When I was in 7th grade (in Mexico City), things got so bad for me that I started to feel that my only and best option may be to end it all. I don’t even remember if “suicide” was part of my vocabulary at that point (I didn’t know what “homosexual” meant until 9th grade; it was the early 80s in Mexico and there was a lot you just didn’t talk about). I sometimes talked with the guidance counselor at school and while I remember him being super sweet, I don’t remember him being in the least bit helpful as I felt my world closing in on me.
The source of my depression was mostly at school. I had 3 best friends - SS, AD and SM. SS and I had gotten closer and SM was threatened by this and she manipulated SS and AD into turning on me. It didn’t stop there. The poison seeped into the rest of the grade and culminated in a scene that still makes me cringe: it was the class Spelling Bee and whoever won would go on to represent the school at the U.S. Embassy, against other schools. The winner of that would go to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. The competition was in the final rounds and only one other girl and I remained. And then I lost. And the entire grade boo’ed me. It was absolutely awful. At the same time, I was being bullied outside of school, at my ballet academy, by a schoolmate and her younger sister. While I was in class, being tortured by the sadistic London School of Ballet teacher, MN and her sister XN would be in the locker room destroying my precious Hello Kitty stuff that my dad had brought me from the U.S. on one of his business trips. If they caught me in the changing room or headed to the bathroom and no one was looking, they would actually hurt me physically.
It wasn’t bad enough that I had awful acne. And braces. In fact, I had a head gear. The orthodontist told me to wear it 24 hours a day, remove only for meals and shower, and I did. When I returned to him after 3 months, he was shocked and said I didn’t need to wear it any more as my teeth had progressed faster than he had ever seen. He asked me, “how often do you wear it?” I blinked and replied, “24 hours a day, like you told me to do.” He shook his head, “No one has ever actually followed my instructions before you.” So, no more head gear. But then there was the fact that I was in a school where anyone remotely relevant at least had Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. I, on the other hand, had to wear polyester. My dad worked in textiles and his clients made fabric so periodically, we would go to local clothing companies and be able to get lots of free clothes. The problem is they were all polyester, because that is the fiber my dad's company made. I still remember the 100% polyester pants I regularly wore, that were this really sandpapery texture that even today, as I think of them, make my skin crawl. I had these pants in various colors. I think I just realized where my textural issues may have begun (which continue today).
The torment at school continued. As did my growing feelings of loneliness and basically feeling like a loser. Even now as I think back to those times and how I felt, I feel this intense foreboding and instinct to crawl up into a ball.
Eventually, things changed for me. I made a new friend in 8th grade at school (Alejandra) and reconnected with some other girls I had drifted away from. I no longer had suicidal ideations but I still wasn’t exactly loving life. Ninth grade was in the same school (it was a private, K-12 school) but in another building. I remember being very much alone that year. During lunch, I would go sit by myself outside in the shade with a book, or I would go to the typing room and teach myself to type. At this point, the bullying had ended at both school and at ballet (note: my mom, a tiny little Swedish thing who seriously wouldn’t hurt a fly, actually got into a shouting match, almost punching the big, loud, rude woman whose daughters had destroyed my stuff and left a few bruises on me; the ballet academy owner came running into the lobby to break up the fight and later told my mother she couldn’t stand the other mom or her daughters and thank you for standing up to her. My mom passed away 16 years ago and this is still one of my favorite memories of her).
I did have some bright spots at school that year, namely my friendship with a girl a year below me. Sasha and I had been friends since grade school as we rode the bus together. We lived on the other side of the enormous city so our bus rides were typically an hour long. She became my best friend based on those bus rides and our geographic proximity. When I was in 9th grade she was in 8th grade, so we were in different buildings. But during these lonely times, I would sometimes venture over to middle school during lunch and hang out with Sasha and her friends. Being a bookworm, I would read a diverse collection of books and at some point I started to read a book, Girls & Sex. Suddenly I had very important information and the 8th graders were eager to learn what I knew about this mysterious topic. (Remember: I was in a conservative country at a conservative time. And there was no YouTube). I then read the book’s counterpart, Boys & Sex. I became the expert on all things dating, relationships, sex - and I had never even kissed a boy at this point. But this is when my lifelong passion of helping people, especially teens, with all things regarding mental health, relationships, self-respect, matchmaking, etc began. As I helped others, I helped myself, as I began to feel less like a misunderstood loser. These very popular 8th graders were seeking my wisdom and wanted to hang out with me, so I guessed I just needed to find my people.
The summer between 9th and 10th grades was when everything changed. My friend Alejandra had moved to San Diego after 8th grade and I went to visit her for two weeks. This was the first time I had traveled without my family. I loved California! Here I was, on a beautiful beach, and nobody knew me. No one knew I had been this studious, pimply, head-gear-and-polyester-wearing bully target, and it didn't hurt that it was too hot there for my polyester pants. My pimples had cleared up, my braces were gone, and I discovered the magic of reinvention. The cute lifeguards noticed me. One of them even taught me how to throw a frisbee, and this launched a lifelong love of frisbee (and ultimate frisbee in college). I felt so free! It was exhilarating, and I knew I would never go back to how I had been. That same summer I got my period for the first time too (while on a flight to Brussels, actually).
When I think of 10th grade the overwhelming feeling I have about it is that I had stopped caring what people thought of me. I had this deep, warm knowing that I mattered, that I was pretty, and smart, and cool, and no one could take this away from me. All of the people who had been part of the middle school angst were still at school with me, and we were even friends again. I was what I call a floater. I did not hang out with one group, but sort of floated around between groups. The social scene at this school, as I remember it, is that there was the American clique (ex-pats whose parents worked at the U.S. Embassy or multinational corporations); the most popular clique, who were mostly wealthy Mexicans. Then there were lots of other smaller groups. I was friendly with all, but by 10th grade my closest friends were not in my grade (Sasha in 9th grade and Vicky in 11th grade) and I otherwise floated. After 11th grade my family moved to the U.S. so I once again had a chance to reinvent myself, for 12th grade in N.J. (As you can imagine, this was another opportunity to build resiliency skills!).
As awful as 7th grade was, and as awkward as 8th and 9th grade were, I would not change that experience for the world. I know what it feels like to feel like a total misfit, to be deeply lonely, and to feel like there is no way out and no end in sight. I know what it feels like to feel like this is the worst day of your life and there is no way in hell things will get better. (Note: it was not a smooth ride from there on out, as later in high school I began a journey through bulimia, and I thankfully eventually recovered but there were definitely some dark times…). I am certain that these painful years led me to the work I do now, as I instantly empathize with people who feel like a square peg in a round hole and feel like they are stuck. And now, during COVID, when so much of what we took for granted about our life has been replaced by the unsettling realization that nothing is permanent or certain, many of us feel this sense of when will this ever end? I hear it every day, from kids and adults, bemoaning the uncertainty that is the only guarantee as we make plans to return to school, to be employed, to stay healthy. Fluid is the new black. Mental health is declining, especially among our youth. So much feels tenuous to them and they lack the perspective of our grandparents, who have weathered other chicken little times (world wars, Cold War, 9/11...) and figure, this too shall pass.
As I walked my puppy this morning I reflected on these collective feelings of despair and hopelessness, and was immediately transported back to my middle school self. I decided to write about this because I found it comforting to zoom out and feel the pain of my middle school self, while being in the time and place I am today. I contemplated the impermanence of things that seem so certain and intractable, which is a concept that can feel unsettling or can be a relief, depending on how we look at it or what we apply it to. When my son would text me from his 8th grade hell at school, “THIS IS THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE,” my heart would shrivel up and at the same time I would know, this too shall pass. Of course, by the time he would get home and I would ask him what had happened, because my own middle school self knows what a hostile world that can be, especially since we had just moved and he was having to start from scratch in a new state and school, he would reply with something like, “It got better.” It still sucked - but he would just keep going, and he would come home and share some of the stories of rejection and awkwardness and bullying and ineffective school staff. And I would listen, and inwardly cringe, and he would know that I knew it sucked, because of my own history.
Maybe the most useful thing about middle school is it prepares us to face life shitshows. I recently learned that based on research, hope is actually a skill, which means it can be taught and strengthened. I think I will start to think of middle school as Hope Academy, and if you come out alive, you have a master’s degree in hope. If you are reading this, you probably have this same degree, which means you are fully equipped to deal with all hard things.
If you feel like you need to talk with someone, this website has some wonderful resources:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Keep going. One day at a time, one step at a time.
The last few weeks, as our country has undergone a collective awakening to the realization that we have been terrorizing People of Color (POC) at least since 1619, and racism is alive and well in every single aspect of our life, I have felt several emotions. Excited - “FINALLY! White people are waking up!” Skeptical - “How long will they be interested in this cause?” Dismayed - “Why are you trying to shame someone out of their racism?” It is this last part that I want to talk about here for a few minutes.
I have never been a fan of shows like The Biggest Loser. You know, where very large people are mocked and bullied because of their size, and then “motivated” to commit to change through some extremely restrictive dieting and torturous workouts. I find it dehumanizing how the participants are yelled at and celebrated if they lose weight, shamed if they don’t. Ugh. I have written before about how harmful I believe so much of what goes on in the “wellness” space, which I see as a way to manipulate people by shaming them. Even the Before & After pictures are a shame trigger, because if you look like the Before, then clearly you are unworthy. Your lack of commitment and discipline is shameful. And yet, what we know about health and wellness (if we are actually knowledgeable about such things), is that trauma is at the root of any behavior that we engage in in spite of knowing that there will be negative consequences (this is basically the definition of addiction). We know that childhood trauma increases a person’s likelihood to be an adult with cancer, obesity, diabetes, addiction, depression, autoimmune diseases, back pain, migraines, asthma, allergies, etc. If you want to learn more about this I highly recommend watching Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s TED Talk and reading her book The Deepest Well. I think it may help you understand why shows like The Biggest Loser, and coaches and medical professionals and parents who engage in shaming behavior, are dehumanizing and do not lead to long-lasting, positive change.
So what does this have to do with racism? Well, I have seen a lot on social media the last few weeks where basically white people are engaging in a well-intentioned exercise of calling out other white people on their racism. I totally get the urge to do so. Once we realize that we really didn’t know what we didn’t know, and now we know it, and we want other people to know what they don’t know, we are totally pumped up and eager to teach others. It’s that energy that drives people who get sober to want everyone to know how awesome it feels and how stupid they feel knowing that they were brainwashed for all those years to think that pumping their brains and bodies with poison was cool, especially because it was legal. And then you suddenly realize that not only are most people still drinking in spite of your enthusiastic, well-informed, rational explanations and posts, but people now hide their drinking from you. In 12 step communities they advocate “attraction not promotion” and I think it’s probably because nobody likes to be hit with dogma over the head - especially when a part of them reacts in defiance and defensiveness to anything that feels like arrogant authority.
I heard a podcast a couple of days ago: The Trauma Therapist - where the host interviewed April Harter, LCSW. Listening to her, I had a huge “A-HA!” moment. She talked about how much in the anti-racist space is counter-productive because it is trauma-triggering instead of trauma-healing. She described how in her anti-racism work she kept hitting a barrier with people, and finally she realized that it was because the white people she was working with had trauma, even if they didn’t think so, and this was stopping their progress and ability to be aware of their implicit biases and racist attitudes and behavior. She says that until white people are healed of their trauma, they cannot become anti-racist. In an Instagram post she writes:
“One of the ways that white people are abused is if you ask your followers to target one of your other followers for acting in racist ways. The result, is that this white person, who is trying to learn, is getting cyber-bullied. Call-ins and call-outs, can be on average, a catalyst for cyberbullying. The result of this is a shame-based PTSD. This shame-based PTSD can lead to suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts. This happens more frequently than many of you realize... Most white people, in my experience, perpetrate unintentional racism. There is an assumption that all white people are complicit, but they are not. I don’t know where this idea came from, but when I work with white people on their racist behaviors, they often truly act in covertly racist ways. They mean well, but they have no idea how to stop their racism. They read books to learn about microaggressions, but then they continue to perpetrate them. I help them heal so that their cycle of perpetrating microaggressions stop, for good. When this occurs, you can teach more without having to be the target of their racism. Their unintentional racism, through microaggressions and racist defense mechanisms, are the barriers to learning, truly. They cannot learn when they are operating on a feedback loop of racist defense mechanisms. You won’t be able to get through, and in the end, it will only wear you out.”
Listen, I get it. When we find Jesus, sobriety, Beyond Meat burgers, whatever it is that makes us realize we have been an asshole for years and now we know better - it is really tempting to want to hammer our new gospel down everyone’s throat, no matter what it takes, especially if we know it is the righteous way to be. And in the anti-racism work, we are learning that if we are not calling out people, we aren’t really anti-racist because silence = compliance/complicity. So, out of our desire to avoid shame at all costs, we need to transfer our shame to someone else, and fire off a judgmental email, post, comment. Gosh, that felt good, right? But maybe there’s a little bit of ugh in that action, because we are being motivated to act by an urge to rid ourselves of our own lingering shame.
This morning a very dear friend of mine, who is African American and is exhausted, as are many of her black brothers and sisters, shared this post with me:
How about if we start with ourselves? Rather than spending all kinds of time and energy on creating and feeding shame storms, here are some suggestions, that can actually lead to positive change:
Finally, I want to share some great advice from my grad school professor (who teaches Multicultural Counseling at the College of William & Mary):
"I want to share with you something that I have seen in the field all too often, which I feel is damaging. Others speaking for others without first taking the needed steps of advocacy. We are seeing more and more of this right now in our nation...However, no matter how 'good' we think our intentions may be... we cannot speak for others but instead listen to their wants/needs - and then use that to help guide our associated actions." - Eleni Honderich.
While out on a run just now with my son, my son pointed out some fanfare going on. Turns out a young woman who had been training for a marathon that was supposed to take place today (and was obviously canceled), with the encouragement of her mom and I presume husband/boyfriend, decided that if she ran 26.2 miles today, it was still a marathon. She didn't need all the other stuff (crowds, aid stations, medal, swag...) to be a marathoner. We cheered for her - she only had 10k left at that point.
At one point my son gestured toward a trail that was off the paved path. I thought hmmm, it is probably going to be super muddy, and as we headed onto it, unable to see what lay ahead, I thought about my first Ironman. I had trained for a measly 10.5 weeks (don't ask) and just before we left for the airport I asked my coach, what is my strategy? He said, the swim is your warm-up, the bike is more warm-up, and in the marathon, you just focus on running from aid station to aid station - they are spaced a mile apart. My only goal had been to finish before the 17 hour cutoff. Everything was fine until about mile 18 of the marathon, when the fact that I had never trained my digestive system for this collided with the fact that the race organizers had grossly underestimated how much toilet paper would be required for the event and it ran out hours earlier (sound familiar?). My coach's words "go from aid station to aid station" kept me focused in spite of complete discomfort and misery. And I trusted that if he believed I could do this, then it must be so. The marathon was dark, we were all spread out for those last few miles, and I sensed we were each quietly in this together. I finished a couple of hours before the cutoff.
Right now, we have no idea what lies ahead. Three weeks ago I could not have predicted so much of what is real right now. So I focus on right now, and on doing my best in this moment, and even if I can't see my fellow travelers, I know we are all in this together.
And I remind myself that this is my race, and someone else's race may look very different. It is easy to compare and think, "they have it so much easier than me" or "I have no right to complain, compared to how they have it" - but the reality is we all have our challenges and privileges and may be putting in different levels of effort, but it all matters. It all counts. And we each need to remember that we truly do not know what others are going through. So let us remember to show grace, to be kind, and to do so from 6 ft apart. We do not know what lies ahead, but there are some things we can control, so let's focus on that.
I have always said that the children are the canary in the coal mine. So the alarming amount of anxiety, depression, suicidation, addiction, bullying, violence, self-injury, eating disorders, etc. - to me have always signaled that something is incredibly toxic in the world in which they are being raised. Their parents are busy and stressed and shuttling them (via "Muber" and Uber) between myriad activities that they yes (sometimes), love, and also make them more appealing college candidates, and therefore rather than being fun, healthy endeavors are now another way to measure their worth. Their teachers entered the profession wanting to help kids learn and are largely stressed because they are forced to focus on tasks and requirements that force them away from feeding their students' inner spark. Their schools have become boxes that keep them sedentary, indoors, with the occasional active shooter lockdown drills. Their healthcare professionals have been taught to compartmentalize them into parts, divorcing the brain from the rest of the body, pathologizing healthy reactions to their toxic world as conditions that must be medicated and addressed by professionals that are actually not covered to a large extent by their insurance, and that require special accommodations at school. Why do so many kids have 504 plans? Perhaps it's the system that needs to change, rather than the children?
Now our kids are home for a few weeks, possibly longer. Their caregivers are (for the most part, though certainly not all, especially if they are medical professionals - THANK YOU if this is you!!!!) also home. Kids are having to deal with boredom, with finding ways to feel connected socially (turns out they actually do want to see their friends in person). They actually have the opportunity to sleep. Their SAT's have been canceled through at least May.
The children are the segment of the human population who so far are physically unscathed by the coronavirus (with some exceptions if they have underlying health issues). Interesting how nature is sparing them, no?
What if during all of this, which could be a forced global reboot, we look at what we can learn and apply going forward? What if being forced to spend time at home, with our kids and animals, and outdoors, is actually the vacation we really needed rather than the bank-breaking trip to Disney World? What if we start to realize that without the pressures of the rat race, our addiction to "mommy timeout wine" is not because of the stresses of being a mom, but because of everything that was distracting us from connecting us with deep, meaningful work and connection? What if this will finally get rid of the horrible SATs and the increasingly dysfunctional world/industry of education as we know it? What if our children will start to heal, as we collectively slow down and focus and prioritize and connect in more meaningful ways? What if the next round of rap songs are about helping our neighbors, listening to our wiser elders, finding comfort in community and love rather than Gucci and Xanax and meaningless hook-ups (I know, that may be pushing it).
All we have is this moment. There is so much uncertainty around us. The kids are looking to us for signals of how they should feel and be. Maybe we should start looking to them. While we are social distancing or in lockdown, maybe we should worry less about lesson plans and instead look for signs of spring in the yard, reorganize the furniture, make vision boards, teach the dog a new trick, learn some Tik Tok dances, learn how to make a fire in case we ever end up on Survivor, create a new Bucket List that actually does not require a plane ticket, start a gratitude journal or a bullet journal, try out some YouTube yoga practices, find stillness in meditation and prayer...
What if this is really just the beginning, and our children will finally get through to us?
This past weekend, I was immersed in a yoga teacher training course and on Saturday, when the course was done for the day, I headed to Whole Foods with my husband and son to pick up something. We were headed to the back of the store when someone came from the other direction and crashed her cart into ours. I couldn’t see the person, just the obnoxious crashing, and my fried brain (this teacher training is intense!) was taking all of this stimulation in so when I rounded the corner and saw the person’s identity, I had a moment of confusion. And then the thrill and gratitude set in. My daughter, a freshman at college, was home 4 days earlier than expected, and she and my husband decided to surprise me! I cannot describe the joy of knowing our family of 4 was back together for 4 days longer and sooner than expected!
And even as I sit here in gratitude, I am also deeply sad that the parents of a fellow student will be spending a very different Thanksgiving than they had planned.
When we were visiting our daughter at her college for Parents Weekend a few weeks ago, a fellow freshman went missing after a frat party and his body was found two days later. To add to the parents’ despair, there is a code of silence about what happened at that frat that night, but there is a general assumption that alcohol was involved, given the measures being taken by the school’s administration, and the comments made in the media by the family’s lawyer. It is unfathomable to contemplate what Antonio’s parents have been going through, and will, for the rest of their lives. They have set up an anonymous number where students can text or call in any information that may shed some light on what happened that night.
In the media stories about this tragedy, and a few others that have happened this year on other college campuses, there is the common point that fraternities were involved. The word “hazing” has come up as perhaps being the reason for this excessive amount of alcohol that resulted in young adults dying of acute intoxication. In general, this is the definition used for hazing: “humiliating and sometimes dangerous initiation rituals, especially as imposed on college students seeking membership to a fraternity or sorority.”
I actually think we have this wrong. I have spoken to a lot of people, from current college students to people who are 2-30 years out of college, and I think that what is going on is actually much more subtle than what we think of as hazing. I think it may be more along the lines of peer pressure. But not the kind of peer pressure that is overt “drink this or you’re a loser” - again, a subtle way that people tend to do something, normalize it, and if you don’t join them, you are an outsider, so you end up doing something you may not have otherwise.
About 10% of the alcohol consumed in the US is by kids ages 12-20.
One in 6 US adults binge drinks 4 times a month (defined as 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men, over a 2 hour span).
Alcohol causes 88,000 deaths per year in the US and of those, 1,825 are young people ages 18-24.
Each year, 696,000 college students are assaulted by someone who has been drinking - 97,000 of whom say they were sexually assaulted or raped.
Based on stories people have shared with me, this may be a typical scenario at a fraternity or sports team or similar type of collegiate party: freshmen eager to make friends and have fun and blow off steam join the upperclassmen in drinking copious amounts of alcohol. To the point of puking. And then they drink more. Nobody is pressuring them, telling them they have to do it. But it seems like everyone is doing it and part of them is intrigued, part of them wants to be wild and crazy and fun, part of them is craving a sense of belonging, bonding, feeling accepted and maybe even admired. I can imagine this was the situation at many of these occasions that resulted in tragedy. I imagine that the people who were there truly never really thought through to the consequences part, and if they did, they stopped at hangover. Certainly tragedy was not part of the realm of possibility. And the more alcohol thrown on the fire, the less involved the still-underdeveloped prefrontal cortex became.
I often talk with parents about this whole drinking thing and kids. They want to know, what can they do to lessen the chances that their kids will end up making poor choices? They consider “training” their kids to drink so they “learn how to drink in moderation.” Like the Europeans they say, you know, wine with dinner with the family (note: this is a myth. It does not work. In fact, it’s probably a really bad idea especially if any kind of addiction or mental health issue runs in your family, plus, a child’s brain is at a key developmental stage between the ages of 12-18 and introducing alcohol and other drugs is something you really don’t want to do).
I have also heard parents say to their kids, “just know your limits.” That one boggles my mind. What does this even mean? Know your limit before you get to the point of... puking? Passing out? Hooking up with someone you never would kiss sober, let alone have sex with? Losing your wallet/sense of direction/dignity? Crossing a line you never thought you'd cross? What is the limit? Is this your limit or your child's limit? Do they even know? Do you?
Thanksgiving is in 3 days. Do you know your limits? Do you stop before you reach them? I am guessing not. Of course we don't. Perhaps because the expectation is to gorge, it's even encouraged, and most clothing has spandex today (I certainly find myself only buying stretchy stuff). My point is, sometimes our limits are vague, and sometimes they are "supposed" to be blown through. So when it comes to life and death stuff, maybe we should be a little less vague?
So, as you have your kids home this weekend from college, I would ask you to consider taking the opportunity to talk with your kids about a few things.
1. Social anxiety. We all experience it. Anxiety is the most common mental health complaint, and social anxiety is its most experienced form. I meet lots of adults who are now sober who say they first started drinking (or using other drugs including nicotine) in order to feel less self-conscious and awkward. I also meet lots of adults who cannot imagine not drinking when socializing, going out to dinner, going to their kids’ ____ tournament, going to a fundraiser, going on a date… If we do not experience the discomfort, we will not learn that it is normal, and temporary. We will not develop the skills we need (eg conversational skills) as we navigate social situations our whole life. As I say to my kids, “Do you want to have to rely on alcohol or other drugs to have fun when hanging out with your friends or your partner?”
Parents: how do you feel about this? Do you think you could go one month, 6 months, a year without drinking or smoking weed in any sort of social situation or in anticipation of one?
2. Stress. We can all agree that life on this planet is stressful. It always has been and it always will be. It is the human condition. What may be different today is the way we handle stress. It can be argued that we are currently collectively in a state of intolerance of stress. Tony Robbins says we humans are motivated by two things: seeking pleasure, and avoiding suffering. It's totally normal. But for the first time we have really a perfect storm: the ready availability of all sorts of ways to avoid or numb discomfort (iPhone, pills, weed, booze, etc); a lack of real connection with people and communities who keep us grounded and accountable and help us feel supported; industries that feed off of our hunger to feel better about ourselves; a virtual world that means we are constantly reminded of how stressful the world is and how inadequate we are. And in all of this, we send our kids off to college with a "be careful, know your limits, keep up the good grades, have fun." In 2018, 63% of college students felt "overwhelming anxiety." I have heard kids say, "I am so stressed. I can't wait to go out and get sh*tfaced."
I remember before my daughter went to college, one day she was having a stressful day with some stuff involving work. It was adult-level stuff. And I said to her, "this is adulting." I also remember on other occasions when she would be complaining that she didn't feel like doing something (must have been her laundry, or some other tedious chore). I said, "welcome to adulting" and explained, adulting means doing what needs to be done even though it's a total drag.
Adulting does not mean this:
I know that a lot of these memes are considered funny, and I certainly used to laugh and share stuff like this. So I struggle to write this stuff because I don't want to come across as preachy and pious. I get it. It's one of those things where, as Maya Angelou said, "When you know better, you do better." I know better now. I know how destructive alcohol can be, and I find it particularly irresponsible when certain people and organizations and brands who have a certain amount of influence over parents and kids take a casual stance over something that really does impact mental health and wellness. I think it's one of those things where
We don't know what we don't know.
Parents: how do you relieve stress? Have you fallen into certain habits that perhaps need some updating? What message do you think you are relaying to your kids about coping with stress?
3. Values. What do you value? What is important to you? When you think of your life, where do you hope to be going? How do you want people to think of you? Honesty, honor, integrity, kindness, compassion, loyalty, genuine, sincerity, intelligence, wisdom, maturity, gratitude, humility - if these or other attributes are important to you, are you living this way? In all things? This is not about perfection. It is about intention. It is so easy to compartmentalize our values. A student may think of himself of being a loyal, hard-working person, but then turn into a jackass as soon as Jack Daniels shows up. We humans all do things that seem totally out of character in certain contexts, but if we are not talking regularly with our kids about values, and ask them what theirs are, then chances are, when things get hot and heavy it will be much easier for them to go with the flow, which is very often far below their (and our) usually acceptable standard.
Parents: have you experienced cognitive dissonance - when you identify as being one way, but your actions, choices, priorities don’t support that?
4. Belonging. We all want to belong. We are wired this way, as a survival necessity. When we belonged to a tribe, back in the ancient days, if we got separated from our tribe it was guaranteed death. Today we just need to make sure we have a charged phone and a signal or wifi, so it seems we are connected, but we really aren’t. We need and crave human, in-person connection. We want to be invited to stuff (even if we really don’t want to go), we want to be missed, we want people to laugh with us and share experiences with us. At college, we desperately want this and we want it quickly. Greek organizations provide a built-in tribe. Get accepted and you have your instant friends. The allure is understandable. A lot of these sororities and some of the fraternities actually do some really good stuff. They provide social acceptance, a place to live, a network, and a way to be of service through philanthropy. Boys and men typically have a harder time forming bonds and intimate friendships in our US culture, so frats can be a good way to provide structure to the awkward friendship experience. And their parties provide a fun experience with dancing, themes, a way to meet people. So how can this occur in a healthier way? If a college bans Greek organizations, how can these fun social experiences still be provided? (Because they will find a way, and perhaps more dangerously without the oversight that happens at approved Greek events).
Parents: do you have close friends? A tribe? Do you socialize in ways that are fun, and do not involve alcohol?
5. Entitlement vs. empowerment. I have heard, "If they can do this, so can we." "I have the right to do this." Often in the context of young women asserting their right to be equals to their male counterparts, when it comes to substance use and sexual behavior. This is one of those things where maturity, experience, and education come into play. And in many ways, ties back to the topic of values. Do you value compassion? Is pumping your body and brain with stuff that can lead you to lower your standards, including using another human being (because yes, using people is an equal opportunity habit) an act of compassion? And is engaging in the same behavior that other more privileged people or genders have typically done without social impunity truly empowering? I think this is something that even if we don't feel comfortable directly addressing with our kids, we need to be thinking about.
Just because we can doesn't mean we should.
This is the thing. We cannot assume that our kids will do the right thing, even if they are smart enough to go to a great school. From the choices they make for themselves, to the decisions they make that affect others. I remember when my friend’s son was a toddler, and he was reaching for something that she didn’t want him to have, she said, “I don’t know how I feel about that” to him and I thought, “well, if you don’t know how you feel about it then how do you expect him to know?” So often we make assumptions of what our kids will think or do. But I think we need to be clearer. I remember a boyfriend I had in high school, his dad said to him, “If you ever smoke pot I will be furious with you and hugely disappointed.” So he never did. Why are we so wishy washy about this stuff?
One of the reasons that 40% of teens today are vaping is because no one ever told them not to vape, because quite frankly, this whole thing took us by surprise. We didn’t even know what vaping was until about 2-3 years ago. By the time we adults figured it out, millions of kids were addicted to nicotine. Because of the brilliant (EVIL) marketing, the perception of harm was low for kids. Flavors like grape bubble gum and cool packaging etc, and we adults never educated them about the dangers (again, we didn’t know, in all fairness). But with alcohol, we do know. We know that the World Health Organization this year said that alcohol is not safe in any quantity, for any person. We know that most suicides involve alcohol, and it is the #1 date rape drug. (By the way, I tell my son that if he ever hooks up with a girl he is not in a committed relationship with- ie there is a certain level of trust and respect and agreed-upon boundaries- and she has been drinking, he had better be prepared to accept the possibility and the consequences of being accused of sexual assault). Alcohol greatly increases our chances of cancer, especially breast cancer and colon cancer (cognitive dissonance moment: holding a wine tasting fundraiser for breast cancer). I could go on and on but you get the picture. So why do we tell our kids, “just know your limits” - why do we set the bar so low? (Pardon the pun).
Antonio’s parents, and other parents whose college kids won’t be returning home this week - or ever - are the deeply unlucky ones (grossly inadequate understatement). Because this could have been anyone’s kid. Because we are all part of the problem if we are not looking at the way we are role modeling, or thinking about how we are talking with our kids about this stuff: making friends and how hard it is and it takes time; blowing off steam and handling stress in healthy ways rather than quick fix, mindless ways; looking out for people and standing up for our values, knowing we may feel lonely when we don’t follow the herd; looking at the long-term impact of the decisions we make today, because who we are in 5, 10, 20+ years depends on what we are doing consistently today and going forward.
I had the privilege of leading a group of beautiful, resilient women through a meditation so I decided to write something special for them. I am sharing it here in case it helps someone who lands on this page.
You are here. You are awake. You are conscious. You have always been here. You were born knowing everything you needed to know.
And then, along the way, you started to learn other things.
You learned that it can hurt to fall and ice cream makes me happy.
You learned that you can control people and situations and when you do, the fear feels less overwhelming.
You learned that it feels good when people like and accept you, and you can get that by putting their needs in front of yours.
You learned that you can change yourself to be like the people around you, like a master chameleon.
You learned that you can avoid feeling anger, loneliness, boredom, like a failure, by eating, drinking, using, manipulating, conquering, running, moving…
And eventually, you learned that there was not enough ice cream, wine, lovers, jobs, trips, geographics - to keep you from feeling, to fill the God-sized hole in you.
In the process of awakening, you have unlearned the layers of beliefs that have been piling up on me through the years, covering the deep knowing you came into this world with.
You unlearned the “you’re not good enough!” “you don’t deserve any better!” “you deserve one more!”
and relearned “I am enough.” “I am worthy.” “I don’t need anything I can buy, eat, drink, pop, screw, achieve - to make me amazing.”
You are learning that the things that you have done, have served you, have kept you afloat, have kept you alive.
And you are learning that you are so very strong, and resilient, and beautiful in your imperfection.
You are learning to see your cracks as the places where the light comes in, to see your weaknesses as the impetus to reach out to others and see your strength reflected in them.
You are learning to surrender to the knowing that you are powerless over things that once felt like a way to control your world, and you are softening in the surrender, astonished at the freedom of no longer having to wear the mask and grip the reins. You are reawakening, the way the spring flower buds start to appear after a long winter. Slowly at first, and then suddenly in a burst of color and life.
You are gentle with the woman, the little girl, you were not too long ago, and who you will always carry within you. You love her and know she was always doing the best she could.
And now, you love this woman you are becoming, as you remember who you are, and always were.
I scooped - or rather, scraped - up yet another offering of poop by my now 4-month-old puppy, and quickly transitioned into a pillar of core strength as I held onto the leash, taught with a puppy lunging away from me attempting to chase a butterfly, while with the other hand deftly tied the poop bag into a knot. Phew! I did it. And I thought, this whole puppernity leave gig is a LOT of work. No more sleeping in (OK, I don't do that anyway), planning my daily schedule keeping the puppy’s needs in mind (thank you dear Lord for the crate!), visits to the vet, taking him and the older dog for walks (no more than 5 minutes per month of puppy’s life, per day, I just learned), taking him to obedience training… It really is like having a newborn baby in many respects.
This blogpost started with me picking up poop, and poop is actually the main theme. Not literally (phew!), but more of a useful metaphor for life. Lately I have found myself sort of obsessed with the concept of a sh*t sandwich. My kids think it’s disgusting, but I admit that I have found myself saying “sh*t sandwich” (without the polite asterisk) pretty frequently while engaging in what I call Parenting. Here is an example:
Puppy makes a sound, I say, “he needs to go out and pee, please take him out,” child continues whatever activity they were doing, puppy pees on kitchen floor, I remind kid that puppy’s peeing inside was human error, and now child must take puppy out and clean up puddle. Kid grumbles. And I say, “this is the sh*t sandwich of getting a puppy.”
It is graduation season, and my firstborn is about to graduate from high school next week (eeeeek!), and I have been privy to several conversations with young adults about career options and college majors. We talk about what they enjoy, what they feel they are good at, what appeals to them. But especially now that so much of my day revolves around poop (of the canine type), I also talk about their version of the sh*t sandwich. What are they willing to tolerate? A couple of them mention law school. So perhaps their sh*t sandwich includes endless reading, memorization of facts, engaging in conflict, tons of stress, long hours, conservative outfits, being in a competitive environment. If all of this seems part of the appeal, then they are probably headed down the right path. If it’s their version of a sh*t sandwich but they can stomach it because they truly feel a calling to pursue law (and it’s not just because their parents expect it), then at least they are less likely to be blindsided by the poopy stuff.
I think it’s especially important to talk about the sh*t sandwich in this day and age when kids are led to believe by their parents, educators, influencers and US News & World Report that there is really only one narrow path to success and anything less is mediocre at best. Anxiety and suicide are at epidemic rates among our young, and while mental health is a complicated topic, I have to ask myself, how many young adults are falling apart because they started off all excited about their course of study, or career or job, and were never warned about the sh*t sandwich? Everyone knows that law school is hard, medical residents have an insane schedule, and professional actors have to wait tables for years on end. But how about the fact that most jobs are mostly a lot of work, mostly not that fun? If I were to write a top 5 list of Sh*t Sandwiches it may look something like this (in no particular order):
I love taking photos and post them on Facebook and Instagram, and people often comment on how good they are. But what they may not know is that for every great photo, there were ten lousy ones. I think of life the same way. For every great entry in the Fakebook or Instagram highlight reel, there were many moments, interactions, and disappointments that were undocumented. The sh*t sandwich. And that’s okay - but let’s be real and acknowledge that we are all going to experience self-doubt, disappointment in others, wondering if we made the wrong choice, being tempted to give up. That is the sh*t sandwich. Put it in the poop bag, tie the knot so you can’t smell it, and toss it in the trash. And then do the next right thing.
The woman, a stranger, turned around and looked right at me, smiled, and then mouthed the words, “I see you.”
You may be thinking, creeeepy. But it wasn’t creepy, it was a powerful moment of connection. We were in church and the pastor had asked all of the women, of all ages, to stand up, and he urged the men and boys to cheer for us at least as heartily as they do their sports teams. So while we were standing there, which to me was a tad awkward, I looked around and marveled at how much of the congregation was female, and that was when that woman’s gaze met mine.
Mother’s Day is like Valentine’s Day. A “Hallmark holiday” that can be either a source of joy and gratitude, or a reminder of what we don’t have. Another opportunity to compare ourselves and our lives to others, or to unfulfilled dreams, or things gone wrong. My own relationship with Mother’s Day has been an evolving one. Some years have been full of joy, not taking for granted the miracle that I had two healthy kids after having had three miscarriages. Some years have been fraught with sadness, having lost my mom to cancer when my kids were 1 month and 3 years old. Some years I have longed for one thing on Mother’s Day: to have some peace and quiet, nobody needing anything from me. “All I want is a weekend at home alone” was often my wish (hasn’t happened yet - and at this point I don’t really want that anyway). Now, my kids are 15 and 18, and the oldest is leaving for college in a few months. My wish for today was, “Please come to church, let’s go to lunch at our favorite diner with vegan options, and then please clean your room.” I used to long for silence and space, and now I still cherish both, but I have learned to create that for myself on a regular basis, as my Self-Care items on my daily To Do List. Just like many people scoff at these Hallmark holidays by saying, “every day should be Mother’s Day” or Valentine’s Day, I have realized I need every day to include Self-Care (which is a work in progress, and some days I am better at this than others). It would be unrealistic and immature of me to hope that my family would know exactly what I want and need, and do it all on Mother’s Day.
I have heard the saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” I think this means, if I expect everyone to do as I say, and as I don’t say but fervently hope, I am setting them and myself up for failure, which will lead to my resenting them for not getting me, so obviously they don’t really love me, and they in turn will resent me for my assumptions and display of dismay and anger. Makes sense to me. So at some point I started to consciously lower my expectations for holidays, weekends, events that had a lot riding on them. And it worked. But I was careful not to confuse lowered expectations with settling for less than I and others deserved. It did not mean being a martyr (which is just a really codependent passive aggressive approach, yuck). For me, lowering expectations actually meant, I changed the way I looked at things. I would set an intention beforehand, such as, be present; be of service; don’t worry about getting anything done; be a good listener; be helpful; give yourself permission to not say anything, or to leave the room, or to go for a run…
A couple of dear friends thoughtfully texted me this weekend to say they were thinking of me, as I faced another Mother’s Day without my mom. “I see you” is what each of these texts basically told me. So many of my friends have lost their moms, or are currently dealing with the heartbreaking situation of witnessing their mother slip away physically and/or mentally. Or perhaps their dreams of being moms themselves have been thwarted. Or they are moms but lost some precious angels along the way, before birth or after. Some of my friends have had to endure life after their beautiful child was ripped away from them due to illness or violence or an accident. How hard it must be for you to see other seemingly intact families celebrate and carry on, oblivious to your pain.
I see you…
As I looked around the crowded church this morning at all of the women, representing all stages and ages, all races and ethnicities, various levels of belief, all sorts of professions and socioeconomic status, I thought about what a privilege it is to be a part of this female tribe. I thought about how lucky I am to have friends who are older than me and have walked through things before me, and are now shining a light for me to follow, and to learn from their wisdom. Our culture may want us to believe that after a certain age (50+?) we are no longer relevant and we are only beautiful if we tug, smoothen, cut, and inject here and there. But I know that is yet one more lie that I refuse to believe.
If my mom was still around, and was healthy, I know she would be doing all sorts of community service and creating beautiful clothing, and going to the gym 365 days a year with her gold Reebok sneakers. I am sad she is not here to watch my daughter embark on living out her dream in fashion, which she inherited from my mom, and to take in my son’s beautiful, kind spirit and playful sense of humor. And, I am grateful that I can truly understand how hard it is when a friend loses her mother, how untethered we feel.
I see you…
A meditation teacher I had once used to say at the end of the weekly class, “Have the week that you have.” In other words, let go of expectations, accept what is. Instead of “Happy Mother’s Day” I would like to say, I see you, on this Mother’s Day. And you are beautiful, and strong, resilient, wise, and you have everything you need, right inside of you. And, no matter what, you are loved beyond any human comprehension.
Tonight we have a graduation party. For our puppy. Except he isn’t exactly graduating because he is 3.5 months old and apparently it is recommended he keep taking this weekly class until he is 6 months old, at which point he then moves up the next level. So far he pretty much obeys Sit, Leave It, Let’s Go (for walking). He has done pretty well, especially since he is by far the youngest in the class. I wanted to start off on the right foot especially because everyone tells me labs are brilliant, and I know from having an older dog and two teenagers, the work you put in on the front end is worth every bit of effort. In our first class, we went round the room and shared our puppy’s name and something interesting and one of the owners shared that her puppy is bilingual. A part of me immediately felt the need to teach our puppy at least another two languages.
Our oldest kid is graduating this month too, but unlike the puppy, she is really done with high school. She got to experience three high schools on two continents, and she is more than happy to move on. We moved to the DC area when our kids were going into 8th and 11th grades and it was in some ways a total culture shock. For one, this area has a great amount of wealth, which in practical ways means many of the kids have Uber accounts and credit cards in middle school (which means, a certain disconnect from parent interaction and oversight). The other thing that really hit me was the amount of emphasis on achievement, or rather, over-achievement, which has created an inordinate amount of stress and anxiety on local youth.
I decided that our first year here, my main priority was going to be to do whatever I needed to do to be the calm, safe presence and protect the calm safety in our home, as my husband transitioned into a new job and my kids figured out how to survive and find their new sweet spot in their new schools. So I didn’t throw myself into things, instead deciding to have a BS year (Be Still). Of course, this was not exactly executed because of my need to be doing interesting things, but for the most part, I took a listening stance. I wanted to see what was going on here, where there is most need, what is the culture like, etc.
Not long after we moved here, I met someone who does college admissions coaching. I had never heard of this, but apparently it’s a Thing here, and other areas. They have different levels of coaching (i.e. price points) but we are basically talking, thousands of dollars to have someone give your kid a checklist with structure and accountability, and help them with their essay (all things their high school counselor and website provides, FYI). I asked this person why she had gotten into this and she said that when her oldest was in middle school, she felt like some of her friends weren’t motivated enough, and that this type of coaching would help the kids make better choices now, if they were already thinking of college and how important it is to be doing well as early as middle school.
As I listened, I thought, OK, part of me thinks that makes sense. Our choices can definitely help us or hinder us further down the line. But part of me thought, that is terrible - to stress our kids out so early about college! Of course, I was also thinking that based on what I know of mental health, when kids are doing stupid stuff, for example drinking in 7th grade, it’s not because they lack vision and focus as much as, there is a good chance they are hurting because of trauma, family conflict, etc., and making poor choices are a way for them to escape discomfort. In my years of coaching, and of working with people with addiction, I have never heard, “I really wish someone had put more pressure on me to achieve and be a better student.” If anything, I have repeatedly heard, “I really wish my parents hadn’t pressured me so much to do well in school/sports/music/my weight… I wish they had asked me what I wanted, and listened to the answer, even if it was, ‘I don’t know, but not this.”
I totally get the urge to give our kids the best we can to set them up for “success” and provide the most opportunities. Remember that moment I described above, where I felt a twinge (shame? Competitiveness? Inadequacy?) because my puppy only understands one language? And that is for a freaking puppy. So I totally get it when it appears, thanks to Fakebook, lawn signs, local newspaper announcements and features, school parent forums - that everyone else’s kid is receiving awards, recognitions, getting recruited, getting “verified” on social media, turning down Ivy League offers. It’s no wonder so many kids are spending their summers in Kumon tutoring, SAT prep courses, un-fun summer camps. It makes sense that so many parents are making their kids get a special plan so they can have special accommodations for test-taking (before you get all worked up, I know, some kids do need these, but definitely not to the extent that we are seeing, especially in affluent areas where parents have figured out how to game the system). That whole college scandal we just witnessed? I just see it as an extreme version of what so many people are willing and wanting to do. It is so easy to judge when we are not in the position or have the temptation to do something. But if we dial it back and bring it back to our own context, may that maybe look a bit more like our reality? For example:
A little while ago, a mom was anguished over her high school aged son, who is in treatment for substance use disorder and depression. Apparently he had just relapsed. She was miffed, saying, “We gave him everything! We could tell when he was really young how much talent he had, so we gave him the best coaching, got him on the best teams, etc. Now we give him this great treatment program and this is what he does?!” I thought, “Did you ever ask him if this was what he wanted?” I imagined what it must be like to be this young man, feeling that he has disappointed his parents who see him as unfulfilled potential, someone who “wasted” all of his opportunity. I thought, how hard for him to carry his parents’ burden this way - no wonder he feels compelled to escape.
I know how hard it is, probably one of the hardest parts of parenting, to know what our kids are capable of, and to watch them flounder, or be distracted, or have priorities that perhaps don’t match our vision for them. We parents are excellent at two things: future-tripping and catastrophizing. So it seems like we are being super helpful when we sign them up for all of the things, make sure they get 10,000 hours in at least one of them, and freak out if they trip up. In complete transparency, I have to check my own mindset and motives every day. Last fall, our 9th grade son was involved in 4 sports at the same time. I know, right now you are thinking, “and you are telling me to CTFD???” (CTFD= Calm The F-k Down). Bear with me. He was finishing up a summer Triathlon program, doing a brief Learn To Row through his high school, on an in-house hockey team, and checking out his high school hockey team. I knew this insanity was temporary and I allowed it as he wanted to do this, and I was curious to see where it would go. When he decided to prune a couple of things, we talked about how sometimes it is wise to know when a season has ended. Our culture loves to vilify quitting (unless it’s smoking or heroin), but I think it’s an important value to teach our kids, especially if we are going to teach them about self-care.
Often, I tell my kids, “if everyone is doing something, it’s probably either stupid or not right for me.” I admit for a minute I considered getting a college admissions coach for my daughter since it seemed like everyone else here was doing it, and I wondered, what am I missing? Fortunately, she told me that was stupid, so I didn’t. (And she got in everywhere she applied). I remember when she was in 6th grade, I was talking with another parent, who was hoping her daughters would go to an Ivy League school (they weren’t even in middle school yet) because of how many opportunities this would bring them. I replied something like, “I really don’t think that where a kid goes to college ultimately determines how happy and well-adjusted they are adults. I think that if someone really wants to do a certain type of work, using their strengths, and they feel it is meaningful work, they will find their way there and be successful - no matter what school they go to.”
Now, six years later, I still believe that. I heard Dr. Lisa D’Amour say, “Today, middle school is high school and high school is college” in terms of the pressure to achieve and perform. That is crazy - no wonder so many kids are losing sleep and freaking out. As parents, I think we can all agree that our primary role is to keep our kids safe and provide them with unconditional love. I think it would be an excellent thing to ponder on a regular basis, whether or not our child feels like we doing this? We lock the doors, push for safe schools, safe water, etc. - but are we doing our best to nurture their tender hearts and souls?
“The idea that ‘I need to be happy’ or ‘my child deserves to be happy’ comes from a sense that the present moment is somehow lacking. In other words, we see our life through a lens of scarcity, noticing all the things we don’t have instead of the abundant way the universe provides for us. And so, as the Declaration of Independence sanctions, we set off in “the pursuit of happiness,” not realizing that this can never bring us happiness. On the contrary, it’s the breeding ground of discontent and disappointment.”
So, how do we parent in a way that we are connected with our child, see them and hear them and accept them as they are, while also guiding them through this achievement-focused environment? I think that like all things I coach with, there is no one size fits all. Some kids are innately achievement-focused and they thrive under huge amounts of stress, happily taking on five AP classes while starting a new club and leading several teams and launching a foundation to end world poverty while running a marathon to raise money for childhood cancer. We need these kinds of kids, just as we need the kids who are not quite as driven, or haven’t yet grown into their drive. I think as parents it is important to try to tune out the insanity around us with other parents (at school forums and in parent Facebook groups), listen to our kids and allow them to show us what they need, and be discerning. Don’t believe a lot of what you hear about what it takes to get into college, what your kid “needs” to do, and what success means and how to get there.
To learn more about how to help your kids by being a more connected, mindful parent, check out our upcoming workshop: Connected Parenting.
I went from “hell no!!” to “let’s do it” in two weeks. So, now we have a puppy. Bruno is absolutely adorable. I lose myself in his folds of soft fur and his gleeful licks. Since we got him 12 days ago, I have spent hours observing him, figuring out what type of ground-sniff means he’s about to pee, what type of nip means he’s overtired and needs his crate, and mesmerized by his absolute fascination with pieces of wood out in the yard. My “hell no” to “yes” was mostly because it occurred to me that while a ton of work, Bruno would force me to simplify and to hone my focus, bringing it to things that really matter. Like that piece of wood, that acorn, that pile of deer poop.
Mostly, the reasons I said yes have so far panned out. People have come to the house to see him, which has been wonderful. My kids have emerged from their rooms and do their homework downstairs in the kitchen. I am going to guess their screen time has gone down. They have also seen how much work he is, and have stepped up to help as much as their busy student, athlete, musical rehearsal commitments will allow. Last night in puppy training class, Bill and I beamed with pride as our puppy, the smallest and youngest by far in the class, came when called, sat and then stayed. He may not be bilingual like the dog in the corner, but we know it’s just a matter of time.
But it’s not all fun and joy with a new puppy. There is a part of me that is thrilled at my change of heart. That part of me that agreed to the puppy and saw its merits is grateful. The part of me that looks ahead and sees Bruno as a therapy dog helping me in my work with clients seeking better brain wellness, is happy and hopeful. But there are other parts of me that are not so satisfied with the adorable invasion. I am not able to work long shifts any more, as the rehab does not allow dogs, so I am only working there now when therapists need a fill-in for group sessions. I pulled out of a conference last week because getting puppy coverage for 12 hour days was going to be too challenging. The parts of me that cherish independence, spontaneity, freedom, peace and quiet have been extremely challenged the last 12 days. The part of me that wants to be go! Go! Go! Is challenged by the tedium and monotony of essentially having a newborn in the house.
I am very familiar with ambivalence. When I talk with clients, I spend a lot of time exploring their mixed feelings about their goals and expectations. If they are seeking sobriety, we talk about how a part of them may want to be sober because of the way a body and brain and life without alcohol and other drugs is far healthier, more compassionate, more present, and more connected. And, we talk about their part(s) that may feel rebellious, may fear being different (which is always the case with people seeking sobriety, since we live in a booze-centered culture), may fear a life of boredom, isolation, lack of adventure etc. Even if you haven’t thought about sobriety, you have probably at some point considered embarking on a new health challenge, or business-building endeavor. You get the idea, feel super excited, start going, and then the energy starts to fizzle. Maybe something in your life sidelines you for a bit and you lose the momentum, and you never quite regain it. So you once again berate yourself for your lack of willpower, your laziness, your inability to commit and follow-through.
I don’t believe you are lazy or lack willpower. I believe that the part of you that initially felt that excitement and drive, was the part of you that loves to feel in control, organized, determined, successful. But the thing is, when we make a lot of our decisions, especially these big ones that are often tied to our ego, we don’t usually check in with all the other parts of us. How about the part of you that prioritizes your family? When you signed up for Ironman, was that part asked how it felt knowing that your ass would be on a bike more than in a chair at the dinner table or on the bleachers cheering on the kids? When you got pumped about doubling your business income, did you confer with your part that is devoutly committed to community outreach? When you invested $3,000 in a course that guaranteed you would write a book ready to publish, did you consult with your part that would rather sleep than get up at 4am to write before anyone woke up?
Every day, I hear ambivalence, in my brain and in those of my friends and clients. Here are some of the most typical ones:
And so on. I actually don’t believe anyone is lazy. Or crazy. Actually, we are all crazy, just some of us hide it better than others. And I believe we all have an inner self that is kind, compassionate, wise, optimistic, generous, hard-working, committed, loving. But from what I know about trauma, and how it affects our brain health, I believe we learn different ways to cope, to organize the world, and to feel a sense of control. In IFS (Internal Family Systems - I am a certified IFS Coach), we believe that we are all a collection of parts. Some of these parts were developed when we were in certain traumatic situations in our life, and perhaps their go-to reaction to situations is to disconnect, hide, lash out, numb, etc. When we are in situations that feel stressful, or where we have a decision to make, we may feel ambivalent because our different parts are polarized. The part of me that prioritizes simplicity and a peaceful environment feels resentful and exhausted after hours of managing a puppy, an older dog, a coaching business, volunteer commitments, and figuring out a healthy plant-based dinner while getting in my workout, my 2 daily meditations, and my studies. That part is mad it was not given a veto vote during Puppy Decision. Someone observing me may think gosh, she was so happy an hour ago with the puppy, why is she suddenly so exhausted and cranky and regretting having agreed to the puppy? You should have given it more thought, woman! But the thing is I did give it a lot of thought. And I did consult with my different parts. And, even in the midst of a crankfest, if I remind myself that it is OK, I did not make a huge mistake, I just need to listen to the parts right now that are feeling angry and tired, I eventually reach a calmer state. This works with other scenarios from the above list. Whichever of the scenarios applies to you, I guarantee you can (with me, or another IFS coach or therapist) start to identify different parts within you and as you start to listen to them, with compassion and curiosity, you will most likely lessen your resistance and your self-judgment and even self-loathing.
A client I was working with the other day had an a-ha moment when I explained this to him and did an exercise with him around his parts. I mentioned that sometimes it is helpful to visualize a board meeting, with each of our parts in a chair. And rather than a hostile scenario where everyone is interrupting each other and there is an obvious hierarchy, we turn it into a scenario where each part gets to feel heard because we pass a talking stick around, like in a Native American council. Each part gets to speak while they are in possession of the stick, and then they pass it to the next person, who then gets to be heard. And like in 12 step meetings, there is no cross-talking, so the parts can be assured that no other part will try to fix them or give them advice. And then, ideally we are in a more calm state and we can recognize which part needs to be making the executive decisions right now, but the other parts feel satisfied they have been heard. A high-powered executive, this client lit up at this idea, which made complete sense to him.
I hear the puppy waking up now, so the part of me that loves peace and silence and writing feels heard, and now the part of me that wants to go hug that bundle of love and take him out to pee and look at daffodils is going to take the reins.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.