I’m currently reading the fantastic book Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet about strategies for turning “leader-follower management” into “leader-leader” systems. The basic premise of Marquet’s philosophy involves empowering people at every organizational level to make decisions for the greater good using their full intellectual capacity. What’s most fascinating about this book is the fact that Marquet tested out his theories on organization theory during his time as captain of a US Navy atomic submarine, arguably one of the most entrenched top-down management breeding grounds on the planet.
In the section I was reading today, Marquet was exploring the importance ongoing prevention strategies in every organization. He provided the analogy of a submarine using “a little rudder far from the rocks” to prevent needing “a lot of rudder next to the rocks.” This got me thinking about how, and when, I incorporate prevention into my own life. Building resilience into core areas of our life allows us to avert a lot of potentially uncomfortable situations, as well as provides us a buffer to withstand physical, psychological, and spiritual crises.
In terms of my physical health, I completely subscribe to the old adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, and people who know me, think I have a “healthy lifestyle”. On the outside you see someone who exercises at least 2 hours every day, someone who doesn’t smoke, drink, or use drugs. Someone who has been in a stable relationship for most of his life. But. . . What you don’t see is what lies behind all those decisions. When I think of prevention and how it relates to my health, I see most of my effort going towards prevention strategies for my mental health, rather than for my physical health.
I’ve always been open about my personal struggles with depression, addiction, and most recently, sexual abuse because I believe that being transparent about these struggles is a way to not only keep me vigilant but also enlist all of you as my support team when things get tough. Anyone who has every battled a drug or alcohol addiction knows the importance of continual vigilance as the first-line prevention against a potential relapse. I also avoid places and people who might trigger my addiction, and that often means ducking out of parties and social gatherings early. Luckily, I have a partner who has always been eager to make accommodations for this. I think of my addiction as a 100-pound gorilla doing push-ups while waiting in the wings for the precise moment I let my guard down. I've spent countless hours in 12-step meetings, and time and again I hear people who relapse say that the moment they started feeling sorry for themselves was the time they were ripe for relapse. That’s why, if you listen closely, you’ll hear people say, “I'm a grateful alcoholic.”
That brings me to the next manifestation of prevention in my life, my love affair with running. It’s no secret that I run; scratch that…. I RUN A LOT. My typical training week ranges from 150 km to 200 km. So, why do I run so much you might ask? I’m blessed with a physique that is naturally attuned to sports, but I’m cursed with a mind that tends to wander towards depression. For me, running has become my preventative therapy to ward off depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. I’ve been through the mental health system, and I know that pills for depression is a road I don’t like traveling down. Running gives me on opportunity to work through my thoughts and space to breathe through my fears.
The area of my life where I see the fruits of prevention every day is in my relationship with my wife, Mary-Anne. We’ve been married for 26 years, and considering that we got married when we were 21, that is quite an accomplishment, and one that I’m immensely proud of. In our marriage, prevention resonates in many forms, but all of them nurture our core belief in supporting the other partner to grow into the person he/she needs to be. I really believe that the biggest threat to any relationship is intransigence, and an unwillingness to allow your partner room to change. For us, we’ve both become completely different people from the two doe-eyed young adults who said “I do” so many years ago. In fact, we've both changed many times over, and this change has not always been easy, but our level of trust and commitment has never wavered.
I invite you to think about how prevention manifests itself in your life, and whether or not this practice could be brought to other facets of your life. I’d like to leave you with the beautiful words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a career change, and whether or not, it is even necessary. In my attempt to live a more wholehearted and mindful life, I’ve been trying look at things a little more objectively in my life, and part of that process involves constantly reminding myself that extrinsic objects don’t lead to intrinsic happiness. I heard someone today on my favorite podcast, The Goodlife Project, say that in order to stay connected to his passion in his career, he keeps a sign posted above his desk that says: “If you’re not doing it with joy in your heart today, why not, not do it today.” There was something about this quote that really resonated with me because it speaks to my reflection on my career and suggests that maybe I’m not doing it with “joy in my heart”. The enlightening part of that logic is that I have the “choice” to “bring joy to my work” rather than expecting to get “joy out of my work”.
I believe that happiness is not a place one arrives at, but instead, it’s an internal peace found on a journey. It’s a lens that allows me to operate through an existence of gratitude and acceptance. This got me thinking about what happiness looks like for me. Without a doubt, the more I read about the subject, and the more I listen to people who appear to have an aura of happiness about them, the more I realize that the key to nurturing a happy life is enveloping myself in immense gratitude. I’m not talking about only being grateful for the good things in my life, but for everything in my life because even the most traumatic events are rare opportunities for growth.
A second key component of happiness for me involves being of service to others… finding ways to leave the place, situation, or person “better than the way I found it.” This is intricately tied to another aspect, honesty in my relationships. Lately, Mary-Anne and I have had some of the most beautiful discussions because we’ve been actively lifting that protective veil that so often gets in the way of vulnerable and authentic dialogue. The part that I struggle with the most in terms of what causes “white noise” in my brain and thus impedes “happiness”, is distancing myself from the belief that material possessions will somehow make me “feel better”. I know this is such a dangerous prospect because material possessions can always be taken from me, so attaching self-worth and happiness to them is a rogue’s game.
What I’m finding most helpful today can be nicely summed up in the words of inspirational author Rita Schiano: “Let your memories of the past serve you, not use or abuse you.” To me, this is the essence of why I feel so much more comfortable in my skin today, and as a result, am able to nurture more intrinsic happiness. For most of life, I allowed past trauma to define who I am and how I felt about myself. I looked at the trauma like a scar… something flawed, something that should be hidden. Now, I view this “scar” as tougher skin that allows me to be stronger in the face of anything that may come my way. Knowing that you can not only “survive”, but “thrive”, fills you with a deep sense of happiness that can never be taken away.
I’m getting a little sick and tired of people bashing social media as a hotbed of vacant chatter and a vehicle of shameless self-promotion. What we’re all really looking for, whether you participate in social media or not, is a sense of belonging. Pop psychologists refer to this phenomenon as finding your tribe, and I can think of no better way to find, meet with, and bond with other like-minded individuals than through social media. Noted education specialist, Ted Robinson refers to a tribe as “a group of people who share the same interests and passions. The tribe may be large or small. It can exist virtually, through social media, or in person. Tribes may be highly diverse. They may cross generations and cultures. They may cross time and include people who are no longer living but whose lives and legacy continue to inspire those who are.”
Our ability to find our tribes is critical in that it offers us a sense of validation and can relieve us from the isolation and alienation of modern life. Each of us already belongs to groups ranging from family, culture, and religion, but I wouldn’t label any of these as being my tribe. I define my tribe as a more fluid entity that is less defined by its structure and more aligned with a feeling of shared passion. I would also point out that a tribe does not resemble the cliques that are so prevalent in schools. Being a member of a clique is all about trying to fit in and gaining the admiration of the other clique members. In contrast, your tribe love and support you for who you are, and their is an absence of a power dynamic in the group.
So, how does one go about finding or building a tribe? Tribes are informal and consist of a community of allies who support your passion, fear, or belief about something dear to you. Size also plays a critical role in determining whether or not your tribe will be viable and effective. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom we can develop meaningful and stable social relationships. The outer limit of this size is known as “Dunbar’s number”, and is believed to be 150. Dunbar came to this number by looking at primitive societies in which humans can only maintain stable relationships in groups no larger than 150. When groups grow beyond this limit, there appears to be a need for restrictive rules and laws to maintain order. Another essential component of your tribe should involve the importance of feedback as a means of growth rather than criticism. I like what American writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin says about tribes. “Instead of focusing on arguing with people who say no, it might easier to get near the people who like to say yes.”
That brings me to the tribes in my life and how we nourish and support one another, be it through face-to-face contact, Facebook or Twitter. As a long-distance runner, I spend countless hours alone racking up mile after mile on trails and roads every day. I like to do my training runs at 4:30am, so I rarely have the opportunity to run with friends. My online running tribe fills this void by allowing me to chat with, or simply joke with, other Type-A ultra runners who really “get me”. There is no judgement in this tribe, only mutual support and admiration. I would say some of the people I feel closest to are members of this online tribe. As an added bonus, every once in awhile we get to meet up at races around the globe and hug each other in person!
Five months ago, I disclosed that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Part of my healing journey has involved me sharing this with my friends on social media, and more recently, on my blog. The outpouring of support was humbling indeed, and encouragement and admiration I was shown were key to me moving forward in my life. One thing I never expected was that I would become a member of a new tribe. I’m now intricately connected to so many other survivors of childhood trauma who have reached out to me from around the world. Trusting in your tribe, and participating in the members’ highs and lows can be a remarkable opportunity to “get out of your own way” and into a rich and rewarding tribal family.
Wherever you are, and whatever you do, I encourage you to seek out your tribe, and if you’re anything like me, those people who may have a huge impact on your life just might be waiting for you on Facebook or Twitter.
American sociologist Deborah Tannen said: “Communication is a continual balancing act, juggling the conflicting needs for intimacy and independence. To survive in the world, we have to act in concert with others, but to survive as ourselves, rather than simply as cogs in a wheel, we have to act alone.” I’ve been thinking a lot during the past few days about communication and its impact on intimacy in a relationship. As many of you aware, five months ago I entered a treatment program for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and at the time, I had no idea how much my life would be transformed by finally coming to terms with this childhood trauma. One of the gifts I have received was to be asked to co-facilitate with my wife, Mary-Anne, a Partners’ Group at the treatment centre.
One of the issues that has come up has to do with communication within a partnership and its effect on intimacy. When there is a dysfunction in communication between a couple, it is manifest in hurt, silence, misunderstandings, and false expectations. Many of us in our generation have grown up in a world where the commercialization of sex is rampant. I believe that this has led to a separation of “physical closeness” from “emotional connection”. In essence, physical contact is now equated with sex and superficiality, and it has been completely disassociated from authentic intimacy. It’s as if we’ve been programed to believe that intimacy can not occur without sex. I think most of us agree that a genuine bond can’t be built in the absence of equality, so if sex has become a pawn in a power match between partners, intimacy is next to impossible.
Since the genesis of modern psychology, we’ve known the importance of being held and touched, and how infants who are denied this intimacy fail to thrive. As adults, we need this element of touch to feel security, connection, love, and validation. But what happens when one partner feels uncomfortable with being touched, either because he/she does not want it to escalate to sex, or because he/she may be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse or of some other trauma?
It all boils down to an issue of communication between partners, and each one feeling safe enough to express what he/she needs from the other partner. What I, and many people I know, struggle with is how to express that most intimate of needs. We find ourselves in relationships without the tools, the vocabulary, to have these conversations. Sadly, it’s a dance that each couple must learn, and it's an organic process indeed.
American psychologist Lori H. Gordon, who has worked with hundreds of couples, believes that intimacy is established in the absence of anger because it’s in this space, that empathy can be nourished. Most psychology theory starts with the premise that the primary element to psychological well-being is to fully understand “self”. Dr. Gordon believes the complete opposite is required to establish, or reestablish, intimacy in a relationship. Gordon goes on to say: “The thinking is that you need to understand yourself before you can confide in a partner. But I have found just the opposite to be true.” When we become attuned to what our partner is “really” saying, we respond from a place of compassion and we start to evaluate our own reactions, and in so doing, we get to the heart of what drives our thoughts and behaviors. It is through empathy, that we learn to see ourselves in others, and this opens the channel to authentic intimacy in a relationship.
What I find most helpful about Lori H. Gordon’s work is what she has to say about how our deep-rooted expectations inevitably sabotage our relationships. She proposes a few simple rules to counteract this problem:
1. If you expect a partner to understand what you need, then you have to tell him or her. That of course means you have to figure out for yourself what you really need.
2. You cannot expect your partner to be sensitive and understand exactly how you feel about something unless you're able to communicate to him or her how you feel in the first place.
3. If you don't understand or like what your partner is doing, ask about it and why he or she is doing it. And vice versa. Explore. Talk. Don't assume.
So, how am I learning to build authentic intimacy in my relationship with my wife? It all begins with empathy and learning to really listen to what my partner is saying. Next, I’ve needed to learn to be “alone”, and by this, I don’t mean “isolated”, but rather, comfortable “in me” and who I am. I’m also learning to build bridges of connection and letting go of unarticulated expectations. I also find it extremely helpful to remind myself why I fell in love with my partner in the first place. It’s in this space, that I learn to value the relationship, and we all know that we tend to look after the things we “value” most.
Let me end with a lovely quote from the American philosopher Sam Keen. “We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.”
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” On the surface, this appears to be somewhat benign, and throughout my life, I’ve relied on it as my default reaction to the majority of situations I've encountered. The problem with this mentality is that just because something “ain’t broke”, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. None of us is living a life in stasis, so naively convincing ourselves that we’re coasting along is foolish indeed. Just as muscles atrophy due to lack of exercise, so to do relationships, work commitments, and self-improvement wane when we don’t actively involve ourselves in making them better. I’m guilty of coasting in many aspects of life be it family, work, or self-care.
American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once said: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
I invite you to really examine that quote, and mine it for all the wisdom it contains. What strikes me most is her belief that we have a responsibility to all humanity to harness the energy of our life force and allow it to flow through us into action. This process is fluid and liberating because it is not our “business to determine how good it is nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions.”
Where I’m stuck right now in my journey is trying to determine what that “life force” in me looks like, and what it’s all about. One of the biggest obstacles to growth in my life is my acceptance of herd mentality. I’m an introvert trapped in a megalomaniac's body. I’m most comfortable when I’m alone or in small groups, but for some strange reason I blindly headed into the teaching profession 22 years ago. At a party, I’ll be the loudmouth cracking risqué jokes, but deep inside I’m terrified to be around groups. I really have no idea how I ended up where I am today… I think I went to university not because I wanted to, but because everyone else was. I started teaching because the opportunity lay before, not as direct result of a vocation or passion. Over the years, I’ve grown into my job, and my job has grown into me, but I’m not convinced this is “where” I’m meant to be. If I put my head down and follow the rest of the herd, I could easily ride out this career to retirement, but I think if I do that, I won’t be keeping the “channel open” that Martha Graham referred to.
What I’m struggling with has a lot to do with self-judgement and nothing to do with whether or not I’m a good teacher. In fact, student feedback has always been positive, and I know that I play pivotal role in the lives of many students. I guess what I’m most afraid of is once again defaulting to “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Five months ago when I disclosed some childhood trauma I had experienced, I was given the gift of finally finding “my voice” after living most of life governed by fear. Although I would never wish to go back to the way things were before, finally finding my voice and taking control of my life has been both liberating and burdensome. I’m questioning everything and everyone in my life and deciding whether, or not they are nourishing and healthful to my growth. When it comes to people in my life, it seems natural to follow my heart and know what to do. When it comes to my career, well… that’s an entirely different story.
The American political theorist Benjamin Barber said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.” The more I think about this quote, the more I appreciate its intense optimism--the belief that we may have more control over our destiny than we are socialized to believe. I don’t think we can discount the role of genetics and to a lesser extent, the influence of family wealth and luck, but beyond those intransigents, hard work and dogged determinism can unlock the door to great personal and societal success.
I was reading Jonathan Field’s book “Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance” where I came across the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck on personality and its connection to success. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, professor Dweck identifies what she labels fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. Someone who identifies with a “fixed mindset” supports the idea that success is the outgrowth of talent more so than of hard work. Based on this, talent is viewed to have a finite ceiling, and once that has been reached, there is a corresponding cap on success. Criticism and blow-back are viewed as fatalistic and as assaults on self.
The other end of the spectrum are those who espouse to a “growth mindset”. This group believes that success is forged through hard work, and that criticism has a value because it offers the opportunity for improvement through hard work. I’m sure at this point, you’re trying to align yourself with either the “fixed mindset” or the “growth mindset”, and if you’re anything like me, you’re trying to desperately convince yourself you’re firmly entrenched in the “growth mindset”. Well… not too fast.
As Dweck points out: “Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning?”
If you’re a parent, you may want to avert your eyes because you’re not going to like the answer to this question. That's right folks… As if we didn’t already have enough parental guilt, it turns out we may have been doing our child a disservice every time we praised our little preschooler for a stick-figure drawing by saying: “Oh it’s beautiful. You’re quite the artist.” And every time you congratulated your t-baller for safely making it to first base by screaming “That’s my boy. He’s got a real gift when it comes to sports.” Those seemingly innocuous comments from a proud parent may have rewired our child’s brain from a “growth mindset” to a “fixed mindset”. According to professor Dweck, when we offer praise, we ought to focus more on the process and effort, rather than on the outcome or talent involved. It’s through this language that we foster a mindset that growth and success are attainable through hard work, and therefore, are always within our reach.
So, what’s my take-away from Dweck’s groundbreaking research? Well, to be honest, if I simply throw up my hands and say “It’s too late. The damage is already done”, I’m placing myself in the “fixed mindset” camp, and that’s too depressing! However, if I acknowledge that my words have transformative power not only in my son’s life but also in my own life, then I begin to align myself with the “growth mindset” camp. I can recall so many occasions in my life where I gave up at the first obstacle and convinced myself I didn’t have the skill, talent, or intelligence to attain a particular goal. It’s frightening, but I would have to say that my default mode is “fixed mindset”. I’m not going to beat myself up over this; however, now that I’m aware of this underlying influence, I can start to consciously counteract it with positive self-talk, visualization, and by validating all the times I’ve overcome personal adversity in my life. One of the huge lessons I learned going through a treatment program for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, is that I am not a “victim”… I am a “survivor”! And this is one survivor who is firmly on his way to embracing a “growth mindset”.
There have been many discussions around our dinner table lately about the ineffectiveness of top-down leadership, and how this model may have run its course. It may be a generational issue, but I think most educated tech-savvy workers today are no longer content to work in a "Do it because I said so!" environment, where employees feel disenfranchised and ultimately disengaged.
This point was touched upon in a Ted Talk I listened to on the way home today by Sir Ken Robinson. In the talk, Sir Ken discussed how the current education system works against engaging students to learn, and how the teaching profession is more concerned with disseminating information rather than teaching students how to learn. According to Robinson, there are three principles we need to recognize for the human mind to flourish: "(1) Human beings are different and diverse. (2) If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn without further assistance. (3) Human life is inherently creative.” Robinson believes that the education system the way it is designed today, kills creativity in students by encouraging homogeneity and standardization. I believe the same can be said for most work environments in general.
Every business, organization, school system, and even family is terrified to make a mistake, and as a result, much of our time is devoted to avoiding making mistakes rather than to nurturing growth, creativity, and connectedness. I believe that the root cause of this mentality is tied up in the ineffectiveness of top-down leadership. Ken Robinson sums this up brilliantly when he says: “The real role of leadership is not command and control, but climate control.”
I see this every day in my job. I work for one of the largest school boards in Canada, and during my 22 years of teaching, I’ve witnessed a loss of big picture thinking from supervisors on up to the Chair of the Board. Everyone along the chain of command is terrified about making mistakes over issues related to inclusion, standardized curriculum, and completion of governmental statistics. As result, we have lost sight of our mandate: fostering a love of learning in our students. The idea prevalent in the United States that “no child should be left behind” is really ironic because “top-down” administration in the school system leaves no room for diversity, varied learning styles, and creativity. I can think of no better way to leave most of our students behind!
We are no longer living in the era of the Industrial Revolution where individuals were merely cogs in wheel. Maybe I’m just naive, but I feel like everything I’m thinking about lately comes back to Brene Brown’s philosophy of “strength through vulnerability”. For our modern day organizations to thrive, and for average employees to feel engaged again, the role of top-down leadership should be tossed aside, or at least amended. What’s wrong with leaders, supervisors, and administrators admitting that they don’t have all the answers? Do we really have anything to fear by empowering people to problem solve and strategize at a grass-roots level? When it comes to learning how your organization can address the needs of those it serves, is there anyW better place to turn than to the people in the organization who are working the front lines? Creative solutions are incubated in an atmosphere of collaboration not in a culture of subordination.
By empowering people at all levels of an organization, the “culture” of that organization makes a radical shift because everyone becomes invested in making things better. It can not be denied that mistakes will be made by divesting control of power and decision making, but allowing people the freedom to stumble along the way could create a whole new generation of employees who feel motivated to go to work every morning, could reduce the escalating level of work-related stress due to lack of engagement, and ultimately, could unleash a wave of creativity that our world is sorely lacking.
I’ve been working my way through Jonathan Fields’ fantastic book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance. It's full of accounts of individuals who held fast to their vision and learned to live through doubt on the path to the genesis of remarkable ideas and creations. What struck me today was an interesting analogy that Jonathan uses to explain that point of the creative process where you are faced with the choice of taking pivotal action amidst huge risk and uncertainty, or deciding to play it safe, which also entails risk in the form of mediocrity.
Fields explains that in rock climbing, each climb is rated from 4.0 or lower (known as the nontechnical ascents) to 5.0 or higher (those requiring more equipment, skill, and agility). Fields goes on to say: “The interesting thing about these ratings is that they aren’t based so much on the difficulty of the entire climb as on a set of moves known as the crux. Crux moves are the most challenging moments of the entire route; they often require you to push physically, emotionally, and intellectually, to take big and often blind risks in a way no other part of the climb does. There may be multiple crux moves along a single route.”
In Jonathan’s book, he uses this “crux analogy” to describe turning points in the creative process specifically, but I started thinking about how crux moments have appeared at different points in my life in general. There is no shortage of expressions that articulate the same philosophy, as I’m sure you’re all familiar with “No pain, no gain”, “Something worth doing, is worth doing well”, and “If you want to make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs.”
Whenever crux moments appear in our life, they are steeped in fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt. Being exposed to uncertainty, we admit to ourselves that we may not have all the answers. This leaves us open to new possibility and new directions we might otherwise have ignored. It’s as if we need to let go of the reins so that we can quiet our mind long enough to gain perspective. I always know I’m at a crux moment when the fluttering of butterflies in my stomach turns into a full-blown stampede. My fingertips tingle, and I’m almost incapacitated by fear. If I’m completely honest with you, I have to admit that I’ve lived most of life leaning away from crux moments, and being left with a lot of “what ifs” and “what could have beens”. Lately, I’ve been conscious of staying positive and moving forward, so I don’t want to dwell on the missed opportunities in my life, but rather on the crux moments that I took advantage of that led to pivotal personal transformation.
What first comes to mind is asking my wife to marry me, and how vulnerable I felt laying it all out there on the line. Looking back on that experience, I realize how young we were, and how crazy that idea was, but something inside me made me quiet those butterflies in my stomach and jump into the unknown. Another crux moment for me came when I was in the trenches of a heated argument with our then teenage son. I remember trying to force my will on him, and how my son stared me directly in the eyes and said “no” he wasn’t going to do it. Everything inside me wanted to scream, throw things, and lock him in his bedroom, but that’s not what happened. I realize now that this was a crux moment in our father-son relationship. We had always raised our son to be fiercely independent and self-expressive, and now the chickens were coming home to roost. Five months ago I disclosed to my wife, family, and close friends that I had been sexually abused as a child. That disclosure in itself was not a crux moment. That moment came when I made the decision to enter a treatment program for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Sitting in the parking lot outside the treatment centre before climbing the three steps up to the front door and then walking down the hall to the councilor’s office felt as though I were standing on the precipice of a huge abyss. Recently, I’ve come face-to-face with another crux moment, deciding whether, or not to pursue my passion for writing. The old me would have given into the butterflies and filled myself with self-doubt in the form of a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t waste energy pursuing my dream. The new me has decided to fearlessly take one hand off the rock face and blindly trust that the next place I land will be a place of sheer beauty and transformation. Watch me climb…
I’m currently reading Karen Salmansohn’s The Bounce Back Book every morning to jump start my daily meditation. For those of you who may not be familiar with Karen, she was a Senior VP Creative Director at a New York ad agency when she decided to leave her six-figure salary to pursue a writing career. A few years ago, Karen was the victim of a sexual assault that caused her to spiral into a deep and isolating depression. As a means to get out of that dark place, Karen started working on her Bounce Back Book, a guide to help others “bounce back” from “adversity, setbacks, and losses.”
In today’s reading, Karen advises we find our "bounceable people". These are the people we turn to when we are most in need, or when we are in deep crisis mode. Karen also cites the work of Dr. Dina Carbonell, a research associate at Simmons College in Boston. Dr. Carbonell was part of a long-term study that tracked 400 people (aged 5 to 30) over a period of 25 years. One of the unusual things that was uncovered during this study was what seemingly appears to be a contradiction: “resilient people are often strongly self-sufficient and don’t hesitate to reach out for help.” In fact, these “resilient” people appear to be able to identify, and surround themselves with, trustworthy people who can help them to “bounce back” from adversity.
This got me thinking about what I look for in a bounceable supporter and who the bounceable people are in my life. Anyone familiar with my back story knows that I am no stranger to adversity, and that like most people I know, I’ve battled my fair share of demons. But it’s only been recently, while working with Kim, my fantastic therapist, that I’ve begun to acknowledge that I exhibit many traits associated with “resilient” people. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with serious mental health issues, addiction, and most recently, issues related to childhood sexual abuse. I don’t claim to have beaten any of these issues, but I have managed to scratch and claw my way through all of them.
I credit my resiliency to a few core beliefs and practices. First and foremost, I have always believed in labeling the problem for what it is, and speaking openly about it with other people. This is by no means an easy thing to do, but it’s been my experience that when I’m open about my struggles with addiction, depression, and sexual abuse, two things usually happen: I build a support group of people who will look out for me and feel free to question any of my suspect behavior. Also, it appears to open the door for others to speak freely about their own adversity, knowing that they’ve found a safe harbor in me. Second, after the initial denial stage, I’m usual quick to reach out for professional help, and for me, that has come in the form of my family doctor, psychiatrists, and therapists. In today’s Google society, it’s very tempting to self-diagnose and search for some quick band-aid solution on the Internet. It’s not easy reaching out for professional help, but I have found it easier than the alternative. Finally, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had a “bounceable person” in my life for the past 27 years: my wife.
Today I’ve been thinking a lot about why my wife is the primary bounceable person in my life, and I believe it has nothing to do with the amount of time we have spent together. Mary-Anne is such an awesome bounceable person because she is, for lack of a better expression, a support chameleon. At any point of my adult life when I’ve been facing adversity, I’ve always had someone in my corner who gave me exactly what I needed, and often it was not what I wanted, which allowed me to lean into the discomfort. Throughout our relationship, my wife has been my bounceable person by assuming the role of “the taskmaster”, when I needed to “do” the “do things”. She’s also been my greatest “cheerleader” at that critical point in my struggles when I really needed to be reminded of the “good in me”. At times, my wife has bravely played the part of “the questioner” when my actions, beliefs, or behaviors needed to be challenged and looked at objectively. Lately, Mary-Anne as taken on the role of “the listener”, simply being there “with me” as I come to terms with all of the collateral issues as a result of the sexual abuse I experienced in my childhood.
As Goethe so eloquently put it: “Human life runs a course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving.” I invite you to take a moment and consider who the “bounceable people” are in your life, and whether or not, you are that “bounceable person” for someone else.
I’ve been reading a lot recently about shame, resiliency, addiction, and empathy. To tell you the truth, it’s been very challenging trying to weave all these complex themes into my quest for wholehearted living, but I decided to turn myself over to the process and allow myself the space to adopt, and in some respects adapt to, a new way of looking at the world and a new way of interacting with the world. This being attuned to the possibility to reframe my life has left me so much more receptive to the wisdom that lies before me.
I’d been meaning to write a blog post on “self compassion”, so I planned on sitting down at the computer when I got in from work today and finally working through some ideas, and that’s when the universe gave me exactly what I was waiting for. I was listening to a podcast on the subway on my commute home when I heard this great quote from Quincey Jones. He said, “Next time you tell yourself you’re at a critical point in your life, remember to tell yourself that you’re not at a critical point, but rather, you’re critical about the point you’re at.” How’s that for gem of an idea!
When it comes to the field of self compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff is the leading expert, and if you get the opportunity, I highly recommend her Ted Talk, “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion”. According to Dr. Neff, self-compassion is akin to the feeling of compassion we may have for others. There is a definite identification that some level of suffering is at play, and mistakes are treated with understanding and kindness rather than with blame and judgement. Another important element of compassion in general is its universality. We all are interconnected, so our pain and suffering is also interconnected. Just as we must be attuned to others’ suffering, we too must be willing to acknowledge our own need for self-compassion. Neff is quick to point out that approaching suffering in our own lives with that “stiff upper lip” approach to problems is definitely not the way to practice self-compassion. Other destructive coping mechanisms that we rely on to get us through suffering in our lives include: numbing with drugs, alcohol, food, and other addictions, ignoring the problem in general, and looking for the “quick fix” rather than long-term wellness.
Dr. Neff believes that self-compassion incorporates three aspects: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness comes when we accept difficult times in our lives as a normal and healthy part of human existence. Responding to these periods in our lives through anger and self-blame shuts the door on self-compassion aiding us through these painful moments. Recognizing that there is an element of common humanity in our suffering means that suffering, and thus perceived injustice, does not happen to me alone. Neff goes on say, "It also means recognizing that personal thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted by external factors such as parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental conditions, as well as the behavior and expectations of others.” Finally, the component of mindfulness means that we are not consumed by our negative emotions, but instead, we recognize pain, suffering, frustration, and self-doubt as transitory feelings; they do not have the power to take hold of our lives if we are willing to simply be with them rather than be identified by them.
For me, one of the most important distinctions is that self-compassion is not to be confused with self-pity. When we gravitate towards self-pity, we close ourselves off to the interconnectedness of our lives, and we turn the lens inward instead of projecting outward to where a possible solution or wellness can be found. Self-compassion provides us a safe harbor to work through discomfort without self-blame and self-censure.
So, where do I see the role of self-compassion in my life? Five months ago, when I disclosed about the sexual abuse I experienced in my childhood, I immediately curled into a fetal position and entered a vicious cycle of shame, self-pity, and disconnection. Anyone who is familiar with the stages of grief or trauma, knows that my initial reaction was typical of someone who has undergone such an experience. But what I came to realize quite quickly, was that no form of healing or acceptance can come from this vicious cycle. What I needed to nurture was self-compassion. This process has meant me learning to lean into the discomfort of the volcano of emotions spewing out of me, and most importantly, learning to accept that joyfulness (a long term sense of well-being) is what I ought to invite into my life, rather than happiness (a short term sense of well-being that is derived from external sources, and numbing through addictions). What has been the greatest eye-opener for me has been finally realizing, for the first time in my life, that I am worthy of love and that having a sense of “hope” is the best way to inoculate myself against self-pity and frustration. If I look around at the people I admire most in my life, the people who seem to be the most grounded and joyful, it doesn’t take me long to recognize that these people share one thing in common. They give back to their community, and acknowledge the importance of interconnectedness and self-worth.