and true. But also, we often do this analysis thinking of the people who spawned us, raised us or failed us as Our Parents, an archetype that looms so large in our minds that we have collectively assigned completely impossible standards to their behavior. 

A wise man I was talking with a few days ago told me how he, too, had felt so much vicarious pain when he evaluated his parents’ lives and some of what he judged to be their dysfunctional patterns of relating. He was clear that his own approach to relationships had largely been defined by trying to avoid doing what his parents did. He told me how, on the way home from the holidays one year, he had a flash of insight: that his parents were just regular people. 

That they didn’t have any special magic or supernatural ability to somehow be better at relationships than every other person he knows just by virtue of the fact that they were His Parents. 

That they had actually had very understandable, valid to them at the time, reasons for making the choices they’d made, throughout their lifetimes. 

Somehow, recasting his parents from that role into the roles of regular person #1 and regular person #2—flawed and beautiful and wounded like all of the rest of us—made him feel much more ease, softness and compassion toward his parents, from that moment on. 

When they weren’t being held to a mythical, capital P “Parent” standard, they were just people, doing the best they could with what they had and where they’d been. What he said reminded me of something I read once which I interpreted to this effect: if we are able to do personal growth work, read self-help books, attend workshops and be conscious livers of life, our parents were good-enough. Full-stop. Is every parent good enough? No. Plenty of people had parenting or other traumas that prevent them from being able to live what we think of as a conscious life. 

But most of ours were. Even a lot of the really bad ones. Seriously, even some of the abusive ones, including parents like mine who operated out of fear and love, giving my brother and I some incredible opportunities, making extraordinary sacrifices, and also inflicting all sorts of damage. They were good enough.

When I learned about the concept of the Good Enough Parent was when I realized that our parents are people, too. And they have their own emotional wounds. And their parents did, too. And that all human beings leave childhood with wounds from their parents, as a result. And most importantly, that it’s possible and even probably healthy to hold in the same space a compassion for my younger self and her wounds and hurts and the sense that my parents were actually doing the best they could with what they had, wounds included. 

To think of your parents, flaws and all, abuses and all, irresponsibilities and all, as Good Enough does not mean you ignore, deny, repress, sublimate or otherwise sweep your very real history under the rug or submerge it below a happy-all-the-time veneer. It doesn’t mean you forget or revise history. 

It doesn’t mean they never hurt us, and it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t spend some time healing and integrating historical hurts. It doesn’t mean you don’t get to stop cycles, stop bad behavior or draw boundaries with them now. It doesn’t even mean that you shouldn’t or can’t talk things through with your parents. Or flat-out confront them, in some cases. Whether and when to do this is an individual decision. For me confrontation and rehashing has mostly been helpful when self-expression (vs. expecting an apology, or changing your parents) is the sole objective of the conversation. 

But the concept of the Good Enough Parent does suggest one very powerful takeaway: that nothing in our parentage is indelibly harming. I know this is a very difficult concept for some of us. It was once for me. But at some point I realized that in holding onto this belief or habitual thought that I’d been broken in some way by my parents, I was really just arguing for my limitations, holding fast to the belief that my life had to be hard in some way, no matter how joyful and delightful it was actually inclined to be.

So, now, I stand behind this statement, even if you disagree. If you can read this—if you are reading this—then your parents were Good Enough. And if you had Good Enough Parents, there’s no emotional wound beyond healing, no trigger we can’t pull out, or dissolve. Acknowledging the hurts of the past. And seek, aggressively, to heal them. But at the same time, acknowledge that enough went right in your upbringing that your childhood challenges were preparations, possibly painful ones, but preparation nonetheless, for your greatness at whatever you were put here to do.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 18 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

Why Challenges Work to Trigger Breakthroughs, Spark Growth and Build Habits aka How Challenges Change Lives, Part II [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 17]

Here are my thoughts on why Challenges work:

Why Challenges Work to Trigger Breakthroughs, Spark Growth and Build Habits aka How Challenges Change Lives, Part II

1.They hold space for new things in your otherwise-crowded world/life/calendar/day/mind. Life is very, very full before you try to add in a new habit or project. Formulating your aspirations into Challenges holds a new space in your mind and your calendar for the things you want to do. It also forces you to prioritize, and decide what you won’t be doing for that time frame. That allows for decathexis to happen, where you recoup the time, energy or money you were spending on something less important so you can flow that toward your new habit or project or way of being.  

Challenges also usually involve some level of tracking and accountability, and are often also (naturally or formally) social, all of which increase the probability of your actually doing the activity at hand compared with the likelihood you’d do it without the Challenge.

2. They build momentum and habits by focusing your energy on actions you can control, vs. outcomes that are outsized or out of your control. Challenges set you up to experience significant momentum and progress toward a project or change that matters to you. If you want to write a book, setting a Challenge that says you’ll write for 2 hours a day will automatically trigger some progress and mental momentum, because you know that if you just do that over and over again, for six months, chances are very good you’ll have at least a rough draft in place when you’re done.

3. They chunk big transformations down into doable daily practices. I love to make lots of big life changes at once, but the data shows that massive behavior changes just don’t stick for most people. A Challenge to cut out sugar and alcohol for 30 days is vastly more likely to create lasting change than a nebulous “Lose 50 pounds” goal. Instead of “write a book,” Challenge yourself to write something—anything—every day for 30 days, and watch what happens.

4. They create a standard and provide structure. Without the rules of a Challenge, your goals can be structureless and just hard to put a mental frame around. It’s the difference between “start doing kettlebell swings” and “do 10,000 swings in the month of June.” Having some standard to get to, whether it’s a word count you’ll write or just a number of days for which you’ll do a thing, sparks that tiniest bit of competitiveness and energy.

5. But that standard is personal. You are the boss of yourself in a Challenge. Whether you create it yourself or you take on a Challenge someone else is running, you decided to take it on. And you have infinite authority to tweak the terms of a Challenge in order to make it work for you. You can start it a week later than everyone else. You can do it for 10 days instead of 30. You can do 3 days/week instead of 7. Or you can do 7 instead of 3. A Challenge is a competition, but it’s only between you and you.

If you experience fear at the prospect of certain Challenges, I would give you two pieces of advice. One: You should do it. That fear is a sign you’re onto something. Things will get very interesting if you proceed. Two: Take the Challenge, but be gentle and easy with yourself. There’s no extra credit for perfection. You already did yourself a big mazel by taking the first step. Don’t turn the tone of this experience from growth to self-critique, harshness or perfectionism.

6. The flexibility of the standards makes Challenges fun.  From philosopher James Carse:

“There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is played for the purpose of winning and thereby ending the game.

An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game you play with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue the game.

Finite players are serious; infinite gamers are playful.” 

In a Challenge, you get to choose whether to be finite or infinite. (Hint: choose infinite.)

7. They are hard, fast and fun. Have you ever taken a Bikram yoga class? They’re fond of pushing people to hold hard postures with the encouragement that “you can do anything for 30 seconds!” I feel that way about Challenges. Even when they’re super hard, they are also generally fast. You can do anything for 30 days. Or 90 days. Or even 6 months.

The fact that you go into a Challenge knowing the time frame is finite often allows you to tap into those deep stores of energy and discipline that are hard to access when you’re more vaguely trying to build a new habit or practice. And the fact that you know you’ll have made significant progress by the end of the Challenge, if you go hard enough, allows you to tap into even deeper internal resources.

And you always have the option of continuing the practice, or some portion of it, after the Challenge is over. But having an upfront start and stop date just makes it easier to wrap your head around doing something hard for that time frame, versus telling yourself you have to start a new thing and do it For All The Days Of Your Life.

8. Challenges leave successful transformation in their wake, regardless of whether you have a technically “perfect score” . The first time I did a writing Challenge, I wrote for maybe 12 of the 30 days. And honestly, I was happy I did that much, and saw it as 12 days more than I’d written the month before. During that 12 days, I also made a ton of progress in getting clear on a book project I wanted to work on, and some big business decisions I needed to make.

Two months later, I came back around and wrote every day for 6 months. And I still have a near-religious daily writing practice, plus the confidence to tap into the creative flow I know I have access to anytime I have a major book project or writing project I want to bust out.

To my mind, that initial writing Challenge was an extremely successful Challenge, even though I did less than half of what I’d signed on to do.

When you do what you committed to do during a Challenge, you’ll leave the Challenge feeling tired, and stretched but also expanded, because you’ve proven to yourself that you can do things harder or more consistently than you ever have before. But even when you don’t have a “perfect” Challenge, you’ll often find success in the form of personal breakthroughs, a-ha moments, momentum, new habits, mindset shifts, emotional healing or even just lots of words on the Page you didn’t have on the Page before.

More from James Carse: “You can do what you do seriously, because you must do it, because you must survive to the end, and you are afraid of dying or failing or other consequences. Or, you can do everything you do playfully, always knowing you have a choice, having no need to survive the way you are, allowing every element of the play to transform you, taking pleasure in every surprise you meet. Those are the differences between finite and infinite players.” Challenges position your personal growth, habits and your life, really, as infinite play; they position you as the infinite player, and real healing and progress as the prize. Game on.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 17 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

Notes From My DIY Dating Challenge, aka How Challenges Changed My Life, Part I [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 16]

Once upon a time, there was a brown girl with twisty windy hair, and her name was Tara. Tara had no patience for board games. But she did like to play mind games and the real-life Game of Life with herself, against herself. (Eventually, she learned how to play it for herself.) And in the Game of Life she somehow aced school, got married when she was really young, had a kid, got divorced, and got married and divorced again. By the time she was single for the first time in her adult life, at 36, Tara had been married over 20 years of her lifetime!

Notes From My DIY Dating Challenge, aka How Challenges Changed My Life, Part I

So, she cooled her jets for awhile. It seemed prudent. It was prudent. She went to lots of therapy, changed a lot of her worldview, wrote a lot, prayed a lot, meditated a lot, walked a lot, danced a lot, sang a lot, played a lot. But at some point, Tara decided it was time to learn how to date. Remember, she’d actually never been on a real date to someone she didn’t marry, ever.

So, she made a game out of it. Tara downloaded a dating app, made a profile and proceeded to go on 3 dates per week for ten weeks. Rule #1: Go on 30 dates in ten weeks. Rule #2: Do not get married during this ten weeks.

Tara does not recommend you do this at home.

At the end of the ten weeks, Tara took her profile down. It was dang near a full-time job, this talking with and vetting of and seeing people, at this pace. And a couple of years later, she now finds dating to be growth-provoking and fun. She has not gotten married again yet, by design.

Tara (that’s me, FYI) also took away all sorts of lessons and insights and mind-changes from the experience:

Tara’s DIY Dating Challenge Takeaways:

  1. There is someone out there for everyone. No seriously, everyone.
  2. There are actually abundant people, and we’re mostly all wired for connection.
  3. I do not have to be afraid of marrying everyone I date.
  4. I do actually make good decisions regarding relationships, contrary to the story I was telling myself.
  5. I am clearer now, for having met a lot of people, on what does and doesn’t work for me and how I want to feel around a person I choose to spend time with. I also know red flags and stay far, far away from them.
  6. We all *think* we are clear on what we want in another person. But when we meet someone who is ‘perfect on paper,’ we may or may not be attracted to them. And other times, we might surprise ourselves at who we meet and really, really like.

In the end, I didn’t love the way most people treat online dating, almost like a job interview where you sit down, trade lists of qualifications and requirements with each other, and see whether the lists fit. It was too outcome oriented for me, too artificial.

But I also came away with a lot more ease and less anxiety about dating and relationships in general, which allowed her to feel more comfortable in the world in general. I ultimately focused on showing up in the world, all over the world, doing completely awesome stuff, and living an incredible life, as much as possible. And as a result, I started meeting lots more smart, engaged, caring gentlemen, all around the world, online and off. And then one day, a strange thing happened. Meeting people became fun. Learning about myself, in relationship to other people, and specifically in relationship to men, also became fun. 

This was just one of literally hundreds of Challenges I’ve issued to myself over the years. It probably started with health and fitness, way back in the day. My friend and I would meal prep in our little cottages, and we’d kind of challenge ourselves to eat clean all week, until cheat day. I did a Whole 30 that snowballed into a Whole 90. One time, my trainer issued—and I accepted—the challenge of doing 10,000 kettlebell swings in a month. Trust me when I say that my derrière has never been the same.

I guess before I go too far into why I find Challenges to be so shift-sparking and growth provoking, and the growth I’ve seen in my life in the course of taking on Challenges, we need to agree on some things. Or one thing. Namely, what I mean by “challenges”.  I’m not talking generically about things that are a little hard to do, or a lot hard, though I like them, too.

When I use the word challenges with a capital ‘C’ I’m talking about something very particular:

  • A program of doing a certain activity (or, I suppose, not doing a certain activity)
  • That I don’t currently do
  • At a certain frequency
  • For a certain number of days.

I think of Challenges as self-directed projects to change my behavior or spark some personal growth or development I’m clear that I’d like to have. Sometimes I want a mindset shift or want to make (or break) a habit, or I just have a sort of big project I want to sprint to finish, and Challenges are a container I’ve found that often works for me to get there.

And I mean they work in every area of my life. I’ve done a church search challenge, in which I attended a new church every week for a year (but I only made it 12 weeks before I fell in love with one). I did a very playful travel challenge of sorts, for my 40th birthday, to go to nine places in the world I’d never been in 18 months (though I made it in 12). This year, I wrote a book in 6 months, and I treated that as a challenge, too.

Right this moment I’m learning French on a self-imposed Challenge, I’m doing this Writing Challenge with ya’ll, and I’m in also doing a Vulnerability Challenge in the way I carry out the Writing Challenge.

Some Challenges I just take on, over time, as a part of my life. Travel is now that for me. I now take care to structure my career and my life in a way that allows for great swathes of time in which I can globe trot. But this goes for more specific, tactical behaviors, too. I have a one item in, one item out rule on buying new clothes and home goods, after issuing myself a Challenge along these lines, once upon a time.

Challenges perform the valuable function of holding the mental and spiritual space for a new habit, a new project or a breakthrough way of thinking or being.  They have rules or guidelines. They are voluntary, and finite in time. They are also fun, or I’ve learned how to make sure they stay fun, rather. If you do them right, they harness everything great about competition, with none of the nasty, perfectionistic aftertaste. And they build an incredible amount of momentum. They help you try on practices or

I cannot convey with words, not in this post anyway, the levels of interior and exterior and career and life and spiritual transformation I’ve experienced from issuing Challenges to myself, small and large. Since we’re all here, working on a Challenge together right now, I think I’ll make this a series, and share how Challenges have changed my life and why I think they are so powerful, in the next couple of posts.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 16 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

How to Break Bad Cycles and Make Regret-Free Life Decisions [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 15]

Marianne Williamson tells this great parable which she says is about recovering from “attraction to dangerous men.”

How to Break Bad Cycles and Make Regret-Free Life Decisions

When you’re really ill, you don’t even know a snake when you see one. Once recovery begins, you see a snake and you know it’s a snake, but you still play with it. Once you’ve landed in true recovery zone, you see a snake, you know it’s a snake, and you cross to the other side of the road.

To my mind, this story actually applies to most personal growth, not just to love relationships. In particular, it applies to breaking dysfunctional patterns or cycles. It comes in handy when it comes to making the daily decisions we face as conscious leaders, of businesses, of teams and of our lives, which often includes facing similar forks in the road or fact patterns as we have before.

It is not an easy thing, to try to evolve in your personal consciousness, and to represent consciousness in the workplace and the business marketplace. To do so is to opt out of the universally assumed and accepted priorities and decision rules. This is what I love about Conscious Capitalism; that its pillars propose and argue for a new set of business decision rules, oriented around business that is profitable, but does not prioritize profit over people or planet.

The career and personal life of a Conscious Leader are also riddled with decision points. When we’re presented with different options in terms of career paths we could take, those that rank highest in title, power, position or profit might not be the most conscious ones. The decision that weighs in favor of balance or family might not be the “best” one for your career. The company with the elevated mission might not pay as much as the one that wants to sell more, sell more, sell more.

And we know this in our gut. Or, at the very least, we have the power to. The trouble is that other voices overshadow this sense we feel in our gut, sometimes internal voices, sometimes external or societal ones.

Nearly every week, I have at least one conversation with a Conscious Leader who has had a series of troubled career moves, and who also says at various points along their storyline that they knew or strongly suspected several of their past job situations would be doomed when they first met the company, met the CEO, learned about the business, or were offered the job. And they took it anyway. And they did it again. And they knew better then, too. But the money was incredible. Or the options were amazing. Or the career development was negligible, but the hours were great. And then they faced a similar choice, made it in the same way, and again, regretted it.

Over time, I’ve grown to be grateful that, like the woman in the parable, we get repeat opportunities to evolve and grow in our decision-making. As a Conscious Leaders and a conscious live-er of life, I’ve learned to count it as finding a treasure when I discover the pattern and have the thrill of releasing it.

But this line of thinking prompts one question, over and over again, as many times as you are presented with a career choice, a partner choice, a work-life balance conundrum, a hire or fire decision, or even a choice of romantic partners: what is the right decision rule? How do you make choices, if you opt out of using money or power as your guides? What are those guiding principles?

Some say to list out the pros and cons. That’s helpful, sometimes. But many times, the pros and cons just provide a vehicle for your brain’s spinning to make it onto the page. And other times, the strong gut sense of ‘no’ doesn’t show up in lists of quantifiable ‘cons’ in a large enough number to outrank the ‘pros’. But your gut is still correct.

How many times have your pros and cons list outcomes been wrong, and your gut been right? For me, many, many times. So, I no longer make my decisions based on lists of facts. I gather the facts, as a starting point. And then I add in my experience, my wisdom, life lessons learned and, most importantly, the soul-and-spirit level “hit” I get off of a person, place or project. Then, and only then, do I move forward.

Some people would call all of this, collectively, their “gut”.

Long ago, I’d have said I didn’t trust my gut. That my gut was largely ego, or my deep-seated emotional triggers being flicked, remnants of old trauma being sparked by things that had not. Or that my gut was coded for fear. And that’s sometimes true.

But lots of therapy, years of meditation, and even daily practices like Morning Pages have cultivated enough emotional groundedness that I now no longer suspect my gut. I operate in the free and clear, emotionally, for the most part. I’m tuned in. And I’m no longer operating based on  triggerd. This leaves me with the superpower of being able to tell the difference between “this situation is stirring up some old shit, and I am not bringing that old shit into this new day so I’mma let this burn out” and “gut says no, something is off here.”

And this superpower is extraordinarily helpful. I’d say it’s better than flying, because it allows me to flow and to soar with the creative power that comes with the alignment of intention, purpose, strategy and excellence. It also allows me to make decisions that are highly counterintuitive and seem crazy to other people, but have been proven time and time again to be right for me.

This superpower emboldens me to move forward in my life with ease and flow, even into kind of scary situations I don’t exactly know how I’ll handle, in advance. I can do this because I know that I’m tuned in, and I don’t operate in the fear that I’ll make a misstep. The other thing is, I know things are always working out for me, so even if the next thing isn’t “the” thing, it’s still a step toward whatever my thing is supposed to be. It’s all progress. It’s all preparation.

Even with my healed-up soul and my tuned-in gut, I still find it helpful to have a few different rubrics for making big life and leadership and career and love decisions, and there are a handful that have been both directive and possibility-unlocking for me over the past few years. I thought I’d share. Here are a few:

  1. I believe the path of our deep desires is often the path closest to our calling. So I ask myself:
    • Which option puts me on a path to what I really want?
    • Do I really, deeply want to do this? Or do I think other people think I should do it?
    • Do I have a pattern of wanting to do this sort of thing, over years and years, but never indulging that desire, because I’m afraid or I don’t think it’s “respectable”?
    • Do I dread doing this, but think it’s the smart or responsible thing to do, so I often choose to do it anyway? Is the dread misalignment or is it Resistance?
  2. One of my favorite teachers reminds me that it’s easy to know when a radio is tuned in and when it’s not, because of all that static and interference when it’s not tuned in. If we practice mindfulness and alignment, our emotions and feelings can be that same sort of tuner for our decisions. So I ask myself:
    • Does thinking about this option make me feel clear and tuned in, in my chest and my body?
    • When I visualize myself doing that project or in that job, do I like the way it looks on me?
    • Or does it, before I even decide to do it, make me feel confused, angry or resentful?
    • Do I envision scenes of disappointment?
  3. Do I feel expanded and breathe more easily when I think about this option?
    • Does it open or shut down possibilities?
    • Would taking the option make me feel like I’m coming into myself more, or does it feel like playing small?
    • Or do I feel constricted and tight when I think about it?
    • Do I feel like I need to tense up, armor my heart or hold my breath when I think about it?
  4. Does this affiliation or relationship move me in the direction of love, warmth and connection, or division and disconnection from others?
  5. Does not taking this option remind me of any other times I’ve played small because I was afraid?
    • Do I think I’ll regret it?
    • Does this job feel like a shadow of what I really should be doing?
    • Does taking this option feel like giving in to Resistance to my higher calling or higher self?

In The Science of Being Great, Wallace Wattles gives greatness seekers this advice: “most important, you must have absolutely faith in your own perceptions of truth. Never act in haste or hurry; be deliberate in everything; wait until you feel that you know the true way. And when you do feel that you know the true way, be guided by your own faith though the entire world shall disagree with you.” These decision rules and questions help me be deliberate and act confidently, often against the tide of what others think I should do (or would think I should do, if I asked them!). I hope you find them to be of value as you journey toward what’s right for you.

On Self-Help and Spiritual Matters: Eat the Meat and Leave the Bones [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 14]

One day, a brilliant, beautiful friend of mine dropped a wisdom-bomb that I think applies to all matters of spiritual growth, religious belief and even self help when she said, “sometimes, you’ve gotta eat the meat and leave the bones.”

On Self-Help and Spiritual Matters: Eat the Meat and Leave the Bones

This saying comes to mind a lot when I’m talking to people about God and church. I think very often, people who believe there’s something more out there than what science and culture can offer them get hung up and miss out on a relationship with God, because they want to fact check a church’s set of beliefs the way you might fact check a political debate.

But faith doesn’t work like that. The literal definition of faith is the belief in things you can’t detect with your physical senses. My relationship with God is the single most valuable, most precious thing in my life, by far. But it’s not something I can or even want to try to prove, factually, the way you’d prove the law of gravity or that global warming is a thing.

Matters of the spirit are, by definition, supernatural. They are outside the laws of nature. They operate on principles and laws, but spiritual ones. Churches, religions and spiritual communities are places where humanity and spirit connect, but they are ultimately made of people. And people, well, it is a rare thing that a group of people will come together and put together a list of beliefs or philosophies they stand for, by consensus, and have every single member of that community agree wholeheartedly with every single line item of that philosophy.

To deprive yourself of the soul-filling, life-giving, spirit-recharging experience that belonging to a spiritual community can be because you don’t agree with 100% of what they believe can, in some cases, be the spiritual equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not suggesting a Buddhist should join up with a Southern Baptist congregation for the music, by any means. But I am suggesting that, if you’re curious about God and spirit, you seek out a spiritual community which fits you in spirit and in broad stroke beliefs, and that you not deprive yourself of that or of a relationship with God because you think religion is bad or religious people or crazy, or because the church you love takes communion and you don’t understand that.

Eat the meat and leave the bones.

I have a similar line of thinking when it comes to self-help books and teaching, which these days I like to call WizLit (Wisdom Literature). There’s one very well-known teacher/speaker/author who I won’t name here, because, well, you’ll see why in just a sec. For years, I heard about him, including a truly spooky, borderline nonsensical story about how he came to receive the wisdom he shares. And every time I heard his name, my eyes nearly rolled back to the whites.

And then someone I know, trust and respect mentioned a lesson she’d read by this guy. And it was really profound, really a fresh reframe of a tired, old thought habit of my own. And so I decided to listen to this teaching my friend shared with me. And it blew my mind. It actually blew my mind wide open. Changed my perspective, entirely. And I thought, you know what? I don’t care what his weird-ass story of channeling this stuff or conjuring it up is. I just know this material is very valuable for me, and is helping me release old limits, so I’m gonna roll with it. Period.

Eat meat. Leave bones.

I suppose you have to have some sort of rubric for determining which spiritual and wisdom teachings are meat and which are bones. And on this matter, I think the rules must be very personal, simple and general. For me, I seek things out that expand my capacity, that bring me into integrity, and that make my life feel expanded, enlarged and empowered, not contracted or disconnected from power. I seek things out that make me feel more and more tuned in to who I am. I seek out wisdom with a core message of love and inclusion, not hate and division.

I had an experience recently that showcases this point pretty perfectly. I’ve long been a reader of Louise Hay. Her 1984 book You Can Heal Your Life (YCHYL) contains some of the practices that have been the most transformational in my life’s path. Some of them also struck me as intensely ridiculous—and by that, I mean worthy of ridicule—when I first encountered them. She’s a proponent of mirror work, literally, standing in the mirror and saying lovely, sweet things—”affirmations”— to yourself in the morning.

Kind of like this.

Silly, right? This is how I felt about mirror work the first time I read YCHYL.

nahkitty

 

 

 

 

 

 

Except for one thing. Except for the fact that many of us do actually have a critical inner voice. Some of us have said negative things to ourselves, about ourselves, for years. For decades. And in the book, she makes a wonderful case for just trying it. And so I did.

And it turns out that this whole mirror work thing works. It gradually replaces your critical inner voice with a voice that sounds more like this:

Louise Hay for the win.

The other thing YCHYL is well-known for is the mind-body symptom chart at the back of the book. It is based on Hay’s philosophy that all illness is an indicator of our emotional beliefs, thoughts and focus. Her “Causes of Symptoms” table is just a long list of physical symptoms, illnesses and body parts, each with a corresponding spiritual or emotional cause, and a prescription. Plot twist is, the prescriptions are all affirmations.

So, for example, if you have diabetes, the chart suggests the following emotional causes:
*Longing for what might have been.
*A great need to control.
*Deep sorrow.
*No sweetness left.

And the prescribed affirmation is: This moment is filled with joy. I now choose to experience the sweetness of today.

Seems farfetched, right? But I’ve also had times in my life where I looked up a physical symptom and actually got something out of the explanation or the affirmation prescribed. So I got in the habit of looking up any physical symptoms I was having, and then eating the meat and leaving the bones of her recommended affirmations.

A few months ago, I had a couple of freak accidents at home, one of which resulted in deep stitches and glue and wound care, the other just crutches and wound care. Very bizarre, very intense, but very healable and ultimately minor things. As is now my habit, I consulted Hay’s Causes of Symptoms chart. And it had a lot to say. According to the chart, I was having problems with my feminine side or family line, I was struggling to receive nurturing, and having a hard time moving forward with life.

I considered these things. And I could find a smidge of truth in some of them. But others just didn’t feel true for me, to be totally honest. I had no twinge of “oh, that’s so me!” I felt more like this:
nahkitty

That said, I did think these injuries could symbolize something or be manifestations of something that was going on in my head or my heart. I just didn’t think it was what she’d said in the chart. Not this time. This time, all of the explanation was bones. I did eventually find the meat, but it was something I found only down deep, within myself.

Both of these injuries happened when I was just going about my daily at-home puttering, but inadvertently exerted an extraordinary amount of physical force with my body—much more than I even realized until I looked down and saw the blood dripping (in one case) and spurting (in the other) from my freshly, self-inflicted wounds.

I wanted and needed to understand a narrative around these events. But the Hay storyline felt lame and just frankly, not true for me. What did feel true was this: that these injuries indicated I have superpowers. That I literally and figuratively have worked and trained and cultivated an inner power so intense I don’t even quite realize just how strong I am. So, in the same way a teenager learns how to drive, my job is to gradually, in my own time, learn to appreciate just how powerful I am, and to learn to wield that power with wisdom and grace, so as not to hurt myself.

That’s what felt right to me. I recreated the story. I ate the meat. I left the bones. But I also left the bones with gratitude for the way they had shown me, the way of finding my own meat anytime I need to.

Adulting: Choosing What Defines Us [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 5]

I have this weird thing about eating at certain buffets, where just looking at them makes me never want to eat again. Something about big piles of food seems like a trough to me. And it triggers the reverse effect on my hunger. My strategy in these situations generally is to locate a piece of fish and make a pile of dark greens on my plate then quickly remove myself from the vicinity of All That Food. Blargh.

As I think of it, it might be an aversion I worked up during my first official job ever, as a hostess at the Sizzler: Buffet Court PTSD.

This is absurd, as I hope is obvious. But it’s a microcosm of something we do all the time, allowing a life event or experience to plant triggers in our operating systems, so that we always cringe when we see that kind of car or shut entirely down when we meet a certain kind of person.

This is very normal. It’s the extreme version of learning, but it’s a deeper sort of learning, it’s almost like a spiritual encoding that happens. And taken to great extremes, we can find ourselves defined by a single life event or something someone said to us 40 years ago. This is natural, and maybe even normal, but it can also be very painful, dysfunctional and limiting.

I know it’s normal, because when I meet new people (which I do nearly every day at work), I generally share my own story, then I ask them flat out to tell me their life story. It’s really a Rorschach of sorts, to see how people interpret that question, and where they take it, whether they go general or specific, the overall tone and whether they take a career story or personal story or combined approach. The way we tell our general story drops clues to how we define ourselves, I think. Another set of clues is in the stories we tell about our histories and our lives, over and over again.

I tell the story of my family migrating to California around 50 years ago, with some regularity. I tell it to explain why I am uninterested and uninitiated in the ways of the South and, to a lesser extent, the East Coast.

I tell the story of going from Honors Student to teen Mom and then, to college/grad school/law school, all the time. I tell it to express my gratitude for a life of miracles, and to share how I know God is real.

On the personal side, I tell the story of how I heard a Tony Robbins CD about the Power of Identity and then lost 60 pounds, twenty years ago, at least a few times a year. I share it to help people know that I’m a contrarian. That I don’t always do things the way others do. That my health has played a central role in my life for a long time. And that I am a woman of change, action, power and growth.

I tell the story of my 86-year-old grandmother and her three sisters, all Black women from Texarkana, Texas, all of whom have college or nursing school degrees, as often as I can. I tell this so they know that #blackgirlmagic is real. But I also tell this so people understand that I come from a matriarchal lineage, and to explain why I was damn near 40-years-old before I realized that other people saw being Black and a woman as a disadvantage, while I grew up with the explicit and implicit understanding that being a Black girl meant you could do anything. Literally, anything. Circumstances are irrelevant.

These things, I tell, because they define or, at the very least, depict major components of who I am.

But there are other stories I’ve allowed to define me, too, at various times in my life. Stories of repression. Stories of emotional chaos, allowed to spiral and embed for years and years. Even stories of multi-generational beliefs that were both blessing and curse. And it’s been interesting to see how, as I develop and heal out of some of these patterns, I find myself telling those stories much less frequently. But I do want to share one with you, now.

My grandmother is a force of nature and supernatural spirit. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother was a saint. After her mother died very young, my grandmother helped her three sisters get educated, then got her own degree, while raising her own four children alone. Her own alcoholic husband had long since left her for the West Coast, and my grandmother gradually migrated from the South (Texarkana), to the Midwest (Omaha), to the Southwest (Clovis, New Mexico) and finally landed in Bakersfield, California, right around fifty years ago. She and my Dad still live there, to this day.

My grandfather and grandmother had not, until that time, been officially divorced, but he had moved on to a series of other women, somehow also winding up in Bakersfield. Because their lives were so separate, my grandmother was shocked and dismayed when she went to buy a house and was advised that California was something new to her, something called a Community Property state. That meant that all the debts my grandfather had run up and reneged on actually belonged to her, too. Which meant that for her to buy the home for her children she’d worked and saved for, she’d first have to pay or make arrangements to pay all of his bad debt. She was able to figure it out, but it was heartbreaking. And she did eventually divorce him.

But the scar of that heartbreak long remained. My whole childhood, my sweet, piano-playing, hymn-singing grandmother dove joyfully into her duties to teach me How to Live a Good Life. She taught me how to love God, how to clean house, how to prioritize school above all, how to balance a checkbook, and how to churn butter (I’m not joking). She also taught me never to rely on a man to support myself or my children. Never to have children unless I was 100% certain I could support them on my own. She was remarkably free of bitterness about it, but she was exceedingly clear and insistent on this point.

And I took the message. In fact, I took it and ran with it. Somehow, her message mixed in with my perfectionism, my own ambition and my own Daddy issues, and showed up in my spirit as an extreme, dysfunctional over-self-reliance. So I attracted in people at the level of my own bullshit, as one does. I married men who had no capacity to be full partners in my life. And I created a life in which there wasn’t much room for deep partnership and interdependence, because I didn’t believe, deep in my spirit, that I could really have those things.

And at some point, after my spiritual teachers and coaches and therapists helped me see that I’d allowed this childhood message to define a whole area of my life, I couldn’t un-see it. I thanked my family for cultivating my independence and raising me to be an unlimited being, because I am that. I honor and will always be independent and impactful. But I also had to release the isolating extremes I’d taken on.

I put an end to the patterns that kept me isolated and unsupported by being extreme and dysfunctional in my over-self-reliance, slowly, slowly, slowly. I started to spend a lot of time with my friends who were in beautiful partnerships, who’d built healthy families and who had created long, loving, two-way relationships. I wanted to experience that model and what it looks like everyday, up close.  

I’ve talked with lots of people who define themselves by a thing that happened to them 30 years ago, or something their Mom used to always tell them—even a thing their Mom used to say about herself or, especially, her body. I know people who define themselves by a past failure, a family death, or a victory. I know people whose self-definition is heavily painted by their geography or profession, or the fact that no one in their family has ever been educated/happy/healthy/sober.

Often, we take on an extreme commitment to our defining family or personal history dysfunction. But it can be just as unwise to define ourselves in aversion or opposition to our long-gone experiences, like I do with the Buffet Court. Exhibit B: I wear some version of the same outfit every single day. I do it because it’s comfortable and beautiful and removes so much decision-making from my day. But it also helps that my “uniform” strategy makes my Mom a little crazy. 😀

We’re all in the process of working this stuff out, some more intentionally and effortfully than others.I’ve learned that we have a lot more choice about how we define ourselves than we think. We truly do have the power to decide and shape and rewire who we are, even though our past programming might be encoded at a level of depth that seems permanent and inescapable. It can seem like as much a part of us as the shape of our eyes or the size of our feet.

We get to pick the elements of our past that are expansive or contract us, that spark joy and pride and possibility, or that revert to the sometimes comfortable, limiting storylines we’ve always heard and by now, have started to tell ourselves.

And we also get to pick our todays and tomorrows, and we get to exercise intention about how we define ourselves every single day. “That was then, this is now” means something. And it doesn’t mean you disrespect your family’s trials and tribulations or the people who raised you, to keep what serves you and release or discard what no longer does. That’s what I call wisdom, and what the Interwebs call “adulting”.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 5 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.