Categories
Stories

Don’t Worry, You’re Normal

I’m normal. 

That was my first thought after I took the Enneagram test.* Initially, I resisted doing this assignment for our relationship class. It categorizes people into numbered personality types. Only nine varieties of human struck me as a bit reductive.

But in the spirit of doing all the homework, I completed the assessment and holy cow.The results explained why I never felt like I belonged anywhere. Why I detest small talk. The reason friends often tell me I am too hard on myself. Why I always want everything to be better.Apparently, it’s my nature to search for what’s missing. And there are others who see the world that way too. I found it comforting to know that in this peculiar worldview, I am not alone.

According to the Enneagram, each personality type has a unique core belief which then motivates behavior. Knowing your type helps you examine your organizing principle and consider what critical life lesson you are here to learn. My enneatype is here to reclaim wholeness in the present moment by appreciating what is here and now. Being grounded in my body instead of getting caught up in story.** It is absolutely worth the $10 and 45 minutes to validate your existence.

I wanted to know more about the origins of the Enneagram and how it could be so totally spot on. A google search revealed a mysterious history. Ancient roots in Babylon some 4,500 years ago, an appearance in Greek philosophy 2,500 years ago. But when I read that one of the first modern gurus had been responsible for introducing the Enneagram to America, I stopped cold.

George Gurdjieff.

This name had been spoken in my home growing up so often I thought he was a special friend of my parents. After a while, I realized it was the man’s teachings that had made him seem more important in our family than me and my sisters and brother. He was the reason my parents spent money we didn’t have on a farm house and a few acres out in East New Mexico. My parents planned to live communally with their group and study Gurdjieff’s path to enlightenment called The Work. My father, a clinical psychologist in private practice, would lead them.

Despite the dusty property having nothing for us kids to do but roam around and dig in the dirt, all the parents brought their kids to The Farm.

 

As often as we could get away, a couple dozen families met at someone’s home in Albuquerque to caravan up to Santa Rosa. Kids were left to catch a ride in whomever’s car had room—my least favorite feature of the weekend. My siblings and I were little and I didn’t like to ride with just anyone.

On one memorable trip, my older sister and I got stuck in creepy Richard’s car. He had a history of swindling kids out of their beloved toys and getting them to wait on him to earn their stuff back. On the long front seat next to Richard, Miriam pushed me against the rickety passenger door to keep away from him. I held my breath and tried not to panic as we sped down a one-way dirt road on a sheer cliff with no guard rail. Once we pulled into the dirt-packed lot, I staggered away from the car having barely breathed the whole way.

At their weekend commune, Dad played the part of guru​The house had not one stick of furniture, save for one long, splintery dining table. We all sat together for dinner, listening to the adults discuss esoteric this or that which often erupted into arguments. One time, a fight broke out and the table was tossed onto the unlucky ones seated on the other side, food crashing down, little kids shreiking.

Days were filled with the adults digging ditches and other make-work that seemed hard and pointless. My mother didn’t love Dad’s harsh interpretation of Gurdjieff’s conscious labor and intentional suffering. That wasn’t how she taught it when we kids lived with her at a commune up in Taos where she lead the group. But she was done being a guru and had left this one to Dad.

One morning I heard a commotion outside and picked my head up over the sleeping bags in the kids’ room. Adults were lined up against the barn, stark naked, while Dad took photographs from a distance. When I asked about it years later he said, somewhat defensively, “that was a body study and it was really well done.” He wouldn’t say much about it so I looked it up and deduced that the comparison of ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph body types was a critical part of awakening to the inner experience.

The one thing I actually liked about Santa Rosa was the abundance of baby frogs. Past the barn, at the foot of a large reservoir, I sat with my knees tucked under me in the dirt, as tiny frogs hopped into the palm of my hand. I delighted in their little webbed feet jumping off me like I was their friend.

My siblings had tried their hand at pets. Kitty, my sister’s cat, had dined on her fair share of my brother’s gerbils. No one seemed bothered by the periodic loss of life, but it put a chilling effect on my desire to own a pet. But I loved the frogs so much and it seemed like they liked me okay too, so I planned to bring some home and take care of them. I had stuffed a Tupperware container in the back of our turquoise Subaru for just this purpose.

The morning we were set to leave, I popped the trunk and grabbed the container. At the reservoir, I peeled the top off for the frogs to jump inside. They didn’t go in right away, so I let them hop into my hand then placed a dozen or so gently inside and sealed them up.

I walked them carefully back to our car and shoved the container in the way back so that they could ride undisturbed. I didn’t tell my siblings. I figured they would want to play with the frogs and squish them by accident.

Smooshed between kids on the way home, each bump in the dirt road caused my heart to jump. I pictured their tiny frog heads hitting the top of the container and prayed they’d be okay. My stomach was in knots by the time we arrived home a couple hours later. I scrambled out of the car, slipped the container out and took the frogs up to my room. I hoped they would like their new home. Maybe I’d save up and get a fancy terrarium at the pet store so they could live in style instead of in the plastic box.

I nestled the container on my pillow and gently lifted the top off.  The frogs lay motionless at the bottom. Why weren’t they moving?

And then it hit me. I hadn’t made any holes in the container. I had killed my first and only pets.

I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t even think to share it with them. I had broken my own heart and they didn’t even notice.

 At the time of the frogs, I felt flawed and alone. It is only now, some 45 years later, that I am taking a personal development course with my husband and dear friends that Gerdjieff has shown up again. Up until now, his name has evoked only a dim flicker of heartache. His enneagram has helped me understand myself though, specifically the ways I react under stress. I try to be someone I am not. I attempt to guess what the other person wants and act like that even though it’s not me. When I am feeling whole and peaceful, I am a responsible, organized person who seeks to make the world a better place.

Gerdjieff is here to tell me those feelings I had all those years ago were normal and I don’t have to feel shame about being who I am now or ever. My identity has nothing to do with my parents–they didn’t ignore me because I was unlovable. Today I seek only to know how to do my life better. As a healthy enneatype four, I am honest about how I feel. I own my motives and contradictions without bullsh!tting myself.

This experience has also helped me understand where my parents might have been coming from back then. At the time, their way of seeking enlightenment was as foreign to me as I’m sure my zoom call would be to them. I just want to laugh and grow with people I care about. At our core, we weren’t looking for such different things, my parents and me. I’d just prefer my friends to remained clothed during the zoom calls, so don’t get any ideas, Matt Goodman.

When you realize you aren’t alone in your quirky view of the world, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT:  Is there anything from your past that has come back to change you mind? Have you done the Enneagram? If so, what did you learn about yourself?

*Click here to take the test: https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/-test/. And for my friends who’ve wondered why I am such an odd bird, this explains it: https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/types/the-romantic/

**It also provides insight into how different types react with one another. It totally nailed Mark and me. You have to take the test first and find your number and then do this one:

https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/the-enneagram-type-combinations

If you don’t subscribe to my Friday stories, please do at elizabethheise.com, follow me on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1.

Categories
Stories

Let It Goooo

 

Let it go.

Before it became a Disney song that played on a loop in your head, it was a glib remark, typically delivered with a judgey side of eyeroll. How annoying is it to hear these words? Without exception, my inward response has been: “I’ll let it go in my own damn time.”

But guess what? We actually can let stuff go, once we are aware it’s a choice. Just this week, I learned that a feeling, positive or negative, lasts for only ninety seconds.* A chemical process occurs in the brain and it takes that amount of time to work its way through the body.

When the ninety seconds are up and you continue to feel the anger, sadness, or fear, it’s a sign that you have chosen a thought that is re-stimulating the circuitry. The thought, not the emotion, is what causes the physiological reaction over and over again.

Why would we do this to ourselves? Because telling stories is how we humans make sense of the world. We build a narrative around the emotion. We connect our past experiences to the feeling and voila, we continue to suffer. Once the emotion has a deeper meaning, we can then cling to it until we drop dead.

The better news is, we don’t have to make up awful stories and continue to feel bad. We can stop ourselves in the act of creating a story after the feeling has passed. And now that I know it’s an actual choice, I am determined to let stuff go like a champ.

I tested this theory last night at the children’s hospital. My son, an avid skateboarder, has rolled each ankle and been x-rayed so many times that Gerardo, the x-ray tech at urgent care, seems more like extended family. I’d noticed that the slight limp after Finn skated all afternoon in front of our house hadn’t resolved. We are a week away fom skateboard camp. I decided we should go in one more time to see if he’d receive the same advice as always, stay off it for a week.

“It’s a fracture,” said the doctor. “You should cancel camp.”

We both crumpled. He needed this camp. He is the baby of the family and Covid has been the least tolerable for him. Starting middle school where he knew no one was particularly cruel to a kid during the masked-up pandemic. On top of that, everything he’d looked forward to for the last year had been cancelled. All except for skateboarding camp.

But also, I needed this camp. A portion of my brain has been on high alert for him all year. I’d put off my big revisions and book proposal until the weeks he would be taken care of by someone other than me. At camp.

I can’t ever get time to do my own work. Everyone else matters more than me. My work doesn’t matter. I don’t matter.

And then I caught myself. I had done exactly what one does to cause suffering in perpetuity. I had attached a crappy meaning to the feeling. I had chosen to be preoccupied by my son’s every move and pushed all the work to the three emotionally-free weeks in my calendar. Intellectually, I know he has his own path and he will be okay. I don’t need to use him as an excuse not to get my work done.

Once I realized I had turned his injury into a story, I noted the familiar theme. I don’t matter. That was an ancient one for me. My story around self-worth goes back to my mother. She left us and I took it personally. As a twelve year old kid, I figured I wasn’t enough to stick around for. And that is what I need to let go.

I wondered if the ninety second thing could conquer this emotional mountain. I called in an expert to ask. Relationship therapist and friend, Linda Carroll emailed me some advice.

The ninety second rule doesn’t count for grief.

When you think about your mom, and the chemicals fire for ninety seconds, what do you do next? How do you minimize or maximize the feeling? Both ways are trouble. Can you allow it like a wave and then continue on? Allow it and make it your Tonglen. It’s a Buddhist practice for empathy where you take in the suffering of someone else and sending them back what they need to heal.**

I try not to think about my mother at all actually. When I do it’s more like an empty cavern inside me than actual emotion. My feelings about her are so desolate even I don’t want to hang out in that place with myself anymore.

As I sat in my writing chair overlooking the quiet backyard, I closed my eyes to try the Tonglen. On the in-breath, I inhaled her sadness as the eldest of seven. The one who heard the stranger say to her mother, “you have lovely children. Each one more beautiful than the next.” As the first child in the row, she took that to mean she was the least beautiful. I breathed in her urgent need, at the age of thirteen, to leave a home ruled by a violent, alcoholic stepfather. Then to escape a lonely, faithless marriage, leaving behind her four children. My chest filled with the torment of damaged relationships with me and my brother and sisters.

The darkness filled me and I sobbed out loud. My heart began to pound as I struggled to turn her pain into loving energy, pink and airy, and send her back light and healing. I was shaky, but I did it. When it was over, all that remained was sadness for her.

I know grief for the relationship won’t disappear in one go, but the exercise opened space for compassion. I felt something for a mother I have felt very little for since she ran out on our family back in the eighties. I will do anything to unburden myself. I don’t want to create distance between me and the rest of the world in service to the story of my mother.

When you let go of fear and open yourself to empathy, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

*https://onebodyinc.com/the-90-second-rule-you-cant-afford-to-ignore/

**https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/

If you don’t subscribe to my Friday stories, please do at elizabethheise.com, follow me on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thanks for reading.

Categories
Stories

Why Do You Stay?

The other day I asked my husband what topic he’d like me to cover in a Friday story.

“Why do you stay married to me?”

“That’s what you want me to write about?” I asked.

“You’ve got a lot of gripes, Elizabeth.”

He was not wrong. I am a fixer. Of everyone and everything. He’s been the one closest to me for twenty-five years, so you can imagine how much I’ve tinkered around in his head.

The night before, we had rushed through dinner with the family to get on Zoom for our relationship class.* It started off well. Mark shared a breakthrough he’d had in communication. As he spoke, the other couples inside their Zoom squares finished last spoonfuls at their kitchen table or settled into the pillows in an unfamiliar bedroom.

“Elizabeth told me how stressed she was about an upcoming trip to Philadelphia. I thought to myself, she’s traveled the world, why is she acting so incompetent? Instead of expressing that, I said nothing, which hurt her feelings. I thought about it during my run afterwards. When I came back, I asked her to tell me more. What she shared helped me understand her better.”

“That’s wonderful,” said the therapist. “You listened with true presence. Tell me more is a powerful phrase.”

I was glad for his effort to understand me, but what he said stuck in my craw. If it had been a private therapy session, I would have pushed back, but the topic had changed to rituals.

The therapist explained that a daily practice to foster connection keeps us continually learning about each other.

“Couples tend to undervalue them,” she said.

I could understand why people bailed on these exercises. When I feel disconnected and ornery, the last thing I want to do is “share” and “connect” with my “husband.” Especially if he’s stewing in his own negativity. We retreat to our corners and a gulf widens between us.

“We don’t stop doing other important things just because we don’t feel like it,” she said. “Changing the oil, brushing our teeth. We do those things no matter what. Often, we treat rituals to keep our marriage strong like they are optional. If someone gets their feelings hurt or has a long day, we drop them.”

Our ritual was for me to share something with Mark that had upset me and for him to say nothing. I now understood that in his head, he’d been judging me all along.

The therapist suggested a daily practice that included five separate categories. Before life got complicated and we became marriage bots, we did these things naturally.

 

Appreciations

Share five things you are grateful for about your partner.

Meeting a minimum threshold hadn’t been a problem before now. After we had our first child, Mark sent extravagant flower arrangements every time he left town for business.

News

Often one person is better at sharing information than the other—this is a reminder for both partners to let the other know what is happening in their life.

I couldn’t wait to show Mark how I found out our then six-month-old daughter was a genius. “You have to see this,” I said when he walked in from work. “Jane, go get your monkey.” She scooted to her play area and dragged back the stuffed toy. He slapped his knees and hooted.

 

Puzzles

Clear up mysteries before they become suspicions or resentments. Most “puzzles” have simple explanations.

Years ago, Mark had gone to a football game out of town with his best friend. As he was dressing in their hotel room, Harry noticed a gaping hole in the butt of Mark’s underwear. As Mark told me the story, he could hardly speak over his own laughter, “I’d cut the hole for Norm’s tail so he could wear them after he got neutered. I forgot to throw them out.”

 

Complaints & Requests for Change

This helps us say what we want, along with what we don’t want, and teaches us how to make a complaint rather than criticize.

The therapist asked us all to go off camera for ten minutes and practice “giving a complaint and request for change.” Mark went first.

“I feel like there’s a disconnect between your Instagram posts and how you are at home,” Mark said.

How dare he.

I did not do the steps to pause and rebalance that we had learned.

“Do you think I can’t be inspired in the morning and post about it, then raise hell after a day of interruptions? Try working from home with house guests, virtual school, and Cocoa barking and let me know how sunshiney you are. I am a full human being with all the complexity. You’d accept my imperfections if you ever allowed yourself to have any.”

Mark turned back to the laptop, now a grid of screen savers.

“You want to hear my complaint?” I asked. “I don’t like that you judged me for being nervous about getting lost in a new city. That doesn’t make me incompetent. Some people are good with directions and some aren’t. So what? Even though you weren’t saying anything, I could feel you being critical.”

I knew he wouldn’t respond. I clicked our video back on to join the class. We spent the rest of the session parked under separate black clouds.

I thought about Mark’s question for a couple days. I took a long walk and reflected on what each of us had witnessed as kids. In our homes growing up, resentments and anger went unexpressed, polluting the air like toxic waste. When my parents announced their divorce, my mom said, “your dad and I haven’t spoken in four years.” At his house, there was lots of muttering under their breath. I didn’t want that for us.

When I got home, Mark stood at the bathroom sink, brushing his teeth.

“How come you never said what you were thinking until now?” I asked.

“I was afraid you’d bite my head off. Or use what I said against me in a future argument. I figured it wouldn’t change anything. There was no point.”

He had been trapped in his own head with an inner dialogue he never felt safe enough to express. For years. While I felt free to say all the crazy things I felt. I don’t know how he did it. My own head would have popped off ages ago.

As I felt the unfamiliar sensation of empathy for my husband, it dawned on me that I had judged him for judging me. Both of us considered ourselves the authority on how the other should act. Until now, neither of us had been curious enough to ask what was really going on.

“If we learn nothing else from this class, those three words were worth it. When either of us says something that triggers a judgment, we replace it with curiosity. Tell me more. That’s gold,” he said.

“So why do you want to stay married to me?” I asked, knowing I still hadn’t answered the question myself.

“Out for my run this morning, I had the thought, I’d like to feel more connected to Elizabeth. I never would have learned how to relate better if you hadn’t forced me to take that class. Believe it or not, I actually want to do this.”

I guess that’s my answer. I stay married to this guy because he is still willing to grow with me.

When you show up to your life as your true self without reservation, the people who stick around give you the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What uncomfortable conversations have lead to breakthroughs in your relationship?

*I suggested a six week course with Therapist, Author and Life Coach, Linda Carroll based on her book Love Skills, The Keys to Unlocking Lasting, Wholehearted Love. For more information on her awesome programs, check her out on lindaacarroll.com.

Do you subscribe to these weekly stories? You can by clicking here: elizabethheise.com. And while you’re at it, come find my on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thanks for reading.

Copyright © *2021* *Elizabeth Heise LLC.*, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
elizabeth@elizabethheise.com

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

Categories
Stories

Speak Your Truth.

 

We had been warned about going back to regular life after an intense writers’ retreat. The work required raw emotions that didn’t go away once you cleared Customs. Crying in the shower? Normal. Unloading a torrent of vitriol onto unsuspecting loved ones? Possible. Spending days wondering what just happened? Likely.

I had attended once before, so I knew this re-entry had been extra weird. Last time, I came back with my hardest story workshopped by our host, a prolific author and writing teacher. A whole book had grown up around that story. This time, I had wanted to unearth my next story. I had no desire to work on the manuscript that I had completed months ago. Instead of writing new stories, I returned home with a load of revisions that amounted to a scrapped manuscript and a heap of self-doubt.

My inner voice had gone quiet. Trying to get myself back on track had me in a panic.

Before the trip, I had planned a holistic health reset. The pandemic had been a year of less than healthy choices. An Ayurvedic consultation awaited when I returned home. This Hindu tradition, known in India* as The Mother of All Healing, teaches you to listen to the body’s signals. Through observation of emotions and physical symptoms, you learn how diet, seasons, weather, relationships and past trauma affect your health. Balance is the goal. This would bring me back to myself, I was sure of it.

The naturopathic doctor first asked about my emotional state. I told her what happened at the retreat.

“I started out bursting with creativity. A few days in, I didn’t speak up for myself. After that, I was unable to work on new material and stopped reading what I had brought to share. Right now I can’t even hear my intuition. It’s freaking me out.”

“Suppressed emotion can be a volcano inside us,” the doctor said. “It’s important to recognize when you are releasing emotions and when you are holding them in.”

 

I had definitely stuffed them down and now the anger and sadness had followed me home. I am a planner and this was not at all where I wanted to be post-workshop. I expressed almost none of my complicated feelings at the retreat, concerned I might tank other writers’ creativity along with my own. That would have made it all worse. But energy is matter and I’m sure they all felt it.

I had no qualms expressing myself at home, however. My patient husband watched me get stuck in the seven stages of writer grief. For several days, I looked at him in disbelief and shook my head. “How did I let this happen?” I asked him, again and again.

I blamed myself for not being able to voice my concerns about how things were going down. There were only two ways I had always communicated hard feelings. One was to be silent. When I sense I may be rejected or judged, I hold back and say nothing. Then I carry that uncomfortable truth and it eats away at my insides. The other way is to drop the truth on the person’s head like a falling piano. When I feel safe, that’s how I do it. People seem not to like that.

“I have been told that when I tell the truth it feels like I am being mean,” I said to the doctor.

“You see things clearly and you speak your mind. Those are virtues. You can share them compassionately.”

It was news to me that there was something in between hammering someone with honesty and saying nothing at all. Perhaps my truth bombs came from holding back so often that when I unleashed the truth, the built up pressure shot out like a nail gun.

The doctor advised that when I restore balance to my body and mind, I will feel more able to express myself with compassion.

“This is a wonderful time for healing, Elizabeth.”

A little over a week has passed since I have been following my plan for spiritual and mental balance. It may not be long enough for a fair assessment. So far, however, the net effect of yoga, breath work, meditation and complying with the recommended food choices is that I feel calm. I can’t say my inner voice has been fully restored, but the lesson about speaking up for myself has stuck. I have recommitted to keeping my own counsel. I am already who I am trying to be.

When we honor our own truth and express our thoughts and feelings with compassion, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

*The people of India are suffering. Please help unicefusa.org.

WRITING PROMPT: Do you have trouble speaking the truth with compassion? How do people respond to it?

If you don’t already, please follow these Friday stories on elizabethheise.com and check me out on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thank you for reading.

Copyright © *Elizabeth Heise LLC* All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
elizabeth@elizabethheise.com

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

Categories
Stories

The War Is Within

 

By mid-week, my writing workshop in Guatemala had taken a turn. Despite the enchanting casita on a tranquil lake in the shade of three volcanoes, I could no longer write. True stories demand total vulnerability. Mine had fled.

Back home, when worries overwhelmed my creative voice, I cleared my head with yoga, the bright Miami sun, a long run. Here in this magnificent place, I couldn’t even meditate without sobbing midway through.

I had pre-booked a session that day with an energy healer who worked with crystals. Until then, I had avoided such things. I believed in the power of energy, but magic rocks were my mother’s territory. I viewed them as a New Age prop for those who wished to avoid the real work of therapy. After twenty years on Dr. Waddington’s couch where I rarely discussed my mother, I found myself here, among the crystals.

 

A woman with flowing gray hair sat at a small table, writing. Lining the walls of her small studio, stones of every color lay in intricate patterns.

“You need to feel your grief and allow yourself to cry,” she said, peering into my eyes over rectangular spectacles.

Not knowing how to respond, I sat down in the wrought iron chair across from her.

She was right, this total stranger. I had mourned, a little, but hadn’t cried—who had time for that? I came down here to revise my book.

“Are you grieving the loss of someone or something?” she asked.

I told her about my mom and sisters who no longer spoke to me. And the friend who had just announced she was so mad at me, she couldn’t read anything I wrote. The little girl in charge of my creativity had run away to hide. My writing was done for now.

“People who act like your mother will keep showing up until you resolve your relationship with her. Has this friend ever behaved like that before?”

“No,” I said.

“That’s your mother.”

It sounded both absurd and exactly right.

But I didn’t want my mother to take up any more of my mental space. She hadn’t been in my life in any real way since she left our family when I was twelve. The four of us kids received the rare phone call and had no regular visitation. I had longed for her to ask what might be bothering me as a kid growing up with no mom. But now I wanted to be done.

The healer invited me to lay on the table. I closed my eyes as she placed crystals at energy points along my body.

“You have to forgive her.”

I didn’t know what it meant to forgive anyone. It sounded impossible. I would not be doing anything hard for my mother.

“This is how you find comfort and peace. Nothing is out of your reach when you are inward, whole and revitalized.”

“How do I do it?”

“You have to write to her. Get it all out on paper. Then destroy it,” she said.

I lay on the table, composing a letter in my head.

Dear Mom, even when you lived with us, you barely looked at me. It made me feel unworthy of being seen. In every relationship, I feel like a temporary employee trying to prove myself. You judged me and now I do it too, pushing away the very people I want close. I always worried you would leave. That anxiety turned me into someone who tries to control everything. That drives people away too. Worst of all, you left me. Now, when things are hard, I fight the urge to leave too.

I burned the note.

I had not felt this shaken in decades. Until now, I hadn’t allowed the feelings to pass through me. I worked through issues intellectually, but didn’t waste time “processing emotions.” That was for sensitive people. It had served me well until now. I had hardened into petrified wood. I was ready to turn back into a live tree.

“It is time to gently cast away the attachments to your past and build the foundation of a new and beautiful journey. Today the doorway opens. You may pass if you are willing to look forward rather than back. You are striving to become who you already are. You are a Spiritual Warrior and your war is within. Let your life be transformed. Magic will happen.”

I rose from the table and purchased the two crystals that would assist in my healing. One to balance my overactive crown with my underactive root chakra. The other to turn chaos to order. I placed them in a pouch and secured them under my clothes, close to my heart. As I walked up the steep stairs to my tuk tuk, I detected a lightness in my chest. Maybe I could let go of her. I didn’t have to be part of her story any more. I could write my own.

I have learned that to forgive is to remove judgment—to allow others the dignity of their own journey. This makes space for acceptance. This is love. With a deep breath, I send the message to my body that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What do you do to let go?

If you don’t already, please subscribe to my Friday stories at elizabethheise.com and follow me on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thanks for reading.

Categories
Stories

Guest Post From Down Under

It’s Time to Normalise* Normal
By Helen Ferguson

I crave seeing normal faces and normal bodies of middle aged women. Up on our screens, in advertising material and in general day to day media–I want them everywhere.

I see normal on the train, at the shops and walking down the street, so I know normal exists. I really want to see normal middle aged women filling as much media space and time as normal middle aged men.

It is harder than necessary to find examples of middle aged women in media and entertainment who didn’t come out of a cookie cutter.

I’m constantly on the lookout for positive, diverse representations of normal middle aged womanhood.

I need them.

It’s not just for my own sake. I’m thinking of the generations of women following behind us.

If we can’t see it, we can’t be it.

If we can’t see it, how can we appreciate it?

I remember as a teenager in the early 80’s, the teen magazines regularly had articles about our bodies and our faces.

We were warned by the advice columns not to be too skinny, because boys didn’t like that. The articles were accompanied by photos of clearly unwell girls, focusing on the way they looked, rather than how they were suffering.

We were told to strive to keep our skin clear, because spots were unattractive.

The opinions at the time were very outward facing.

I recall how a young female body made society react if it wasn’t ‘quite right’.

Normal teen girls, the target customer of these businesses, weren’t represented on the pages. Normal girls with normal skin and normal bodies couldn’t see themselves being valued, so they set about under-valuing themselves.

Getting older and growing into my 20’s in the 1990’s, the message shifted dramatically.

Being skinny was now ok.

Skinny was more than ok, actually.

Skinny was the goal.

The thigh gap was the holy grail.

Hip bones sticking out slightly, with a flat or slightly concave stomach…that was what dreams were made of.

Have a black coffee for breakfast and go for a run, aspire to look like a model.

Don’t be normal.

Guys don’t like that.

I wondered at the time, if all men only find one type of woman attractive, why are the rest of us even in the dating game?

What if attracting a male was not my chief ambition. Can I be left out of the judgment and live by normal standards, please?

I looked around to find normal, average looking women on television, in movies, reading the news, or presenting business forums.

They were there, but in categories marked ‘friend of love interest’  ‘unmarried sister’, ‘ball-breaker’, ‘feisty/whacky’ , ‘single/childless’ ‘ambitious’.

We were being sold a dud.

We were being short-changed.

The boys and men were also being cheated.

The only ones benefiting were the people selling us the products to achieve that (airbrushed) complexion, those (photoshopped) bodies, or the impossibly tiny clothes to drape over those bodies.

Fashion and beauty models became younger and younger. Finding grown-ass women with faces free from life experience and bodies devoid of age-appropriate development was nigh on impossible, because…experience and maturity happens to women.

We’re almost like actual humans in that regard.

My early years of motherhood coincided with the rise of magazines plastering photos of celebrities on their covers, 10 weeks postpartum, wearing bikinis.

What on earth????

I didn’t buy into the hype. I was too sleep-deprived, thankfully, but I did get it wrong.

I just assumed that these women had personal chefs and trainers on hand to allow them look so astonishing post-delivery.

It didn’t dawn on me until years later that the photos were so heavily edited that they were a barefaced lie.

Normal isn’t aspirational.

Normal, by it’s very definition, is what the majority of us are.

I want to see me, I want to see you, I want to see us!

As a middle aged woman, I want to see women in my life stage, wearing clothes that fit them, that let them feel comfortable and allow them to feel beautiful. Show me the brand that has the talent and willingness to provide that, and I’ll be a loyal customer.

I’m quite happy being 54.

I’m not anti-aging, so why must practically every skin care product claim to be anti-aging? I’m pro-moisturised skin. I’m pro-non-irritated skin. I’m pro-long lasting makeup that brightens me when I want to be brighter, but doesn’t stain my clothes or make my eyes water, but I’m not anti-aging.

Think about it, if I’m not aging, what am I doing? Repeating myself? Stagnating? Dying? 

No, thanks. I choose aging over those options.

If media bosses and advertising gurus were braver, they could open their creative minds and appeal to this largely ignored resource.

The landscape has shifted in the real world, and the media mantras need to change to keep up.

The ‘middle aged white man in a suit’ is not the only way to convey gravitas and authority. We’re ever so tired of the same old same old.

The ‘hot young thing in a daring gown’ might be the obvious and traditional choice, because ‘sex sells’, but surely that depends on what you’re selling and to whom.

I am a grown up with disposable income; I have the power to make my own purchasing decisions, the ability to choose what cinema ticket to buy, what company to hire, which news channel to watch, what restaurant to book.

I recommend things to my friends, my colleagues, my clients, my book club.

I want to see what women in my age range are thinking, what careers they have, what questions they’re asking, what well cut clothes they’re wearing, where they are socialising and who they are voting for.

I want to see all of these things now, for me, but I also want younger women to see us, being ourselves, enjoying the fruits of our labour and living real lives.

I want younger women to view the next phase as something to look forward to, not dread.

We have to fight harder and shout louder for normal, for our own well-being and for the young people coming up behind us. We didn’t grow up in the age of social media, cosmetic surgery and advertising at every turn, but they are. What they are seeing every day on their screens is unrealistic and unsustainable.

We have to normalise normal.

_________________________________________________
Helen Ferguson is a British woman living in Sydney, Australia where she co-owns and runs a family business and recently launched hermiddleage.com.au. Recognizing that middle age is often when women suddenly experience a sense of invisibility, she started a project to amplify their voices by inviting middle aged women to tell their stories, share their wisdom and join a supportive community. She invites her audience to email her at contact@hermiddleage.com.au with a story to share or nominate a woman we should hear about. You can follow the blog on her website and on Instagram @hermiddleage. She is lovely and I think you’ll treasure her as I do.

*Little known fact about me, I have a Masters in linguistics and I am totally fascinated by regional variations in English orthography. Helen’s British spelling adds even more charm to this fantastic piece, don’t you think? But because Americans think we know everything, I had to change her British spelling of “judgement” to the American “judgment.” I hope you’ll forgive me, Helen. I just don’t want to encourage this spelling in America because many of us do not know better.

Categories
Stories

WHY Are You Doing That?

Empowered. That word is so overused it’s borderline cliche. The concept has been commodified and marketed so much that we need to strip off the cheap slogans like shag carpet from parquet floors.

How we achieve real empowerment has been the subject of debate with a new friend.

“Can I ask you an honest question? Why are you doing this? The writing, I mean. What are you getting out of it?” she asked me on the phone as I headed out for a walk. Great question. I made a mental note to ask this of myself more often.

That word popped into my head again. Empowered. For me, writing leads to mental clarity and reveals purpose—that’s power. Not to mention it’s the best kept wellness secret and I want to share it with anyone who will listen. We have the answers inside us, all we have to do is get a pen and paper and free them from our subconscious mind.

But that’s not how I responded. I told her a story instead.

We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.
-John Dewey

After I wrote a book and started building my author platform, the marketing guy observed that I seemed to want to encourage other people to write their own stories instead of drawing them in to read mine. His tone suggested that as a writer, I should be doing the latter. But he had me pegged. I really did want to encourage others to tell their stories. And why wouldn’t I? It had transformed my life. I am not suggesting everyone stop what they are doing and get to work on a manuscript, but a journaling practice a few times a week is doable for anyone. And the benefits are well worth the time.

Releasing old stories from my body and putting them down on the page has liberated me from an old identity. One that held me responsible for the pain I experienced as a kid. We all naturally do that. It’s called the Just World Fallacy—people tend to believe the world is fair and we get what we deserve. But I didn’t cause the rejection, judgment or abandonment that I experienced and I’m all done shouldering the blame for it. And, interestingly, once I got those stories out of me, a couple family members decided they were done with me too. And they’ve never even seen the book. Some folks don’t want to take ownership of their stuff. I’d prefer growth over denial any day. Author Martha Beck says to be truly happy, we need to let go of family trauma and what the culture expects of us. Society wants us to make nice. I’ve opted out.

Don’t set yourself on fire just to keep other people warm.
-unknown

Writing has allowed me to let go of some major baggage but its also empowered me to share more of who I really am and inspired me to explore deeper truths in every aspect of my life. When readers respond that my story has resonated with them and they share their own truth, it closes the loop. Truth begets truth. And if they do the prompt and let me know they’ve learned something, that’s the cherry on the icing on the cake.

I want to help other people understand themselves better. When you write your story, you know who gets to say what it all means? Who gets to assign the reason why this crazy thing happened? You do. Every single thing you have been through has lead you to where you are right now. And if you are going through something, you can explore it in real time. We have all experienced hardship and pain. Reflecting on your resilience can transform you—help you to see yourself. My stories got me here and I am exactly where I need to be.

You may be wondering, how does that work exactly? When you put your words down in black and white, your body speaks them into being. The meaning you give what happened to you can build you up or tear you down, you get to decide. I chose a powerful meaning to every challenge I ever had. At the end of my book, I conclude that an unlimited supply of everything I need has always been available inside me. Ultimately, other people’s failings do not reflect on me whatsoever.

Until I began writing, I had looked for the answers outside myself, but, not surprisingly, I couldn’t find them. I didn’t know that all I needed was a door in, i.e., a simple writing prompt. When you are ready to write, all you have to do is grab a journal and let ‘er rip. And if prompts help you, I post a new one daily in my story on Instagram @elizabethheise1. All the past ones are archived in the Writing Prompt story highlight. A whole list of Writing Prompts are also in the menu on elizabethheise.com. The one you select will be the exact one you need. When you write without judgment, it will take you where you are supposed to go. Just keep the pen moving even if you write I don’t know what to say. That’s just the mental noise blocking out your real thoughts. In the coming months, I will be developing a program to get that story out of you, once and for all.

And now I am taking the next step in my creative journey. I am making room for new stories. I even cleaned out my closet and medicine chest—I heard that helps. I have a tendency to hang on to EVERYTHING for way longer than I should just to feel safe, including old narratives that no longer serve me. I have no more time for that. I am embracing growth and change.

Pay attention to what makes you feel energized, connected and stimulated, follow your intuition. Do what you love and you will do more than succeed. You will soar.
-Oprah

In that spirit, I am heading to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala for Joyce Maynard’s Write By The Lake. We had been in touch about Scrappy and she suggested I bring it to this workshop before querying. I decided instead that I want to write new stories. Scrappy is not in the mood to be tinkered with and her trajectory is TBA. Joyce is a story surgeon and I can’t wait to see her extract stories from each one of these writers, including me.

While I am out of the country, a fellow writer will guest post here on my Friday stories. Her piece is fabulous and I would love to hear what you think.

When we let go of our old stories and create space for a new version of ourselves to emerge, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

Writing Prompt: What makes you feel energized, connected and stimulated? How much time do you spend doing it?

Follow me on Instagram @elizabethheise1, Twitter @heiseelizabeth1 and subscribe to my Friday piece at elizabethheise.com. Thank you for reading!

Categories
Stories

Know Your Body Know Yourself

We have been taught to ignore the language of our bodies. To dismiss the sinking feeling when a name flashes across our phone screen and pick up anyway. The uncomfortable clothes, stiff backed chairs, painful shoes. We have grown accustomed to denying our true needs. Choosing the comfort of others over our own. To be polite in the meetings, to go along with the status quo. Then maybe go home and drink, eat or smoke the complicated feelings away.

Last Friday, I enjoyed myself so much I practically levitated. For five whole hours I told my story, first to an extraordinary new friend at a marathon lunch date, then again in an interview with a trailblazer in Australia who you will hear more about in the next few weeks. As I led us through the rocky terrain of my first book, Scrappy, we laughed, cried and spoke way above casual conversation volume. I knocked a glass of wine clear across the table. It was nuts. At day’s end, I was emotionally raw but fulfilled in a way that comes only from being truly seen.

By the time the Aussie interview ended, it was 7:00 pm and we had no plan for dinner. Mark and I needed to get our evening together quick so I could get to bed for an early run the next day. We improvised a meal and selected an acclaimed indie drama over a comedy.

As we settled on the couch, I felt a bit dazed. I had leapt from a big deal day to sofa and screen at whiplash pace. The show didn’t hold my attention. I checked my phone repeatedly for I don’t know what. My mind drifted back to these two soul stirring conversations and did this day really happen oh my God. Sharing my story, being truly heard by these two amazing people had been magical. Later, I awoke to rolling credits as Mark slid his keys off the table to go pick up our youngest son.

Still feeling unsettled, I poked my head in the pantry to forage for sugar. Bingo. An unopened bag of Tate’s Gluten Free Coconut cookies. I plopped back down on the couch and flipped on the last SNL with Maya Rudolph. Funny shows only make me laugh when I watch with someone else. I ate a few cookies, not laughing. Then I ate a few more. I lost count of how many. A lot.

My body had needed to process the big feelings—I’d received plenty of signs. I could have gone on a walk with Mark, jumped on the trampoline or even just cried a few tears of joy. Yes, I felt seen which was amazing. My story has some parts that cause me fear of being judged though too.

This way of managing hard emotions has been a habit for me. I run away. As a kid, sweets were carefully rationed in my home, as was affection. After I feel exposed, my instinct is to self soothe with something forbidden because I can. When a quick scan of my body identifies a vulnerable spot, my instinct is to make it go away. Medicate with something sweet or salty. I have some unlearning to do around big feelings.

Our culture has conditioned us, as author and life coach Martha Beck says, that it’s better to be good than to be free. I chose to ignore what my body needed and go with my tidy evening schedule. Being good. To cry and run down the street—free. I’m gonna try that for my next vulnerability hangover.

So how do we get better about heeding the signals of our body? This week Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed her bestie Martha about her new book. The conversation revealed so much about their deeply connected friendship. “Have friends who want you to be your bravest, strongest and truest self,” she said of her friend Marty who she credits with preventing her from becoming “a husk of a human.” Martha coached her through a time of crisis and helped her choose her true self over cultural conditioning. When society has trained us to ignore the clear signs our body sends, we can help each other find our truth again.

WE ARE ALL JUST WALKING EACH OTHER HOME. -Ram Dass

Martha Beck suggests that creating a supportive community can help you find your true path. She gets an AMEN from me on that. From the time I began writing, I have been on a mission to find other truth seekers who can help guide my way home. My two new friends are a welcomed addition to my growing family.

And that is what led me to invite Kyra Montagu @kiraholisticliving to my Instagram Live series Tell Me All About It TODAY, April 16 at 1:30 pm. We met in the Dominican Republic where she lives in radical honesty every day. Kyra is a naturopathic doctor specializing in ayurveda, yoga, herbal medicine, nutrition and holistic healing and living practices. Born to British parents, Kyra was raised in the DR and remains deeply committed to preserving its natural beauty for future generations. She runs a holistic retreat center at her family home on the coast of La Romana where guests are offered natural therapies and workshops in a lush tropical oasis. (http://ki-ra.com) You can do as much or as little as you wish, the mission being to reconnect with your own natural rhythms. Check out Kyra’s TEDx Talk in Santo Domingo to hear more about her. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlMJnYy37OY&feature=youtu.be

Kyra was featured at the last Anahata Eco Yoga Retreat in Barahona and she will be welcomed again at the next one on May 11-15. A couple of spots are still open if you can disappear into paradise for a few days. https://anahataecoyogaretreats.com.

What are we going to talk about on Instagram today? Kyra will light the path home for us all. She is deeply connected to herself, to nature and to her purpose. She believes that abundant health begins with discovering your innate nature, accepting it and living in accordance with it. Our constitution shifts to deal with the circumstances of our lives. Once we return to who we truly are, we can live in devotion to our truest essence. Kyra believes that the body is designed to heal itself. She will talk about how to listen when the body offers information. Of all the questions I have for her, the most intriguing is this: Kyra spends one entire day a week in SILENCE with her five children and husband. How does that work exactly? That is number one on the hit parade for today.

When we find ourselves again and accept our true nature, our bodies deliver the message that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What messages is your body sending you? Do you listen? What has happened as a result? Do your friends and family support your true nature?

You can subscribe to my weekly stories at elizabethheise.com, follow me on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and twitter @heiseelizabeth1.

Copyright © *2021 *Elizabeth Heise, LLC.*, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
elizabeth@elizabethheise.com

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

Categories
Stories

Don’t Fight Reality

 

Last week our family was lucky enough to leave town, enjoy the mountains and mark the anniversary of quarantine, OUT of quarantine. A break from the monotony did everyone good. I figured we’d come home ready for a photo finish to this bizarre school year and I’d meet my book proposal deadline in a quiet house. Having completed the manuscript months ago, it was past due to get out the door.

The first sign that the universe did not subscribe to my vision came when one kid sustained a mild concussion on the slopes the morning I stayed in to write. That same day, my intended reconciliation with the LA relatives—the only family in the town where my daughter will soon attend school 3000 miles away—fell apart completely. We all arrived back to Miami safely, only to have another child flattened by bronchitis and the last one standing taken down by a fresh crisis. My next move would dictate the vibe going forward.

According to Eckhart Tolle, if we approach everything in life with acceptance, enjoyment or enthusiasm, we avoid suffering. This approach may sound too simplistic to be worth a damn. To claim that we can actually do something to avoid all suffering conjures an image of some ashram dweller who doesn’t have a clue about real life. (If you aren’t familiar with Tolle’s theory and want to listen to a quick podcast about it, try this episode of Bliss & Grit at http://www.blissandgrit.com/blog/acceptance-enjoyment-enthusiasm.)

To accept the truly unacceptable sounds too self-annihilating for a healthy state of being. So let’s talk about what it really means. Real acceptance is internal. It acknowledges how we feel when the crappy thing happens and then how we treat ourselves as a result.

So in this instance, I have the option to accept that all three kids need my attention when I have a project looming and my husband dutifully leaves for the office. I can make decisions about the next right thing to do from a calm place OR I can use my inner resources to fight against what is, i.e. complaining about how much THIS SUCKS.

Acceptance doesn’t mean “bright-siding” it like now I get to spend time with my kids and get none of my work done. YAY. I acknowledge the feeling of disappointment and give myself some grace. It’s okay Elizabeth. You will find the time. Just not right now.

Acceptance isn’t a passive act. We don’t have to accept external experiences and do nothing about them. We do what needs to be done to deal with the reality in front of us. Make ginger, honey and lemon tea for the sore throats (yes, now there are two), paying close attention and stay present. Accepting reality is not pasting a happy face over my sad one. It is an internal recognition of what is arising inside me when my plans are trashed again. It’s not arguing with what is happening but meeting it with as much curiosity as I can muster and a fresh batch of clean energy.

Hard human experiences may take a while to accept. In the scheme of things, my issue is a pebble in the road. But even when we are confronted with really hard truths, our body registers the relief when we accept them as they are. Like when you have an inkling you are being lied to and then find conclusive proof. Yes, it’s painful, but the body recognizes truth and finds peace in it. When you finally face something you’ve been avoiding, you get relief. The opposite happens when we choose to run away from it and then get nowhere—it causes stress.

Once you accept and sit with truth, creative options arise. When we move from a place of resistance, that movement brings clarity and invites ease and freedom. I will prepare for my upcoming writing workshop and figure out the best timing for the proposal when I get back.

Tolle recommends that if you can neither enjoy nor bring acceptance to what you are doing, stop. Otherwise, you are not taking responsibility for the only thing you can really control, i.e., your state of consciousness. This may sound rather luxurious, like what if you have a filing deadline with the court and you are just not feeling it. Then you have no option but to accept it and get the job done.

“If you are not taking responsibility for your state of consciousness, you are not taking responsibility for your life.” Eckhart Tolle

I find acceptance tricky but doable. The second preferred state of consciousness is a whole different thing: enjoyment. I thoroughly enjoy reading and would do it all day every day if I could. According to Tolle, we can transform tasks we don’t naturally enjoy by changing our awareness while we do them. Like the act of washing dishes—focusing on the warm, soapy water, the quiet moment, etc. You will enjoy any activity in which you are fully present, any activity that is not just a means to an end. It isn’t the action you perform that you really enjoy, but the deep sense of aliveness that flows into it. That aliveness is one with who you are. For now, I’ll just have to take his word for it.

Dealing with hardship, as unfun as it is, is more comfortable for me than enjoyment because it feels like a loss of control. It requires me to just be, not to have expectations of the moment or what I have to do next. Conditioning gets in the way of simple enjoyment of what we are doing. It has placed fixed ideas of how things should be, instead of allowing them to naturally unfold. Trying to conform to outward expectations has interfered with my general enjoyment. When we heap expectations of how were are supposed to be, that is the opposite of just being which brings enjoyment. In this society we often live as our own objects, i.e. happy people do THIS, a good life looks like THAT. My former therapist used to say “expectations are the killers of life.” When we have no expectations, beautiful things happen. “(L)et the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”*

Contrary to what we have learned, we don’t have to be engaged in some perfectly curated moment to cultivate joy. In fact, when we force and manufacture our every move, that kills it. Being in the present moment is all there is—including going through the motions of dinner prep. Whisking equal parts honey, dijon mustard and tamari and plopping in a salmon filet to marinade. I will focus on the flow of the amber honey next time and see if I enjoy it.

We know that stress kills joy. Expectation kills joy. Joy only comes from allowing ourselves to be in the moment with no judgment. For me, this is the most challenging state of consciousness. I have internalized how everything should be instead of allowing it to unfold as it is. But I do know that when I watch all three kids skiing down the mountain in front of me, I feel true joy.

Lastly, we can find ourselves in a state of enthusiasm when we are in alignment with the present moment and connected with our purpose. The visual Eckhart gives in the book is pulling back a bow, flinging an arrow and watching it glide through the air with ease. It is the moment you allow your gifts to come through you. The book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explores this concept. When there is effortless movement towards something, the energy and resources show up. When I wrote my book—that was flow. There is synchronicity. It just feels right, you feel lead.

Enthusiasm means there is a deep enjoyment in what you do plus the added element of a goal or vision that you are working toward. When you add a goal to the enjoyment of what you do, the vibrational frequency changes. At the height of creative activity fueled by enthusiasm, there is intensity and energy behind what you do. I imagine when my friend Katie is sewing, she is happily in flow.

To the outside observer, it might appear that you are under stress, but the intensity of enthusiasm has nothing to do with stress. Only when you want to arrive at your goal more than you want to be doing what you are doing, do you become stressed. As with the other two states of consciousness, the goal is to stay present to what you are doing, be in flow. Writing is that for me.

The moral of the story is that taking responsibility for our consciousness allows the best chance to discover our flow, to enjoy our lives and to be at peace with reality.

When we stay focused on the present moment, our body is at ease. From that state, we are rewarded with the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT:

Can you think of times you were in acceptance, enjoyment or enthusiasm? Do you have a tendency to fight reality or accept it? What makes you feel enthusiasm and flow?

If you don’t already, you can subscribe to my weekly stories at elizabethheise.com. Are you on social media? Let’s connect on Instagram @elizabethheise1, or Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thank you for reading.

*Mary Oliver captures this concept beautifully in her poem Wild Geese below:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Categories
Stories

Put Yourself First.

Put yourself first. To some of us this sounds like a revolutionary act.

A childhood friend of my husband’s has regular business in Miami. When he comes to town, he reaches out to get together. Before he moved away, he’d drop by unannounced to discuss his company’s legal problems although he’s never been a paying client. Over the years, Mark has done extensive pro bono work for his family members without so much as a thank you bottle of wine in return.

It’s not like I haven’t enjoyed being with the guy entirely. His irreverent sense of humor has earned him a pass until now. Recently, however, something in me has shifted. The more I feel seen in my own life, the less I want to hang out with people like him. He takes up way more space than someone who values the people around him. Every conversation is about him and his latest fill in the blank. He knows next to nothing about me despite the years, yet feels free to regularly comment on my appearance. His view of women bothers me. He complained about the mess in his college-aged son’s apartment now that he doesn’t have his mom to pick up after him. “He needs a girlfriend,” he said. Hahaha. One man’s joke is every woman’s barrier to equality. No, thank you.

He’ll be back next week and asked Mark about dinner. This time I requested they make lunch plans without me. At this point, I don’t have it in me to smile and nod—I have run clean out of that ability which was never great in the first place.

Living half a century and finally arriving at the conclusion that I can put my needs first—even articulating it that way rings selfish—runs against the grain of my conditioning. Twin neurobiologists, Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski, explore Human Giver Syndrome in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. HGS is the false, contagious belief that women* have a moral obligation to be “pretty, happy, calm, generous and attentive to the needs of others.” With this programming, if a giver falls short in any way, she may be punished by those around her. If she somehow escapes external disapproval, she will even go so far as to punish herself (see guilt).

The Nagoskis explain that it is not the giving itself that is toxic, rather the built-in expectation of constant, free labor by the rest of the world.** It is everyone else’s sense of entitlement to everything a woman has—“her attention, her time, her affection, her hopes and dreams, her body, her very life.” Because of this societal norm, women often take on more and more even until hospitalization or chronic illness results.

When my kids were younger, I got really sick for a few months. Any chance I had to crawl back in bed, I took it. No antibiotic or medication could clear my leaden skull or relieve the bone-deep exhaustion. At the time, I wasn’t in the practice of saying no to any kid or community obligation, yet I still felt like it didn’t come close to sufficient effort. That hollow sense of never doing enough finally knocked me to the ground. When I finally got better, it happened again the next year. I still remember the look of disdain on the chorus teacher’s face when I told her I couldn’t take on more volunteer work for the annual show even though my kid was the star. I told her I was ill but that didn’t matter to her one bit. Mystery illnesses and extended periods of exhaustion have also afflicted several friends, possibly with similar origins.

When we live in a society that rewards women by calling us “selfless,” this is what happens. We can’t have a self? All we should care about is everyone else? Holy shit. We have learned that it is a moral good to sacrifice ourselves and our well-being “at the altar of other people’s comfort” as the Nagoskis put it.

Proof of this conditioning pops in every time I buy groceries. Unless I specifically write on my list FOOD FOR ME, I will leave the store with an over-full cart and still have nothing for lunch the next day. My family’s own conditioning shows itself daily when they throw the door open to my quiet writing space, express no appreciation for a meal I have prepared, or fail to acknowledge that I have dropped my own work to help them out of a fix.

It has harmed us to live in a world where some people give everything until they have nothing left and are punished if they fall short—or if they do something totally against the rules, like ask to have their own needs met. We are encouraged and praised when we humblebrag about the number of hours we helped a kid with a science fair project (I never did this but my Facebook feed was FULL of other moms’ work). But what if we shared about how we’d caught up on our sleep and felt amazing? Others would resent that we’re not following the rules of over-giving and not want to hear it.

In the last few years pre-pandemic, I had only dipped a toe into saying no. That audacity has been punished by certain friends, or people I thought were friends, by being cut out of their inner circle. The only thing that changed was my refusal to add their agenda item onto my already full list of obligations. If I didn’t give more than I reasonably could, I was out.

So, what do we do about it? The Nagoskis recommend we start by removing these over-giving expectations from ourselves and each other, not relying on “self-care” but instead that all of us care for one another. Not asking for more when we know our friends are already overextended. Enlisting our partners to help unlearn it in our families. Consciously choosing a world where everyone feels responsible to one another. Honestly, this sounds freaking impossible, but to me, the idea is exciting.

The only path forward is to start small, creating awareness of how we perceive women in our own homes and circles. If you are man reading this, ask yourself what you expect of the women and girls in your life that you do not expect of the men and boys. Do you consider yourself “helping” in the domestic realm or do you assume equal responsibility? If you do plenty at home but harbor resentment over it, that’s a hint that you don’t actually consider any of it “your job.” Take a good hard look at your conditioning. Your parents modeled roles you internalized. Question those roles. If you are a woman, ask what healthy limits look like for you. This may be hard considering you’ve been conditioned to believe there are no limits on the amount you should give. Examine the unpaid labor you provide in the community and how doing the work makes you feel: energized or depleted? Make a list of work you’d say no to if examined in this context. Consider saying no.

There are so many spaces that take advantage of women doing work for free, or close to it, when real policy change is needed (i.e., public school teachers, PTA moms who take over unpaid swaths of responsibility at schools, women who do the same or more than men and get paid less everywhere all the time.)

The difficulty is that the jobs we have been doing for free (or underpaid) still need to get done. If we truly want societal change it will take men and women demanding it from employers, government representatives and each other. As one example, we can vote for reprentatives who will pay teachers what they are worth. Male-dominated state legislatures have been getting away with ripping off teachers as a traditionally pink collar profession for as long as the job has existed.

Letting go of the idea that we have to be all things to all people isn’t easy. Especially since we’ve been indoctrinated to believe we must be perpetually “pretty, happy, calm, generous and attentive to the needs of others.” It’s enough already. We must actively unlearn it. It will take surrounding ourselves with people who don’t treat us as if we’ve failed if we fall short of over-giving. This will be hard because we want to take care of everyone. We must realize that we cannot—it’s impossible.

We can do this. When we put our needs first and make space for others to do the same, we will make it okay to give to ourselves for a change.

Love,

Elizabeth

*For the sake of inclusivity, let’s assume HGS affects all those who identify with feminine gender norms.

** Men or those who identify with masculine gender norms can be givers too but the danger is in society’s expectation and conditioning of women. No one expects men to give until they end up ill. They are not rejected for taking care of themselves, setting boundaries and saying no, so they are better at it.

WRITING PROMPT: How do you put yourself first in the midst of everyone else’s needs? How can you take better care of yourself?

PS. Follow me on Twitter @heiseelizabeth1 and Instagram @elizabethheise1 for daily essayettes, my IG Live series Tell Me All About It, and future events.

Copyright © *2021* *Elizabeth Heise, LLC.*, All rights reserved.