Becoming whole after being broken

Recorded on November 1, 2021

In the summer of 2019, I thought that I had finally achieved my dream life, at the age of 41. I was an over-achieving tenured professor and motivational speaker, with a loving husband and two wonderful and healthy children. I had worked extremely hard for so many years, and I finally thought that I made it. 

 

But then in August 2019, a 36 year old employee in my lab filed a complaint against me for inappropriate behavior. These allegations took on a life of their own in the hands of a misogynistic university administration, as well as numerous horrifying rumors speculating on what actually happened, and this traumatic experience quickly spiraled into a complete unraveling of my entire world. By the end of 2019, I had been forced to resign from what I thought had been my dream job, my marriage fell apart, my thirteen year old seemed to be struggling in silence, and my gender-fluid eleven year old became suicidal and was battling a serious eating disorder. 

 

So, I began to drown. I felt lost and confused, and my world no longer made any sense to me. But it’s been two years now, and I’m finally figuring out how to keep my head above the water, consistently. And so I’m writing about what I’m learning in a book.

 

I had planned to write a book several years ago. My former students and attendees at the motivational talks that I gave had asked me to write a book. And I was excited about that idea but I never found the time. There was always something more important that I thought I had to do. It’s finally time. My story means more to me now. Before, yes, I rose to “success” despite various “struggles” along the way, and I preached “believing in yourself” and the “power of positivity” and all that. I was so arrogant in thinking that I truly had life all figured out, and I just needed to share the secrets with everyone, and then they could be happy, too, just like me.

 

I see now that I wasn’t actually happy, though I sure did a fantastic job of convincing myself and most everyone else that I was. But there was a deep hole inside of me (that is inside most of us, at times), of unworthiness, a lack of self-love, a lack of self-acceptance, that I constantly sought to fill with external validation and approval from others. At all times, I needed others to tell me how amazing I was in order to feel worthy of existing. Without others telling me that I was loved, I would feel broken and worthless. And given that I was a successful professor with a focus on actively mentoring the hundreds of students that entered my life, every day I had plenty of external validation that would temporarily fill that hole.

 

But I wasn’t conscious of this. I had no idea that this is what actually drove me to achieve. I didn’t get it. It took mistakes and betrayal and pain for me to finally look inward. And then, in early 2020, I was able to actually see that hole inside me, the hole that was there all along, since my early childhood. And I stared deep into that bottomless pit and I thought, “Holy shit - what the hell is that?! I didn’t even realize that was there! I better get to work trying to fix it! What do I need to do?” 

 

Despite uncountable sessions with psychiatrists, therapists, rabbis, friends, family, self-help books, audio tapes, meditations, yoga, walks in nature, I could not for the life of me figure out how to fill that hole. I thought that it was up to me to do it. And I kept failing. So then it took me another year to finally internalize that the only way that I can be healthy and whole is by loving myself and accepting myself as I am, and that it is not about “doing” anything to fill the hole, it is simply about “being” me and accepting that. It’s only when I embrace the hole as part of me, and not try to “fix it,” that I can actually become whole. And so that is what I am working on these days.

 

Brene Brown's Ten Guideposts for Wholehearted Living

Posted on December 1, 2021

Today, I’m going to talk about Brene Brown’s 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living. Brene speaks about these 10 guideposts in her audiobook The Power of Vulnerability. This is a book that an amazing mentor of mine had given me last year when she knew that I was struggling with some major life challenges. I highly recommend the whole book. But if you don’t have 6 and a half hours to listen to it, here, I will give you a brief synopsis of the 10 guideposts.

 

For over twenty years, the social science researcher Brene Brown has been researching shame, vulnerability, and fear, those ideas that get in the way of feeling that we are enough. She notes that most of us feel lonely and disconnected at times. We currently live in a culture of deep scarcity where we are never enough.

 

Yet, in her research, Brene found that about 20% of the population doesn’t feel that way. They live lives of love and joy and belonging. She defines them as “whole-hearted.” And so she wanted to know, what are these people doing? What do they have in common? And how can we learn from them?

 

And over years of research, she found that there were 10 essential practices, themes that all of these people shared in their lives. These are the 10 guideposts.

 

First, they all focus on cultivating their authentic selves and letting go of what other people think. That’s a hard one in our society. 

 

Second, they all actively cultivate self-compassion and work on letting go of perfectionism. Where there is perfectionism, there is always shame. It is not healthy striving. The idea “If I look perfect and live perfect and do perfect, I can avoid shame, blame, and criticism.” It’s a lie. You do not have to be perfect. You can’t be perfect. You need to let that idea go to be healthy and whole-hearted.

 

Third, they all cultivate a resilient spirit. Across the board, the wholehearted are spiritual people. They aren’t all necessarily religious, but they feel a deep connection to something greater than themselves.

 

Fourth, they all cultivate gratitude and joy. Every single wholehearted person actively practices gratitude. If you do so, it will radically change your life. 

 

Fifth, they all cultivate intuition and trusting faith and letting go of the need for certainty. The world can be a scary place and we try to have control, control of our future. We need to find a way to hold a space for uncertainty in our lives. And be okay with that.

 

Sixth, they all cultivate creativity and letting go of comparison. ALL human beings are creative. Unused creativity does not dissipate - it turns into rage, grief, shame, judgement. ALL wholehearted engage in some creativity. As Brene says, “It is NOT self-indulgent bullshit.”

 

Seventh, they all cultivate play and rest and letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. Brene found that ALL the wholehearted engage in regular play and rest. This was a hard one for me. I used to think that the more productive I was, the more successful I would be at life, the happier I would be. I used to think that I didn’t have time for play and rest. I was wrong. Play and rest are important and critical for living healthy lives. 

 

Eighth, they all cultivate calm and stillness and letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle. Meditation and mindfulness are key.

 

Ninth, they all cultivate meaningful work and letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to.” I have been working on that one, getting rid of “supposed to” and “have to” in my daily vocabulary. 

 

Tenth, they all cultivate laughter, song and dance, and letting go of cool and always in control.

 

Putting these guideposts into practice is a lot of work. Brene notes that it’s like following the North Star. You don’t ever get there, but you just have to keep going in the right direction.

 

In order to remind myself, I painted a version of these and I have it posted right next to my desk, that I can look at every day. 

 

Living your life in a wholehearted way - it’s not how our society expects us to be. It’s hard. But it’s why we are here...to show up and let ourselves be seen and to love each other, starting with ourselves. Good luck. I’d love to hear  if you put any of these guideposts into practice.