Act Two: Knowing Good Criticism from Bad

ninja breath

Act Two

KNOW GOOD CRITICISM FROM BAD

Do you trust yourself to differentiate between good criticism and bad criticism, what’s okay and what’s not?

Does All Criticism Seem Like An Attack?

Do you react to criticism as if your village is under attack? I sure used to. When I had some of my worst experiences around criticism, when I had meltdowns, panic, when I quit jobs…my reaction, my upset and anger, soared from 0 to 100 in a split second. The hilarious part is, as I walked out, I’d feel that I’d won the battle.

Additionally, I tended to smell criticism from 100 feet; I would think that just about anything that wasn’t a compliment was, in fact, a criticism. (Compliments, oh! Those would go through their own x-ray in my brain, in which I’d try to detect shades of earnestness and try to decide whether the person really, truly meant the compliment or was, rather, trying to prime me for some kind of later favor they’d ask.)

I had no ability — no tools — for dealing with criticism. No utterance was valid, all were attacks. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t being professional, I was under attack; load guns! shoot! No, wait – aim! See, I had grown up in a household in which criticism was rampant, criticism of others and of self. And the criticism was total — that is, there wasn’t a clear differentiation between the person and their actions. So when I was criticized (or, rather, my actions were), I didn’t know the difference. And the differentiation is essential!

Good Person/Bad Deed

People are all born good; however, their actions or deeds can be poorly executed, clumsy, and terrible. Children are good beings, but can make mistakes and do bad things. (If you are struggling with the concept of people being born good, start with yourself — do you believe that you are fundamentally good?) I have a friend who uses this language with her child, “I love you, honey, but your actions aren’t okay — that was a bad action.”  It’s helpful to use language to differentiate the person from their actions. We might say to someone, “You’re a great employee, but snapping at customers is unacceptable behavior.”

Perceived Criticism

Perceived criticism is the wide and mighty gray area in which we tend to make mountains of molehills, get into arguments, storm out of rooms, fling retorts, etc. Someone might be talking about how they did something, and you start to wonder if they’re suggesting that you, too, should have done things that way. (Are they trying to tell you something? No! They are talking about themselves – ask them more about themselves, and you’ll see.)

* * * * * *

Navigating perceived criticism can be tricky for the self-centered aspects of our personalities, our anima and animus, to listen to others talk about themselves without thinking about our own experience. Getting practice at listening to, learning from, and hearing others express themselves will help ease your self-centeredness as well as temper any tendency to assume there’s a hidden criticism or message for you in everything people say.

* * * * * *

Facing perceived criticism? Ask clarifying questions!

Valid Criticism

Valid Criticism is criticism that is clean and clear. It’s hard to come by, but not impossible. Valid criticism is specific to a particular instance, a particular behavior, and is very simply stated: “Your report had mistakes in it,” “That email was unprofessional,” “You’re talking mean,” “You were late,” “This paragraph is confusing,” “I asked you to start the laundry but you didn’t,” “You’re driving really close to the car in front of us.”

It falls within the family of Constructive Criticism, which is feedback that can be fairly formal in that it includes positive and negative statements — you did this part well, and this part you didn’t do well — and is well thought-out and often part of a planned meeting. If only all workplace criticism could be constructive! Alas, managers are rarely trained in the art of constructive criticism.

With that in mind, when giving feedback, think of the “sandwich” approach, by having the filling of the sandwich consist of careful criticism, surrounded by slices of bread that are positive, affirming statements. The whole is then more easily digested. “This is wonderful, these two things are problematic, and this other thing is wonderful, too.” I have been in situations in which I asked for a couple of positive statements in the midst of criticism, in effect making that sandwich myself — so that I could digest the criticism without starting to believe I was “all” bad as I had a tendency to do.

You might bring a cake you picked up to a party, and hear someone say, “I don’t like this cake,” and feel criticized. The truth is, while that person may want to spread toxicity around, they aren’t technically criticizing you.

Translating Lousy Feedback into Useful Material

To get the best out of a lousy manager who’s trying to give valid feedback, you can run their words through an inner translator:

Boss says:     “You’ve got a short fuse.”

You inner translation:     “I’m okay. There are times I overreact.”

That’s doing you both a favor. When you translate for yourself, you can stay composed, professional, and even create a more productive conversation. You could ask, “Sounds like you’re saying I’ve overreacted at times, can you give me an example?”

Also – did you catch my phrasing of ‘lousy manager’? So, rather than that, I could say, “Manager with poor feedback skills.” See?

Note:  body language and tone of voice are major factors in how we perceive and experience criticism. Pay attention to that. If you’re confused about the body language or tone, or notice a discrepancy – say so. Ask about it. “You’re saying it was fine that I was late, but you brought it up – and you look frustrated,” what’s the story? Be open – that changes everything. You might also add, “I was late, I’m sorry for that.” (No need to over-apologize, but do take responsibility.)

Co-Dependency and Perceived Criticism

Growing up in households steeped in co-dependent dynamics, we tend to be confused about the cause-and-effect between what someone else feels and our actions. We were trained to think that we “cause” other people’s feelings in a way that we don’t. “If you don’t go to your brother’s game, he’ll feel bad,” was one I heard aplenty growing up — someone telling me how someone else would feel about my fictional actions.

If your mother cries that you don’t “know” her or “love” her because you got the chocolate cake rather than the vanilla with raspberry filling that is her favorite, you’re being baited. (She had an unexpressed expectation.) If she didn’t tell you to order chocolate, is it fair to expect you to intuit that was the one to get? (No.) Could you have asked? (Sure.) Did you try to get it right? (Yep.) Can a cake flavor be equated with love? (Am I really asking that question?)

With practice, you’ll be able to differentiate between what feels like criticism and what is someone stating their opinion or throwing toxic snowballs your way.

If you’re facing valid criticism, tune in.

Destructive Criticism

Destructive, or negative, criticism is toxic and unproductive.

Destructive criticism has some hallmarks:  it doesn’t contain a suggestion, solution, and doesn’t improve a situation. Destructive criticism can be abusive; if it’s criticism that sums up a whole person, such as, “You’re no smarter than me,” “You’re dumb,” “You’re lazy,” “You’re a bully,” or “You never shut up,” it’s abusive. It’s abusive if it’s used to manipulate a person — like knocking a person down a notch in order to strengthen your own position. Destructive criticism can involve the terms “always,” “never,” talking about a number of instances as a “pattern,” or passive or rhetorical statements like, “How is it that you’re the messiest person I’ve ever known when your parents are such neat-freaks?”

If you’re facing destructive criticism, you can get space, you can walk away.

If you are in a relationship in which you, yourself, are using destructive language, be willing to see that.

Ask yourself why you feel the need to resort to threatening language. Is there a power struggle? Are you holding onto unexpressed anger? What’s going on? Talk to a counselor and work on learning new language. And, similarly, if your partner is using destructive language, be courageous enough to talk to a counselor, therapist, or browse some books on anger, abuse — and self-esteem.

Take responsibility.

“You Should. . .” 

The phrase, “You should” is tricky because it involves that trigger terminology of being told what to do as well as containing, possibly, a veiled criticism.  An emotionally intelligent-sensitive person won’t say “you should” if they want to share their idea — instead, they’ll say, “If you wanted to do it another way, you could…” in those instances. If you’re irritated that another person says “you should,” the best way to do that is to model it, to adapt it to your own language.

There are times in which the person who says ‘you should’ is not intending to be critical. They may very well accept the validity of the way you did something, yet because they seeing things from their perspective, they may want to share that with you. If you’re feeling criticized in those instances, you can say:  “Interesting. Why do you suggest that for me?”

Interesting! Why do you suggest that for me?

Note the “…for me.” That part of the question can be effective in achieving a number of things:  it says you heard them, it validates their suggestion, and it re-points the idea back to your situation, to you. Say you’re talking about a hiking trip you’re planning, and you’re talking about the logistics — and that’s when the other person says, “You shouldn’t go then, you should go in the summer.” And then you say, “Interesting, why do you suggest that for me?” That gives them a chance to say, “Well, you might like fall weather, but you might get rain so I wouldn’t go any other time but summer.” Then it becomes more of a conversation, and less of a lecture. You can say, “I don’t do heat. I don’t love rain, you’ve got a point there. But I’ll take rain over hot days.”

If you value yourself and love your flawed, imperfect, and wonderful self, as well as value others, you won’t feel the need to be like them or please them.

If you’re hearing, “You should,” ask questions, and listen. Get more information. Breathe. 

Mistakes Count as Practice

This taking-criticism-well business takes time, it takes the development of your instincts. It also takes mistakes, and apology, too. We don’t always get it right, whether we’re giving criticism or the receiver of it.

Breathe

If you were to skip this entire post and still get the most hidden, useful, and shiny gem, it would be to breathe.

B R E A T H E

Seriously, that’s a ninja-level tool.

Even if you can’t translate what you’re hearing, ask question, etc., that’s OK. You can breathe. Anyone can do that. Here’s how:  take in a long, slow, slow, slow breath into your nose (mouth shut) and then, once you’re full to bursting — let it out through your mouth with pursed lips, slowly, and exhale completely.

I officially dare you to do it right now.

 

Last Week:  How Well Do You Handle Criticism? (Act One)

How Well Do You Handle Criticism? (In Three Acts)

Hello TomorrowDo you want to squirt lemon juice in the eyes of anyone who DARES to criticize you? To pound their desk with your fist and shout, Who do you think you are?! You don’t KNOW me, what I’ve seen, or where I come from! Do suggestions, tips, and advice feel like hostile criticisms to you? Are you hyper-aware — do you scan the crowd, worrying, suspecting, or knowing that you’re being evaluated, rated, and sized-up by any stranger who glances your way?

What do authority figure issues have to do with a person’s difficulty with handling criticism, and what does difficulty with criticism have to do with self-esteem? 

 This post is dedicated to a reader who recently emailed me about authority figure issues (after reading my post, Don’t Tell Me about Authority Figure Issues!). The question was, how do we stop over-reacting to criticism? How do we stop being shut-down by perceived criticism? How can we navigate criticism like emotionally resilient versions of ourselves — how do we keep our minds, and hearts, open? 

Act One

YOUR CHILDHOOD IS OVER

Clearly, your childhood is over. Your age indicates that. Your living situation probably indicates that.  We’re on our own now. We pay our own bills. And lots of them. Yet do we truly understand the implications of being out of childhood in every cell of your body and brain? Does your emotional self know that, really know that? Did you take some time before starting your first adult job to replace all your old habits and assumptions with brand new adult ones? (No. No one does.) Or are you just like the rest of us, acting out the role you perfected from childhood?

Most of us are reacting to others, during emotional moments especially, as if they were another person, a father or mother, from childhood. When your girlfriend or boyfriend has to end a phone call quickly and you feel the pinch of abandonment, is that a new feeling, or a very old one, from childhood? When you tell your partner you’re feeling ignored, which indeed you may, is it 45% present-day emotion and 55% unresolved childhood hurt that you’re presenting to your partner, dropping in their lap, and expecting your partner to soothe? Do you want others to soothe not just today’s hurt but all of yesterday’s hurts, too? For a long time I operated that way. When my feelings were hurt, they were hurt ten times the size. I had no idea, none whatsoever, that present-day hurts were activating old, deep ones. It was completely unconscious.

What does carrying forward childhood wounds have to do with not handling criticism well? A lot. Maybe everything. If we are still mad, traumatized, and providing safe harbor to unresolved pain from the original authority figures in our life, how can we expect ourselves to hear what our present-day authority figures have to say? Our original authority figures were inconsistent, perfectionistic, and distracted by their addictions — which is to say, we’re not naturally trusting of authority figures. How can we hear suggestions, advice, and criticism and get anything productive from others if we’re still looking for targets to release our somewhat-related anger at? If we relate to authority figures in our present life as if they are the authority figures of our early life, we’re acting out of sync with reality — we’re acting out a role that doesn’t correspond to what’s in front of us, we’re not really here, present, in this reality. All of that is to say that each of us must recognize how we’re living in reaction to early wounds in our present lives, and take responsibility for healing that, so that we can participate in today.

Within this realm, I define “authority figures” as anyone who my inner child could perceive as an “authority.” So, that includes my bosses, clearly. But “authority figure” could also be a boyfriend, if my inner child is at the forefront and I’m feeling small. It could include someone behind a counter – a car rental clerk, police officer, or parking attendant. Basically, an “authority figure” can be anyone our inner child may perceive as having more control than we do in a given situation. Add criticism to the mix — and you have a recipe for emotional detonation.

Black and white or all-or-nothing thinking (which I wrote about in this post, On Authority Figure Issues) kills our chances of being open to the benefits of hearing criticism — as does perfectionism. If we equate one mistake with total failure, we’re not going to be open to hearing about mistakes. Through a long and roundabout and continuous process of coming to value myself and believe in my thoughts, wishes, dreams, wants, etc. as right (for me) — and making mistakes — I discovered that when I include my flaws and inconsistencies as part of my global concept of who I am, I’m open to criticism. When I began to react to mistakes as mistakes — just mistakes a cool but flawed person can make — and not supernatural “signs” that I’m a deeply flawed person destined to fail miserably and die lonely in a cold cave (oh, the mind’s powers!), I could then make room for criticism. Criticism wasn’t going to send me off the cliff; I wasn’t fragile with denial about my perfection anymore.

Again – it was a long and winding journey. I didn’t have a roadmap, and this is the best one I can sketch out for future travelers.

Just know this: you are the one responsible for affirming yourself, cultivating your sense of worth, and knowing that you are both flawed and perfect – perfectly flawed -  as is everyone else. Don’t wait for all of the many apologies that you feel you’re due to start living in today.

 

*  *  *

 (Act Two – KNOWING GOOD CRITICISM FROM BAD)

Collaboration as Healing – Writing The Kind Self-Healing Book

by Marla Pedersen of ripplestudio.net

by Marla Pedersen of ripplestudio.net

Since jumping into writing The Kind Self-Healing Book two years ago, I’ve noticed that things moved forward at certain points with significant energy and power when I reached out to others for their help. While I had to write the book on my own, while that was the only way to write this book, I don’t feel like I did it alone.

I asked for help when I asked to use a friend’s office space for a weekend to write somewhere new. When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you tend not to ask for favors. You think, it’s a hassle to get the keys from him for his office. You think, what if I can’t turn off the office alarm? You think, what if it doesn’t help — what if I can’t focus there? You think… you think… you think… about all the reasons why it might not work and that creates such a feeling of befuddlement that you throw up your hands and sigh, forget it.

I asked for help, collaborated, when I asked Marla of ripplestudio.net to draw some illustrations for me. I didn’t know how those first four drawings would evolve into a project — Marla went on to create dozens of illustrations for The Kind Self-Healing Book! It became a collaboration. She read pages of the book, then drew accompanying illustrations. Her art will bring the book to life in a new way that I couldn’t have imagined. It was an incredible experience.

I asked for help when I reached out to a new friend — a new friend = an even bigger risk! — to ask for a recommendation for where to scan original art into digital Illustrator files. Her response? “I can do it!” She had a scanner at her photography studio. She did me a big favor, and saved the budget for the book, too (the money of 134 kind souls).  But the best thing was that I got to know her better and share some laughs through the process of dropping off pictures and picking them up. That is truly marvelous. (I never, ever, would have experienced that at Kinkos!)

by Marla Pedersen of ripplestudio.net

by Marla Pedersen of ripplestudio.net

I asked for help when I set up the Indiegogo campaign to fund the book. Here’s what’s so remarkable: 134 kind individuals are collaborating to make the book come to life!

I asked for help, collaborated, when I reached out to four friends to read the book in its final draft and give me feedback. They went above and beyond. They validated that the book was real and good, and they caught errors, suggested fixes, and helped me see what was working. They are collaborators, too.

I asked for help, collaborated, when I reached out to friends to participate in a “scones & typos” session, which you can read about on the book’s FB page, two Sundays ago.

I couldn’t have, wouldn’t have, come out of my shell to collaborate a few years ago. I didn’t collaborate in the ways above by “necessity.” Collaboration was an attractive choice. Year ago, I would have stopped short before reaching out to combine energies. More recently, I have come to believe that coming out of my shell to ask, “Hey would you mind…?” has become a big part of the healing process just as much as it’s a result of the healing process.

- be kind to yourself

by Marla Pedersen of ripplestudio.net

by Marla Pedersen of ripplestudio.net

by Marla Pedersen of ripplestudio.net

by Marla Pedersen of ripplestudio.net

A Story of Surviving Chaos – Dawn Clancy on Growing up Chaotic

When you know what it’s like to grow up within chaos, you are someone who knows what it’s like to be in that that unique, highly-attuned, nerve-wracking environment. Blogger and chaos-survival activist Dawn Clancy, who writes the Growing Up Chaotic site and blog and Blog Talk Radio Show, describes such origins so very well. Her piece, No Matter Where I Go, Mom Is There is essential, required reading for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to grow up after a childhood of chaos and what’s required to overcome, integrate, and bloom despite it.
Dawn’s essay, which she wrote about her mother and the chaos she outlived is simply outstanding. Her descriptions are so tender and well-carved. She has a gift for being able to articulate the sensations any of you who have survived chaos likely have also felt.
An excerpt:
“While she rambled, I picked apart every word and inspected every syllable that fell from her mouth. I was drunk hunting, listening for the slightest indication of intoxication, my finger resting on the “end call” button on my phone.”
-be kind to yourself

The Kind Self-Healing Book – Preface

I’m going to post this and attempt not to apologize about it being a rough draft and not yet copyedited or proofread and all that, but I began the year with the motto that I would be willing to make a fool of myself and that I would “ride the wild donkey” as well – which means doing projects without the mistress of Perfectionism having a say.

Please follow my FB page for The Kind Self-Healing Book, to track its progress.

* * The Kind Self-Healing book is due out in March 2015 * *

 

The Kind Self-Healing Book

Raise Yourself Up with Compassion & Curiosity

Amy Eden

Contents

Acknowledgments
Beginnings

Part One: I Seek You

Beckon and Befriend Your Inner Child
Making A Pledge to the Work
Catching Your Thoughts
Every Single Pain and Loss
Humbly Seeing Three Sides to the Story

Part Two: Feelings and Feeling Them

Greetings, Feelings
The Big List of Feelings
Trawling for Your Feelings
Cultivating Compassion for Your Feelings
Bouts of Worthlessness, Fear and Becoming More Grown up than Your Problems
I’m in Love with Your Anger!

Part Three: Navigating Sabotage

Does Self-Sabotage Exist?
The Wild Mind
Your Thoughts vs. Their Voices
Poking Fun at Your Saboteur
Time (Late Again?)

Part Four: Caring for You

Tips for Taking Care
Fundamental Self-Esteem
The Art of Caring about Yourself
Self-Parenting
Care and Feeding
Saying “No”
Compassion for Your Funky Self
Taking Responsibility
Gratitude
Having a Spiritual Practice
Your Environment
Share Yourself with Others

Afterword
Glossary

And the day came for the risk
it took to remain tight
inside the bud was more
painful than the risk it took
to blossom
- Anais Nin

 

Setting Sail

After ten years of writing about self-healing for guesswhatnormalis.com, I became inspired to put together this book, which is to say, at long last. The inspiration came from my readers. They asked, again and again, “Where do I begin?” How do I start the process of healing and doing the work of re-wiring myself, transforming my traumatic childhood? So, here it is, my answer. This book is all about the beginning of healing. It’s about saying “Hello, feelings,” and regarding what you feel with compassion. It’s about coaxing your Self, your true, inner, imperfect and lovely Self, out into the light. It’s about taking your own hand, being you own guide, and learning and growing through the act of investigating yourself. It’s about getting to know who is really inside each of us and enticing that wonderful being out into the open more and more, bit by bit, with love.
We are sensitive beings, by nature. We’re human animals. We adapt to situations and our survival is all-important. If you grew up with parents who were unable to nurture you, then you did what any child does: you survived. You hid your needs if you sensed that your needs were bothersome to your parent, and you focused on their needs. If your needs were inconvenient, criticized, or doubted, maybe you acted strong or perfect, like everything was A-OK, hiding your natural right to vulnerability and your needs for help, guidance, and reassurance. Maybe you got the message that being “OK!” was all that was acceptable, and deep down you knew being “OK!” guaranteed your safety and security. That is what little beings do to survive. If that’s anybody’s fault, it’s nature’s.
Kindness towards yourself is the way out of pain, confusion, and doubt. I know this because I practice it every day. It’s a way of life that doesn’t cost a cent. Kindness toward yourself is a shift in thinking, a new habit that takes practice to form, and it’s one that gives and gives and gives. Who knows? Perhaps your growth will inspire a few others around you to self-reflect, and by and by your practice of self-kindness will lead to bigger change across your community, and even beyond that into the world to surround all of us.

Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Environment

Dysfunctional childhood experiences cross class and cultural lines, and share common characteristics. In them, parents hold children and one another to perfectionist standards. Criticism is rampant–criticism of the family members (and pets), as well as extended family, and neighbors, as are fear and abuse. Emotions, feelings, and desires that don’t align with the addict’s wants or needs are rejected, shamed, or simply ignored.
Children growing up in dysfunctional environments tend to know (and feel responsible for) the emotional landscape is for the whole household. We are chameleons (this can be a good thing and it can be not so good). Growing up, most of us knew more about our parents’ emotional states and feelings that our. Love is expressed conditionally in a dysfunctional home. This could mean that your parents praised, touched, and gave affection to you only if your behavior pleased them–but withheld it when that wasn’t the case. It could mean that your parent noticed and valued only your appearance and attributed great meaning to it–upon visiting, your parent might exclaim, “You look great!” and, satisfied that that’s the whole of the story, proceed to talk about themselves without actually asking about your life or interior world.
Dysfunctional homes are wallpapered in fear. You may have been afraid of your parents, their moods, or their reactions because all of you existed in an environment laced with the threat of violence. And then there’s abuse; you may have witnessed, or endured, verbal, physical or sexual abuse.

The Lies That Bind

If there is a problem in a family which the family doesn’t want to fix, the family will become dysfunctional in order to avoid the problem. The family becomes dysfunctional in its attempts to live “around” the problem that it ignores. The ignoring requires behaviors that are the hallmarks of dysfunction: denial, magical thinking, lies, and shame. With “magical thinking,” a person believes their thoughts can make things real (it’s like, ‘where there’s a will there’s a way,’ but without any actual physical effort, regard for reality, or reasoning—a mad scientist without the science). While it is most always more destructive and painful to postpone dealing with a problem than to face it constructively, conflict-avoidance is a characteristic of dysfunctional families. Rationally, we’d agree that letting our problems fester leads to a greater mess in the end; however, if we’re in a dysfunctional family, we pretend things are fine until things blow up. There is little value placed on what’s true, including one’s personal truth, in dysfunctional families. And most dysfunctional families will become cut off and isolated from extended family, friends, and society–all in order to avoid facing its problems. Healthy personal boundaries, respect, and compassion aren’t practiced or modeled in dysfunctional homes–instead manipulation and shaming are practiced, and victim/perpetrator dynamics rule.
Can this Book Benefit You?

Perhaps you want to be sure this is the right book for you. If your childhood didn’t quite prepare you for adulthood, your answer to most of these questions will be “Yeah.” If your childhood home wasn’t the place to just be yourself and perfection was expected of you, it’s high time you unfurl and embrace the real, imperfect you. If your family’s code was pretending things were fine when they weren’t, you’re in the right place. If you were expected to be glad when you were sad, you’re in the right place. If you’ve come into adulthood battling low self-worth and the nagging sense that you’re different from other people, you’re reading the right book.

Regardless of how much these questions resonate with you the first time you read through them, know this: anyone is welcome on this journey.

Do you have trouble saying “No”?
Do you over-commit yourself—say “Yes,” then panic?
Do you seek approval from others only to need more?
Are you self-critical?
Is perfection your ultimate goal?
Do you need to feel that you’re “in control”?
Would you rather control others than trust them?
Are you doubtful about the outcome of acting on your instincts?
Do you feel shame about who you really are?
Do you have trouble completing projects and tasks?
Do you struggle to get places on time? (Are you always 5-15 minutes late?)
Do you “go numb,” feel fuzzy-headed, or feel like your brain locks-down during a conflict?
Do you feel your life is one big, unfurling reaction to what happened to you in childhood?
Are you always waiting for the bottom to drop out?
Do you feel your life is driven by things people did, and still do, to you?
Do you fear that if you finally reveal the True You that you’ll be rejected?
Is it difficult, or even scary, for you to ask for what you want?
Do intimate relationships scare you?
Are you unsure whether you have a right to get mad, really mad?
Do you question whether you have a right to your feelings?
Do you experience anxiety that leads to panic attacks?
Do you imagine future conversations, plot, or plan ahead and then get upset by what you imagine (and occasionally act on what you imagined to be true)?
Do you feel your feelings are connected to, dependent on, or control the emotions of other people?
Do you feel more comfortable around chaos and/or people with big problems?
Are you afraid that if you change, you’ll be rejected by your family or that you’ll be rejecting them?
Do you find yourself wondering why you didn’t say “No” earlier, stand up for yourself, or get out of a scenario much sooner?
Is being self-reflective, idle, or “lazy” uncomfortable for you?
Is it difficult for you to just let go and have fun?
Do you crave, yet fear, spontaneity?

When you’ve had a less than perfect childhood, there is healing work to be done. When you’ve experienced a great trauma in your life, there is healing work to be done. When you’re a person living in this world, there’s healing work to be done–to be human is to experience pain, and to be human is to be, by your nature, a transformation-prone being.

*  *  *

5 Super-Kind Abilities You’ll Gain from Doing This Work

I honestly believe that each of these abilities is within your reach. These abilities can develop from practice and applying a compassionate approach to your personal growth–and from a decision to take the leading role in your own story every day:

1. The purpose driving your actions will become your wants, desires, and needs rather than your anxiety about other peoples’ needs or wants. Your own unique interests, goals, and personal fulfillment will become more central in guiding how you participate in life.
2. The discomfort you feel when asking for what you want and during confrontations will become a manageable discomfort (a low simmer rather than a high flame) and you’ll regard and appreciate the discomfort you feel as encouraging proof of having become daring and engaged in life.

3. Your self-confidence will become more consistent, less of a roller-coaster ride, and you’ll experience more and longer-lasting hopeful moments of self-appreciation, because you’ll have cultivated unconditional love for yourself and cease to expect perfection of your every breath.

4. You’ll be able to remain calm in situations involving criticism without losing your sense of self, your core, and your self-esteem; you’ll be able to hear and benefit from criticism without the old and unhelpful party-crashers of anger, fear, and defensiveness.

5. You’ll become comfortable expressing yourself and your needs in romantic relationships and willing to risk an ending rather than stay in a problematic situation; you will never again rationalize disrespect, criticism, or manipulation just to keep a situation going. And you won’t be tempted to try controlling the relationship because you’ll have moved from living in your head to living in the present moment.

You can have a life in which you grow, feel alive, happy, and feel like yourself (and like yourself) and live at ease. The tools in this book are meant to support you in your growing-up and healing process.

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Survive or Die

For many years I assumed that the central trauma of my life was having an alcoholic father. In fact, not only did my father battle alcoholism, my mother did as well. My father got sober decades ago. My mother died suddenly at age 53 with a blood-alcohol level so high that she was comatose. And they, too, grew up with alcoholic parents–my dad’s dad and my mom’s mom, both of whom, puffed up and saturated, died from the disease of alcohol addiction. Alcoholism is “a family disease,” not only because the drinking of one person in a family effects all members, but because it’s usually an inherited addiction (inherited by a combination of nature and nurture). Alcoholism is an addiction that courses through one’s family tree for generations.
By growing up in an alcoholic family system, my ability to trust others became impaired. I say family “system” because when alcoholism is part of a family, it has its own power over the whole–you could say the entire family is under the influence, and that’s true whether the alcoholic has become sober, or even if he or she still drinks.

It was my mother’s abandonment of me when I was four years old that I now know to be the central trauma of my life. She chose not to raise me (“I set you free,” she once told me with pride.) Not only did she abandon me, but she didn’t acknowledge that the abandonment had occurred. I supposed I was expected to get over it. Yet her decision seeded in me a trust handicap, a.k.a., “trust issues.” I know well how alcoholic family systems are full of lies, focus on appearances, perfectionism, and hyper-vigilance in order to cope with the unexpected mood changes and rages of the alcoholic. And I know well the sad possibility that a person, no matter how integrated in my life or committed to me by marriage or blood, can up-and-leave without explanation. It can happen—it did happen.

Trading Survival Living for Thriving

The words “journey” and “work” come to mind when I think about the first steps I took towards getting out of pain and into healing.
It was during college when I first began to work on the issues that receiving poor parenting created for me. At the time, those issues were anxiety, trust, and feeling on edge and peculiar. While I had been made to go to Alateen meetings once my father started going to AA meetings, what my dad’s alcoholism truly meant failed to click for me. I was still living at home, still in the inferno, surviving my alcoholic family. I wasn’t in a position to see our family objectively in order to work on myself. But in college, after a break-up with a longtime boyfriend, I sense that having relationships was particularly hard for me–like, way, way harder for me than it should be. I sought help. I found a therapist who taught me how to visualize my inner little girl and regard her feelings, and I would spend an hour or so after the sessions writing in my journal. I wrote pages and pages and pages. I filled journals and journals and journals. And then, slowly, my writing transformed into something that seemed like it might be useful to others like me, which eventually became guesswhatnormalis.com.
Without some gut instinct, writing, a some good therapy, and many self-help books, I might have taken the road that my childhood and family line had patterned for me–of codependence, addiction, and decision-making ruled by anxiety. Sometimes I wonder if breaking free means choosing a road that’s at times tougher, lonelier, and scarier. Indeed the road to growth, freedom, and ourselves is an adventurous one. Yet isn’t it the only choice?

Your Journey
It is time to thrive. To get more joy out of your life, feel like yourself, and enjoy interactions with others, you must complete your growing up process by your own hand. Maybe you’re in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s and you can’t believe you haven’t yet done this work. Who cares?! Once you’re on the journey, you won’t care why it began when it did. It might have been someone else’s responsibility to have raised you and prepared you for life better than they did, but you get to finish the job. You’re the only one who can. And you get to do it your way. Beginning is all that matters.

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How to Work Through the Book

I put this collection of activities together with a start-to-finish progression in mind; I recommend starting from the beginning and slowly working your way through to the end.
Every single activity in this book has potential to become the basis for an insight or healing experience for you. There are no forms to rush through and fill out here–you can regard each activity as its own world. Some of the activities may pack more of a punch for you today, depending on where you are in life, and other activities will resonate more for you at another period. Utilize the pages and tools that resonate for you today.

The tools that have helped me along the way, and that I’ve created this workbook around, are: writing (journaling, blogging, and email exchanges), reflection, feeling, and reading. I’ve worked every single one of the activities in this book; I had to–they’re the result of how I approached the inquiry into myself, my healing, and working through issues, oh so many issues.

The Book’s Two Types of Activity Pages

Within the first three parts of the book, you’ll encounter two types of activity, or workbook, pages. The first are tool pages and the second are contemplation spaces, both are invitations for reflection and to study yourself. The tool pages have this image [insert ILLUSTRATION] and are where you’ll take a first, structured step to self-observation. The contemplation pages have this image [insert ILLUSTRATION] and are a next, deeper step to studying yourself in a less structured format so that you can explore in your own way.

The Book’s Four Parts

As you approach part one of this book, I Seek You, the idea is to slow down and notice yourself, your mind, and its thoughts. What–or who–is the source of those thoughts? Are those your thoughts, do you like and agree with them, or are they old tapes from childhood? Regard yourself as an observer, an investigator–of You. Approach the activities as if you have a license to see, say, and feel anything that you might think or feel. Any feeling or thought that arises for you is valid.

In part two, Feelings and Feeling Them, the idea is to identify, look at, and make friends with your feelings. If you grew up in a dysfunctional household, you’re likely the product of the essential dysfunctional family motto: Don’t Talk, Don’t Think, Don’t Feel (it’s never said outright to family members, yet is always in operation). As you work through part two, the idea is to learn the language of feelings, try on what it’s like to have a right to your feelings, and embrace them as normal, valid, and an A-OK part of what makes you you.

When you get to part three, Sabotage, you’ll be going behind the scenes of sabotage and opening the curtain on it–seeing the mechanics of sabotage and how to disassemble it. As part of that, you’ll be noticing the critic and saboteur in your mind, getting practice with re-writing the critic’s script and aiming love at your inner saboteur. Are you and time in conflict? This part will give you an opportunity to contemplate time, find out the time things actually take, and coming to a place of respect and compassion for time.

The final section, Caring for You, could be considered one giant hug, a big, big one that you give yourself. The section is filled with ideas for self-care, a spiritual practice, setting up a nurturing home environment, and sensing your personal rights. You’ll delve into a study of self-esteem, learning what self-esteem is composed of and how to strengthen it, lean on it, and how to take care of yourself through loving self-parenting. You’ll also find ideas for taking charge of making your environment a comforting one, how to know and honor your needs, and for enjoying and sharing yourself with the world.

I hope you show kindness toward yourself, regard yourself with curiosity, and look openly and directly within yourself as you go froward.

I hope that you feel a sense of warm, calm love brewing up from your belly to your heart as you work through these pages. The act of doing this work creates its own magic.

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