Whitney Hess is a user experience coach, helping business leaders mindfully and compassionately design their products, their organizations, and themselves. Her life's mission is to put humanity back into business. Whitney is the founder and principal of Vicarious Partners, the author of Pleasure & Pain, and the co-host of Designing Yourself. She is powered by hops, oysters and OMs.
You can follow her on Twitter @whitneyhess.
This is the story I was told: When I was 3 years old, my mom strapped me into a children's ride at a local amusement park and told the operator to gun it. As I screamed for it to stop, she told him to go faster. I cried, she laughed. And I just kept going around and around and around.
There's no way this actually happened. My mom has a sick sense of humor, but she isn't a sadist. I couldn't have been publicly tortured without witnesses. I never would have been alone on a kiddie coaster, would I? And yet the memory feels so real. Either I exaggerated it in my own head, or whoever told me the story as a kid greatly embellished. Regardless, it now lives as a trauma in the deep recesses of my mind.
I don't think about it often, but looking back now I am sure this was the defining moment of my life. The first time I learned that someone else is in control of the throttle. And they aren't afraid to use it. The notion was unacceptable to me, and as soon as I was old enough to exert my will, I never let anyone control me again.
It's been about 30 years of being a control freak, but I hide it well. I go along with whatever restaurant my friends pick. I let people cut me in the boarding line. That stuff doesn't faze me. But when it comes to any decision where I have to live with the consequences, you better believe I'm in the driver seat.
Sure, it's nice to get my way. I just wish I didn't always have to fight so hard to make it happen.
You see, this desperate need to be in control is actually incredibly painful. I live in a battle against nature, sailing against the wind, constantly maneuvering in order to get where I'm trying to go. The universe says "No," and I say, "Screw you, universe! You can't stop me." But the universe always wins in the end.
"If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it." — Toni Morrison
To surrender is to cease resistance. To stop fighting. To give up, to give in, to abandon. In my lifelong refusal to do this, I've ended up causing myself a whole lot of stress and anxiety and anguish.
Some things just aren't meant for me. Some things aren't meant to be this hard. Oftentimes the ends don't justify the means, especially when the means mean destroying yourself.
Why live life fighting fate?
I've worked tirelessly to get where I am in my career. But sometimes I can't help but wonder if I have sacrificed more than I have gained. The notion that I could do less and have more haunts me. Where might I have ended up had I been willing to ride the wind? Where would I be now? What if I let nature carry me to exactly where I'm meant to be?
"We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." — Joseph Campbell
As I look back at 12 months of writing here, I can see now how the journey unfolded. I gave myself a year to live, to overcome my fear of death, to live in the present, to search for space, to give myself permission, to ask for help, to find my place, to take a load off.
I learned you have to be willing to lose it all to have it all. Put your trust in the universe to take care of you and you'll get exactly what you need. And it will be so much more than you ever could have devised.
So I'm taking a deep breath, I'm closing my eyes, and I'm letting go of the wheel. Now it's your turn.
Taking the Weight Off
I've always turned to food for comfort. Whenever I'm stressed or tired or sad or confused or bored or even celebratory, the first thing I reach for is food. What I crave the most is feeling full. More like stuffed. I'm not really satisfied until I'm in pain, stomach groaning, begging for mercy. That's when I stop.
I've struggled with my weight my whole life, but I don't think I was ever really conscious of it until high school. The first shaming thought I can remember having was just before I went on a beach vacation with my friend's family and couldn't stop stressing about everyone seeing my thighs. What I would give now to have those thighs again! Then, I kept a sarong wrapped around me the entire trip. Wore oversized t-shirts over my bathing suits. Got into the water only when no one was looking. Made sure a towel was always close by for as soon as I got out. Sixteen years old and I was terribly self-conscious. I guess what 16-year-old isn't?
But despite all of it, I never changed my eating habits. I never went on a diet or tried to work out. I kept eating the same crap I'd always eaten, and just felt worse about myself afterwards.
When college came, I most definitely gained the Freshman 15. More like 20. I pulled all-nighters drinking 32 oz. fountain sodas and subsisted mostly on pizza, burgers and fries. Heck, I was busy and that's what the cafeteria served. When I came home from school that summer, my parents made some mention of my appearance and I joined a gym the next day. But after seven weeks in bed with Mono, I never made it back to the gym and was even a few pounds heavier. When my mom encouraged me to try to lose some weight before heading back to school, I spent two weeks fasting and lost 12 pounds. Even though I was so tired during the day I could hardly keep my eyes open and my head was splitting, part of me felt like a million bucks.
I went back to school feeling skinny and suddenly boys were noticing me. That certainly wasn't the reinforcement I needed, but that's how it works, and that's when conditioning kicks in. Three weeks into my sophomore year were the attacks on September 11, and my world came crashing down. I went into a deep depression and spent the rest of the school year sitting in front of the TV eating pints of ice cream. My sweet roommates often invited me to come work out with them, but I always declined. I wanted to feel like shit and I saw to it that I did.
When I graduated college and got my first full-time job, I was at my heaviest. Between finals and the job search, I had eaten myself into oblivion. Not to mention I had thrown my back out a couple months prior and was self-medicating to numb the pain. And my grandma was dying and there was nothing I could do about it. Man, those days blew.
My new best friend at work, a 40-year-old married guy who I was painfully infatuated with, ever-so-gently encouraged me to start eating better now that I was officially an adult and living on my own. He and his wife taught me how to shop at the farmers market and cook my own meals. I sought out a nutritionist to learn what I was supposed to eat for the first time in 23 years. By the time I was 24, I was slim and turning heads again. I worked the online dating sites like it was my job and had free meals lined up every night of the week.
The next few years were a blur of ups and downs and ups and downs. In my bouts of anxiety and depression, I found myself stuck to the couch again, Chubby Hubby in hand. Then every so often, a kind friend would come along and rescue me from my despair, inspire me to start exercising and eating well again, and I'd lose it all. And again.
Less than a week after my 29th birthday, two dear friends who were reading The 4-Hour Body strongly urged me to read it and join them on their new "eating plan...definitely not a diet!" When two men friends — one whom you not-so-secretly have a major crush on — encourage you to read a diet book, you read it and you go on a diet. Two weeks later, that friend and I were finally in item, and now were on a healthy eating journey together, cheering one another on. In the three months until my best friend's wedding, he lost 45 pounds, and I lost 17. We cheated a bit over the wedding weekend, but were back on track by the next week. He kept losing and I maintained for the next six months until our culinary vacation to northern Spain. Clearly all bets were off there, and we both came back having gained 10 pounds each. It was a week before my 30th birthday and our one-year anniversary of starting 4HB.
We got right back on the wagon, lost all the weight and kept going. That summer I took a three-week solo retreat in Upstate New York just to write and think, and stayed on plan the whole time. By fall, I was back to my wedding low and determined to keep it off. I knew the yo-yoing couldn't be good for me, and it would be even harder to keep up as I got older. "Make good choices" became my mantra, and when I remembered it, I did.
In the two years since then, I'm not sure I can explain exactly what has happened. We made a dramatic life change when we sold all our furniture, gave away all our belongings, and left New York for the Florida Keys. Even though it was everything we wanted, it was still an emotional toll leaving everything we knew and going to the middle of nowhere where we had no friends and even fewer resources.
As always, food became my constant companion. When my emotions are running amok and the world is swirling around me, I can always sit down with my favorite snacks and revel in the familiar. When I'm feeling lost and empty, I can make myself found and full. But because I was biking everywhere and going to yoga every day, the weight didn't creep up on me as fast as it usually did. Not until we decided to head west to San Diego and spent two weeks in the car eating our way across the South. Savannah, Birmingham, New Orleans, San Antonio — these places are known for their food, and who am I to pass it up?
By the time we hit California, I couldn't fit into any of my clothes. And in the year since we've been here, I haven't been able to get it off. Well, more like keep it off. That's the issue — I know how to buckle down and eat better and exercise more, but only for the short term when not too much else is going on in my world. As soon as the stress kicks in, the depression rears its ugly head, financial or family troubles crop up, bad news hits, and I lose my resolve, I gain it all back. And lately, despite so much in my life going so right, I seem to be burying something deep.
Today I am close to my all-time high. I feel like I have constant indigestion. I'm not even enjoying the food that I'm eating, but I eat it anyway. Fredrick, who I unfairly relied on to keep me on plan, now works nights and isn't around to help me make good choices. I pretty much drive everywhere and rarely get my walks in. I've been traveling for work almost every week and haven't been to yoga in months. I can't even remember the last time I took my vitamins.
While we are living our dream life in the city we love aboard the sailboat we call home, sometimes the pressure of keeping it all going is just too much. The last six months have brought enormous change to my business and I'm still getting used to it all. My work has become much more personal and I have no doubt I'm internalizing my clients' emotions with overactive empathy. I've never really owned anything before, and the responsibility of owning and maintaining a sailboat is probably the most "adult" thing I've ever undertaken. And while I am deeply grateful that I have so much momentum in my business, the nonstop travel is certainly taking its toll. My sleep schedule is totally off, my back is a mess, and my to do list is a mile long. And worst of all, being away from Fredrick this much is the worst pain in the world.
Tonight my massage therapist told me that she can tell I've been detached from my body. Maybe I've been detached from my body all along, ever since that 16-year-old gorgeous girl worried so much about people seeing her thighs. Maybe I've spent a lifetime not really knowing my body. Part of what's taking me around the world this year is a presentation I'm giving on mind-heart-body integration and the necessity of living our lives as whole human beings. But as I like to say, we teach what we need to learn. And apparently I still need to learn how to be whole.
Tonight she told me that eating my feelings is a literal suppression of them. To prevent them from coming out of my mouth, I eat to push them back down to my stomach where they stay silent, but festering. They cloud my intuition and put up defenses around my gut. I'm pretty sure I already knew all of this, but I needed to hear it from her.
"What is your gut telling you?" she asked. "I'm full," I said. And I didn't mean food.
Enough has never been enough for me. I can't seem to accept when I'm done, and to let myself stop. It's that way in all aspects of my life, and it always has been. If I actually acknowledged that I have enough work, enough clients, enough money, enough love and happiness and peace, I would have to stop trying. I would have to stop doing. And then what would life be like? Then who would I be?
I think I've been afraid to find out.
It's time to admit that I'm full. To stop adding on more. To let myself empty out. And then to stay empty, for as long as I can, and to see where that takes me.
To finally take the weight off, once and for all.
Home is Where the Heart Is
I'm writing this from my parents' guest bedroom. It's odd being a guest in your own parents' home. Despite this being the place where I was born, it hasn't felt like home for quite a while. This room used to be my dad's office, but when I moved out after college, he took over my old bedroom and this became the guest room. I didn't really care then because I already had my own place, and whenever I came to visit my folks, we just hung out in the living room anyway. I never really paid much attention to the change.
Not until two years ago, actually. Two years ago to the day. I was sitting in this room, sitting on the bed because it's the only place in this room to sit. I had all of my earthly possessions around me, not a square inch of carpet to be seen. The lease on my brownstone apartment in Brooklyn had ended at the end of September and I had chosen not to renew it. So with no idea where I was going next, I moved in to my parents' guest bedroom at 30 years old. That will surely make you think about your life.
Fredrick and I knew we wanted to leave New York, but we had no idea where we wanted to go. We needed space and a slower pace, but didn't know where to find it. When I was alone in my parents' guest room, he was alone in his family's home in rural northern Sweden, taking some time to decompress after quitting his corporate job of three years without a backup plan. Meanwhile I was running my business from an uncomfortable bed in a room that isn't mine in a place I no longer consider home, tripping over duffel bags and boxes of books when I had to go to bathroom in the middle of the night, with no clue where I was going nor when I was going there.
Fredrick and I had decided to wait until he was back in NYC to figure things out, but less than a week into his five-week sabbatical, I was crawling out of my skin. Just as I am today, two years ago this week I was taking the 40-minute subway ride each day from my parents' apartment on the Upper East Side to Brooklyn Beta to hang with the web elite. Back then I was telling tales of our intended adventures while trepidatiously not knowing the destination, and now two years later I know better than to even have one.
I have lived more in the last 24 months than I ever had in the prior 363 months combined.
We found home in the Florida Keys with our 16-foot Carolina Skiff docked out back, watching sunsets sitting in the open Atlantic Ocean with a bottle of wine, catching our dinner and grilling it up under the diamond-crusted sky. A year later we drove cross-country to San Diego, found home steps from the sand with a porch overlooking the Pacific, where surfers change out of their wetsuits with towels precariously tied around their waists, and in the distance pelicans skim the waves and whales breach during their migration south.
And on Monday, we bought a sailboat, a 37-foot sloop older than I am, and we'll make her home next. We named her Jenny because Fredrick's family tradition is to use the Swedish name days calendar to name stuff, and Jenny happened to be the name on Monday, October 6. Serendipitously and to our surprise, Jenny means "white wave," and in some cultures "fair and yielding" and "God is gracious." A perfect fit.
So as I lie here on my parents' guest bed (more comfortable now because I made them buy a new one), I no longer long for a home. I've learned home is where the heart is, and my heart's with Fredrick, so I'll never be homeless again.
And now with Jenny, who knows where we'll go next.
I Need Help
If you want something done right, do it yourself. That’s what we’re taught anyway. So we hone our self-reliance over a lifetime of hardship. We convince ourselves of others’ inadequacy and marvel in our own superiority. Everyone else is simply incapable of doing things just as we would, so why let them try? We grin and bear it, we refuse the hand, we say “no thank you” more than we know. All because the burden is ours and we aren’t supposed to share it.
I have run a business by myself for nine years. Aside from the once-a-year guidance of my accountant and attorney, I have done it all alone. Not only do I do all the client work, I do all the billing, the marketing, and the business development, too. I’ve been at the end of my rope dozens of times and each time begged for mercy, wanting so desperately to be rescued. And I’ve come close to hiring someone to share the load — but I chickened out every time.
That was until March of this year, after I had taken the beginning of the year off from client work to focus on personal projects and suddenly found myself buried under unexpectedly enormous tax bill. Apparently I had spent too little last year, and now I had to pay for it. Big time.
After being in business all these years, it turned out I couldn’t take any time off without threatening my entire livelihood. The truth hurts.
I finally realized the way I’ve been running my business just wasn’t working. I needed a way to make passive income when I wasn’t actively busting my butt. I needed a way to sell future business while I was busy with what I had last sold. What I really needed was a clone. But with no way to create one, I only had one other option: I had to ask for help.
I emailed a friend of a friend who helps business owners make their businesses work for them rather than the other way around. In just a few sessions, she completely flipped the way I see my business and manage my time. With her help, I created a whole new business model and in no time, new clients were flooding in. And yet again I was faced with the sad reality of only being able to grow to my own maximum capacity. When you realize you are the limiting factor of your business, it’s time to make a serious change.
For the first time probably ever, I started tracking how I spend my time. I needed to know what I was actually doing all day every day and how much of it was utilizing the best of my talents. It was less than a week later when the facts slapped me in the face — more than 75% of my time was on menial tasks that have nothing to do with the gifts I have to give to the world. I was at capacity, yet doing things I had no business doing. I had stunted my business with my own stubbornness.
So I asked for help again. I put together a list of all those ongoing tasks and asked my friends to help me find a dedicated assistant. I readied myself to go through lots of résumés, conduct several interviews, do a bunch of things I’ve never done before and have no idea how to do.
But to my complete surprise, the help was much closer than I expected. A former coworker from many moons ago, who I’ve loosely kept in touch with on Facebook, was contemplating her next move when she saw my post. With experience as an executive assistant, project manager and marketer, her skill set is exactly what I wanted but never dreamed I could have. It was serendipity for the both of us. All the fears I had about getting to know someone new, letting someone in, making myself vulnerable, allowing someone to support me, it all suddenly vanished because I knew I could trust her. She knows how to help. That’s her gift.
In less than a week since we made it official, I’m already amazed at how easy it has been. So much more is possible now. Swaths of free time have suddenly opened up for me. Side projects I’d long abandoned are now getting the attention they deserve. All the systems I’ve needed to put in place but never had the energy to create — because I was too busy keeping myself afloat — can now be implemented. And the growth will be exponential, for my bottom line and my well-being.
Yes, it will be some time before I can truly measure the impact of these decisions. But I already know with certainty I will never feel the same about who I am, who I’m supposed to be, and what potential lies ahead for my business and for me.
It’s nothing short of a revelation: I need help. I’m not ashamed to admit it, and I’m no longer afraid to ask.
I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I’ve had a lot on my mind. Building my coaching business. Finding a new place to live. Trying to buy a sailboat. Negotiating contracts on upcoming speaking gigs. Rewriting a book proposal for what feels like the ten-thousandth time. It’s a lot.
Being independent means I do pretty much everything alone. I go to every meeting. I make every decision. The buck stops with me.
Only in the last year have I started delegating at all. I hired a virtual assistant to do all the tasks I had no reason doing myself — filling out forms, making appointments, basic web research, that kind of stuff. For years I insisted that absolutely no one else could do these things as well as I could, so I resisted getting help. Of course it turns out he does them better and faster than I ever did.
In our first season of Designing Yourself, Paul and I did all of the editing ourselves. He’s great at it, but I have no idea what I’m doing and wasted so many hours making stupid mistakes. I hated admitting I couldn’t do it and, far worse, hated asking Paul to do it all. So while I was on this delegating kick, I found a professional podcast editor for Season 2. Now we send him our recordings, and in a few days, a finished episode comes back. It’s been bliss.
I face the same challenges in my personal life. Fredrick and I have an amazingly equal partnership, but there’s still so much I won’t let him do for me. It’s been three years this month and I’m still not good at relying on him. When I ask him to do something, I check in on him a dozen times, or worse, look over his shoulder when he does it. It’s not a matter of trust — there’s no one in the world I trust more — but I’m simply not used to the help.
So I’ve been bearing a particularly heavy load lately and I haven’t been getting enough rest. Last weekend, we were both working on the couch and I felt myself getting tired. He could tell. I laid my head on his shoulder as I have a million times before, but this time when I went to move, he told me to stay. “Close your eyes.” “Just a minute,” I replied.
What felt like just a moment later, I opened my eyes. My head was still on his shoulder, his hand in my lap, but the light had shifted in the room. Fredrick was reading on his iPad with his other hand. “Did I fall asleep?” I asked. “About 40 minutes ago,” he smiled. I was stunned. I can’t remember ever sleeping that well. It was like a full night’s sleep.
“What happened?” It’s this weird thing I ask him whenever I fall asleep first. Like I want to know what I missed. “You fell asleep. Hard.” He said he knew I needed rest and didn’t want to risk waking me so he didn’t move a muscle. He said I was lying there lightly at first, and then with each passing minute my head got heavier, and heavier, and heavier. He said it was like I was melting into him, until eventually I had my whole weight on him, my breathing changed, and I went into a deep sleep.
From the way he told it, I could tell this had been a profound experience for him. Half of his body was numb, but his heart was full. I’d let him support me. Fully. Finally.
In a session this week with a client who’s going through a tough time, she kept listing off all the things she has to do for her bosses, her team, her kids, her parents. “Who do you have to support you?” I asked. She paused for a while, like it wasn’t a question she’d considered before. “Well, there isn’t anything anyone else can do.” It sounded like I was talking to myself.
“I know it feels that way,” I said, “but maybe you can let someone try?”
If Not Now
I turn 32 tomorrow so I've been thinking a lot about growing up.
To the aspiring practitioners I coach and mentor every day, I'm a senior in the field. To the people who met me when I was just starting out, I'm still a junior. To me, I'm somewhere in between.
My heart tells me I'm an old pro, my mind tells me I'm a little girl. Drinking from the dual fountains of self-confidence and self-doubt, I waver between readiness and permission. In my heart I know I can do anything; the voice inside my head says, "You can't." I'm more eager than ever to make big moves, and yet something still holds me back.
I've sought approval from others my whole life. I've lived by shouldn'ts and supposed-tos. Even with a burning desire to act, I've waited for permission from those I deemed more experienced, more reputable, more sure. I'm actually less afraid of failure than I am of defying those I revere most.
When I quit my job to run my consulting business full-time, I had the implicit permission of my parents, themselves lifelong entrepreneurs. I had people's encouragement for some time, but I wasn't yet ready to pull the plug. As soon as I got ready, it all clicked. My inner permission finally matched my outer permission, and it all fell into place.
When I was nine months into my coaching certification program, I felt ready to call myself a coach. I had the methodology down pat. I had the philosophy in my bones. I was chomping at the bit to shift my business. But I had three months left until certification, so I stopped myself. I was ready, but I didn't yet have permission. I was so scared I wouldn't be certified, I wouldn't pass the test. So I waited.
The day after I was certified, all my creativity was unlocked. I had a coaching services page up two days later and had three new clients by the end of the week.
Permission is external. Readiness is internal. Do we really need both to move forward?
When I turned 30, I suddenly had this realization that I was officially an adult and no longer needed anyone's permission. "Screw you, I'm 30!" I'd say out loud to my imaginary naysayers. Not long after, I left New York, left everything behind I'd ever known in search of a life that was more me. I sold all of the possessions I was always told I was supposed to have, I said goodbye to all of the conveniences I was always told I was supposed to love, and I did exactly what was in my heart. Why was I moving to the middle of nowhere when I had a thriving business on the brink of expansion? "Because I'm 30 and I can do whatever I want!"
But that audaciousness didn't last. Two years later and I still find myself desperate for approval.
Tomorrow I turn 32. The age I always thought of as a woman's prime! Am I going to enter it timid and compliant? Or am I going to set off like a rocket and fly?
In 2010, I read an article about a man who spent 1,152 days on the open sea, mostly alone, in a boat he built himself; it was the longest continuous journey ever undertaken by one person. When I first read it, I thought the guy was friggin' nuts. "I would never do that!" But for some reason, I bookmarked the article, and I've reread it several times since. Each time I read it, a strange thing happens: the less crazy he seems and the more jealous I get.
Against every expectation I ever had for myself, I now have a similar dream. I'm in love with a man who wants the same things, as crazy as they are. We've been designing our lives, individually and together, since the day we became a couple, egging each other on every step of the way. Maybe we're ready to take the next leap. Maybe we give each other permission to be ourselves.
It's time to take off the shackles, the ones I put on myself. It's time to march to the beat of my own drummer and revel in my independence. It's time to live my life with total authenticity. As far as I know, I only have one life to live. I don't have time to wait around for anyone else's approval. I have to give it to myself.
I want to wear sundresses and flip flops to client meetings. I want to speak my mind without fear of retribution. I want to experiment with my business to see where it takes me. I want to stop thinking about kids because I don't want them right now and maybe I never will. I want to live on a boat and sail around the world because it sounds fun.
I just want to be me, regardless of whether I have permission, regardless of whether I'm ready. If not me, who? If not now, when?
I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined
I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned
Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find
Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten
— Natasha Bedingfield
A Lifetime of Bullies
It started when you were five on the kindergarten school bus. An older girl threatened to punch your mom if you didn't bring her caramels. Your mom caught you stealing caramels from the kitchen drawer, found out, and it stopped.
Your "best friend" in kindergarten would hit you. Sometimes you'd say something she didn't like so she'd slap you across the face or hurt you when you played sports. Eventually the principal got involved, and it stopped.
Throughout elementary school, you could never keep up with the other kids in gym class. Your teachers taunted you by calling you grandma. More than twenty years later and you still have body image issues.
In the 4th grade, you went to a new school where a girl in your class soon made you her "slave" and forced you to do her chores. No one liked her, and because you were associated with her, you didn't make many friends.
In the 5th grade, you were asked to join the popular clique. You quickly became their bitch because you were at the bottom of the totem pole. They taunted you, ordered you around, made you run their errands. Pretty typical stuff. Their teasing was so unbearable, you started getting "sick" so your parents would come pick you up from sleepovers early.
In the 7th grade, you shunned the popular girls and were befriended by the bad boys. They pressured you to drink, smoke, steal, vandalize, cut school, whatever. You resisted most of it.
At the end of 8th grade, you begged your parents to let you switch schools. The only other option was too far away so they didn't let you. They never knew the extent of what was going on.
You can't remember a lot of high school. You were mostly zoned out, resigned. You had a core group of friends, most of them who you're still close with today. They were good kids who grew up to be great people. You're lucky you found them in what was otherwise a hell.
One guy who you considered a close friend tried to force you to pleasure him. He pushed your head down and entered your mouth, but you bit down so he pulled out. Then your friend's dad emerged from his bedroom, and it stopped.
You had a guy do the same thing freshman year of college. You really liked him and he seemed to like you. You were kissing on the bottom bunk in his dorm room and before you knew it, he was pushing your head down. You wiggled free and ran out. You had to live down the hall from him for the rest of the year.
Whatever innocence you had that constantly made you a target was now lost. You started being the aggressor. You became obsessed with getting ahead. You made your own rules. You left a lot of broken hearts in your wake.
You became very hard, private, standoffish. It continued that way through grad school and your first few full-time jobs. When you were 26, you traveled to a conflict-torn region. What you saw changed you. You learned what real survivors look like. It cracked open your heart.
You came home and the next day walked into your boss's office and quit. You never wanted to be owned again.
You started making yourself more vulnerable with men, with friends, through your blog, and on Twitter. You wanted to share parts of your story to inspire people to open their hearts and follow their dreams. You found success pretty quickly and was encouraged to keep sharing.
At some point, you got too successful for some people's liking. A malicious anonymous Twitter account made regular jabs at your inexperience. Old-guard leaders in the field publicly mocked you about whatever they felt you weren't living up to. You got hate mail and death threats and had to move everything to a P.O. box so you couldn't be found. You were a victim once again.
Sometimes you go quiet and the vitriol quiets down. Sometimes you make a misstep and the engine starts back up again. Mostly you just try to live your life and not let their hate control you.
You've been in therapy on and off for 18 years. Your diagnosis is as minor as you can get — adjustment disorder with anxiety. Your current therapist (who is by far your best) calls it "fear of annihilation." Apparently you are triggered when you see other people unable to defend themselves. You stick your neck out to be a shield, to protect them from harm.
After a lifetime of abuse, you know you can take it.
Sure it hurts; you don't enjoy the negative attention, the insults or the pain. But you'd rather it be you.
You're used to it.
Who Do We Think We Are?
I saw something disgusting happen on Twitter the other day. A pioneer in the community who has selflessly shared his knowledge for the last two decades was being criticized for the outdated design of his personal website. This is unfortunately a fairly common occurrence, but there were two things about this specific situation that stood out: 1) The person being criticized has a young daughter fighting brain cancer. 2) The person doing the criticizing didn’t bother to read the most recent gut-wrenching post all about it right on the front page of said website. Instead, after what must have been just a passing glance, the critic took to Twitter to publicly chastise the luminary for not keeping up with the times.
The exchange struck a nerve not only because this leader is a friend and my heart aches for what he and his family are going through, but also because over the years I’ve been subject to the same sort of criticism. Some of it comes from people I’ve never heard of, sitting in over-lit cubicles with nothing better to do, I picture. But from time to time, I receive this kind of scathing commentary from prominent leaders in our own community.
A year ago, a well-known author and designer (with his very own Wikipedia page) used his public platform to vent that he would soon be sharing a stage with me and didn’t know if he’d be able to get through his talk without saying "something" about me. When his loyal followers replied their assent, they spent the next half an hour tearing apart my website for its lack of visual design in 140-character increments.
Now we’ve all heard the saying about the cobbler’s children having no shoes, and it would be an easy retort to say I’m so booked up with client work that I don’t have the time to fiddle with my website. But why should I have to? Why do we as a community tolerate this kind of intellectual bullying? Why is it socially acceptable to point out all the ways other people aren’t performing to our (unachievable) standards?
What might happen if we redirected the energy we spend tearing others down on building ourselves up? What might we all be able to create then?
I am as guilty of this as anyone else. The first year of my blog was spent annotating usability flaws on popular websites. I know I was unkind. At the time, finding fault in others was my way of proving my own worth. It was shitty. I desperately hope I never cut anyone down as they were watching their child die. But how would I have known? That’s the point: we never can.
To restore our virtue, every single one of us must dedicate ourselves to finding compassion and spreading love when our instincts may be to presume our superiority over people we (in most cases) hardly even know. Instead of resorting to criticism to make us feel better about ourselves, let’s work together to actually be better — as practitioners and as human beings.
Searching for Space
We had just left my friend’s birthday party at a crowded bar in a busy neighborhood on a Saturday night in NYC. We hadn’t had much to drink because we could hardly make our way to the bar. It was hot, it was loud, and being over 30, we were tired.
We hailed a taxi and breathed a sigh of relief once we were finally on our way home. But just a few blocks ahead of us, blocking our path to the bridge and to salvation, was bumper-to-bumper traffic. The light would turn green, we’d move forward three inches, then the light would turn red. Green, another inch, back to red.
Given the time and location, this was pretty typical. I’d probably been stopped in this exact spot at least a dozen times. Not to mention the thousands of times (maybe even tens of thousands) I’d gotten stuck on some other block at some other time of day. I’ve been in more cabs than I could possibly count. “Taxi” was my first word after “ma” and “da.” That’s how much of a New Yorker I am.
But for some reason this night was different. Holding my boyfriend’s hand in the back of that taxi, crawling along Bowery, the flashing lights and party sounds of NYC all around us, it just happened — I had a full-on panic attack.
My heart started racing. My palms got sweaty. I couldn’t breathe. I felt faint. Out of nowhere I screamed to Fredrick to get out of the cab. He jumped and I stumbled out after him, panting on the curb between two parked cars. He was baffled, but I couldn’t get myself together enough to explain what was going on. I saw a restaurant across the street and ran, throwing open the door and begging the cleaning staff to let me use the restroom. I raced in and locked the door behind me, and there in a dirty unisex restaurant bathroom, I lost myself.
When I finally emerged to Fredrick’s looks of concern, I only had one thing to say: “I have to get out of New York.”
With everything I had in life, I didn’t have the one thing I so desperately needed — my space.
That was the beginning of 2012 and it took us ten months to make the move. Fredrick quit his job, I bought a Jeep, we sold most of our stuff, filled the truck with the rest, and drove on down to the Florida Keys.
For six months we lived in a two-bedroom house with a private dock on a canal that led out to the ocean. We caught our own dinner on our 16-foot skiff, watched sunsets with a bottle of wine from a secluded island only the locals know, stared at the Milky Way with our heads tilted back and a fresh log on the fire pit. It was silent. It was serene. It was the opposite of everything I’d ever known.
But the frenzy was still inside of me.
I thought I could get away from it, I thought I could leave it behind. I had given myself space, but only in my surroundings. I had failed to realize the space I really needed was within.
About 18 months after that taxi ride, I began to meditate. I started going to yoga every day. I found Buddhism. I eventually realized that it had been a lifetime of panic that came to a head in that one moment. The pressures to succeed, to achieve more, to produce faster, to attain, to possess, they were slowly killing me. My attachments and my aversions were causing me deep suffering. When I wasn’t moving forward, I wasn’t alive. That’s what had happened in the back of that cab; being stopped was as bad as death.
After another six months in Key West, we moved to San Diego where beaches and sailing are features of a major city. The rural life wasn’t really for us. And anyway, I didn’t need it…once I learned the space I’d been looking for was already mine.
I make my spaciousness whenever I want. Space for reflection. Space for rest. Space for awareness. Space for acceptance. Space for possibility. Space for peace. Best of all, I don’t have to do a thing. I just have to be. Human being, not human doing.
Now emptiness is my everything. Presence is my productivity. I am the designer of my own inner experience, and gradually, inch by inch, I’m beginning to feel free.
A New Perspective
Every time my boyfriend takes his boat out from a place he hasn’t been before, he always looks behind him as he leaves. The first time I saw him do it, I nagged him for not looking straight ahead. “If I don’t get a mental picture of it now,” he said, “I won’t be able to find my way back.”
His foresight reminded me of a drawing class I took one summer in college. On our first day of class, the teacher led us out of the building and brought us a few blocks away to this beautiful plaza. He sat us side-by-side along the curb and told us to draw what we saw down the narrow street in front of us. I wasn’t a very good drawer—heck, I’m still not a good drawer—but I found it very satisfying to precisely capture what was there. At the end of class, I was so proud of what I’d created. It looked so accurate.
But what happened next was really amazing. The teacher had us all look at each other’s drawings. Not to see everyone else’s talent, but for a much more important reason. Even though we had been staring at the same spot for the last hour, we were all seeing it from different angles. Suddenly looking at everyone else’s drawings we were able to see the street so much more fully, in all its magnitude.
Getting another person’s perspective has a way of giving things greater dimension. They become richer, bigger, more detailed. The world looks more full. Just by taking a moment to look at it from a new angle.
I was drawn to coaching to help people see their own lives from a new perspective. When there are more dimensions, there are more possibilities. Life has a way of opening up. Things that seemed wrong or impossible no longer do.
Do you have the full picture or have you only been seeing it one way?
My Year to Live
As a child, I had night terrors. I’d wake up screaming at the top of my lungs, tears streaming down my face, traumatized by what I’d just experienced. Feeling myself fall off a cliff. Feeling someone grab my neck from behind. Or worse, seeing the people I loved dead in a pile in the middle of the room. These fucked up visions were the product of my young mind, but they felt entirely real and sometimes it would take my parents hours to convince me otherwise.
It’s surprising I’m such a well-adjusted and fully-functioning adult today, but the truth is those terrors never stopped. Only they don’t happen at night anymore. Instead they occupy my waking mind. Whenever a plane experiences turbulence, I’m sure we’re going down. When I feel an unfamiliar pain, I’m sure it’s cancer. When my boyfriend takes longer than expected to come home, I check the news for reports of an accident. When my family calls unexpectedly, my heart sinks as I assume the worst.
I am debilitated by my fear of death.
This year instead of my usual 10 resolutions like drink more water or read a book a week, I’ve chosen to focus on just this one. But how do you go about unraveling something that has been knotted up inside of you for all this time? Something that seems so innate to who you are.
I could obsess over analyzing all the reasons why I am this way, dredge up the past and pick it apart. But I can’t undo the past no matter how hard I try. Instead I need to focus on the now and what I can do to change who I am today.
As with all kinds of fear, regardless of what, there’s a fixation on the future. What might happen and how it will make us feel. All the what-ifs flood in. We spend so much time conjuring up the future, we actually cause ourselves the pain we’re so desperately afraid of. We end up living in our imaginations and not in the real world that surrounds us, the safe and comfortable present tense.
All this fear of dying and I’m not fully living. Where’s the sense in that?
I don’t know when death is going to ring my bell, or take away the people I love. I certainly can’t control it. All I can control is me, by cultivating presence and living for today. Every moment I spend with my head in the future is a moment I’ve lost being here now.
2014 is my year to live.