Our Whole Selves

I have twin eleven year olds. We are entering middle school next year, and yes I say “we” because I see it as a shift in all of our experience, individually and as a family. Admittedly I see this upcoming event as a shift because of my own experience in middle school – well, junior high then.

Belonging versus authenticityThese were the years where I most clearly remember beginning to experiment with how I expressed myself explicitly to get different reactions from other people. It sounds so manipulative when I say it that way, and I guess it is, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. Okay, I’m more than pretty sure, I KNOW I wasn’t the only one because we talked about it, didn’t we? Groups of girls talked about what to do, how to behave, WHO TO BE in order to get the desired outcome, whatever that was on that day. I remember needing to fit in, to do it right, to not stand out in any way that would draw attention. I remember wanting to be just like whoever the “it” girl of the week was.

As my kids approach this time, I find myself thinking about our core selves, what my teacher and mentor Martha Beck calls our essential selves, and the struggle we put that essential self through. It seems to me that little kids totally get the essential self. There is no other self. They just do them until consequences make themselves apparent, but even with the usual learning about good manners and how not to upset their parents, kids keep being themselves, expanding, exploring, trying things on.

At some point, there is a shift, and that expansion reverses. And we begin to contract. Our practicality demands that the exploration and freedom we were allowed as children be curtailed. Our responsibilities make us believe that the vestiges of childhood must cease, must be cut off, no longer suit or show us at our best. We slowly cut away at ourselves. We separate ourselves into tiny pieces, only a few of which get regular air time in the world. The rest are left to suffocate or starve.

And then we wonder why we feel bad.

We wonder why we feel dissatisfied.

We wonder why we don’t enjoy the lives we’re building or why we can’t seem to make any headway.

We wonder when everything got so hard.

We feel bad.

We feel bad because we aren’t being ourselves.

We feel bad because we abandon ourselves.

We feel bad because we’ve forgotten that we are the only ones on the planet who are exactly like us.

We feel bad because we’ve been so busy trying to be the same enough to “succeed” that we forgot to be ourselves.

We feel bad because we’ve lost sight of the fact that when we are not ourselves, nobody fills in that gap.

We feel bad because we are in a constant battle with the parts of ourselves we’ve deemed unacceptable.

We fight them.

We say mean things to them.

We close them in little mental closets and don’t let them out.

We bury them in obligations, booze, and snacks.

We feel bad because we are not whole and we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that we are wrong, tainted, anything but glorious, anything but real and intentional and made for this world.

We feel bad because we’ve forgotten how to play, how to feel, and how to rest deeply.

We feel bad because we believe we don’t deserve to feel as good as it could feel to allow ourselves to be all that we are. We are afraid of what would happen if we let that out. We are afraid of succeeding or afraid of losing love, affection, or status. We feel bad because we are telling ourselves that we are not good.

So what do I tell my twins as I see this time coming? Let me back up a step, what do I tell myself about middle school? First I tell myself that their experience may be different from mine, even if everything I know about adolescents says otherwise, but it’s important to leave room for a better experience. THEN, I remind my kids that they are spectacular. Because my children were IVF babies, I have told them that they are miracles pretty much every day of their lives. Truth is though, that I would feel that way no matter how they were conceived. I remind them that they are unlike anyone else and trying to be like everyone else will just make them extremely unhappy and will deprive everyone of THEM.

Stop hidingAnd then I take a deep breath, and tell myself the same thing. I am a miracle. There is nobody else like me. When I try to make myself like everyone else, we all lose out. It’s okay to continue to grow. Those parts of me that I’ve hidden from the world, they are good parts. Being whole is how I claim my place, my moment, and my real fun in this world. Being whole is grace, compassion and wealth beyond measure. I’m doing more of it than I ever have, this being whole business, but I still need to be reminded, and maybe you do too. Maybe it seems scary, and well, it can be. And maybe people won’t like it, and that can happen. But I want to reassure you, as someone who has touched the other side, being your whole self is an act of courage for which you will be rewarded deeply every single moment that you come even close to pulling it off.

So Much Love,

julia

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.

Living YOUR Life

I was listening to a conversation between Oprah and India Arie the other day while walking my dog (okay, can we just pause in awe of the miracle of technology in that sentence). For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, India Arie is a musician who had a meteoric rise to fame about 15 years ago, took a break from music, and then returned on her own terms.

Being a perfect daughterIn discussing this time with Oprah, Ms. Arie said that she realized that in her early incarnation in the music business, she was not living her own life, but was rather inhabiting the one her mother wanted for her. She was doing all of the things she knew her mother would want her to do so she could have all of the things she knew her mother would want her to have. She was living her mother’s imagined daughter’s life. BAM. It was a revelation that pointed the way to an obvious set of next steps, starting with figuring out what she wanted independent of all of that.

It was a great conversation and as I listened I reflected on all of the different ways that we can live someone else’s version of our own lives. When I went to college, I was at something of a loss for what to study. My best times in high school were spent on the stage: singing and acting. I told friends I wanted to be a history teacher, but I think I really wanted to keep being on stage.

But somehow, I became convinced that this was not a pursuit I was meant to undertake, and when I let that super secret dream go, I was adrift. I enjoyed my history classes, but not enough. I began to take political science classes, a “more practical” version of history was my justification. In truth, I had grown up in the D.C. suburbs, and my understanding of careers included a lot of folks who likely studied political science, either formally or on the floor of the buildings in the capitol. I began to sketch out a version of myself that I think had everything to do with people I’d seen and admired and not much to do with where I felt on fire. I began to tell myself what people wanted for me, what my parents would respect (I didn’t ask them mind you, just decided for them) and charted a course that worked and got me finished in four years.

I was living someone else’s life – one that I made up for them. I was meeting expectations that were purely fictitious. And over time, the gap between my fictitious life and the one in my heart or the one I had yet to discover demonstrated itself in a variety of ways. I tried jobs on. I tried ideas on. I switched around, moved house, changed coasts. I kept shifting back and forth between doing what felt right and doing what “WAS RIGHT.” And if you’d asked me where that pressure was coming from, the pressure to do anything other than live my own unique life, I would have cited external sources every time.

Finding a pathI didn’t have the maturity or wisdom or emotional honesty to realize that I had done it to myself. A pushy parent or overbearing spouse can only go so far in taking us away from our path, as demonstrated by the fact that I had neither. To really diverge from our path, we have to submit to the desires of others (including the desires we imagine they have) and resist our own inclinations. We have to subvert our internal wiring and discipline ourselves thoroughly. We have to stop living our own lives and live someone else’s. Having a deeper, fuller, more satisfying time on this earth requires us to live our own lives.

These ideas we have about why we don’t do that very thing: other people, practicality, reality, logistics, responsibility… they’re all baloney. They’re all there to keep us from having to face what we really want in the world and find the courage to do that. When we give our choices to other people, when we make them responsible, we give our power away wholesale. We surrender everything we need to be our best selves.

“But,” you say: “I DO have responsibilities…” Yes, you do. Where on that list of responsibilities are YOU?

Boom.

I love you.

j