FLOWERS FROM A LATE BLOOMER FOR HER LATE THERAPIST: Gail Lerner-Connaghan | 1947-2019

I sensed we were both nervous the first day we met in June of 1995, my new therapist and I, and that homely human detail was endearing and oddly comforting. I was early and she was late, which would become a consistent inconsistency. She’d quite commonly run overtime on her previous appointment or even be altogether late when I was the first person on the schedule. I smile about it now, but I did not find it amusing at the time. Back then I was rigidly, obsessively 15 minutes early and she was unpredictably tardy, and this was like a glacier wearing down a mountain, for although my anxiety about abandonment was regularly triggered, she always showed up eventually, and that—beyond my conscious understanding—was teaching me to soften and trust.

We were both a little socially awkward in the beginning, Gail Lerner-Connaghan and I, and that was also endearing, but mildly disconcerting. We were each slightly gawky and bumbling, hesitant and off-footed in our conversational timing. Or maybe she was just an excellent mirror for my own perceived inadequacies and my overamped nervous system. Whatever the case, she was imperfectly perfect for me, enough to keep me coming back. Thank heaven.

And speaking of late, I wasn’t able to attend her memorial service on short notice last week. I’d only heard news of her death the night before and had several commitments for compassionate listening sessions at my peer support practice the next day, a priority I know she’d understand. I remember saying to her when I was nearing 40, “I guess I am a late bloomer” and she said, “That’s better than not blooming at all.” I did not truly bloom until almost 60, and that’s what I was doing during her funeral, blooming on my own belated schedule. Her death was unexpected—not on anyone’s schedule—her heart suddenly done with life. So much for schedules. Let us bloom while we may. And let us honor our love and grief with stories. This is mine.

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Gail and I met at first in a bright room in an old bungalow in Kansas City’s Brookside district, and to this day my sense memory of that office iconically represents what a healing space should aim to be—cozy, embracing, lively, colorful, comforting, safe—and my arrangement of my peer support practice space at Insight, I just realized, is informed by that memorable first experience of entering into a healing relationship.

I was discomfited when Gail announced within the first year of our time together that she’d be moving to a different office, for although the new location was much more convenient to my home, the upheaval tapped into my core wound and initially produced a wall of inner resistance splashed with bright anxiety. I still felt fragile and uncertain, thinking the place itself had much to do with my sense of safety in doing the deep work required to uncover my wholeness, but again, as with her lateness, Gail’s tendency to move around and regularly rearrange her office spaces became part of my healing. I learned I could feel safe apart from outer circumstances. This I now identify as a core aspect of cultivating resilience.

She explained she was a nurse specializing in mental health and had worked for a time in various psychiatric facilities. Gail’s mix of credentials was immensely reassuring, for it seemed to promise practical, pragmatic support for me as a whole person, and indeed, she was attentive to me in a holistic way, with gentle awareness of how disintegrated I was in body, mind and spirit. Despite her background in more or less traditional psychiatric settings, however, she did not bring the trappings of “the system” into her practice. She didn’t use clinical language or labels. She never suggested medication. Her manner and language did not give me the impression she perceived me as ill or doomed to a diagnosis. If anything, she rather quickly gave me the feeling my maladaptive responses to my life circumstances were understandable and my current trajectory hopeful.

After enduring many years of wariness and judgment around my sexuality, I found Gail’s nonchalant acceptance completely disarming, and her authority as a medical professional gave instant credence to her blithe pronouncement that she thought all human beings are basically bisexual and we each have unique conditioning and preferences. That was it. We were done with that topic being even the least bit controversial. There was never so much as an iota of judgment or pathologizing, only deep compassion for how my sexuality was misunderstood and condemned elsewhere—but never in her presence.

Of all her traits, Gail’s ability to climb up to meet me in the intensely analytical and intellectual fortress in which I had taken refuge from my disowned feelings was absolutely essential. If she had not met my complex obsessions and perseverations with keen interest and bright curiosity—obviously seeming to follow my mental meanderings and even relish and be amused by them—I have no doubt I would never have stayed the course. I had often felt misunderstood, shamed, and dismissed for the way I saw the world and processed my experiences, and if she had given me the slightest hint of those old reaction patterns, I would have defaulted to my familiar flight mode. I understand now, almost twenty-five years later, that what she offered was the subtle but essential gift of authentic presence and attunement. Like a warm person in a safe car picking up a scared and shivering hitchhiker, she offered my nervous system a gentler ride than its usual herky-jerky dysregulation, and every week (and sometimes, in crisis, twice a week) for the next five years, I got to practice and relearn the lost magical arts of co-regulation and safe engagement.

So hungry was I for what Gail offered—compassionate listening—I came to each session with a written agenda of what I wanted to address. I did not have insurance that covered psychotherapy, so I was paying out of pocket and wanted to make sure to get my money’s worth. That makes me smile too. Bless my heart. I had such a backlog of untold stories and unfelt feelings, I was like an emotional impoundment reservoir in flood stage needing to be emptied one bucket at a time. It was damn hard labor for me, that much I know, and Gail was willing to meet each bucket with full attention, which is what I craved as urgently as food or water.

Incidentally, I went into debt for the sake of my emotional liberation, and it remains miraculous to consider I willingly made such an investment in myself in advance of actually feeling worthy. If I think of all the other ways I’ve allocated $22,000+ in my lifetime, there is now not a single doubt my years with Gail were by far the most beneficial investment of capital. It seems important to divulge that, because my self-esteem was so low and my insecurity so high at the time, paying for someone to listen to me afforded an essential measure of autonomy and dignity. I didn’t at first feel worthy of that kind of listening except by paying for it, but ultimately that quality of listening helped me heal enough to believe I and my stories and feelings mattered.

The closest I could ever come to pinning down any type of guiding framework she might be using in her practice turned out to be the first model I ever studied as a teenager trying to understand my family’s dynamics—transactional analysis—and that was a reassuring piece of common ground, but this was only ever a capacious container leaving lots of room for me to wander. In fact, I do not recall Gail ever being particularly directive, in large part, I suppose, because I was so driven in my own right. It did not take long for me to begin designing my own therapy homework, and she was gracious and secure enough to give me free rein up to a point, and even laud me for my initiative. At the same time, however, I imagine she was skillful enough to see how my shame-based perfectionism was flogging me onward, and she gently intervened at key junctures to assure that my recovery would not be simply a bright facade constructed overtop an unsafe structure.

In particular, I recall her persistence in repeatedly inviting me back to areas I’d try to bridge over or detour around. Healthy personal boundaries. Unacknowledged anger. Complicated grief. Rampant shame. Self-neglect. I don’t know how many times she must have asked me if I’d care to take part in an evening class she taught on codependency. Zillions of times. It wasn’t the topic so much as the idea of being part of a group that deterred me. A combination of introversion and chronic shame kept me wary and hesitant for over a year. I finally sighed and said a reluctant “yes.” And that changed so much in my self-image and world view, as I’m sure she knew it would.

Gail seemed the soul of patience on this and other topics. As often as necessary she assured me I was lovable, that I wouldn’t fall apart if I let myself feel my painful backlog of repressed emotions, that my injuries were legitimate and deep, that what had happened to me was a tragedy. She wept quietly at times as I told certain parts of my story. In fact, she cried over my losses before I could. She showed me what it was like to be freely connected to feelings. I watched with wariness and concern, fearing we would both get in some kind of trouble for making too much of my plight. And perhaps sensing that, she recommended Alice Miller’s classic book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” and there I read the news that true healing comes only when we are able to have compassion for our own dilemma. Gail showed me what empathy might look like long before I was capable on my own. She was trauma-informed decades before that became a buzzword.

Her professional boundaries seemed a bit strict and cold at times, but I think in retrospect that was only because I had practically none of my own. As a mental health support provider now myself, I note her tight-rope walking skill as exceptional, for she meted out a stabilizing mix of structure and warmth, limits and possibilities. I was embarrassed to admit I did not know the rudiments of social hugging and was afraid of doing it wrong. I told her I wasn’t sure if there was a rule or a signal for which shoulder you pointed your head toward. She met this admission with great sensitivity and offered me several hundred opportunities to practice, which were expanded exponentially in the group she enticed me to join.

Early in our work together Gail asked me a pivotal question: “What is your support network like?” I had no idea what she was even talking about. In my insecurity, mistrust and careful self-containment, I had largely avoided the vulnerability of seeking out close friends. Her question initially aroused frustration and fear, and I made some kind of sarcastic retort about needing the name and address of the store where one could acquire a support system. She laughed. She had a laugh like a non-toxic spiritual solvent. She’d chuckle, her eyes sparkling, and my wariness or resistance would tend to dissolve. She never shamed or scolded, although she could be stern or even fierce. With regard to joining a group, she gently nudged, guided, and invited until I was ready to begin a long and still ongoing journey out of isolation and into interdependence.

Often I read to her from my journal, and there is no greater gift she could have given me than this steady and healing attention to my innermost thoughts. She tilted her head, adjusted her gaze, and leaned slightly toward me with avid absorption. This was the purest antidote to what had caused my wounding. I didn’t have these words for it at the time, but one of the most staggering dimensions of grief surrounding my mother’s early dying was the loss of a dependably attuned listener, someone who kept the bond of loving attention from being broken, who found me interesting, valid, even delightful. Gail returned that lost treasure to me. Of all her legacies, this is the one that brings me the greatest joy to pass on to others, for I know exactly how powerful an offering it is.

I found her open-minded and innovative. I believe she was one of the first certified practitioners of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), an early tool in the emerging field of somatic processing for traumatic memories. Whether it was the technique that worked or the fact I trusted her enough to reveal distressing and painful recollections, I can attest to the fact I began to experience gradual relief from my crippling post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Anger was my last frontier, and Gail knew it. I believe she had to be more persistent in getting me to face this forbidden emotion than any other. I was a fan of forgiveness and she stood firm in her stance that forgiving isn’t always the answer, and certainly not before a person is able to genuinely experience their own outrage. I was terrified of my suppressed anger for so many reasons, yet it was, I now understand, a key to protection and restoration, and I will be forever grateful to Gail for her wisdom and dogged insistence on me confronting this perceived enemy and learning anger is instead a valuable ally.

The day I finally said yes to her unflagging invitations to feel my anger is seared in my memory more deeply than any other aspect of my therapeutic experience. This, above all other risky emotional adventures, is the one that depended most on her ability to hold a safe container for me. I have no idea if this kind of work is orthodox or controversial. I only know the day I finally agreed to go into a tucked-away back room and get down on my knees with a mat and bataka—safe tools designed for cathartic anger release—was exhaustingly transformational. She knelt next to me in comforting proximity, and when I had finished spending my painful pennies of saved-up rage, she put her arms around my shaking shoulders and didn’t seem to care that I was sobbing and sniffling all over her good blouse. To do this emotional work, I had to release my rigid control and elaborate defenses, and that was only possible after hours and hours—and years—of patient bond formation and trust cultivation.

I keep wanting to say “the most healing thing was…” and name some particular gift or quality. The reality is, everything Gail offered me was, in its day and time, the absolutely most healing thing.

As I began to delve into the wrenching, long-deferred, and complicated grief of losing my mom at age 3, Gail beautifully honored the validity of my unpredictable and painful process, despite it being more than thirty years delayed. She introduced me to the beautiful Jewish mourning ritual—yahrzeit, meaning “year time”—as a way to honor my grief anniversary on June 4 each year. She introduced me to the Mourner’s Kaddish and was an active participant in many of my creative grief rituals, including helping me start an annual Motherless Daughters Day Circle of Remembrance in Kansas City and even continuing it after I moved away; encouraging me to launch a self-help group for motherless daughters; and connecting me to supportive resources for honoring and processing grief.

At some point it started becoming more clear we were cohorts learning from one another. Gail’s mother Patricia, who had the same name as my dead mom, was still alive at the time, but since Pat was a motherless daughter, Gail began describing herself at our gatherings as the daughter of a motherless daughter. I have a hunch the evident impact of my early mother loss deepened Gail’s understanding and compassion for her own mom’s struggles—some of which were similar to mine—as well as greater insight and compassion into how generational trauma may have impacted her own challenges.

Here again, Gail’s open-mindedness, flexibility, security, and willingness to innovate allowed expansion of the container of our relationship so I could grow into fuller stature and gradually into a more collegial relationship. We spoke at times of collaborating on a workbook based on my creative therapy homework and healing rituals. We agreed together—after I’d successfully made a major transition out of a difficult relationship in 2000—that I was ready for something like a therapy graduation. That, too, was a skillful movement in my ongoing work, for it gave me practice in internalizing my newfound sense of self apart from her stabilizing influence. I still needed to learn to trust my instincts and intuition more fully, and I could not functionally accomplish that while dependent on her for approval and validation each week.

If memory serves, I did need to call on her for support during a couple periods of discombobulation in the first year or two after the transition, but otherwise we became fond acquaintances who met for coffee or lunch every so often, even a few times after I moved out of the Kansas City area. In recent years our contact dwindled to sporadic email updates every few years, and I was especially proud to let her know about my new certification as a peer specialist and the launch of my private practice in 2015—my proudest blooming. We were warmly supportive and encouraging of one another, and I was blessed with deeper glimpses into her vulnerabilities and challenges as well. By knowing her better outside our earlier therapeutic connection, I understood that a confidante does not need to fix or save, be super-human or perfect to practice offering life-altering supportive listening, and this is an awareness I carry forward into my peer support relationships.

Every time I wrote to share an update, I thanked Gail for facilitating my healing. In one reply she offered this tender validation: “what i love about you—one thing—is that you keep going. i was an important catalyst, yes. you, my dear, are an inspiration.”

As shocking and temporarily destabilizing as it has been to my inner firmament to learn of Gail’s sudden death, her unexpected departure cracked open a treasure chest containing a surprisingly balanced mix of grief and gratitude. There is so much to miss—her solid, reassuring presence in the world, whether I saw her or not—and so much to celebrate of what she made possible for me. Her departure somehow shines a brighter spotlight on the exponential impact of her gifts. She helped me begin recovering my selfhood, my belonging, and my vitality. No accounting method in the universe can measure the worth of that.

There is, in my estimation, no other relationship in the world quite like a well-matched, firmly-founded therapeutic connection. It is disciplined, yet deep, and immensely sacred in its way. It has a dependable rhythm, offering consistency and fostering trust. It is not equal or balanced, per se, but perhaps that is what is most needed for someone like me who was well-defended and accomplished at hiding behind a shield of competency and self-containment—I needed the initial one-sidedness to overcome my hesitancy and reveal my enormous hunger to be heard without judgment. The pace and intensity of change and growth I experienced in over five years of therapy is unmatched elsewhere in my life, and the disconcerting hocus-pocus of my radical metamorphosis required an excellent interpretive guide, regular reorientation, and stable grounding. I needed someone to care enough to want to know who I was so I could learn to know and love myself. I can think of no more precious gift.

I like the word “grok” from Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” to describe the essence of what Gail offered me. It’s a fictional Martian word with many nuances that can be summarized as “to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with.” Definitions of “grok” in the book include “to drink” and “to love” and “to understand.” Gail actively grokked me—seemingly imbibed and digested my story and my essence—and I had never before felt that known and accepted, except perhaps as a little girl by my mom. I thrived like an autumn gentian in the hospitable sun of Gail’s curiosity and compassion. I dared to reveal myself despite my pervasive and paralyzing fears and misgivings, and the more she accurately and lovingly reflected me back to myself, the more I beheld and believed my true eternal wholeness hidden beneath a cloak of temporal brokenness.

This late-blooming flower of myself and my ongoing growth, these sweet blossoms of love and remembrance, dear Gail, are for you and because of you. Thank you. I love you.

Gail helped keep the Motherless Daughters Day ritual alive for almost a decade after I moved away. In 2008 she officially became a motherless daughter herself. (Photo, 2012)


Obituary link:

https://www.legacy.com/amp/obituaries/kansascity/193520489

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PART 3 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

Fifty-some years ago, I interpreted my childhood circumstances and the responses of my caregivers, teachers and peers to mean that it is dangerous to be vulnerable; my needs are a burden to others; I am not worthy of love and generosity; self-reliance is the safest course; and asking (or even wishing) is to be avoided if at all possible.

As I shared in Part 1, beliefs come into being as we assign meaning to events and actions. A belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. A different child in similar circumstances may not have made the same assumptions as I. For better or worse, these childhood beliefs unconsciously dictated many of my choices for decades without my notice (the art of belief-spotting is covered in Part 2). This final post in the series offers a glimpse into how I uncovered and began changing this particular set of distorted and dysfunctional beliefs.

I thought “you never need anybody for anything” was a compliment.

When a significant other told me 25 years ago, “You never need anybody for anything,” I at first took that as a compliment, and then was puzzled to discover it was actually intended as a lament. I thought I was keeping myself safe and being useful to others at the same time. Instead, I had unwittingly created one of the most abysmal and extreme examples of codependency I have ever witnessed, with toxic tendencies fueled by my low self-esteem and fear: people-pleasing, resentful care-taking, an extreme need for control and the anxiety that goes with it, defensive reactivity, poor boundaries, painful feelings like shame and despair, and great difficulties with trust and emotional intimacy.

Sadness surges from my heart to my throat—and my eyes flood with compassionate tears—as I think of how I flogged myself onward with my impossibly high expectations and rigid to-do lists, never quite measuring up to my own performance standards and rarely accepting help, all for the sake of an illusion of control and a belief that I was keeping myself safe.

Inch by inch, insight by insight, and belief by belief, I have gradually come to understand that the “safe zone” in which I believed I was holding myself and my unspoken needs was actually a high-walled emotional prison that kept others locked out and me locked away from the interdependence that leads to thriving. In other words, the strategy was utterly self-defeating.

This recognition is what first helped me uncover these hidden beliefs. They exhibited two of the belief-spotting clues mentioned in Part 2: (1) they created intense feelings of discomfort, despair and unhappiness, and (2) they produced repeating patterns of failure and dissatisfaction in relationships.

Over recent weeks I have been on an interesting journey to change this particular cluster of longstanding, self-defeating beliefs. Here’s a recap of milestones in the process.

My Steps for Changing Beliefs

  1. I put the obsolete beliefs into words in my journal and began gently and compassionately exploring their origins.
  2. I processed aloud with a trusted friend, telling the stories upon which the beliefs were founded.
  3. As I processed verbally, I felt strong emotions that I honored by allowing them to move through me. This included using lots of Kleenex!
  4. I flipped the old beliefs and restated them as new affirmations: my willingness to be vulnerable is a great gift to the world; others appreciate my willingness to acknowledge my needs; I am worthy of love and generosity; it is healthy and rewarding to be interdependent; asking is the most effective method of getting needs met; and finally, wishing is a wonderful way to imagine what might happen.
  5. I took action based on the new beliefs, and not just some tiny little candyass step. I wrote a letter to 25 friends to make the most taboo of all requests in my old belief system: I asked for money to help get Insight peer support off the ground.
  6. My ego kicked up a hell of a fuss for several days, trying all kinds of old antics and flooding me with negative messages and feelings of unworthiness, insecurity, self-doubt, etc. Thanks to other belief-changing experiments in recent years, I knew to simply outwait the ego storm. New beliefs take time to integrate!
  7. When the first check showed up in the mail in response to my request, shame reared its ugly head again and dumped a familiar flood of stress chemicals into my entire body. I sat down in tears and asked to speak to the little girl who concluded so long ago that it is weak, shameful and even dangerous to ask for what she needs. I told her that the person who sent us the big check was loving and generous. I kissed the check and held it to my heart in a gesture of receptivity. I waved and twirled it in the air to demonstrate there were no strings attached. Together my inner child and I sat down and wrote a deeply-felt thank you note. I kept saying, as often as necessary, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s gonna be okay. People believe in us and what we’re doing.

As it turns out, wishes ARE horses—in their way—and beggars DO ride and CAN be choosers. I wished that I could break out of the paralysis of my fear and reluctance to depend on others. I wished that I could build a safe place where people could come to heal their hearts alongside me. I wished I had the courage to ask for the help I needed to make that happen. All of those wishes became the horses I am riding into a happier, more interdependent and satisfying future. I’ll even ask you if you’d like to help!

Would you like to give the Gift of Insight?

The Magic Horse, Houseman

The Magic Horse by Laurence Houseman

PART 2 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

Imagine growing up with the underlying assumption that you are a worthy and deserving person. Imagine that your existence is permeated with an unshakeable sense of purpose and rightness—that you know without question that you have a right to BE simply because you ARE. Picture your parents naturally nurturing this feeling of inner worthiness in you because they feel that way about themselves.

Chances are, if you are drawn to read this post you did not grow up feeling this way about yourself. I assume some of you are thinking to yourself right now, but I am not worthy and deserving.

MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE? I am using my megaphone because I think this is so IMPORTANT! I would like you to consider that the only reason you might think you are not a worthy and deserving person with an innate right to be exactly as you are is because you have a belief that says otherwise. And that can be changed. I will repeat myself. Beliefs can be changed. And I have news for you: you are a worthy and deserving person.

Megaphone

As I shared in Part 1, a belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. We build our beliefs from our interpretations of events and encounters and this is a very subjective process (rather than objective learning), meaning it is influenced by your feelings, thoughts, expectations, and memories (rather than hard facts).

The first task of transforming obsolete, distorted and limiting beliefs is to find them! Beliefs are often well-hidden in that 90% of the mind that runs the show without our conscious awareness. The nature of beliefs reminds me of the story of the woman who sat in her house and remarked on her new neighbor’s failure to get the laundry truly clean before hanging it out on the line…and then one day she remarked on how suddenly the neighbor’s laundry seemed less dingy and stained, not realizing her husband had washed their windows that morning. Beliefs are like the windows through which we view the world. To notice them, we have to step back with an intention to see differently.

Window of belief

Belief-spotting has become one of my favorite forms of entertainment because the object of the game is to make my life better by exercising my power to change. Here are some of the clues I use for tracking down beliefs:

  1. Look for intense emotions…anxiety, anger, hopelessness. Lurking behind these common feelings are often the distorted self-esteem beliefs like I am never good enough, I am unlovable, it doesn’t do any good to ask for what I need, I don’t deserve good things, I can never win.
  2. Notice repeating patterns of failure and limitation in career, relationships and finances. For me, career and finance patterns are incredible places to look for self-defeating beliefs like the world doesn’t value the kinds of things I’m good at, money and other resources are scarce, money doesn’t really mean that much to me, I’ll never be rich.
  3. Pay attention to statements that shift the responsibility or blame elsewhere. “He/she makes me feel…I can’t change because they won’t let me…as long as I’m stuck with this car, house, job, relationship.” Any excuse or justification that relieves me of responsibility for my own life is hiding a limiting belief of some kind.
  4. Watch for sweeping generalizations like “I always…I never” and pessimistic predictions like “I’ll probably fail…I’ve never been able to…I don’t know how.” These are so common that once I started looking for them, I was shocked to see how daily conversations are permeated by negative expectations built upon faulty beliefs.

An important component of successfully uncovering and challenging these unhelpful beliefs is to become gradually more aware and begin noticing where these old ideas are embedded. It is essential to do this in a kind and gentle manner, not like a hardass security guard keeping vigilant watch and pointing a mean finger at infractions, but like a benevolent grandmother who says, “Ah, there, my darling. There’s one to notice.”

Noticing

Along the same lines, remember that you are working with beliefs formed when you were a small child, so treat yourself as you would a beloved child or grandchild. Be patient, sweet, forgiving and encouraging.

Using this approach has allowed me to radically shift my self-esteem beliefs, resulting in enormous improvements in my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. In Part 3 I’ll share about my eye-opening journey to change a cluster of self-defeating beliefs that I’ve held for 50 years.

PART 1 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

I am unlovable. There is something wrong with me. My needs are a burden to others. I am never good enough. My body is big and ungainly. I will never be pretty. I’m stupid at math. Thinking is better than feeling. The world is an unsafe and unpredictable place. It is dangerous to express anger. I can compensate for my flaws by making myself useful. Money and other resources are scarce. My wishes and dreams are unrealistic and annoying. It is not safe to ask for what I need or want. 

Do any of these sound familiar? They are all beliefs I formed in childhood and relied upon regularly as part of my primary interpretive framework. For the first four decades of my life, I was scarcely aware that these were the distorted filters through which I screened life. Such is the nature of belief programs. They run unchallenged in the 90% of your mind that operates below the surface of conscious awareness

To be fair, there were also positive beliefs. I am smart. I am good with reading, writing and spelling. I can figure most anything out by following instructions. I am strong and able. I know how to take care of myself.

By 1966, most of my self-esteem beliefs were already formed

By 1966, most of my self-esteem beliefs were already formed

A belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. Beliefs come into being as you assign meaning to events and behaviors. Most self-esteem-related beliefs are formed during the first 6 or 7 years of life and are the result of interactions with your parents and—most significantly—how you interpret those interactions. There are always multiple ways to interpret any experience, and this is key to understanding how beliefs are formed and how they can be changed.

Beliefs usually take time to form and are reinforced through repetition of similar circumstances and conclusions. One cross word from a parent on a bad day when you make an ill-timed request will not create a belief. Repeated episodes, however, of eliciting a parent’s annoyance or anger when you express a need will do the trick. I think perhaps it’s also possible that a single event of sufficient trauma can sear a belief into the brain in a day.

Once integrated into your worldview, a belief becomes a bias for interpreting future events. In other words, beliefs are self-reinforcing. The brain selectively collects data that support beliefs and just as preferentially overlooks contradictions. Beliefs quite literally alter your experience of reality.

The subconscious is unable to differentiate between real and unreal, true and false; it takes its cues from what you believe to be true and creates your version of reality out of that. It even uses the filter of beliefs to screen out memories that don’t fit your beliefs, which explains how five family members will remember different versions of the same event.

If Wishes Were Horses by Casey Craig

“If Wishes Were Horses,” mixed media painting by Casey Craig

I have no way of knowing how many times I had to hear if wishes were horses, beggars would ride before I learned to stop expressing my wishes. Although I didn’t understand exactly what the old saying meant, I eventually responded by ceasing to put my imaginative desires into words. Wishing is an innocent pastime and an important building block for a child’s future ability to dream, envision and set strategic goals, but to a parent trying to raise a family on a tight budget, a child’s wish may be a trigger for frustration. By adulthood, I had become a person easily irritated by anyone articulating a wish. Hidden beneath my intolerance was my own suppressed ability to dream, wish and express.

Since I know my parents are among my blog readers, I want to clarify these important points with love!

  1. I do not blame my parents for my distorted beliefs, although it was indeed my experiences with them that helped build my beliefs.
  2. I take responsibility for drawing my own conclusions about what their words and actions meant.
  3. Beliefs are not necessarily logical, sensible or true, and we can easily hold contradictory beliefs.
  4. Beliefs can be changed at any time! I am not crippled by my childhood!
Me and my folks in 1963

Me and my folks in 1963

What’s helpful to understand is that, in the period during which a child’s beliefs around self-esteem are being formed, there is a fundamental conundrum in the family: children are developmentally unable to consistently meet their parents’ needs and expectations for skills like self-control, quietness, neatness, and following rules. What this implies, then, is that unless parents are extraordinarily patient, self-aware, getting their own needs met, and in possession of a healthy self-image, they will unwittingly perpetuate what is often a multi-generational pattern.

The discomfort and depression that came of interpreting life through the filter of my negative self-beliefs for over three decades finally started me on a path to uncover and transform those self-defeating beliefs. In Part 2 I will share some tips, steps and outcomes from my adventures in belief-spotting, including the joyous realization that beggars can and DO ride!

Still in my robe and pajamas

At nearly noon on a bright, sunny weekday morning I am still in my robe and pajamas, just now getting around to eating breakfast while most people are pondering lunch. Friends and family who know me well might be tempted to worry. Am I sick? Am I feeling discouraged?

No, the truth is far more startling. At 56, I am pregnant. With triplets.

April Fools! But only sort of. The truth is slightly less sensational, but the metaphor of pregnancy is perfect. I have entered into intimate and passionate relations with my inner desires and am determined to carry these three babies to term: writing, music, peer support.

I’ve miscarried many bright ideas over the years. I feel this deep in the pit of my belly as these words resound in me.

This morning I awakened and realized there was good reason to be just as doting and compassionate with myself as if I truly were pregnant. Get plenty of rest, exercise and healthy food. Daydream about baby names and nursery decorations. Make a shopping list for little outfits and supplies to tuck away in preparation. Call my friends for advice on labor, delivery, mothering. Don’t overdo. Put my feet up and congratulate myself. Pay attention for those reassuring kicks.

Throw myself a doozy of a shower. And then get dressed for the day.

This is part of the storyboard I created in January to inspire myself

Always return to your center

When I was a teen, my father taught me racquetball basics. In case you don’t know, the game is played with a bouncy rubber ball, short-handled rackets and no net in a small, enclosed court. Every surface is fair game – walls, floor and even the ceiling. The play is fast-paced, aggressive, and often, in my opinion, overwhelming. Kind of like life sometimes. And you can get hurt.

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Of the many skills and lessons my dad tried to teach me over the years, I can’t think of a single one that stuck any more permanently or served as so meaningful a metaphor as his racquetball wisdom. The most responsive spot on the court is at the center, he instructed me. Always come back to the center position. The strategy is to stay poised in order to move easily in any direction to return a shot. It feels tremendously risky at first because your back is to your opponent, but it doesn’t take long to understand the value of the strategy.

As a poet and an idealist, I pondered that metaphor until it came to represent the ideal of living a centered life. But what exactly is that?

Sorts, whacks and kilters. Most of us are familiar with expressions like out of sorts, out of whack, off-kilter, off the beam, off-center, off-balance, at sixes and sevens, bent out of shape. We don’t have to know the meaning and origin of sorts, whacks and kilters to get the sense that these are all ways of describing that unmistakable feeling of discomfort (and perhaps even panic) that signals an abandoned center.

For me, abandoning the center can happen in any of these ways:

  • Skimping on the supportive routines that make me feel solid and grounded (rest, regular meals, solitude, journaling, meditation, movement, contact with nature, unplugging from electronic stimulation, taking care of business, free and unstructured time for play and daydreaming)
  • Putting external concerns (work, social activities, volunteer commitments) above internal priorities (personal goals, primary relationships, creativity, spirituality)
  • Getting over-involved and over-empathetic with other people’s problems (including not only immediate issues in the lives of friends, family and neighbors, but also the local, regional, national and world “news”)
  • All of the above

Did you notice I didn’t include having my own challenges as part of the list? That’s because having my own problems does not necessarily throw me off-kilter (which, by the way, roughly means out of alignment or balance, not in good health). In fact, if I’ve stayed close to center with these core supports, I’m in the perfect position to cope with what arises in my life. I’m in the middle of the court and poised to respond. I am attentive and strong, ready and resilient.

In case of emergency. Right now in my life, things are unbelievably uncertain. I have no income and am living by faith. People who are close and dear to me are facing major hurdles: one got fired unexpectedly, two have long-term marriages in crisis, several are ill, one is in the hospital, two recently lost dear pets, and another is attending to her husband in the last stages of a terminal illness.

Tenderhearted and service-oriented as I am, it is clearly time to make sure I am in the center of my emotional-physical-spiritual racquetball court. And here is perhaps the most convincing reason why: in case of emergency, I am no good to anyone (including myself), if I have gotten off-center.

Where is the center? The center of which I speak is a metaphorical space, a symbolic place, and yet, many of us could agree, I imagine, that it exists. We can feel when we are there and we can sense when we have strayed. That is the first step, simply noticing.

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I colored this design with markers when I needed to center myself (from a book by Susanne F. Fincher, “Color Mandalas for Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression”). Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, a shape that can symbolize wholeness, infinity, the self in relation to the cosmos, and much more. I find it incredibly soothing and focusing to color, play my ukulele, chop vegetables for a meal, or go for walk. Other friends accomplish the same thing by knitting, drumming, yoga, gardening and the like. These are but a few of many ways to reclaim your center court position. 

What I notice these tools have in common is that they invite full presence and attention. To attend is originally from the French, meaning to “direct one’s mind or energies” and the Latin for “to stretch toward.” I feel this as a deep yearning when I get distracted, frazzled and frantic. I feel the call to attend to my own needs, to return to my center. Sometimes all it takes is to rest my hand on my chest and get still – and there it is, here I am, back in touch with myself.

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