Outrunning despair

outrunning despair

I was staring at the news. Hurricanes on top of hurricanes. Politicians ending dreams. Fires on top of fires. I thought of my home and imagined how it would feel if everything I owned was sitting in four feet of water. Or if I’d been separated from my family and didn’t know where they were. Or if I was living on a cot in a sports arena. I thought of people who are looking at other people and everyone’s wondering, “When are they going to DO something?” I thought of everything I had already thought of to do, everything I had already done, and how that still isn’t enough, how there isn’t enough privilege in one human being to leverage the change the world needs.

And I realized that I have no trouble owning and going into my fears, but I definitely try to outrun the possibility of despair.

Despair: to be without hope.

Despair is what I’m always trying to stay two steps in front of.

It occurred to me that perhaps despair is the ultimate fear. Despair is to be without hope, to feel a complete absence of any connection to the possibility of change.

And—the problem with being even marginally educated in the suffering of humans is to understand how quietly despair can creep up, and then it’s sitting on you like a heavy weight and you’re going, “How did that get there?”

To be clear, I’m not stuck in a state of despair at the moment—but I’ve been there, before.

* * *

Years ago, I regularly integrated something called “process work” into my life. I wrote about it once, when I talked about conscious crying, though in truth, I often felt self-conscious about doing this. I frequently felt silly doing it. Process work looks something like this: Alone in my office, with a towel and a box of tissues. Turning on a playlist that I’d compiled of the saddest possible music. Closing my eyes. Going into all the feelings I would normally otherwise resist.

The sadness.
The anger.
The “God, where are you? Do you even exist? And if you do, why would you allow these horrible things to happen?” sorts of feelings.

I’d go into grief over past losses, crying and piling up tissues. I’d go into my fury over a past hurt, punching the air in anger or screaming into the towel. I’d cry or scream until I found my way to the other side of the feelings, and I’d feel wrung out, but also like I’d reconnected to something I needed. Scraping away that top layer of emotional crud opened me up to the joy.

Then somewhere along the way, I ended up finding out that the group I’d been doing this kind of work with had several corrupt people in leadership. That reignited some of my initial embarrassment that I was doing this basically kind of crazy thing, by going into my office and—of all things!—screaming into a towel or crying.

So, feeling self-conscious, I stopped doing it.

* * *

All these years later, I’ve started doing process work, again.


I suppose you could say that the (collective) pain got to be enough. I’ve always been a news reader, and I have a deeply self-righteous streak. I’ve always been one who cries in the face of human suffering.

And somehow, the confusion and nuance and pain of the world that I’ve been bearing witness to, particularly in the past two years, has become overwhelming. Maybe you understand, too. It looks like hiding out from your social media feeds or feeling so anxious when you watch the news that you just.can’t.even.

When I talk to people about practicing courage (such as I do in my forthcoming book, The Courage Habit), I talk about accessing the body. Meditation, dance, running, yoga—they’re all great ways to access the body.

But what I’ve needed in the face of the pain these days has been something more. So back to it I go, screaming into towels in my office or crying out my tears until I think there are none left.

And, just as it was all those years before, scraping off that top layer of anger and sadness reveals something underneath that is calmer, steadier, and happier.

I realized that I’d been avoiding process work all these years as a strategy for outrunning despair. Sometimes, when I’m crying, the grief that I feel is the grief of despair. I touch into those places where it all truly feels hopeless. I cry long and hard, or I scream until I’m hoarse, and then every single time, by the end of that processing, I feel lighter and a smile plays on my face.

Here’s what.

We need each other, right now.
We need the world to change.
We need people to wake up.
We need people to bear witness to those who suffer, so that they aren’t alone in their suffering.
We need people to roll up sleeves and get to work.
We need movement.
We need to feed the hungry, and fight for the oppressed.

These are our fellow human beings; this is our human family. I don’t know what it is to be human, if not to stand up for one another and try to change things for the better, so that it’s not just you and me with internet connections who are getting to live joyful lives, but everyone.

I don’t know how I can be a human who takes a stand for other humans, without doing my work to scrape off the top layer of emotional crud that gets in my way. If I don’t take the time to process through, then I am only ever trying to outrun despair. Because despair is what happens when that emotional crud piles up.

If you have found yourself feeling more and more sadness at what you see on the news, then here’s the thing: Find the songs that help you to release your grief. Sit down, in a quiet space, with a box of tissues, and cry it out. Or pound pillows. Or scream into towels.

Scream out your despair, so that you don’t have to outrun your despair. Access the body and process your way through, to the other side.

That other side is where you find the strength and courage to pick up your life, your part in this human experience, and give something to others so that something can be given to you.

when you don’t know what to do

when you dont know what to do

The good news: people are waking up, looking beyond their own bubbles, and seeing the world’s problems.

The bad news: people don’t know what to do .

It’s hard to admit that we don’t know what to do , to solve the world’s problems—not in any absolute sense. And personally, we don’t know what to do, when seeing how others suffer re-stimulates our own old traumas, the clinical depression or panic attacks or insomnia. We don’t know what to do, with our fear that we could be next (let’s just be real: most of us, in response to tragedy, have at least some part of ourselves that centers around our own experience and thinks, “But what if that was me? What would I do?”).

We don’t know what to do, receiving critique. We don’t know what to do, to make up for a past history of not having spoken up enough on behalf of other people who suffer, or for all the times we could have made a different choice but didn’t, or with our shame and guilt about how we continue to benefit from privilege both invisible and right in front of our faces.

If we are talking about arriving at any kind of absolute answer for perfect parity and making up for the past or knowing the exact right solutions for how to move forward?

None of us know what to do.

And as soon as we think we’ve found the person who can tell us, often, someone else is shouting that we should be doing/thinking/saying/being different about the problem.

For example: responding to Hurricane Harvey. Some people donate money and then they get told that they just donated to the worst charity ever who won’t properly allocate those resources. Or some people send resources to Houston, and are smugly reminded that with the roads and airports closed, those resources won’t get to the people who need help, anyway. Or some people start saying how they wish they could do more for Texans, and someone tells them that they are American-centric-jerks because they weren’t aware about the awful flooding that has killed far more people in several poorer countries during the summer of 2017.

This often puts us right back to square one: not knowing what to do.

When humans don’t know what to do, and feel overwhelmed, they start shutting down and they do less of anything (which is, by the way, exactly what often contributes to the problems that we face, in the first place).

So here are a few suggestions for times when there are problems, but you don’t know what to do.

1. Listen, without attachment, to the people who are asking for help. This is a skill. It’s listening to what someone’s saying, without automatically launching into your personal responses, judgments about yourself or them, etc. So for instance, when a person of color is saying, “Here’s the experience of oppression that I’ve had, as a person of color,” listening without attachment means that you listen without going into your own head and attaching to the thought, “But I never did that to you! I never mis-treated you! I want a better world!”

It also means that if you say you donated to a charity for Hurricane Harvey and then get dog-piled on about how you donated to the wrong place and clearly should have known better, you listen to that feedback and…don’t attach to “I must have done it all wrong.” You just listen. Listen with presence and a willingness to truly hear what the other person is saying. Take the information in, without judging it, or defending yourself against it.

2. Check in with your body. Sit with the feelings of discomfort that critical feedback might arise. Check in with your personal integrity, which is the master honing device. Are you in integrity? Stretch to see if you can find any place, even a small place, where the feedback or the critique is correct.

3. See it from their shoes. Try projecting yourself into what this other person is thinking and feeling, based on the words or information they’ve given you. What might cause them to think and feel that way? Can you empathize? Where’s the common ground?

4. Learn how to differentiate between critique and abuse (and…this might take some time). Critique attempts to show you where a way of thinking or approaching a problem is problematic, and suggests alternatives. Abuse gets personal, and comes from a place of tearing people down. Our defenses against hearing critique are often quite built up, so figuring out when someone is critiquing versus abusing is tough. You’ll probably listen to some abuse, before you’ll be able to figure out if it is critique.

5. Wherever you can, Repair. That can mean a lot of things. It can mean apologizing. It can mean taking an action that counters a previously taken action. It can mean self-educating.

* * *

We really don’t know what to do. We are groundless. Even when answers are really clear-cut, they are often complex to communicate to others or to implement.

So I keep coming back to a willingness to listen better (fully, deeply, truly, listen—less talking, more listening), and then seeing how I can get on down the line to Repair.

Because if I’m honest, the more I listen the more I see the need for Repair that my own defenses have not wanted to fully see.

If I’m honest, I see how in my not knowing what to do–the perfect, socially approved, beyond judgment things to do–I sometimes didn’t do anything.

If I’m honest, I see how beating myself up for past mistakes doesn’t do anyone any good (it just makes fear stronger, and ups the ante for perfectionism, who will then surely say, “You fucked it up, before, so now you need to make SURE that you get it right!”).

Listen. Educate yourself. Make apologies and amends where necessary. And give—give all that you can.

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Seeing how far you’ve come

seeing how far you've come

I have a book coming out, spring 2018.

Let me say that, again: I have a book coming out, spring 2018. I’ll leave it to everyone else who has a book coming out to be too cool to cop to feeling some mixture of excited, intimidated, and WTF. (Me? I’m a “WTF is this really happening” kind of girl when my own dreams are coming true.)

I was working on yet another round of edits with my publisher and not having a great time of it. The internal dialogue went something like this:

Voice 1: These sentences are so.boring. There’s no pizzazz! You should be like [insert fave self-help writer]. She has pizzazz!

Voice 2: No, it’s not pizzazz that you’re lacking; it’s vulnerability. You don’t sound vulnerable enough. You sound like you’re trying to be a big know-it-all, and you know, everyone is going to see right through you.

Voice 1: I’m telling you, it’s the pizzazz factor. There are plenty of places in this book where you openly state that you are still afraid of things and this book is about courage, not pretending to be “fearless.” In fact, you’re almost too self-deprecating, sometimes. And who wants to read a book where someone is self-deprecating and pathetic? That’s a loser move.

Voice 2: Hmmm. Maybe you’re right. People want to read books by people who have their shit together.

Voice 1: But you know, you don’t want to look like you have your shit TOO together, or else then you’re arrogant.


Notice the lack of nuance, by the way, with the voices of fear. It’s either pizzazz or boring; vulnerable to the point of pathetic self-deprecation or the accusation that you’re being an arrogant know-it-all. Fear talks in extremes, not discernment.

So I did what I’ve done for the gazillionth time since I first sat down (again) and pulled up the file with my book proposal (again) and revised it (again) and shook all the way down to my toes as I hit “send” to a publisher (again) and hoped for the best (again).

I used the very tools that I talk about in the book, tools that have become habits (aka, “The Courage Habit”).

Access the body. Listen to the voices of fear but without attachment to what they say. Reframe fear’s limiting stories. Reach out and connect with community.

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

I need to tell you: habit-formation has radically changed my life. Figuring out how to break bad habits and create better habits, all while honoring the value of courage, has been a game-changer. It’s made my health, my life as a parent, my marriage, my business, my anxiety and stress levels—all of it, better, because instead of grappling with challenges, I have courageous habits in place for how to handle those challenges.

Swinging between two different fear-based voices that wanted to tell me how much I was failing (all because they are wounded and feel vulnerable and use criticism as a mask for feeling those feelings), I paused. I breathed. I actually—and again, the cool points go down—turned up the music and danced, badly, in my office. I listened to what these voices were saying. I reframed in the direction of seeing how far I’d come.

Because here’s the thing, even if my book ultimately lacks either pizzazz or vulnerability, even if it’s too self-deprecating or too arrogant:

It took courage to conceive of writing a book.
It took courage to sit down and research how to write a proposal.
It took courage to write the proposal.
It took courage to send out the proposal.
It took courage to go back to the drawing board with the proposal every time it was rejected.
It took courage to listen to feedback about the proposal (some of which had nothing to do with the proposal; I had one publisher say they loved the concept and discussed the proposal at length with the editorial team, but they ultimately felt my platform wasn’t big enough).
It took courage to revise and send out that proposal again, making it better each time.
It took courage to build this business and this platform.
It took courage to sign the book contract when it came through (commitment to deadlines? And giving up some creative control over an aspect of my business? Whoa.)

It took courage to write an entire book. How many people on the planet say they want to “write a book, someday,” and never do?

It took courage to be open rather than defensive about critique as I worked with my publisher’s editorial team on multiple rounds of edits (something every writer can struggle with).

It took courage to think big picture about launching and strategy, reaching out to other authors and asking if they would be part of this, assembling a launching team.

There are multiple places along the way where I could have given up, self-sabotaged, or started becoming angry and critical as a defense mechanism against fully feeling all the feelings.

Nope. I stayed the course, felt it all, walked through it all, and have been myself through it all.

That’s courage.

Seeing How Far You’ve Come

Seeing how far you’ve come is a courage booster. Let me explain with examples. Perhaps right now you’re struggling with your marriage. Or overwhelm and anxiety. Or financial pressures.

The fears you have about those things won’t go away, and there’s no way to engineer your life so that life challenges never happen.

But you can get into the habit of facing those fears by deciding to practice courageous habits.

Stop, now, and breathe. Access the body.
Listen to what the fear is saying, but don’t believe it. Just listen.
And then try the reframe of seeing how far you’ve come.

If your marriage is struggling? It takes courage to love someone. It takes courage to fix something that’s broken. It takes courage to love yourself enough to know the truth about who you are in a relationship.

If you’re facing overwhelm and anxiety? It takes courage to be that human. It takes courage to ask yourself what’s behind the overwhelm and anxiety. It takes courage to get help.

If you’re facing financial pressures? It takes courage to look at that, straight-on. It takes courage to change your lifestyle so that you can get out of debt. It takes courage to ask yourself how you got there and not beat yourself up.

Reminding yourself of how far you’ve come is a powerful way to remember that you have the capacity to cultivate courage. Courage isn’t something you “have.” It’s not that I’m “more courageous” than someone else. It’s just something that I’ve practiced long enough that courage has become a habit, a default way of looking at problems that arise.

And this, too, is for you. You’ve come so far, that if you stop to look at the path you’ve forged, you just might amaze yourself.