The Toxicity of Certainty

Yesterday I posted about my recent shift in spiritual and religious certainty. While the point for both of us may have been that spiritual transformation, the notion about the value of certainty is the point that I think may be a little more generalizable, more applicable to more situations. And it all got me to thinking about certainty in general.

balance-business-calculator-163032Because we love us some certainty, don’t we?

Culturally we prize it. We claim it. We use data to back it up. We argue with charts and graphs. We gather all of the information that feeds our certainty and share it with other equally certain people so we can all be more certain, and feel justified in that, together. Yay for being sure and being right!

It’s not just our culture, though. It seems to me that humans are wired to seek certainty. In certainty there is safety. In predictability there is survival. In knowing what is and what will happen we are assured of our own ability to make reasonably good choices. Our brains love certainty. Being certain about things lets the brain turn that puzzle into one that has been solved and can now become part of the efficient, programmed background knowledge. It becomes something we no longer have to think about.

And there it is; the long-awaited and foreshadowed rub.

The problem with moving things to the efficiency drawer is that change DOES happen. The world around us changes. Even if nothing else happens, there are seasons. Even if we don’t attempt to make any shifts at all, a single butterfly may flap its wings in just such a way that the direction of a tornado is impacted weeks later (that’s the butterfly effect, not just a movie but a part of chaos theory and grounded in math). No matter how little we as individuals TRY to change, we still do.

Our bodies age. Our experiences impact us daily and cumulatively over time. Our incredibly powerful brains won’t stop learning no matter how much we attempt to dull them. Change will happen. For us to remain certain of so many things in the face of what we have to acknowledge as the inevitability of change feels unnecessarily stubborn at best and foolish and destructive at worst.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Arthur C. Brooks, an economist and the current head of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think-tank that I don’t usually look to for inspiration – as a demonstration of my own certainty…). The name of Mr. Brooks’ talk was: “Work, Life, and Happiness After 50.” It was a phenomenal talk. I’ll have more to say about it later, I’m sure, but there was a point he made that feels particularly relevant to this whole notion of certainty and change.

He quoted a Dylan Thomas poem that many of us have heard before: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. You know the one, it has the line: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yeah, that one. And I think there are a couple of ways you could take that advice. The poem is clearly about aging, and we could simply take it as a prompt to continue to live and live fully, hard, with vigor even as we age. But Brooks talked about this idea of raging as a way of fighting with change: the changes in our bodies, the changes in our understandings, the changes in our world. The problem, Brooks suggested, with all of this raging is that it keeps us from ever getting to progress.

In other words, screaming about our certainty and defending it until we are bloody may be preventing us from fully appreciating the contours of any problem and moving to the point of progress. Whew. That’s a big one. I know it.

And I know it. And here’s where it becomes spiritual for me again, but it’s just an example, so you can sub out anything you like. In the aftermath of a cavalcade of losses, I was certain about my loss of faith in just about everything that might keep a person feeling steady.

adult-angry-facial-expression-206460As wounds from those losses began to heal, and I began to change, instead of re-examining that certainty, I dug in. I became entrenched. And I raged. I raged against threats to my certainty. I congratulated myself on the intellectual achievement that was my certainty. I gathered evidence to support that certainty and I scorned, well, lots of things. Raged.

And all because I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to question those beliefs. I didn’t want see things in a different way. I didn’t want to experience whatever impact all of that learning, rethinking, shifting might have. Rage.

And yet, all of that raging made me fail to see so much: so much beauty, so much tenderness, and so many people. All of that certainty kept me from experiencing the world as it really is – for all that it is: good and bad.

Let me just say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having beliefs, which is great because we’re going to have them. It’s part of how the brain works. So is certainty. The question is when certainty becomes toxic. And I think the answer to that question lies in the discovery I made in my own theological unraveling.

When your certainty keeps you from experiencing the world (which includes yourself, you, all of your bits and feelings by the way) as it really is, that certainty has become toxic. When your certainty keeps you from seeing people as more than a point of opposition, when it keeps you from seeing the complexity of a situation, when it only lets in all of the good or all of the bad, it’s become toxic and it is keeping you from progress.

It is good to know some things for sure. This is why Oprah’s phrase “what I know for sure” has caught on with so many people. It feels good to be able to identify those things, those touch points, those steady rocks in the storm. It is wise to also know when to give them a second look. Sometimes all of that certainty is just raging against change. And sometimes that change really will make things better.

The Between Time

My brother loves the phrase “liminal time.” It is a good word, liminal. If words aren’t your thing, feel free to skip ahead, but those who’ve been playing along for awhile know that I am a self-confessed word nerd, and there are some words that are just plain better than others. Liminal is one of those words.

antique-classic-clock-1095601It means transitional, or a stage in the process. It is neither the beginning nor the end. It is neither the old thing or the new thing. It is between. It is ongoing. It is often ill-defined and formless. Liminal time. It can be the time after giving notice at work and before starting the new gig. It can be the time after setting up the PA equipment and before the band begins. It can be the time when a child is no longer a little kid, but isn’t a teenager. Liminal time can be after a project begins but before it really takes hold. It can be a clean but unfolded basket of laundry. Liminal time can be a lot of things, and most of that has to do with definition and perception.

Our culture really likes to present progress as a very linear thing. You move from start to finish and pass through stages along the way. If we observe enough people doing the same kinds of things, we can even predict those stages and measure time or markers or outcomes. The thing about liminal time, or being in transition, or being in one stage of a process, is that it isn’t always linear. Things don’t always move in a clear direction. The stages aren’t always obvious. Our paths of “progress” are pretty much never the same as someone else’s.

The beauty of remembering that simple fact of human variation is that it gives us the freedom to decide what the start, the finish, and all of the steps along the way are. We get to decide if we are between. We get to decide that we have made progress. We get to decide that we have completed something. We get to decide if we will continue or if the steps we planned to take are no longer necessary. We get to decide if forward motion is necessary and would be helpful. We get to decide to think of where we are as being temporary or the goal, fleeting or permanent, necessary or bonus. We get to decide and define all of that.

And that flexibility in our thinking is part of what makes liminal time such a good teacher. That sense that we are between phases or stages or steps calls out to us to examine what’s driving us, to touch base with our inner knowing to see if that next step moves in the direction we’d imagined or if it goes somewhere else entirely.

Being in between requires us to take a look at how attached we are to that thing, that place, that goal that we haven’t reached yet and question whether or not we’ve got our cart attached to the right horse. It may be that what we thought we wanted isn’t right for us at all. It may be that what we want is exactly right but the path, oh that path to get there looks nothing like what we imagined. We miss all of these opportunities if we don’t give liminal time its due, if we don’t learn to see the gifts of the between time, if we maintain a rigid and unyielding grasp on our ideas about what should happen and when.

I have children who, if we follow along with accepted developmental phases, are in a between time. They are 11. It is such a between time that we’ve dubbed it the “‘tween” years. They most certainly are not little kids anymore in so many ways. They are also definitely not interested in or ready for experiences and interactions they will have as teens. They are between. They long to be older because they see freedom there. They long to be younger because the notion of romantic relationships is appalling. They miss greater simplicity in play and friendships and they yearn for independence.  Their moods, as they experience their own duality, are all over the place.

I see how they have to stretch and grow in this liminal time. I see them struggle with it and I see them carry on. I see them release things from the past: friendships that haven’t stood the test of time, hobbies that don’t suit anymore, habits and desires that no longer serve them. I see them sensing that their understanding of the outcomes might have been inaccurate as they notice that increased independence and freedom often comes with greater responsibility. I see them wanting to be older but not being sure why. I see them doing a sort of dance with one leg in the past and one in the future. It is an uncomfortable position to be in.

afterglow-backlit-beach-797394And really, the only way to respond when one is stuck in that kind of straddle, is to bring your legs together, squarely underneath you, and to recognize the space you are in as the one that matters the most. Keeping our toes too far in the past and too far in the future strains the system and creates regret and disappointment. Drilling down to observations that are a little more granular lets us see all of the micro developments that take place exactly where we are. This moment that we think of as a between stage actually has hundreds of tiny steps that make it up. Our progress is continual. Our growth is unstoppable (even if it is painful and awkward at times). We feel that we are between when we don’t see all that is here, now: the incremental learning, the opportunities to be present and connected, and the sheer power of giving our attention to what is real, what is happening NOW.

We can inhabit the space of not being quite where we want to be, of having goals and aspirations AND at the same time acknowledge, see, and feel every bit of what is good and amazing about the place where we are. Each step along the way is its own destination and every pause is liminal. We are always changing and always complete. We are between and we are starting and we are finishing all in the same breath. To believe that and feel the comfort and peace it can bring, all we have to do is choose to see it.

From Liminal Time,



Break Down or Break Open

I recently gifted myself with Oprah Winfrey’s book The Wisdom of Sundays.

blur-book-book-pages-415061Everything about this book was made for me (or people who are a lot like me LOL). The linen cover feels good. The pages are thick. The images are sumptuous. Each page a finely-tuned balance between text and graphic. It’s really exquisite and that’s without even getting to the content. On each page there is an excerpt of a conversation Ms. Winfrey had with some modern luminary. They are organized by theme and are just the right length for a quick dose of inspiration or insight. I’ve been reading a little every morning. It has been delicious and enlightening.

Today I came across this quote from Elizabeth Lesser: “You can either break down and stay broken down and eventually shut down, or you can break open. It’s a decision you make. It’s a commitment.”


The idea of breaking open wasn’t new to me, but that decision bit, that was something I hadn’t given a lot of time. I got it intellectually right away, and it fits with my take on the world, our reactions, our choices, our power, but it felt big enough for me that I had to take a few minutes to think about those moments of breaking down and breaking open in my life. I could see the difference. I could slot those moments into their respective categories. And, with the gift of retrospect, I could see the choice.

I could see the choice to stay broken after my parents’ divorce.

I could see the choice to shut down when my college didn’t heap praise on my acting and music skills that had been honed in high school.

I could see the choice to stay broken after losing a baby in a near fatal miscarriage.

I could see the decision to shut down as an overwhelmed and unhappy stay at home Mom.

I could see the decision to break open as I addressed that overwhelm and unhappy after a few years in.

I could see the decision to break open when my Dad died a year and a half ago.

I could see all of those choices. I honor them. There is no judgment because I can also see how in each of those moments I didn’t feel like I was choosing. I felt like I was doing the best that I could do, and perhaps given what I knew at the time, I was. It’s okay. The lesson about the choice isn’t a tool for looking back with scorn or praise. The lesson about the choice is the tool for seeing the present while I’m in it. The lesson about the choice is the way to bring to consciousness the decisions that have been automatic in the past.

I’ve had a bit of a dark night of the soul lately. Some of it was medical, as I’ve explained over the last week, but some of it most definitely was not. It was backlash.

You see a long time ago I had a pretty active spiritual life. The idea of faith was something I openly engaged with. Sometimes this happened in religious settings, churches and the like, but oftentimes it didn’t. I explored these ideas on my own from early days and my interest and dedication to that discussion with myself ebbed and flowed as it does for so many. And then it just broke.

I can’t tell you the exact moment that happened. Looking back I think it was more of a series of things that made it too hard to believe, too hard to grapple with the notion of a benevolent omniscient force. The extent of the shut down for me was made clear one night at a party. It was not long after my nearly fatal miscarriage. I was struggling: struggling to go to grad school, struggling to want to see friends, struggling with just about everything. But we went to this party because our closest friends were hosting and attending and that’s just what we did. I drank too much, which was also what we did at that time. And then one of our friends, I know in an attempt to be compassionate, started in with the: “It’s all part of God’s plan” routine. I don’t think those were exact words, but it was one of those sentences from the list of stupid shit people say to grieving people. I might have gotten heated. I had some things to say about God. They were loud. Another friend joined in and began playing the role of mediator. I wanted nothing to do with a God that let this shit happen to me and that sentiment devolved into a brief survey of tragedy and horror in the world at top volume. Case closed. This is, at least, the way I remember that night.

That night was a LONG time ago. About 15 years I think, but it seems like even longer in so many ways.

And I snap back to the present and what feels like a bit of a break down that emerged after what I can only describe as the return of some glimmer of faith, of hope, of belief in the unseen, the impossible, and in the power of love to manifest miracles on earth. My curiosity and relief quickly turned to fear as I chose to stay broken rather than inhabit that exquisite space. Understand that I am not suggesting that not having faith, particularly my ill-defined and inconsistent faith is the same as being broken. What IS broken is me choosing to believe and feel things that make me small and unhappy. THAT’s the brokenness.

This latest turn towards faith feels a lot like a break down and a homecoming. When I feel the grace of it – the peace, the joy, the connection – it is homecoming. When I feel the fear of revealing who I am, when I focus on the human consequences I’m afraid are inevitable it’s break down city.

adventure-back-view-beach-185801I can see that the moments when I am in-between as a choice. I can see my attachment to the outcome in my practice – the fear of the other kids not liking me, my lack of trust, my fears about money and success as choices and yet when I make them the feel so effortless they go unnoticed. Perhaps this is the point of prayer, which is really just a spoken declaration of where we are – to bring the broken choices into the light, to name them in order to see their form so that a different choice becomes possible. If I am correct in my understanding that choice need be no more than trying to be open, to allow, to be willing.

Curiosity, action while afraid, trust: these are the tools of commitment. These are the paths of devotion. This is how we break open when we are breaking down.

So be it.

The Rocks We Cling To

A few weeks ago I sang with my church choir. We sang a hymn that was one of my Dad’s very favorites. Whenever I hear it, I can see him sitting, eyes closed, at our beloved Chautauqua Institute, leaning his head back as if to take in the sound fully. Getting through the piece without tears was a surprise and a welcome signal that I am coming into the time when I can remember my Dad with joy in addition to my sorrow for the loss.

beach-clouds-cloudy-557067There is a line in the hymn: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging…” The arrangement we performed really swells and sweeps in this moment and it feels like both storm and strength. I can see it, the figure in the water holding onto that rock amidst the cresting waves and the dark sky. The hymn reminds us of the joy, the peace that can be found using love as our rock, our foundation.

I know, not just from my own experience, but from so the stories so many others have shared with me, that love is not always the rock we cling to. We cling to all kinds of rocks hoping to weather those storms. We cling to tradition (or at least the “way we’ve always done it”); we cling to rightness; we cling to stability; we cling to stories.

What I’ve found is that there are many rocks that will help us SURVIVE. In times of trouble, we can turn lots of place to muddle through, to endure, to get by, to get through, to get past. But some of those rocks, they leave us cut and bleeding, wounded by the clinging rather than by the storm.

Some of those rocks are old stories we have about who we are. “I couldn’t possibly do that. I HAVE to do XYZ. I really SHOULD or SHOULDN’T.” These are the guideposts we develop when things get tough, and sometimes they really do help us. The thing is that once they are in place, they sort of become furniture, or bricks, unquestioned in purpose or validity. It’s there; it should be there. It’s ALWAYS been there. It is truth and when I suspect it’s not, I am wrong; I am bad. I am flawed and a failure because I can’t live within the story I’ve created for myself. And yet we cling. We cling to those stories.

We cling to those rocks not because we are stupid. We cling to those rocks not because we don’t want better. We cling to those rocks because we are scared. We are scared to question what we know. We are scared to do things differently. We are scared to try on a new story because the outcome is unknown.

And so we cling to those rocks and get cut and bruised and hold on with our teeth chattering from the cold. We stay stuck because it feels safer. We stay stuck because it’s what we know. We stay stuck because for us or for someone we love getting unstuck means breaking the rules. We stay stuck because we are afraid we’ll lose everything if we imagine a new way. We’ll lose our friends and family. We’ll lose the community and relationships we’ve cultivated. We’ll be that outsider – unwelcome in the ring of humans around the fire. Cold, alone, abandoned.

It’s old this coping mechanism. And by that I mean it’s human evolution old, not just you personally old. Our tendency to define our possibilities using a pretty narrow scope and a shallow field ensures our acceptability in the tribe and we need the tribe to survive, even if it means everybody in that tribe is clinging to their own brutal rock.

It’s a grim picture, but being somewhat drawn to the image, I want to extend this metaphor just one step farther. If you are clinging to a rock that hurts, I want to know if you’ve tried to touch the bottom with your feet. I want to know how convinced you are that you can’t stand up. I want to know what would happen if you just let go? Even I, a confirmed “sinker” in a lifetime of swimming lessons, can float with the occasional small maneuver. What would happen if instead of clinging to that brutal rock, you just let go and see where the storm takes you?

beach-dawn-dusk-128458There are some things I can tell you about storms on the water. First and foremost: they always end. Secondly, they bring up all kinds of miraculous and beautiful things (just ask any shell collector). Thirdly, when they are over, the beach is there and the sun emerges, and more often than not there is someone who will help you find your towel.

Maybe it’s time to trade in your rock, or maybe it’s time to just float.

When We Start to Fall

Last night we watched an episode of Planet Earth II with the kids. If you’ve not seen it, I highly recommend. It’s a series by the BBC, narrated by David Attenborough, and has some incredible footage of animals doing their thing. Really stunning.

Last night’s episode on mountains featured a group of Nubian ibex. I’m going to go with ibex as the plural of ibex because I can’t bear to say ibexes. I hope I’m right because I really should be. In any event, the point is not about the word, the point is about the animal.

Juvenile_Nubian_ibex_(50822)The sequence showed how these ibex live at altitudes of about 8,000 feet on cliffs that offer little in the way of easy travel. They are safe from predators at those heights, but need to descend to get water, and that’s where things get hairy, especially for the ibex kids. We were on the edge of our seats watching a red fox stalk the ibex kids as they nervously and inexpertly navigated the craggy cliff face. If they moved to safer ground they were at risk of being caught by the fox. Climbing further up moved them away from the water that was their goal and from the parents in the herd who waited for them on the bottom (a little Mom judging there on my part I confess).

The ibex kids ran just far enough for safety and then found themselves cornered in a spot where the next ledge down was 30 feet below and the fox was working his way up to them. And they began to slip, lose their footing. We were all holding our breath (except for my son who had his fingers in his ears, his eyes closed and was chanting: “Tell me when it’s over. Tell me when it’s over.”).

And then you know what those ibex kids did? Are you ready for it? Just as they were starting to slip and it looked as though death was certain in one way or another… they leapt. They jumped right into that 30 foot space and flew down to the ground. They were so young that they likely hadn’t used their ibex jumping skills yet, but on this day, they got the lesson swiftly. They felt themselves falling. They felt themselves in peril. They were terrified (the noises made this clear), so they turned to instinct and they jumped.

And they made it!!! We all cheered as they jumped again and again and evaded the fox and caught up with the herd. Go baby ibex!!!

It got me to thinking about the amount of time I’ve spent on those rocks. When I’ve backed myself into a corner through inexperience or uncertainty and I look around only to find that it seems all of my possible roads are full of peril. I look around and see only impossibility. I look around and become paralyzed, bleating and wishing for a wiser human to save me. Paralyzed by my fear. Paralyzed by my perception of inexperience. Paralyzed by all of the what ifs. So much time and suffering on those rocks.

And then I think about the times I leapt.

Twelve years ago Scot and I were on year 6 of our “infertility journey.” I almost threw up in my mouth saying that. We seem to think if we attach “journey” to words describing a shitty time in our lives it will be less awful. That may work for some people – not so much for me. At any rate, we had pretty much given up because our previous attempts had been so heartbreaking and, in one instance, nearly lethal (that’s a story for another day).

We were considering adoption (everyone referred to this as “just,” as in why don’t you “just” adopt – as though that is a small thing, again a story for another day) and we were also wondering just being the aunt and uncle who travel a lot and give great gifts. And it made for a great story. Even now, that’s a life story I can get down with. But I didn’t really buy it. I wanted to be a Mom, and I wanted to have kids with Scot. The struggle that we went through to make that happen was dreadful. And one New Year’s Eve, when I’d had too much to drink and was sitting with a trusted friend, I told her I was standing on the rocks. I confessed that my great travel and gift-giving plan wasn’t working for my heart. I admitted what I really wanted and cried because it seemed impossible.

And she said the thing that my own instinct was no longer able to say: “What if you just try one more time?” We talked about a doctor she had heard of, a miracle worker. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly how things went after that, because it’s all a bit of a blur and it is a blur because I leapt. I stopped letting my fear STOP ME and put myself in the hands of the miracle worker. I put all of my learning into action and made the rest of my life work along with this final attempt. I minimized my stress. I even changed jobs in order to do that. I did the whole thing.

In this case, my leap got me the result I wanted, twice over. I have 11 year old twins who are most definitely my and my husband’s kids. But the point here isn’t really that my dream came true. Because this dream, of being parents, has perils of its own as so many of you know.

child-costume-fairy-127968The point about the leap is that it ended the self-imposed torture of standing on the rocks and trembling in indecision. Even if our final attempt had failed, I think I would have felt better having finally gone to the miracle worker people were talking about. I would have felt like I had given it my all and that I needed to check in to see if there was a new dream I could sink my teeth into. It was the sitting on that rock that was so, so terrible. And my guts knew I wasn’t ready to give up, which would have been a perfectly acceptable choice really – a leap of it’s own in releasing that desire in favor of building something new.

So I guess I’m just wondering how sure your footing is these days. Do you feel yourself slipping? Do you feel like you’re on the rock? What would a leap look like for you? I’d love to help you fly.


When Change Feels Scary

Every time I write here I am suggesting that you consider changing: growing, learning, experimenting, risking. And I mean it. I want all of those things for you – even if your life is already amazing because I believe growing, learning, experimenting and risking will help you continue to build YOUR life, on purpose. With all of that said, however, I’m not completely unaware of the risks involved with ALL of that.

pexels-photo-789555When we change, grow, learn, experiment and risk things can get pretty uncomfortable. They can get uncomfortable for us personally and they can also get pretty uncomfortable for people around us. In fact, the people we spend the most time are the ones MOST likely to get uncomfortable when we change. They have expectations. We have patterns of interaction. There is history. All of that is presumed background at this point and when we change, we disrupt the background, we shake the ground a little, sometimes we even threaten the system.

It is tempting, especially at the system level to just say: “So WHAT?” And I have a good bit of that in my head. If my getting stronger makes it harder to fit me into some system of oppression that someone else is enjoying, so what? Really! I also know, however, that on the more personal level, anticipating how people will react to our change, growth, experimenting and risking can REALLY throw a wrench in our personal development, and oftentimes that wrench is getting thrown because we’re making up a story about what the consequences will be.

Let me make this all a little more concrete. A few years ago I was trying to figure out what my next career move was going to be. I had stayed home with my twins for several years and the more I thought about it, the less reasonable returning to my old job seemed. It kind of made me want to throw up thinking about it, which I usually take as a sign of a bad idea. But THAT had been the plan. I would return to the classroom, with a predictable (if woefully inadequate) salary and summers off so I could take care of the kids. Easy peasy. Except that it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy peasy and it wasn’t right at all. So I knew I had to change. I told my therapist that I couldn’t make a big change like that right now. I couldn’t reconsider my career options. And I meant it – like I really could not, off the table, forget it.

She wisely asked why and I explained that my husband was in the middle of training to make a career shift and therefore I couldn’t do the same right now. “It would be too much change at once” I told her, like this is a commonly known limit – the too much change cap. She gently guided me through that thought and out the other side. I enrolled in life coach training within a month.

heartsickness-lover-s-grief-lovesickness-coupe-50592What I think is interesting is that I had been so busy anticipating that my changing would be a problem, that I didn’t even get specific. It wasn’t until later that I felt out my fears about telling everyone about my decision. It wasn’t until later that I worried about the financial implications of being a brand new entrepreneur. It wasn’t until later that I realized there would have to be some serious domestic rebalancing. And I got afraid of EACH of those pieces. And you know what? NONE of those pieces have actually caused me a real problem. Everything is fine. Nobody judged me (and if they did they kept it to themselves, which I welcome in this day and age). Our household didn’t implode. We’re not starving and the kids are doing fine. None of my stories that kept me standing still in a place that made me want to throw up were true. None of them.

A super smart friend told me that family can be the most difficult place to practice your spiritual awakening. And I think this is true for any change (whether you consider it spiritual or not). We want to belong. We want to be loved. We want to fulfill the roles we’ve been playing because rocking the boat is scary and exhausting. In my experience, most of that trouble – not all, but most – comes from what I’m imagining will happen. The rest of the trouble, well that’s just none of my business.

If you’re looking to rewrite some of your story, change who you are SUPPOSED to be, or combat some of those shoulds, I’ve got a mini book that just might help. How to Rewrite Your Story includes some of my most powerful material on how to change the story that’s in your head so you can change the results you get in the world. Get your free copy and let me know how it’s going.




The Common Denominator

Years ago, prior to re-finding me at our 10 year high school reunion, my dear husband was having a rough patch with women. He’d had a few relationships end (as most people do in their 20s) and was feeling sort of mystified as to why this kept happening. He was having a guys’ night with his older brother, and I imagine complaining about women at large – trying to sort through the mysteries of the Mars/Venus interaction by blaming it on the completely confusing THEM. I imagine he expected an empathetic nod and a refill on his beer. Instead he got some straight up wisdom that we still refer to on a pretty regular basis. And that wisdom that he got was a version of a fundamental principle of my life coaching practice.

It's not them, it's you.What his brother told him in that moment of male bonding was something like: “You know, dude, these women were all different and maybe they are ALL messed up in some way, but the common denominator in all of these situations is YOU.” Boom. There’s nothing quite like someone you respect calling you up to a higher level of emotional maturity. And there’s nothing quite like that moment when you’re faced with your own responsibility in a situation.

The thing is being the common denominator doesn’t just apply to times of romantic turbulence and serial monogamy. Being the common denominator may be the single most important realization you can ever have and it is one that will save you SO much time and trouble. Let me tell you how.

If you are dissatisfied when you look at your life, you can likely give me a bunch of reasons why that is so. I can do it too – believe me. I spent the better part of my weekend being dissatisfied and giving myself all kinds of reasons why that was true. We’re on week 3 of my husband’s January term and the novelty has long worn off. I got sick. My kids got sick AND we had an injury to boot that was close to sending us to the ER during the height of flu season. Every plan I’ve made for the last 5 days got screwed up by some level of logistical nonsense. And these things all got added to my list of why I was grumpy and dissatisfied, why I was grouchy to the kids and impatient with my husband when he checked in. But the truth is that my dissatisfaction was coming from my very own brain and I was NOT managing that nonsense. My thoughts were the common denominator. My thought, that was something like: “I never get to do what I want,” (which sounds very 4 years old when you say it out loud) was what was getting to me and I could shift things around, ask for help, but as long as I hung on to that thought, I would still be miserable.

change your thoughts, not your jobAnd that’s the thing that is always true for everybody. Every person I know, when they’re feeling miserable, can provide LOTS of reasons for why they are miserable. And we do all kinds of stuff to get less miserable. We change jobs. We get married. We have children. We get divorced. We move to new places. And there’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things. The problem is doing those things thinking that those changes are what’s going to make the difference in how we feel. I know people who’ve gone through more jobs in 5 years than I’ve had in my lifetime. And each time, they’re sure that THIS position is going to be the one with the good boss. Or that being able to telecommute is going to fix it. Or that living in that new neighborhood is going to make them happy. And don’t get me wrong, changes CAN make us feel better, but so can staying exactly where we are and looking at the common denominator: what we are thinking about our situation.

Whenever a client talks to me about wanting to leave a job, I say the same thing: “what if you could stay there and feel better and THEN decide what you should do next?” Because here’s the thing about decisions we make when we’re thinking crappy thoughts: generally they’re pretty crappy. Crappy thoughts, crappy feelings, crappy choices. It’s one of those garbage in garbage out moments. So we go through all of the trouble of making some huge change and then we discover that really we’re exactly where we were before. “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Instead of pulling the trigger on all of that logistical effort, what would happen if you could change your mind? What would happen if you could get to where you’re thinking in ways that are productive, healthy, and that move you forward so you can see everything much more clearly and are far more capable of imagining a better situation for yourself?

If you’re sitting there feeling miserable and you’re tempted to change the job or change the spouse or change the house, I want to ask you SLOW DOWN and check in on that common denominator. What’s going on in that head of yours that’s got you feeling so bad? And then I want you to remember that those thoughts you’re having, you’re choosing them and you get to unchoose them any time you want. I can help.