Archive | Fear

Remember Who You Are


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This post was inspired by, among other things, recent posts by Justine Musk and Julie Daley and a note from my cousin, Maritherese. Thank you, ladies.

Last year, in the Spring, I was preparing to lead a workshop. It was new. It was big. It was exciting.

I was terrified.

I stopped at my favorite park, which happens to be on the way from here to almost anywhere (at least I make it be on the way from Here to There), to walk the trail and think, which I often do. This time, when I stopped at the giant rosemary bush and pinched off a tip and inhaled its pungent fragrance, I prayed. “Help me! Send me guidance.”

And I got an answer.

Clear as a bell.

So fast that I was still inhaling.

“Remember who you are.”

My exhale became a sigh of relief. Remember who you are. Yes, I can do that. I know what I know. I am a teacher.

I was able to center, to focus, to relax. To stand in my power. I taught my workshop, and it went well. I shared my knowledge, people laughed in all the right places, and my voice was my friend, not my enemy.

Remember who you are.

I walk that trail often, and it has become a ritual to pause, pinch a sprig of rosemary, breathe it in and remind myself, “Remember who you are.” It is my church. It is my labyrinth. That breath fills my body, my heart soars with the hawks circling overhead, my feet grow roots down into the earth, and I connect – with myself, with everything.

Remember who you are.

Here’s the funny thing. Who I am is constantly changing. Who I am is shaped by my experiences, by who I meet. By what I learn. By what I choose, by what I avoid. I am constantly changing.

And. Who I am is unchanging and eternal. My friend Lewis Brown Griggs speaks in his TEDx talk about our souls being at our core as if at the center of a tornado, where even a feather is in such stillness that it can’t be harmed. I love this wonderful metaphor – it reminds us that who we are cannot be killed or damaged or lose access to the Light and Love from which we all come, no matter what horrific events befall us.

Remember who you are.

Not long after my walk in the park and the workshop I taught, I met a horse who changed my life. We introduced ourselves, and spent some time being together in the pasture. Then he suddenly laid down next to me in the grass. So I laid down next to him, and we rested together. It was…sublime.

I didn’t find out until later that it was unusual. Highly unusual.

Much later, I asked Lewis what he saw when I was lying there with Prince (for this event was witnessed by the group of coaches I was with that day). He said, “Comfort. An amazing sense of complete and total comfort, and when you were lying there with your head on your hand, your head next to Prince’s, that sense of comfort expanded to include everyone who was watching.”

Wow. That kind of blew me away.

I realized that it wasn’t just something that happened to me, I co-created it. And it wasn’t something that just happened to me, it included others. That was a powerful pair of realizations.

Later I was telling this story to my friend Julie, and I told her that I had realized that this was, as one of my teachers says, one of my “Superpowers.” That I am able to create a safe space for others where important stuff can happen.

Julie thought about it for a minute and then said, “It isn’t something you do. It’s who you are.”

Oh my.

Remember who you are.

When I am fully who I am, that makes a safe space for others. To be. To be who they are.

Remember who you are.

The other day I was walking the trail, breathing in the perfume of rosemary, and it occurred to me that remembering who I am means that I have known who I am. I have only forgotten. And yet I am always getting to know myself. Apparently that continual discovery is continual remembering.

I recently had an insight about fear, and about the part of myself that is afraid. But that part of me isn’t Me. I had a glimmer of understanding that there is an ancient and eternal me that isn’t afraid, that knows what to do and can do it.

And. I am more than a widow, more than a survivor, more than a teacher, more than a friend, although those are all part of my experience.

Remember who you are.

“They” say people can’t change. Yet I see people change all the time. I have changed.

And. If we are ancient and eternal, the good news is we don’t have to change. We only have to remember who we are. We are not what we do, or what we have, or the choices we make. We can change those things.

If we remember who we are, we can make choices that are in alignment with that.

Remember who you are.


Tell me, what do you remember about who you are?
Please leave a comment.

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Who’s Got the Car Keys?


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He’s one of those friends that when I ask “How are you?” he really tells me. And when he asks me the same question, I tell him.

So when I saw him the other day and he asked me how I was, I thought back to our last conversation, two months ago, when I told him I was having trouble moving forward with the work I know I am supposed to be doing, the work I am called to do, because I’m afraid people won’t get it, they won’t believe me, they won’t want to talk about this. But when I told him at the time, he got it. I thought about the lack of progress I’ve made… and I really told him how I was.

“I’m OK. But I’m stuck.”

And what started out as “Hey, how you doin’?” turned into lunch.

We talked about what needs to be done to get things going (publish the blog posts that announce my new focus and my message, reach out to people who are in my network). I didn’t give him any bullshit about working three part-time jobs (which I am) and not having time to Do What Needs to Be Done. I just put it out there.

“I’m scared.”

He didn’t wave it off. He didn’t say, “There’s no need to be scared.”

He didn’t even ask me what I’m scared of. (There’s a list. But the What isn’t the point.)

What he did do was point out that this wasn’t Me being scared, it was the Little Girl Me. And it was OK for her to be scared. In fact, it’s her job. (One of her jobs.)

Then he said something that hit me between the eyes:

“Just don’t give her the keys to the car.”

Now that’s a metaphor I can get into.

“Just don’t give her the keys to the car.”

I laughed out loud, and said, “She must be the reason I haven’t been able to put the car on the market!” (That’s another story. One he didn’t even know about.)

She can be scared. I can comfort her. I can let her go hide. The real me, the Ancient and Eternal Me, she’s not scared. She knows – I know – what to do, and can do it. But if I give Little Girl Me the keys to car and let her drive – or she hides the keys under the sofa cushions – then we’ll never get anywhere.

“Just don’t give her the keys to the car.”

So over the last few days, every time that fear has cropped up, that resistance, I’ve thought of that. And laughed. And then done a little piece of the work that needs to be done.

And I made a poster for myself and taped it on the wall where I can’t miss it:

I’m tempted to write Dammit! in fine print at the bottom.

But I’m keepin’ the keys.

Get ready. We’re going for a ride.

Playing Chicken


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Today I was folding laundry, absent-mindedly looking out the window. A movement caught my eye, and I saw…

…a chicken.

I live in a fairly busy residential neighborhood and, even though we’re only two blocks from the county fairgrounds and we are almost out in the country, we are also one block from Main Street and this is a bustling neighborhood. Even so, I’ve seen raccoons, possum and all manner of birds – but no chickens.

Until now.

I shouldn’t be surprised; backyard chicken-keeping is becoming more and more popular. I have even considered it.

What to do?

Hmmm. I had seen the man who lives across the street outside a few minutes before, looking at his house. Maybe he was looking for a lost chicken.

So I went outside and starting talking, clucking and chirping to the chicken, slowly getting closer and herding it away from the street. It – she – spooked a couple of times but not too badly, and after a couple minutes I was able to pick her up, clamping her wings to her sides so she couldn’t start a flap (so to speak).

I took her across the street to the house on the corner. As I got to the gate, a woman and her little girl were walking down the street toward me.

“That’s a chicken!” the little girl said.

“It’s a pretty one, too,” the mother said. (She was, too: A very pretty black chicken with green highlights in the feathers. “Does it live here?”

“I hope so,” I said. “I just found it across the street, and I saw the man who lives here a few minutes ago walking around; maybe he was looking for it.”

“Let me open the gate for you,” the mother said (since my hands were full).

She did, and I went up onto the porch. Dilemma: How to ring the bell? I tried to poke it with one finger, then leaned on it with my elbow. The chicken just clucked.

No response.

Sigh. Now what?

Well, I figured, if it’s their chicken, I should just leave it. If it’s not their chicken, at least it will be safe behind their white picket fence. (Yes, a white picket fence.) So I put her down and said goodbye and let myself out, and went back to my laundry.

I couldn’t just leave it there

It didn’t feel right, though, and I was curious. Was it their chicken? What if it wasn’t?

So I finished folding my laundry, while peeking periodically out the window. She was still in the yard across the street, happily foraging in the lawn, eating seeds and bugs. When I was done, I went back across the street.

This time, without my hands full of chicken, I was able to open the screen door and knock on the door. The Man of the House opened it.

“Hi,” I said, “I live across the street. Do you keep chickens?”

“No,” he said, “but there’s one in my yard.”

“I know, I put it there,” I replied. (He must think I’m nuts, I thought.) “I found it across the street, and I saw you outside looking around a little while ago so I hoped it was yours.”

“No,” he said, “it’s not mine, but I have a dog that would probably like it.”

At this point his wife and little girl came out to see what was happening. “We saw that chicken a few days ago,” they told us. “It was almost dark, and I thought, ‘Is that a chicken?’” the mother said. They went on to tell me they had seen it a few houses up, so I thanked them and turned to retrieve the chicken and leave.

“So, we meet again,” I said to the chicken, and started to herd her toward the fence, clucking and chirping at her. She clucked back. I tried not to think about the family peeking through the curtains, watching me. This time I tucked her under one arm and lifted the latch on the gate, let myself out and pulled the gate closed.

Not so fast…

Well, the hen didn’t like being tucked under my arm, so she started to scratch with her legs and got one wing loose. I dropped her on the parking strip.

She wasn’t a particularly ambitious chicken; happy to be set down, she contentedly started scratching and pecking at the parking strip. I slowly herded her away from the street and toward the fence, and soon picked her back up, wings clamped to her sides, and started walking up the street.

She just clucked.

“I must look pretty funny,” I thought to myself, “walking down the street with a chicken.” Oh well. It certainly wasn’t the first time I had looked silly and certainly wouldn’t be the last.

What if I couldn’t find her home? I wondered. She was a really nice chicken, pretty, well cared for, no bald spots, gentle. Someone must certainly miss her. If all else failed, I decided, I would take her back to my apartment. (Although I didn’t know how I would navigate opening the front door and opening the slider to my patio with both hands full of chicken. And I couldn’t imagine what my cats would think when I set down a bird bigger than either of them to open the door.) Anyway, I figured I could let her roam on my big patio, which is enclosed by a tall privacy fence. (Which hasn’t kept raccoons and possums from visiting and eating the goldfish in my fountain, but at least she’d be safe from dogs and traffic until I could get a coop built.) But I would put up signs before committing to keeping her permanently.

Next stop

I walked down the block past a few houses, bird in hand. At about house three, there was a young man outside putting something in his truck.

“Excuse me,” I called. “Does anyone around here keep chickens?”

“Yeah,” he said. “She lives across the street.” He paused, then added, “She’s free range.”

Apparently, I thought. “Thanks,” I said, and crossed the street (thinking, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “Because I carried her…”) to a pair of duplexes. As I walked toward the buildings, wondering what to do next, a woman opened her apartment door.

Going home to roost

“Hi,” I said. “Is this your chicken?”

“No,” she replied, “It’s theirs,” and pointed at the other building. I turned around and saw a teenage boy looking at me through the window. Then a woman in her forties opened the door and came out with two young children.

“Hi,” I said. “Is she yours? I found her wandering around.”

“Yes, she belongs to my fourteen year old son,” she said, looking at me like she couldn’t decide whether to be friendly or suspicious. “She has a coop in the back and she just wanders around during the day.”

“OK,” I said, and put her down in the driveway, where she happily started poking around. “She’s a nice chicken, I figured someone would miss her.”

The mom decided on being friendly. “Yes, we’ve had her for about six months. She just started laying eggs. Her name is Kentucky Fried.”

Seriously.

“I’m surprised she let you pick her up,” the mom continued.

“Birds like me,” I said. “I used to keep ducks.” That sounded weird, even to me, but it was relevant – that’s how I knew how to pick her up.

Anyway. I said goodbye and went home to put away the laundry. (After washing my hands.)

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story is this: I was curious about finding a chicken roaming a street I wouldn’t let my cats out on. And I had to choose between a) the risk of looking silly while attempting to solve the mystery and b) doing nothing. I didn’t want her to get run over, or to have her people miss her, even more than I didn’t want to look silly or (worse) like a busy-body neighbor. Sometimes the fear of looking silly can keep us from being curious and taking risks, but we get to choose whether or not to let it stop us. And it’s usually not as bad as we fear.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. I met a chicken today. And several neighbors. I wonder what my encounter with a chicken portends for 2012?

Maybe I’ll get a chicken…

Photo Credit: “Australorp Pullet In The Henhouse” by Paul L. Nettles


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Two Old Women – A Parable


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Once Upon a Time, two old women were abandoned by their tribe during a horribly long, bitter winter when the tribe did not have enough to eat. Members of the tribe did not want to do it, but they saw no other way to survive. There was not enough food to go around, and the old women slowed them down as they moved from place to place. There was much fear among tribe members – fear of the winter, fear of doing wrong, fear of starving, fear of cannibalism, fear of being left behind with the old women if they spoke up.

So no one spoke up.

The old women were aghast, and hurt, and angry. They could easily have given up, succumbed to self-pity and the cold.

But they did not.

The tribe did leave them their tent, the daughter of one of the women left strips of animal hide, and the grandson of one surreptitiously left them his hatchet. The old women decided to use these things, and the skills they had forgotten but once used regularly, to catch rabbits, build shelters and keep the coals of their fire alive. Despite their aches and pains and broken hearts, they moved to a new campsite and survived through to the next spring. They proceeded to build a comfortable shelter and stockpile dried fish, meat, and clothing made from the skins of the animals they had caught.

The two old women made a comfortable life for themselves, but they were quite wary of their former tribe members. They made sure that the place they chose for their winter home would be difficult to find, as they were afraid that the tribe would come back and steal what they had so carefully built over the summer.

The following winter, the tribe returned to the place where they had left the two old women. It was another difficult winter, and the tribe was nearly in as difficult a situation as they had been the previous year. They expected to find some evidence that the old women had died there, and were amazed – and hopeful – when they did not find that evidence. The chief, who had wrestled hard with the decision to abandon the old women, decided to do the right thing and sent his best scout and three hunters to search for the old women.

After a long search, the wise scout found the area where the two old women had established their camp. He smelled the faint smoke of their fire and called out to them.

Terrified, the two old women debated whether they should respond. They decided to face their fear and called back to the scout. The two old women shared some food with the four men, and they exchanged stories, warily.

The scout told the old women that the chief regretted leaving them behind and had sent him to find them, and that they meant them no harm. He also told them that the tribe was, once again, in dire straits and suffering great hardship.

The two old women again debated – what should they do? This was the tribe that had left them to die. Although they had more food than they could use by themselves, should they share?

The two old women recognized that they had the chance to do the right thing. Yet they also recognized that they were not ready for things to go back to the way they were.

They decided upon a compromise: They would share their wealth with the tribe, but they would maintain their separate camp. They had come to value their independence and relished the success they had made from reawakening and building upon their old skills.

In time, there were reconciliations and the two old women spent time with the young ones, teaching them the skills they had once forgotten, sharing their wisdom and enjoying new respect within the tribe.

*    *    *    *    *

I recently re-read this legend of the Athabascan Indians of the upper Yukon, which is movingly told by Athabascan writer Velma Wallis in the little book, Two Old Women. I was moved again by the many lessons this story has for us, lessons about fear, courage, perseverance, confidence, humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

But this time the story offered me another meaning. The last time I had read this story was long before the economic troubles that began in 2007, long before thousands of companies faced starvation and fear in the coming economic winter.

Two Old Women, I realized, is a parable for this time. It carries much food for thought: Millions of people were abandoned by their tribes during this winter, left to fend for themselves with only a hatchet and a few supplies – and their wits. For many there have been unexpected benefits – new skills, rediscovered skills, opportunities for independence. For many there has been malnutrition and frostbite on many levels. For some there has been reconciliation. For most things will never be the same.

What lessons do you take from this parable? What role would be yours in this story?

I was one of the tribe members, until I became one of the old women. I am pleased to say that I have survived – and thrived. I will also never be the same, and I am glad.

What about you? The story is not over; what role do you play, and do you wish to change it? Is reconciliation possible? If so, what shape should it take?

Note: I do not tell the story of the two old women and their people nearly as well as Velma Wallis. I encourage you to get a copy of Two Old Women and let this fine storyteller weave her tale for you.


Photo Credit: Ian Britton, www.freefoto.com

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The “What If” Puzzle


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What is the difference between “What if…” and “What if…”?

I was recently talking with a group of friends who are, like me, small business people. We were talking about wrestling with self-doubt and dealing with our Inner Critic, and the “What if” questions started coming up. You know, the Doomsday Version.

At the same time, these are wonderfully creative people, problem solvers of all types. They (and I) also ask the other “What if…?”

What, I wondered, is the difference between “What if…” and “What if…”?

Let me explain.

The Doomsday Version might include,

  • “What if they don’t like me?”
  • “What if people don’t understand?”
  • “What if it’s cancer?”
  • “What if I’m wrong?”
  • “What if I look stupid?”
  • “What if I build it and nobody comes?”
  • “What if I can’t pay my bills?”
  • “What if I lose my house?”

…and so on.

Every scientist, artist and other problem solver also asks “What if…” but those questions are very different. The Creative Problem Solver version might include,

  • “What if I mix these two colors (or substances)?”
  • “What if I used this material?”
  • “What if I explored this canyon?
  • “What if I brought these teams together?”
  • “What if I asked this question?”

So I wondered aloud, how are these questions different, and how might we change the Doomsday Questions that stop us into Possibility Questions that help us move forward?

How do we identify the difference between the “what if” that leads to discovery and the “what if” that hides behind security? One of the differences that is immediately apparent is the addition of certain words – even if they are only implied.

The protector, the inner critic, asks, “(But) what if…” whereas the scientist, the artist, the writer, the explorer, all ask, “(I wonder) what (would happen) if…”

It is the difference between open possibilities and the possibility of Doom

We agreed that the voice of Doom, that voice of Fear, has a role. It is trying to protect us. But too often we don’t question the Doomsday scenario and we let it stop us.

The difference between the Doomsday “What if” questions and the “What if” of Creative Possibilities is the difference between Fear and Curiosity.

How can we tell them apart?

When “What ifs” come up, how can we tell which driver is behind the wheel?

One way is to look at the language. Does the question start with “But?” If so, it is probably Fear speaking.

Does the question begin with “What would happen if…” or, better yet, “I wonder what would happen if…” If so, then it is probably Curiosity speaking.

Take an even closer look. If the question is about things over which I have no control (or think I have no control), it is probably Fear talking. If the question is about things I can do, then it is probably Curiosity speaking.

Can we shift from Fear to Curiosity?

Is there a way to shift from a position of Fear to one of Curiosity? Yes!

How?

The first step is to recognize which voice is speaking. The words themselves are a giveaway, as is the issue of control.

Yet another giveaway is the tone. This can be challenging if the voice is in my own head, but I can still ask, is this a voice of protection or of exploration?

The second step is to ask, is the voice of Fear raising an objection that can be planned for, or is it just raising an old fear that is no longer relevant or is beyond my control?

As Mike and Birdy Diamond pointed out in their Captains Curious post, Fear doesn’t last in the face of Curiosity. Curiosity allows us to plan.

The third step is, as my friend and colleague Michael F. Broom says, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Tara Joyce, who wrote a Captains Curious post about Living the Questions, was the person who introduced me to the concept of the value of living on the “edge of chaos.”

Jeffrey Davis writes about the value of “fertile confusion.”

And Paula Swenson, whose Captains Curious post will appear this week, has written about the importance of “making friends with uncertainty.”

These can all help us move from Fear to Curiosity.

I have learned

Once upon a time, as I was preparing to move to a different city, someone very important to me tried to talk me out of it. She was worried about me, and she was going to miss me (and I her).

“But what if (The Doomsday Scenario happens)?” she asked.

Now, I confess, I had already worried about that possibility. But I had faced it.

“I know what to do if it does,” I said, “Besides, what if it doesn’t?” I asked. “What if I live happily ever after?”

I chose not to live in fear of something over which I had no control.

As I have learned (over and over) to walk not in Fear but in Curiosity, making a comeback from one challenge after another, I have learned that “what if” can feel like chaos, like confusion, like uncertainty.

But it is almost never as bad as I fear.

Sometimes it is worse, but it might only be the edge of chaos. It could be fertile confusion. I can make friends with uncertainty. I can chose adventure. I can choose wonder.

As I write this, I am reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, “2010.”

It might be horrible.

Or it might be something wonderful.

I can choose what questions to ask, and how to plan.

And so can you.

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Follow-up for Superheroes in Training -or- Curiosity is a Super Power


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I recently had the great good fortune to have a guest-post published at www.redhotmomentum.com, a website for small and/or nontraditional (“unhinged”) businesses.

I submitted it there because it is about Marketing, which really isn’t the focus of my website or my blog posts. But two of the people who followed up with me directly got me thinking, and one pointedly suggested a follow-up article. So here is that follow-up. I’m posting it here because it is not about Marketing so much as it is about Questions and Curiosity – two of my favorite subjects. (Go read the original post here. I’ll wait.)

Are you back? Great, here we go.

Those two people who reached out to me are both in full-time jobs. One wrote,

“I am struggling with similar things even though I am employed, switching careers definitely is as unsettling because I don’t have experience in what I want to do.”

The other wrote,

“I am that woman now and have not yet figured out how or where or a comfortable way to market myself. I keep hearing my family members saying ‘you better keep your job with benefits’ every time I even begin to want to market myself and then I back off.”

I thought about their predicaments, and what it was about my story that appealed to them. One thing is my struggle with the internal resistance I kept encountering. Another is the idea of the security that a full-time job offers – security that can be very difficult to leave behind. And yet another is the fear I described that no one would give me a try in my new role because I no longer wore my old cape.

To overcome those fears, I had to get curious about myself and ask myself a lot of questions about why I was getting in my own way.

And I realized that these two people were actually asking questions in addition to the ones in the original post. (What, you haven’t read it yet? Click here.)

• How do I quiet the voices of my family that tell me to choose security over following my dreams?

• How do I pursue my dream when I don’t have Real Experience in that area?

How do those questions go together? Are they, perhaps, the same question?

Confession Time

I didn’t voluntarily leave my last job – I was laid off. I had been thinking of making a change but I hadn’t done it, and circumstances made the decision for me. I didn’t decide to stop job hunting and embrace the uncertainty of hanging out my own shingle until after the severance had run out and I really began to think about the possibilities and, more importantly, to see a completely different set of possibilities.

But the fears are still the same.

That said, let me try to address their questions.

Beliefs

Here is the thing about family members and friends (and their voices that take up residence in our heads): Is it possible that they love us and want the best for us, that they’re not TRYING to discourage or squish us? That they’re just wrong? Well-meaning but wrong?

I learned a very important lesson last year at a workshop led by Marcia Wieder. She talked about listening to the voice of my inner Doubter, and rather than trying to silence it, learning to determine whether the warning it is giving is a legitimate obstacle that needs to be overcome or an obsolete belief that can be released. (Willie Hewes and Alexia Petrakos also do a great job with this at the Monster Journals.)

And so when my Voice of Alarm said, “You’ll never make it on your own! Go get a Corporate Job with benefits!” I practiced asking questions like, “Do I have to find a new corporate job with benefits? Or can I find reasonably priced individual coverage at a risk level I can handle?” Mmm, guess what – I have individual coverage now. And then I was able to get to the bigger issue of my beliefs about whether I could really be a Superhero without someone else’s Cape of Authority.

Threads

Regarding making a Career Change, it occurs to me that the idea of threads is very important. As I mentioned in that other post, I have had a fascinating and fun variety of jobs in my life, and I never went from one job to another exactly like it. But there was always a thread that connected them. And even if Job A was very different from Job M, I could demonstrate that there were certain threads (skills, personality traits, work habits) that helped me to not only move from one role to the next but to be successful in all of them. (Such as, I’m a Builder. Not a Maintainer.)

Focus on the threads, the suspension bridge cables that bridge the gaps, not the gap itself. Spend time pouring the concrete footings, and acknowledge the gaps between them. But focus on the threads.

Questions – My Favorite Part!

So, here are some questions to add to those in that other post, especially for Superheroes who want to move from the Fantastic Four to the Justice League – or create a League of Their Own. (Wait, I think someone’s already used that. No worries, you can call it something else.)

• What are the concerns that your Doubter (or Monster) brings up?

• Are they real obstacles, or are they beliefs?

• If they are really potential obstacles, what are your options and resources for overcoming them?

• If they are beliefs, where did they come from? Are they still valid?

• If they’re no longer valid, can you release them?

• Have you done the same exact thing throughout your career?

• If not, what are the threads that connected your various roles?

• How are they applicable to your desired role?

• If your target role is really different from your current/past roles, what are the transferable skills, character traits, talents, etc., that apply to the target role – even if it is not a 1-to-1 fit?

Story Time

Once upon a time, when I was a recruiter, I sometimes found a candidate that I just knew was going to be successful – even if his or her background wasn’t a direct match with the dreaded Job Description. They might not have been an exact fit, but they had something, some Secret Sauce, some Super Power, that made them worth taking a risk on. Often it was The Stuff You Can’t Teach. Once I identified it, I was able to add that to the experience I presented to the hiring manager. And the hiring managers usually went for the people with The Stuff You Can’t Teach because they could, well, teach them the other stuff. But I had to be curious enough about the candidates to uncover it.

Curiosity is a Super Power

Curiosity is the key to answering to both of the questions at the top of this post.

Curiosity about myself has helped me to look at myself and figure out that I needed to set aside my reliance on my old cape and embrace my new cape.

Curiosity doesn’t only help us to solve problems and be more creative and play well with others. Curiosity also can be used to understand ourselves better.

And that makes it a pretty extraordinary Super Power.

Are you curious?

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Fear and Loathing and Compassion – for My Voice


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Fear. Hope. Joy. Grief. Tears. Why, I asked myself, am I all a jumble?

Driving home from a doctor appointment I was flooded with emotions, and all I wanted to do was have a good cry. But why? Were they tears of fear? Of relief? Of joy? If fear, fear of what? Fear of no longer having any excuses?

For about ten years my speaking voice has been deteriorating.

For about ten years my speaking voice has been deteriorating. It began with just sounding strained, sometimes raspy or gravelly. It has progressed to the point where my voice breaks, stopping and starting, and it takes a great deal of effort at times to force words out.

When the troubles started, I had been working for several years as a recruiter and salesperson – interviewing candidates, meeting clients, negotiating placements, and making follow-up calls. In other words, I talked for a living. And I loved it. I had what was for me, at the time, the best job in the world.

I thought at first that maybe I had worn my voice out from talking too much. It didn’t hurt – it just didn’t work right.

It grew gradually worse, and I wondered about various possible causes. Was it stress? Was it that I lived for a year in a sick (moldy) house? Was it the result of 20 years of second-hand cigarette smoke? The symptoms didn’t go away as possible causes were eliminated, and various doctors couldn’t agree. I eventually resigned myself to living with it, although it was embarrassing: Customers would ask if I was feeling well, and family members would ask if I was upset about something.

Certain words were especially hard to say: Hello. Susan Blake. Salad. Oddly enough, though, I could still sing.

It continued to get worse. Sometimes it was fine, but it got increasingly harder to have conversations, especially on the phone. Certain words were especially hard to say: Hello. Susan Blake. Salad. Basically any word with an emphasis on a syllable with a vowel in it – which is most of them. The vowel just wouldn’t come out. And the harder I tried the worse it got.

Oddly enough, though, I could still sing.

I didn’t let it stop me. My job (a different one by then) was eliminated in 2009, and I jumped into working from home – which involved a lot of phone calls and meetings. Oh well. You do what you’ve gotta do, right?

Then something interesting happened. I was at a conference, chatting with several people, and one of them took me aside and said she had noticed my voice, and told me that she used to sound like me. She asked if I had been diagnosed, and I said No, I had been to several doctors but they hadn’t come up with anything. She nodded, and told me that she had been diagnosed with Spasmodic Dysphonia, a neurological disorder that causes the vocal cords to spasm. She was being treated with botox shots to the vocal cords. (Eeew!)

That was interesting, even exciting, but I did nothing – ignoring the situation and attempting to power through it.

Almost a year later, another woman took me aside and told me the same thing. She passed the names of some specialists along, but I still did nothing.

Even though I knew there was a good chance that I had a real physical condition, I didn’t pursue getting an official diagnosis. I gave myself a lot of reasons.

Even though I knew there was a good chance that I had a real physical condition, I didn’t pursue getting an official diagnosis. I gave myself a lot of reasons – I didn’t want botox shots in my vocal cords. I was afraid I would no longer be able to sing. I haven’t sung in a choir in years, but singing has always been an important part of my life. I told myself that getting diagnosed with something that might be considered a pre-existing condition while I am getting my health insurance through COBRA might make it difficult, or impossible, or at least ridiculously expensive, to get individual coverage later. I said it didn’t matter how my voice sounds, even though the work I am pursuing involves a lot of group facilitation and public speaking, since I am getting lots of unsolicited praise for my coaching and facilitation skills. Also, several people – including intuitive coaches – told me that when I found my “true voice” my vocal problems would clear up. Part of me believed that.

I heard a recording of myself participating in a webinar, and I HATED the way my voice sounded.

My symptoms continued to grow worse, and I got tired of getting on the phone with someone new and having them say, “I don’t think we have a good connection, you’re breaking up. Can I call you back?” “No,” I would say, “It’s just my goofy voice.” Then, one day not long ago, I heard a recording of myself participating in a webinar, and I HATED the way my voice sounded. More than the normal “Ugh, is that really how I sound?” that most people experience, it was horrible.

So when I met a voice coach through an online community of which I am member, and she sent me a coupon for a voice coaching session, I said, “Why not?” After all, I pay attention to coincidences. We scheduled the call, and I completed her questionnaire – including information about my voice and the two people who had suggested it might be Spasmodic Dysphonia.

She cancelled the appointment – rightly – because I had an Undiagnosed Medical Condition.

I was crushed. I completely understood – and yet, I was surprised by how disappointed I was. And I was surprised that I was surprised. But I had finally admitted how much my voice bothered me.

I shared all of this with my sister, who sent me a link to a recent NPR story about a woman who had lost her voice and was diagnosed with another form of dysphonia. She visited a specialist who diagnosed her and treated her with a special massage of her vocal cords and neck. I listened to the interview and the vocal exercises the doctor gave her, and when she spoke clearly for the first time I burst into tears.

Which surprised me.

And that surprised me. (Hmmm, see a pattern here?) I have hated the sound of my voice for a long time but I thought that nothing could be done, so I stuffed it. I was beginning to have hope that maybe something could be done – and I was terrified.

Hope can be a terrible thing.

Hope can be a terrible thing. Not in the sense that it keeps you from acting, waiting for a miracle (which it can, which is a terrible thing), but because it takes courage to hope and act on it in spite of your fears. And once you let the genie out of the bottle…

Well, the genie was definitely out of the bottle. After a few days of just being with that, I screwed up my courage and made an appointment with my doctor and asked her for a referral to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. She gave me one, with her blessing, and I made an appointment.

I was terrified all week before the appointment – terrified that he wouldn’t be able to help me and my hopes would be dashed, that the only option would be botox shots, that the botox would ruin my ability to sing. But I was committed to going. And I did something important: I talked about it. I told people about what I was doing, made myself and my fears visible, and I asked for support. (And I joked with colleagues that if the specialist couldn’t help me, perhaps I would become The Singing Facilitator.)

Then my cousin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. And it occurred to me that maybe my problem was pretty small in comparison.

It occurred to me that perhaps instead of hating my voice I might consider thinking of it with compassion.

And after a conversation with a Buddhist friend about the importance of compassion, especially for ourselves, it occurred to me that perhaps instead of hating my voice I might consider thinking of it with compassion. This wouldn’t change my plan, but it could change my attitude.

So I went to the specialist. I told him my story (the short version), and he said that just from listening to me he suspected that I did indeed have Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD). There is no cure for SD, but it is now recognized as a physical, neurological ailment that is not resolved through counseling or psychiatric methods. There is no cure, but the accepted treatment of the symptoms is botox shots to the vocal cords. (“Eeew,” I said.) Treatment at his clinic also includes working with a speech pathologist to unlearn various compensatory behaviors that people develop to try to force words out. (I get that – I had to unlearn protective and compensating habits years ago when recovering from shoulder surgery). He asked me to schedule a session with the speech pathologist for testing and an official diagnosis.

I told him that singing is very important to me, and asked if the botox injections would affect my ability to sing. He admitted that he did not know, and said he would email some other specialists and ask on my behalf. Cool. I also asked if anyone was doing anything with acupuncture, and again he did not know. (A doctor who will admit he does not know something gets a lot of points as far as I’m concerned.)

What is this about? Fear? Joy? Relief? Grief?

But all the way home, I just wanted to pull over and have a good cry. Why was I all in a jumble? I asked myself, “What is this about?” Fear? Fear of what? Fear of the treatment? Fear of it not working? Fear of losing the ability to sing, which comes from my soul? Fear of no longer having a reason to hate myself (my voice)? Fear of no longer having excuses to pursue my goals of public speaking, facilitating and coaching? Fear of giving up certain beliefs, even if they were bullshit? Were they tears of joy? Of relief? Of grief? Or all of the above?

Driving home I was listening to the soundtrack from The Beatles LOVE, which is a brilliant re-work of Beatles songs and snippets that blend in and out of each other in an amazing jumble, and it was so appropriate. Chaos in the music, chaos in my head – but not quite, because it all fit together. More like the edge of chaos, about which I’ve written just recently. You have to be willing to be at the edge of chaos for something new to happen. I was definitely at the edge of chaos – at the very least.

You have to be willing to be at the edge of chaos for something new to happen.

I didn’t let myself have that good cry until the next night, and what a Wail Fest it was. Why? Grief. And Relief. And Hope and Fear and Joy. There was a lot of letting go to do. Letting go of the denial: I have something for which there currently is no cure. Even with the botox, my voice will never be the same. Letting go of the idea that there was someone to blame – that it was all the result of my late husband’s smoking, or that it was my fault – the result of stress (stress of being a caregiver, stress of my husband’s death, job stress, loss-of-job stress) – or that it was the result of confidence issues, or of stuffing my wishes and my voice in favor of others and that I just hadn’t done enough work on myself – when, in fact, I have made choices consciously and without regret, and I am in a very good place. My voice isn’t broken because I’m maladjusted. There is no one to blame.

There is no one to blame… but I have let this be an excuse.

But I have let this be an excuse. I had to admit maybe I haven’t finished transcribing the 47 interviews I did for a very cool research project last year, not because I’m So Busy starting my own business, but because I so hated listening to my own voice. I had to admit that I have hesitated to take steps to launch my own workshops and record webinar products because of my voice. I was embarrassed at myself, and I grieved for the lost time.

And in the midst of all those tears, I found compassion. Compassion for myself. Compassion for my voice. I didn’t break my voice. And it helped to think that my voice certainly didn’t want to be broken, and it wasn’t trying to send me a message. My speaking voice is just broken.

I also remembered something I had learned years ago: I didn’t Cause it, I can’t Cure it, and I can’t Control it. But I can Contribute to making it worse – and hopefully to making it better.

Before I went for the testing with the speech pathologist, I did some research, and I wrote to the clinic featured in the NPR story. Various members of my family have sent me links to research on acupuncture as a treatment for SD. I spoke with a friend who is a professional singer and voice coach, and it turns out that she has worked with several people with varying degrees of SD. She helps them first to strengthen their singing voices and place them in “the mask” rather than sing from their throat – I totally get that, having studied voice for three years in college – and then she helps them learn to speak through that place as well. Hmmm.

She had me sing Happy Birthday. Even singing with a tube down my nose she said I gave her goose bumps.

I met with the speech pathologist, and she agreed that I have all the hallmarks of SD, with no nodules or irritation on the vocal cords, and no dire diseases. She recorded me reading some scripted material, and then she did various tests involving scopes down my throat and up my nose. I had also explained to her about the importance of being able to sing, and she had me sing Happy Birthday. Even singing with a tube down my nose she said I gave her goose bumps.

It was very interesting seeing how the vocal cords spasm when I talk but not when I sing. It turns out that speech is controlled by a different part of the brain than singing, which is why it is not unusual for people with SD (and people who stutter) to still be able to sing.

She was all in favor of the botox shots, but she also understood my hesitance. She offered to round up some patients for me to talk to, and she also suggested I do some searches on YouTube because there are a lot of videos there of people with SD and there might be some before/after videos. I have homework.

I also asked her about the work she does to help people unlearn bad speech habits they’ve acquired. She explained that she helps them learn to place their voices differently, usually in conjunction with the botox treatments. She has also done some work with singers who have damaged their vocal cords through how they speak, training them to speak more like how they sing. Bingo. The work she described is somewhat similar to what my friend does (and is covered by insurance) so I asked if we could just start with that – knowing that statistically voice therapy alone isn’t as useful as the combination – and she said yes. So I have an appointment for my first voice therapy session with her. Since I have had some voice training in the past, maybe I will have an advantage.

When I shared all of this with my family, one of my brothers, who is a musician and has also studied voice, wrote: “My singing instructor used to say, Good speech is half sung.” Hmmm.

Lessons… Why do there always have to be lessons?

I have learned a lot of painful lessons through this process – many of which I thought I already knew:

  • Denial is a powerful thing.
  • Sometimes our reasons (excuses) for doing something – or not – are not what we thought.
  • It’s all too easy to believe something is my fault – even though I have no sound and current data to support that.
  • More than one thing can be true at once.
  • I have to be willing to be at the edge of chaos for something new to happen.
  • I didn’t Cause it, I can’t Cure it, and I can’t Control it. But I can Contribute to making it worse – and hopefully to making it better.
  • Talking about my fears makes them look smaller, and sunshine is the best disinfectant.
  • Caring is dangerous. Live dangerously.

Caring is dangerous. Live dangerously.

I make my living partly with my voice, but I sing for joy. I’m not ready to trade the joy in on the living yet. But I am going to do everything I can to improve my speaking voice – I have gifts to share and I cannot let this stop me. It’s scary; I don’t know what will happen. But there is no spoon. I can’t control this disease, yet there are things I can do. Maybe I will learn how to speak like a soprano. (Not to be confused with The Sopranos.) If I can focus on joy and the Wonder that is my purpose and bring them to re-learning to speak, maybe I can beat the statistics. I may end up getting the botox shots, or maybe I will become The Singing Facilitator.

I have dreams, and I can make them come true. The process has begun. No excuses, only choices.

I may have to put my money where my mouth is and find a choir to join.

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