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Are We Hard-Wired to Suffer?

Howdy all…in case you missed my new article on Huffington Post…here it is in its entirety. Seems to have generated some buzz on the wire…what do you think? Please weigh in here or go HuffingtonPost.com. I’m very interested in where my readers come out on the causal scale– nature/environment/culture?

Yesterday I had one of those classic moments with a client that never fail to bring the conversation to a stand still. He was sharing with me his tendency to, as he put it, “always feel anxious and worried about everything.” At one point, with a shrug, he simply declared, “I’m just hard-wired to be anxious. I’ve always been this way.”

Really? Hard-wired to be anxious, worried and stressed-out? Not.

Have you looked at a baby lately? Or hung out with small children who are living in a secure home with at least one loving parent? In general, well-fed kids (poverty is another thing entirely) are relaxed, spontaneous, playful and full of life a good deal of the time. Since when did it become in vogue to blame our adult anxieties on so-called “hard-wiring?” What does “hard-wiring” mean anyway?

In the 19th century, before Freud, most psychological maladies, lumped under the heading “hysteria,” were thought to be nervous disorders caused by bacteria. Patients were often quarantined, subjected to leeches, or sent away for a “cleanse.”

In the endless nature versus nurture debate over the source of our pain, nature, circa 2010, has taken the lead. We are culturally awash, once again, in a bio-chemical, reductionist moment. Peering into the recesses of the brain more deeply than ever before, we latch on to the work of electrolytes, neuro-peptides and synapses, hoping to root out those dastardly chemicals that bring on our suffering. With this narrative in vogue, we take umbrage in labeling our issues, challenges and deficits “hard-wired” — hence, unchangeable.

Ironically, it is science itself which may restore some equilibrium to this conundrum, for scientists have a wonderful habit of de-bunking their own theories. Today, neuroscientists are re-discovering what Freud, even with his limited purview on the human mind, understood implicitly in his early forays into developmental psychology: The brain itself, the supposed home front of “hard-wiring,” is malleable, adaptable and constantly renewing itself.

Brain scientists are beginning to understand that the biochemistry and neuronal network that under girds the structure of the brain is constantly re-organizing and adapting to changes in the outer world. New research bringing together the best of neuroscience and psychiatry, such as detailed in The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doige, MD. calls into question the notion that the “wiring” in our brains is “hard” in any way, shape or form.

So if the latest research is accurate, and our brains ARE adaptable and changeable, what are we to do about this tendency to default to the “hard-wiring” narrative?

In the research I conducted over a 10-year period for my new book, Shift: Let Go of Fear and Get Your Life in Gear, what I came to see repeatedly in my clients (and I might add, in my own life!) is that these default narratives, especially when spoken in the context of anxiety, stress and worry, point, not to chemical dysfunction, but to our addiction to comfort, our antipathy towards change (in a nation born of revolution) and our bifurcated relationship with FEAR. In a culture addicted to “happiness” (but that rushes out en mass to delight in big screen terror of vampires), we have forgotten, or at least dismissed, the truth that fear, especially when change is in the works, is perfectly normal — maybe even healthy.

In other words, when you find yourself defaulting to the story, “I’m hard-wired to be ______”, (e.g. anxious, stressed, worried, fill-in-the blank with your favorite), it usually means that some aspect of your life is ready to shift, ready to release, ready to be, in fact, renewed. BUT, because change is uncomfortable even for the most adaptable of us, our egos will hook into whatever cultural narrative is in vogue to hold us “in check” — in an effort to protect us. But from what? It seems we would rather languish in depression or wallow in worry instead of simply acknowledging our fear of the unknown, breathing deeply and stepping into the flow of life… and changing.

So the next time you find yourself feeling anxious and you begin to ask if perchance you’re “hard-wired” for misery, try asking yourself some different questions:

What pattern might I be stuck in–at work, in my relationships, in my life?

What change might be afoot that I’m resisting?

Is it possible that my life might be BETTER if I relaxed, just a bit, and allowed the change to unfold?

In the case of my client, when he stepped back, took a deep breath, and contemplated what possible change might be in the works, he realized that he was frustrated with his job, bored with his living situation and dissatisfied with many aspects of his life. He actually desires change but fears it.

There is another narrative available to him, of course, a story of new beginnings and unexplored territories, which could be fueled, not by the energy of anxiety, but excitement, even enthusiasm. But in order to shift gears, he will have to give up his story that he is “hard-wired” for worry. Instead, with an awakened awareness that change is inevitable, and a willingness to release that which no longer serves him, he might just re-wire his way into of a new way of being…creating whole new vistas of possibility.

So check your wiring…and don’t be afraid to blow a few circuits now and again…you may just re-wire the system… and light up your life!

Dr J


Releasing that S.O.B. called J.O.B.

A recent article in the NY Times called attention to a huge paradigm SHIFT that I’ve been noticing for a few years now: The “JOB” as we know it is on its way out! Like a wave that is building…getting ready to make land fall and wash away a cultural icon, the linear, full-time, boxed in life mode called “having a JOB” seems to be dying out. The article pointed out how millions of people coming out of the recession are making a conscious decision NOT to look for a job — but to craft a life built around consulting assignments, part-time work, and freelancing gigs. Welcome to the brave post-JOB world, where we are ALL called to be entrepreneurs and to create businesses, to craft work/life-styles that mine the talents, visions and passions that make us unique…and to bring those forth. In a word, welcome to the “portfolio” world!

Of course, we all know how painful it can be to lose one’s job, to be laid off, or re-engineered out of a corporate gig that we thought was a “secure” position. Losing a job can wreak havoc on our finances, our families, and our sense of security, but sometimes equally important is what it does to our sense of identity, raising the inevitable question: Without this JOB, who am I?

It may sound rather fantastical or unrealistic to speak this way, yet we are so quick to forget that the “full-time” job, and picture we have of work life made up of 60 hour weeks with a couple of weeks break in the summer or at holiday time if we are lucky, is relatively new on the cultural scene. The work world that we consider “normal” actually grew out of the Industrial Revolution–a time when factories arose to replace farms and people became cogs in the new machine of productivity. The “job” –as an arduous, exhausting, all-consuming, clamor up the rungs of a corporate ladder or scramble to get off the factory floor–is not etched in our DNA!

That said, writing as one who has felt the sting of unemployment myself over the years, I don’t want to be cavalier about this transition. It is a big SHIFT in our culture…and in our lives. BUT, and this is a big BUT, there is a true silver lining here, if we choose to see it that way. By letting go of the cultural fantasy that life is a straight line trip up the job/career ladder to nirvana (or golfing by the sea shore), we can reframe the change and see through to an opportunity to reinvent our relationship with WORK. We can begin to create new ways of being in the world that not only pay the bills, but nurture and nourish our creative spirits…and keep our soul’s alive.

So, if you’ve recently lost your job or are just wondering if it is time to step off the corporate ladder and try to fly solo or create a business, non-profit, or other way of working that might better aligned with your soul’s desire, here’s what I consider to be the 3 key steps for making the SHIFT (oh, and read my new book SHIFT too…where you’ll find a whole host of tools and practices to support your transformation:

Your Workbook for Life-Shifting!

1. Release: Letting go–or “being let go” (if the rug-pulling comes from outside your control, as is often the case) can be emotionally devastating to our egos. Grieving the loss, of a job, of an identity, of who we thought we were…takes time. Don’t criticize yourself for feeling a sense of loss, or sadness, just let the feelings come up and flow through you. Exercise, eat well, sleep a lot, if necessary, and be sure to share your true feelings with a loving companion, therapist or coach. Grieving is part of the process of letting go–it doesn’t take forever but it does need to be honored.

Try not to be freaked out by the symptoms of change. Anxiety, stress, worry, lethargy, boredom, mild depression are all naturally occurring symptoms when we are feeling stuck, in a RUT, or experience a rupture in our lives. They, and you, are NORMAL! Our protective egos will try desperately to “rev us up” (anxiety) or shut us down (boredom/depression), as a way to protect us from CHANGE.

Vent...breathe...vent some more...breathe...and...release!

We are bombarded with advertisements and self-help books all wanting to help us alleviate the symptoms and get back on that treadmill. It is ok to want to feel better–but don’t miss the forest by getting caught up in the trees. Sometimes symptoms of FEAR (which most of these are!) are a gift in disguise, calling us forth to do the inner work of re-inventing our relationships, our careers, jettisoning our small view of ourselves as “nine-to-five-ers” or just good enough to hold on to that S.O.B. of a job.

2. Reframe: Step back, take a deep breath, and look for the gift, the opportunity, and the possibilities that are all around you, even in the wake of a major job loss. Do a lot of journaling–about your passions, your gifts, your dreams. Put together a list of what you KNOW YOU ARE GOOD AT…and ask everyone you trust and love what gifts they think you bring to the world. Letting go of the victim energy and going inside ourselves to re-connect with the “through-line” of our passions, our talents and our capabilities is the crucial transitional shift required to begin again.

Embrace your ever-present inner beginner!

3. Re-invent: Create a vision–not a specific goal, but a picture/fantasy–of how you’d like to be living and what work you see yourself doing a year from now…and five years from now. Write a mission statement and create a “vision board”–a collage–that operates as a billboard for the new brand you are crafting in the world. As Tom Peters would say: the advert for YOU, INC.

Then start reaching out to people and offering to help, to serve and provide your talents/capabilities to the world. Don’t “network” in the outmoded ways (collecting business cards: NOT!), but connect with like-minded people, build relationships with key people who you admire, who are doing work in the world that is aligned with your passions and your new ways of seeing yourself. Remember: one deep, abiding relationship is all it takes to link you to the next great adventure in the work of your life. Networking is not about quantity…but quality!

the cirle of giving...always gives back!

Create a whole surfeit of resumes, websites, and FB pages that proclaim your gifts…and, finally, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to GIVE AWAY your time, your energy and your efforts to those who need your help. Giving of yourself, in the areas aligned with your passions/talents is the surest way to have the universe return the favor–in the guise of paid gigs, consulting/p-t work…and very likely, (God forbid) that old stand-by, another J.O.B.

We live in a time of great upheaval–where SHIFTS have become the norm…and the full-time j.o.b. seems to be disappearing. But, deep down, I believe this is all good news: a new day is also dawning (a key theme in my new book: ENDINGS always segue into BEGINNINGS!) when the idea of a “job” is being replaced with something new, something better, something more connected to who we are as humans: the integration of work, passion and play. Can you imagine a day when our adult lives are no longer bounded by “work days” and “vacation days?” A time when we love our work so much that we don’t “need” a vacation from it?

Step up to your growing edge...take the leap...and soar!

Or am I just crazy? What do you think?


Dr J

Sun may set on your job...but rise to the work of your life!

Twenty Questions…and A New Video!

Dear friends,

I just wrapped a “prep” project for what I hope will be an opportunity to chat with Diane Rehm’s of NPR’s Diane Rehm’s show book segment. I had to answer the proverbial “twenty questions”…(Ok…fifteen!) which was time-consuming but also great fun as it forced me to think deeply about WHY I wrote my new book, “SHIFT: Let Go of Fear and Get Your Life in Gear” –and why I’m passionate about helping people MOVE THROUGH FEAR and shift their lives into high gear!

I thought I’d share the question/answers with you here…BUT of course I still hope you’ll tune in when I get the call from Diane! Also…check out the cool new video that my publicity team created for me…I think it captures my excitement about the book as a tool for becoming a master “life-shifter”, the need for us all to get better at handling the up and down cycles of life… and my desire to help!

See below and click here: SHIFT VIDEO

Let me know what you think! I’d love to hear from you! 🙂

1. What inspired or compelled you to write Shift: Let Go of Fear and Get Your Life in Gear (GPP Life; April 20, 2010)?

There were two main drivers behind my passion for writing “Shift.” The first motivator emerged when I found myself frustrated with the dearth of current self-help books that I wanted to share with my clients. Today’s self-help literature feels so fragmented and “dumbed-down” to me. There are lots of short, pithy “motivational speech” type books about how to achieve happiness in five easy steps, and books that tackle anxiety and depression from a bio-medical perspective (the neuro-science angle is all the rage) and cognitive slant (“change your mind and you’ll change your life”), but very few that take a serious look at how change really operates in our lives—and more importantly: how to navigate the inevitable FEAR that accompanies change. I kept returning to books that were written up to twenty-five years ago (e.g. Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway or The Road Less Traveled) and finally decided that a book needed to be written that provides an integrated—mind, body, heart—approach to moving through change, and fear.
The second reason I was inspired to write “Shift” was that after working with clients for over 15 years from all walks of life—business, academia, government—I noticed a clear pattern, a series of distinct stages, that people would seem to go through whenever a big upheaval or transformative “shift” would happen in their lives. I definitely noticed it in my own life as well. In the process of shifting out of the corporate world, into the entrepreneurial, consulting arena, I watched myself go through specific stages, and experience distinct anxieties and fears, all of which paralleled exactly what my clients were going through. I decided that a roadmap of these stages, with tools for working through the fears that accompany them, would be exactly the kind of self-help book that I wished that I had been able to reach for…and one that could potentially help people relax more as they undergo change, perhaps not need the “pharma fix” to quell the symptoms—and in general, become more masterful at dealing with change.

2. “Shift happens,” as you so colorfully put it. If change is such a common and constant part of life, why do most people dread it?

We are constantly bombarded with media images of smiling, prosperous, skinny, happy people who are lounging on Caribbean beaches drinking Pina Coladas. This “endless happiness” rant—a sort of consumer nirvana, has become the holy grail of Western culture. Yet, the reality, as we all know, if we stop and think about it, is that life doesn’t really work out this way. Change, as the Eastern traditions remind us, is constant. We become so caught up in the quest for material wealth, security and so-called “happiness,” that when life does what it does—change—and we are called to grow and move beyond our comfort zones, into new jobs, new relationships, new careers, new family or community constellations, our first reaction isn’t excitement, or enthusiasm, but, unfortunately, dread.

3. Anxiety, worry, stress, and even depression often come with the territory of major life changes. What’s wrong with how most sufferers treat these painful symptoms?

The issue here is what I call the “myth of the symptom.” This myth is that just by alleviating the symptom, we will not only feel better, we WONT have to change. The reality is that most of the time these symptoms are a surface manifestation of our deep-rooted resistance—and fear—of change. We view the painful symptoms as “the enemy” when in reality, they may very well be our soul calling out to us to grow, stretch and move out of our comfort zones. In a word, to change!
Far too often, we seek to alleviate the symptoms, and temporarily feel better with pharmaceuticals or comfort food or excessive sleep or alcohol, but despite our best efforts, life keeps moving. We eventually have to heed the call to wake up and get with the program—to take a risk, step over the edge and change. Our jobs, our families, our relationships, our finances—these will all constantly morph and change.
On the other hand, as I’ve seen over and over again in my practice, especially with entrepreneurs and business leaders, even positive changes like a job promotion or starting a new business can bring on symptoms of fear. Unfortunately, our cultural tendency has become to avoid, dismiss or deny even the most positive opportunities to grow. Instead, we get stuck and reach for the pharma fix. This is unfortunate, because very often the symptoms which we label as BAD, are actually very helpful “pointers” to our need to move, grow and shift, if we could just wake up and “smell the coffee” as they say. This is why I approach fear—and its attendant symptoms, anxiety, depression, stress, etc.—with reverence and view them as potentially (not always) positive signs of growth and change, not as pain points that we should immediately attempt to banish or cover over with drugs.

4. In Shift, you confront the formidable subject of fear—but in a way rarely talked about in self-help books. Would you explain how fear and change naturally go together?

Too many self-help books treat fear as if it were an enemy, something to be avoided, dismissed and jettisoned as soon as possible so that we can get back to being fat, dumb and happy consumers. I’m frustrated with this approach to self-help, because I believe that the endless clamor for happiness and avoidance of pain is actually promoting the very opposite of what is intended: distress and de-motivation. Fear can be a great motivator. It shows up as a signal that it is time to “get in gear” and move forward in our lives, to take new risks, learn new ways of adapting, and to be creative. Fear is a signpost on the road that change is in the works, and it is not always, or even most of the time—bad.
In the context of change, our trouble starts when we feel anxious, or stressed, and we label ourselves as having something “wrong” with us, and make the symptoms worse. In truth, the push to grow and change that comes from the outer world, or from our soul’s desire to expand and create, often brings up the symptoms of fear—and this is actually a GOOD thing…a sign of life pushing us forward against the edge of complacency.

5. As you note in Shift, most people view change as a three-stage event—with a beginning, middle, and end. How did you come to see change as actually happening in six stages?

After reading the best-selling book “Transitions” by William Bridges and noting that most books of this type denote change processes as having these three basic stages, I started to notice that there was more going on in each of these stages than at first meets the eye. I started studying closely the events, the emotions, and the fears that showed up during the early, middle and ending stages of the cycle of renewal/change that clients were experiencing and I began to see a pattern of shifts that occurred all along the way, six of which are clearly identifiable: a rupture (breakdown), a release (ending, letting go), a retreat (rest stop), a revival (beginner phase), a rehearsal (new commitment) and a realization (manifestation). I found that breaking the change process out into these more nuanced stages was extremely helpful—mostly because the types of fears that we experience vary greatly at each stage along the way.
Recognizing that fear morphs and shows up differently at each juncture is an important element in becoming more masterful at moving through change—because we can come to EXPECT to feel fear, to consider it “normal” and not to denigrate or criticize ourselves for not always being thrilled with each stage even as we know that we are growing and evolving. Even at the culmination of a change process, what I call the realization stage—we can feel fear (fear of success!) and perhaps reprimand ourselves for not truly embracing the moment. Yet, when we become aware, for example, that fear may show up even in the realization of a dream, we can ride the wave of the symptoms with greater equanimity, calm, and awareness….and yes, even enjoy the ride~!

6. Most self-help books approach personal growth as a steady, uphill journey or a linear process. What makes Shift radically different?

Again, it is a Western conceit to consider personal development to be a linear, uphill, trajectory. This tendency to view life as a straight line towards enlightenment—or happiness—is built in to the culture mostly through out education system, which is designed with 2 or 4 year increments of study, each of which culminate with a graduation, and some formal ritual of completion. Yet, the deeper truth is that we never “graduate” from life. Thus, early in our lives, we are suffused with the cultural patterning which tells us that life is a series of steps to be climbed that lead straight up to happiness, prosperity and retirement. Yet, if we look at how nature works—in seasons and cycles—we see that life really doesn’t operate in a straight-line trajectory. Everything moves in cycles, and every culmination, or “realization’ or graduation, is followed by an ending, a letting go, and a return to a beginning.

7. In Shift, you take issue with the popular notion that everyone has an “authentic self.” So, how do you define identity? If there’s no such thing as the self, how can a person possibly develop self-awareness?

I like the way you phrased this question because although I take issue with the idea of an “authentic” self, I do believe that we have a self—an essential, deep and abiding beingness that is very real, but not static. The key to my approach to the self, and our need to constantly reinvent the self all throughout our lives, is to recognize that what we consider to be an “authentic” self is just a story, a narrative of how we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we are moving in the world at any given moment in time. It is not “inherent” or “real” or unchangeable—just the opposite in fact. What is “authentically” real about us is in constant flux—our roles, our beliefs, our attitudes—and once we recognize this it is very freeing. We can then give ourselves permission to re-write the “story of me” at any time, throughout our entire lives.

8. In Shift, you also take issue with the prevailing self-help focus on achieving happiness. Why?

I am not fundamentally against “happiness.” However, my concern with the trend towards studying everything about human life from a “positive psychology” standpoint is that it carries the assumption that happiness is something to be “achieved” as a goal, as a marker of a life well lived. Yet, how many people do you know that are constantly happy? Happiness is an ephemeral, moving, transient experience, and unhappiness—melancholy, sorrow, grief, and yes, even fear—are not always bad. I’m more interested in helping my clients live a life of meaning and depth, a life filled with exploration, creativity and risk-taking, than I am helping people to climb up a “happiness tree,” find a perch to hang out on and rot. Happiness is a great, if momentary, experience along the cycle of change that characterizes real life—not something to be set forth as the pinnacle to be achieved. This attitude toward life actually sets us up for the opposite experience—distress—because it is so unrealistic and more like a Hollywood movie than the way life really works. By being bombarded with images that promote striving for success and happiness as the epitome of life’s purpose—we set ourselves up to be highly self-critical, to rarely measure up…and paradoxically, to be very unhappy!

9. Why do you have a problem with experts who stress the power of positive thinking? Why do you see navigating change as a matter of the body and heart as well as the mind?

I am not against “positive thinking” or approaches to personal growth that incorporate awareness of how our thoughts impact and influence our feelings and behaviors. The thinking mind is a key component in the constellation of self; it is a crucial part of who we are. BUT, it is not everything. Human beings are much more than “brains on a stick”—we are thinking, feeling, and physical beings. Just changing your thoughts may have a temporary impact on your life—making you feel better, change a behavior for a while, but real transformation, the kind where you wake up and don’t even recognize yourself or your life, requires the full-on engagement of the emotional, physical and mental aspects of who we are. We have to bring the body/heart right up in the front seat with the head.

10. As you explain in Shift, the best approach to navigating change depends on whether a person is more of a “thinker,” a “feeler” or a “doer.” How can a person determine his or her particular predisposition?

Everyone uses all three of the modalities to move through life—thinking, feeling and doing. However, we all have a stronger affinity for one or two of these and tend to ignore or dismiss the others. In Shift, readers can take a simple diagnostic exam to help them determine which of the three modes of operating they lean towards—giving them information about what they should attend to and not ignore. In order for real transformation to occur in our lives, we need to engage with all aspects of our being—and knowing more about our natural tendencies can help us to be sure to bring into focus those areas of our lives that we might naturally ignore or dismiss.

11. Throughout Shift, you reinforce the benefits of meditation and yoga. How can these spiritual fitness practices help anyone deal with the challenges of change?

The real benefits of meditation and yoga are simple, yet profound. Both of these practices help us get out of our thinking minds and become aware of our emotional and physical states. We learn to attend to our breathing—a natural access route to become an observer, a witness of ourselves, whether in action in yoga postures, or in a relaxed, contemplative state like meditation. Learning to step back, create space for feeling, sensing and being present to our physical and emotional energies is key, for it encourages us to create a dialogue within our selves—to listen in for clues, symbols and signals about what is really happening in our lives—and how/what kinds of change may be occurring.

12. As you make clear in Shift, what most people really fear isn’t the end result, but the beginning. Would you share a few nuggets of wisdom or strategies for making starting over less daunting and more manageable?

A crucial strategy that I offer my clients—and everyone who is up against feeling stuck or resisting the call to change—is to remember what it was like to be a kid, to connect to that “beginner’s mind”. The key to becoming masterful at what I call “life-shifting”—moving through life’s upheavals and ruptures, is to become aware that every ending signals the shift to a new beginning. As we get older and more set in our expectations that as “adults” we’re supposed to “have it handled,” we may resist and fear endings.
But even more often, we struggle with the call to begin again, to start over, because being a beginner is often awkward and uncomfortable. I always remind my clients that life moves in cycles and that the “beginner” phase of any life change can be the most exciting, energizing, and fun part of the process. We have to give ourselves permission to view this stage—what I call the “revival” –as a creative, exploration process. We need to recognize that “feeling inadequate” is perfectly normal, and that if we can get in touch with the child-like energy that is always available to us at any age, we can learn new skills, re-invent our roles, and our sense of self at any point in life, even very old age.
I encourage older people, baby-boomers in need of renewal for example, to blend together the two energies—of the inner child and the wise adult—together in approaching new activities or learning new skills. It is not only ok to make mistakes, and to stumble along the way, it is normal and expected. We need to lighten up on ourselves and remember to have fun along the way. It is a misnomer to believe that “mastery” means doing everything well or being an expert. Mastery, to my mind, is about becoming aware that being an awkward beginner, a ungainly adolescent, and a struggling apprentice, are natural parts of an endless cycle of change—becoming masterful is about becoming adept at moving through these phases and not dreading, but delighting in the process.

13. In today’s economic climate, more and more people are being forced to change their careers, lifestyles, and expectations about retirement. Can you offer any words of reassurance or practical guidance to help them?

When I look to reassure people that they can get through a major change, or a difficult time in their career or family life, I remind them that ideas like “retirement” are very new on the cultural and historical scene. The fact that we are living longer and living healthier lives means that instead of worrying about retirement (although financial planning is wise), we have the opportunity to reinvent our lives over and over again rather than sit back, watch tv or play golf. By recognizing that we have the energy of creativity available to us at any age, and that what we consider our “defined self” is anything but determined, we are free to re-write and re-craft our own personal story all along the path of life.
I’m reminded of my adopted mother’s view of life. She passed away about a year ago after struggling with cancer for many years, but even in the last five years of her life, with cancer, she still found time to volunteer at local elections, work part-time in the city hall of my home town, and gather on weekends with friends and local folks that were decades her junior. When I would ask young people who loved brunching with her on the weekends, why do you hang out with my mom…I mean, she’s “OLD”? They would answer, “Because your mom is ageless. She has a joy about her, grit and determination, a wonderful sense of humor…and she really knows how to LIVE. It is a joy to spend time with her.” I feel grateful to have had a mom who really didn’t buy into the cultural story of retirement and “giving up” as you get old…she had innumerable careers, a busy, active social circle, and endless numbers of hobbies that kept her engaged literally right up until just a few weeks before she died.

In Shift, readers will find inspiring stories of a number of men and women who “re-invented” their stories about who they thought they were…at forty, fifty and beyond. You are never too old to learn how to master change, because change is occurring anyway…the key is strapping on, with enthusiasm, for the ride!

14. As you share, you trace the birth of your book all the way back to the fateful date when you were seven. How did learning the truth that you were adopted mark a seismic change in your life and identity?

I like to share my adoption story with people because along with other important “shifts” that I’ve experienced in my life, this is a great reminder that who we think we are is ALWAYS subject to change. I had an early life experience, a revelation, of how my sense of self was not “fixed” or fact. I have a genetic story of who I am that is different from the environmental story. I have moved at times in my life from feeling like an “orphan” to being embraced with having two families, and many friends. Life is like that. Our identities are not etched in anything even remotely concrete. When people come to me with stories of failure, or childhood trauma, or breakdown in their careers or relationships, I’m quick to remind them that this is just part of the story of who they are—and always subject to change.
Today in our culture, we suffer a great deal from what I call “crises of identity” because we get very attached to our jobs, our lifestyles and our material possessions. But, these are always subject to change…and this is not a bad thing, but can also represent an opportunity, for re-birth, growth and new expression of our potential as creative beings.

15. What is your greatest goal or aspiration for Shift? What would you most like any person grappling with a major change to learn from reading your book and do first?

What I most want people to “do” after reading my book, is to give themselves a break. HAHA. To relax more and lighten up. To realize that who they see themselves being and doing is not fixed in stone. As a culture, we need to re-connect with the child-like, playful, inventive energy that made our country great in the first place.
My greatest aspiration for the book is that people will come away with an awareness that they are always moving, shifting and changing and that this “fact” gives them a great deal of freedom to become bigger, better and MORE of who they dream of being…BUT they have to re-assess their beliefs about fear, and its attendant symptoms, and become less rigid, less “dictatorial” and attached to some so-called authentically fixed story of self.
I’d love to see people breathe a sigh of relief after reading “Shift”—and not be so quick to reach for the anti-depressants or beat themselves up for not always being happy. Instead, to recognize their fears and anxieties as normal responses to a deeper process that undergirds all human life: the impulse to grow, create and constantly be born anew…at any age.

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Demons, Dragons and the Daimon (part one)

“There are times when we may fool ourselves. There are times when we can fool others. But we can never fool our body. It is the most sensitive barometer of our inner world.
” –Sherrill Sellman

The demons are back!

For the past few months, I have been waking up in the morning with what can only be described as “a jaw ache.” I get out of bed, slipper-slide my way to the coffee maker, and notice that my mouth feels like it has been nailed shut. Fortunately, the sense of “lock-down” persists for only a few minutes. When I sit breathing deeply in meditation, or take a few swigs of java–my jaw loosens and the pain subsides.

I didn’t think much of it until I heard on an NPR talk show that dentists recently reported a 50 percent jump in cracked and broken teeth in the past six months. Of course, as trained scientists, they just note the data and try to avoid speculating on why this might be happening…but I’ll venture a guess: anxiety, worry, stress…maybe FEAR?! (not that we are living through a fearful time…)

Does once every twenty years make a pattern? Not sure, but I can tell you that in 1989 when I first moved to New York City, I remember going to the dentist for the first time (on the 90th floor of the Empire State Building, whoa!) and he asked me if I “grind my teeth?” I had no idea what he was talking about, except to note that ever since arriving in NYC, I had been waking up in the morning with a jaw ache…rather like the one I currently have. He told me that I needed to be careful about this–that if it persisted I could crack/split a tooth during the night, or wear down the enamel, and the subsequent treatment could be quite extensive, expensive, and painful. Yikes.

Of course, the great irony was that he had a thoroughly unscientific, but rather profound explanation for my teeth-grinding: anxiety. He noted that many new patients, who come to NYC from other places, often have a great deal of anxiety in their transitional months. He was right, of course. I was excited, but also was anxious about moving to New York: I was worried about my finances living in such an expensive city; I was worried about being lonely in a city of 8 million; I was worried about starting my new job; I was overwhelmed by all the amazing things to do in the city…that cost money. You get the idea.

The good news, is that within a few months–by the time of my next visit–the pain had subsided and I guess I had became a relaxed, just normally stressed out New Yorker…with a loose jaw. Teeth intact.

Twenty years on..it appears that the teeth-grinding night demons are back. And it seems, according to NPR and the national dentists association, that I’m not the only one whose dream state is being attacked by little guys taking jack-hammers to my teeth while I snooze.

So what is going on here? Well, to my mind, what I’m going to call the “anxiety demons” represent bad news…and good news.

Unpleasant little devils!

Unpleasant little devils!

The bad news is that we are living in a particularly stressful time — and the symptoms of anxiety, stress, and worry are ubiquitous. The good news is that the demons are prescient, potent and insightful: we just need to listen to their message, and almost always, they signal CHANGE is afoot. Our job, if we have the awareness to hear the message, is to not RESIST…but, as best as possible, to go with the flow. Change, even disruptive upheaval…usually happens for our own good (that’s where the daimon comes in, but I’m getting ahead of myself).

Back to the den of demons. Have you or anyone else you know experienced an unusual number of physical ailments lately? I’ve notice that a large number of my friends–and clients–have recently been taken down by a plethora of them: back pain, hepatitis, insomnia, stomach flu, sinusitis, skin rashes, Lyme disease.

One friend, who is considering a major career move that will take him across the country and potentially away from his spouse, took to bed with what he thought was the flu. Five weeks and many shed pounds later, he realized that the tenacious bug was a big wake-up call: he needed to rest, reflect, and really think through his decision. He was deeply anxious and wrought with guilt over the desired change.

A client who I’ve recently taken on is “thinking big” for the first time in years, pondering life shifts that may take him and his wife into a new business venture, away from their home state, and perhaps out of his twenty year career in the hotel industry. In the midst of this “life-shift,” he has committed to tackle the one major demon that has held him back for years: his weight. Yet, in the first few weeks of our work together, as he gears up to face the possibility of major change–and a new regimen of diet and exercise–he has actually gained five pounds. Oops, wrong direction.

What’s going on here? Why do the demons attack just when we’re most vulnerable?

Well, my take is this: the demons are actually trying to protect us, to keep us from risking too much, upsetting the apple cart of our lives…and disturbing the peace. They are what I call the “front line” defense soldiers, attacking from the flanks–in the stomach, the mouth, the head, and the back (oh, could I tell you stories about clients with back pain!).

They are actually fairly benign in most cases–representing a temporary onslaught–but their goal is simple: to warn you about the dragon, that big time protector of what we might call, in Kafka-esque terms: the Keeper of the Castle “Status Quo.”

Demons, simply put, are symptoms. Symptoms, as Freud pointed out over a hundred years ago, are often the street lamps on the road to repressed fears, forbidden desire, and unhealed trauma. They can be a wake-up call that it is time to face down the dragon of fear…and move forward towards a new landscape. The mistake we often make, however–and that our sound-bite culture reinforces–is to ignore the deeper roar of the dragon, and tend the symptom alone. “Pop the pill,” “sleep it off,” “cut it out” (metaphorically AND quite often, literally), and “get back to work.” These are our mantras. And what of change, growth, re-birth, transformation? Ah, no thanks, please pass the NyQuil.

So, in most situations, we stay focused on the demons, try to alleviate the symptoms, and avoid coming face-to-face with the dragon we most want to avoid: the dragon of fear.

the real culprit...

the real culprit...

Why? Well, partly because the meaning behind the demon of illness can be elusive: sometimes a cold is just a cold. BUT, more often, I think, especially when we sense (if we take the time to reflect) that our symptoms may well be related to stress/anxiety, is this: fear is a formidable foe.

Slaying the dragon is no easy task. It is often easier to just pick off the demons, one by one, rather than face the truth of our deeper pain, or hear in to the music of our deepest desire. Yet, when we are finally anxious enough, fed up enough, sick enough, or just downright MAD (witness the recent election) enough, we may just rise to the occasion…and stand up to our fears, shouting, to the world, to ourselves, “yes we can~!”

The key to this shift—and you can bet we are in the midst of a major one right now—is awareness; becoming aware that the underlying issue is FEAR; that the headaches, body aches, diet dramas, and other afflictions, are not [always] random, accidental or genetic (as pharma execs and some psychiatrists would have us believe) but very simply the body’s own language, signaling us of FEAR…and CHANGE.

Here’s the rub: You can’t slay a dragon if you refuse to acknowledge that it exists (look what it took for us to finally see the insanity of the Wall Street fueled housing debacle). Only by becoming aware that we are AFRAID…or that we are UNHAPPY, literally “sick and tired” of the status quo, only then may we step beyond the demons…and enter the dragon’s lair.

At this point, you may rightfully be asking, “Ok, I’ve had a demon here or there, but if I can “take two aspirin and feel better in the morning,” why would I want to face down my deepest fears?” Good question. Yet, it is exactly that kind of thinking that gets us into these extreme messes — witness the mortgage crisis–in the first place.

By side-stepping the guardian of the castle, and avoiding our irrational terror of change, we are prevented from accessing the one thing that brings joy, passion and the energy of possibility into our lives: the daimon of our deepest desire. We all know what the dragons of folk tales really guard in those foreboding medieval castles: buried treasure!

buried in each and every one of us...

buried in each and every one of us...

Think about it. What are we really most afraid of? That we might have to shift our life focus from “money” to “meaning?” That there really could be joy in having less “stuff” and more time? That the breakdown in the “house of cards” called free market capitalism might cause us to re-evaluate what really matters?

It does seem that just as we get comfy in our strata-loungers, something equally demonic, but in a good way–shows up to shake us up, forcing us to change and grow. It is a mystery par excellence: this daimon of passion and longing, the creative impulse to build new castles and try out new economic systems, the drive towards a better world–the instinct to elect better leaders. Where does this come from?

Carl Jung considered the daimon the key to individuation: a daemonic pull towards growth and transformation that ultimately pushes aside our complacent, self-absorbed ego-self to reveal the soul, or Self with a capital “S”. Thomas Moore, in his new book “A Life at Work,” likens the daimon to our “soul’s desire”–a calling from deep within the unconscious to create meaning, connection, and depth in our lives, and in the world. In short, our life’s work:

A daimon is an unnamed urge that pushes you in a certain direction. it is the force behind the passion and tenacity of your yearning. The Romans believed that a child is born with his daimon, or in their language, his genius. It is a fertile idea; that the deep passion and drivenness that stays with us all our lives is there from the beginning. The daimon is a primal, creative urge. The daimonic voice is deep-seated and connected to your personality and destiny. [The challenge] (sic) is to learn to trust it, without being naive or giving up your basic skepticism.

To my mind, the daimon represents the final frontier—below the demon, beyond the dragon. It is that deep inner voice that calls forth our deepest aspirations as humans: to live out our dreams, to make the world a better place for our children, to satisfy our hunger for peace, brotherhood, and community. We all know those feelings, even the most cynical among us were deeply moved by the recent inauguration of President Obama. SO, where does that voice—the one that calls forth the immeasurable creative potential of humanity—reside?

It’s in there, deep in our souls, but it can be hard to hear behind the din of demons and dragons who would hold us hostage to anxiety, stress, worry, guilt..and loudest of all: our fear. In my next blog, I’m going to explore further how we might “slay the dragon.” But for now (funny, I can feel my jaw tighten in anticipation…it’s almost as if my own demons are just lying in wait, whispering, “leave us be…don’t rock the boat…just take that Xanax the Doctor prescribed…no need to get feisty on us!”), I’ll leave you with this question:

What demons have been showing up in your life lately? Are you ignoring them? Fighting them? Perhaps…listening in for the message they carry?

Behind the fortress of fear...is there a doorway to possibility?

Behind the fortress of fear...is there a doorway to possibility?

What dragon of fear or harbinger of change might they be pointing to? Are you listening? Please let me know. We’re all on this battlefield together…

Of course, the recipe for success, even in this trying time, is simple (but not easy!):

1. De-code your demons

2. Slay the dragon…and

3. Follow your daimon.

Onward, HO!

Dr J

Job Loss, Life Gain. Part 3

Today’s post picks up where I left off in part 2, with you dancing in your living room.

Get ready, get set...let's go!

Get ready, get set...let's go!

Hopefully, you will allow this “dance” time to be more than a Minute Waltz–perhaps you’ll give yourself a few days, a few weeks–even a month–to re-claim your soul, and re-kindle your vision. But soon enough, it will be time to get out in the world and get to work, literally. So let’s go.

If you’ve been following my thread in these posts, then you likely have picked up on a theme — a “life-shifting” mantra — that is near and dear to my heart. Turning any job loss into a life-gain is about shedding an outworn identity, re-claiming your vision, your passion, and values–who you KNOW yourself to be– and aligning these with the world of work. It is about finding that oh so sweet, sweet spot: The place where the world pays you to do what you love.

Of course, in a Mcdonalds, Gap, Starbucks world, this is easier said than done. BUT, it’s worth the effort to go for it. Otherwise, how else will we change the world? How else do you ever make the shift–from a consumer cog caught in the machine of commerce, to a human being manifesting your true potential? This is the real job, for all of us: the job of having a meaningful life.

So if you’re finally feeling fearless (ok, maybe a bit of trepidation, but ready!) and charged up, here’s what I consider to be the next steps:

5. Don’t network. Here’s the skinny on networking: it doesn’t work. What we really need, in order to find our next home in the world of work, is not a stack of business cards, a long email list or 600 friends on Facebook. We need instead, maybe one, two or three REAL connections–real people who will help us, listen to us, point us in a new direction, and likely connect us to one more REAL person that brings us closer to our “sweet spot.” The problem with networking is that it is far too often a “transactional” form of human intercourse — where quantity and speed are valued over depth and connection.

It's the connection that counts

It's the connection that counts

Recently, I was invited to attend a “networking” breakfast. It was one of those regular Tuesday morning affairs, held at the ungodly hour of 7am by a “business networking association” (that shall remain unnamed so I won’t get hate mail!). I’m glad that I had the opportunity to see how these things work. For me, in a word, they don’t.

When I arrived, there were about twenty people sitting around a table, all looking like they needed much more caffeine than was provided by the now empty urn on the side table. Each person got two minutes to stand up and give their “elevator pitch.” It was fast-paced, anxiety-provoking, and mildly entertaining (of course it was 7am so I have to be fair: not sure that ANYTHING would have been very entertaining to me at that hour). There were accountants and lawyers and real estate agents and recruiters. Other than the few who had polished their speech with a good metaphor or self-deprecating joke, I can’t for the life of me remember ANY of them.

The only person that I would consider a “connection” was the wonderful woman who invited me in the first place, a person, by the way, that I had only recently met at another association function, and who I had the pleasure of really talking with, listening to and SEEING. She was/is a really great person, and one whose friendship and support I hope to nurture for years to come. The other twenty people at the “networking” social, are still sitting on my desk, known only through their innocuous — if graphically stylish– business cards. For my taste, the whole early morning-breakfast-spiel-business-card-swap thing–is a colossal waste of time.

What you really want to accomplish when you “hit the pavement” and enter the fray to “build a network” is this: real connection. Talk with a few–maybe just ONE–real person and do more listening then speaking. Connect with their dream…and ask them to connect to yours. Make a date to get to know them. Creative solutions to life’s dilemmas are not born from a three-minute spiel, they are born aloft on the wings of deep dialogue.

6. Don’t look for a job. Ok, let me get this out on the table (it’s probably been too long in coming): I think the whole idea of a “job” is outdated. A job–that is, a “slot” in which to fit a person–is rapidly going the way of the typewriter, the hand-held calculator, and newspapers.

We love to forget that the idea of a “9-5 job” is probably less than one hundred years old, and like “retirement,” is an anachronistic invention of the post-industrial revolution. What has always existed, and what we humans are driven to seek, is WORK. And, work that is meaningful, value-added, and flexible enough to accommodate today’s fast-paced global economy, more and more often doesn’t “fit” neatly into a box called “job.”

I tell my clients this: don’t look for a “job,” look for a problem to solve. Get out and meet people, reconnect to old friends (this is where Facebook can be GREAT), sit down with them and listen in for their “problem.” Ask yourself: what problem do I LOVE to solve? The key to finding real, meaningful work in today’s tough climate is to BE THE SOLUTION to someone else’s problem. Whether or not there is a job, there is usually a problem. Your “job” as a seeker of work, is to find the intersection–the sweet spot–between the world’s problem and what you love to do (the solution).

More and more companies these days are hiring temp workers, part-tim’ers, consultants, and project managers. In fifty years, I doubt that very many people—beyond government employees and unionized plant workers (which will surely be ALL overseas)—will have traditional jobs. We will all live a “portfolio” life, doing a bit of this, a bit of that, a project here, a consulting gig there.

It can be unnerving—and challenging to juggle in the checkbook—but it is better to get with the program: a portfolio of work, not a job, is the future. And, for many, the future is now (Freelancers Union, a non-profit organization for people who live a portfolio life — a “gig life” as many of them call it — was formed only eight years ago, now boasts millions of members, and is doubling in size every year!).

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go on Monster.com and look for a “job” as listed there or elsewhere. You should. But don’t put all your eggs in the traditional baskets (if you ever wonder that the world of work is changing rapidly, just consider that job hunting sites like Monster are now considered “traditional” when they didn’t exist ten years ago…).

What really “works” in the new world of work, is this: get really clear on your vision of what you want to do in the world; get out and meet a few people and offer to help them with their “problem” (whatever that may be); be flexible and fluid and prove your value; do your homework and find out what your “value” is worth on the open market; once proven, demand same. Done. That is, for now.

Until next time the bottom falls out…and it will. The biggest lesson that we all need to learn from this turbulent time is that there is no such thing as “long term” any more. Everything is changing, faster and faster, and we must adapt.

But this can be great news for those who learn to master the process of “life-shifting.” Becoming adept at changing stripes, shedding jobs, identities and attachments (think Zen Master in a suit/tie), you pass through a doorway and enter a kaleidoscope landscape of possibility, meaning and progress, bestowed by life with the greatest gift of all: the gift of re-invention.

My river of change...

My river of change...

As I sit here on a sun-drenched, freezing Sunday morning, gazing out at leafless trees, a river of ice flows, and a dozen, dipping, undaunted ducks, I can’t help but pause and remember: the seasons “re-invent” themselves four times a year. We could learn from that.


Dr J

NY Times Redux

Time marches on. It has been a couple of weeks since I had my “moment in the spotlight” in the NY Times. Needless to say, everyone else has moved on to bigger and better (or bigger and worse: Mumbai) things by now. But not me. I keep ruminating (ok, obsessing) about how two hours on the phone with a journalist, discussing six important ways that business leaders/owners can relieve their anxiety during these troubled times, wound up becoming six, watered down sound bites. I’m not really complaining, because as I’ve said before, it was a privilege to be able to share my thoughts in that most august of Augustine publications, yet, I can’t help but wish that my “six steps” had been re-told with a bit more substance.

Fear is not something to be taken lightly. Fear, especially for those whose jobs are in jeopardy or

Throw me a lifeline!

Throw me a lifeline!

whose businesses are really feeling a pinch, is not something that can be brushed away like crumbs from the dinner table. Fear saps your energy and makes even basic activities a chore.

So in the cause of support, health and well-being for all of us in this challenging time, I want to revisit my list….and share my six steps again, hopefully with a bit more depth and nuance. So here they are “straight from the horse’s mouth,” as they say.


Step One: Confess to Stress

Do you sometimes feel anxious? Worried? Stressed? I know I do. We like to think these are all independent “symptoms”–and sometimes they are–but more often than not they are multiple buckets in which we attempt to toss away our fear. In almost every case, fear is the real culprit. When we get caught up in anxiety, stress and worry–or feel irritable and cranky–we have a tendency to get fixated on the symptom, and ignore, or deny, the underlying issue. Like my client who says things like, “I’m very anxious about the fact that I worry all the time.” Sound familiar?

The crucial first step to releasing fear is actually a two-fer: acknowledging and sharing. Fear needs to brought out from under its cloak of stress or worry or whatever you use to cover up the deeper truth: you’re scared. Real problems arise, not so much from the fear itself, but from our tendency to avoid/deny facing it. Especially if you are a business owner or leader with responsibility for the welfare of others, you may want to “put on a face of hope” and “be the rock” for your people–your employees, your family, your customers.

Yet, if you have no place to share your own vulnerability, to acknowledge that you too, are frightened and unsure, at some point the facade may crack. In my practice, supporting senior executives and type-A entrepreneurs, the most dangerous “symptom” of all appears all too often: isolation. Feeling fear is one thing, feeling fearful…and alone...well, now you’ve entered the danger zone.

My suggestion: find a buddy. You may not be able to share your fears (at least not completely) with your organization or employees, and you may be concerned about upsetting your family–or adding to their fear. So seek out at least one close friend and confidante–a coach, a therapist, or at least a pal–and express your deepest fears. Ask for help. It may just be the most courageous and “leaderful” step you’ll ever take.

Lean on Me

Lean on Me

Step Two: Reflect, Don’t React

Once you have taken the first step, and acknowledged that fear is the driving force behind your anxiety, stress, worry and all-around bad mood (for many of us!), there is a new decision to make: how to respond. The issue here is learning how to practice being responsive rather than reactive. This may sound simple, and it should be, but in our action-oriented, results-driven culture, we are often pressured to “shoot before we aim” and many of our so-called “role models” in politics and corporate America (think Trump!) appear to be focused, driven, and decisive…anything but reflective.

Act first, think later — is a recipe for disaster, and not, in fact, the way even the most action-oriented leaders, if they are successful in business and in life, really work. Reality TV and journalistic sound bite newsreels portray leaders as always ready to make a move…but very likely, (I suppose during the commercials), those same action heroes sat quietly for long moments, and hopefully, have thought long and hard about what to do.

I call it “Minding the Gap”: create space between your reaction to something that comes at you and the action you take in response. The “gap” is crucial. Without space to breathe and reflect, you are likely to make missteps. Ask yourself these questions: how much space-time-breathing room do you give yourself before you make a big (or even small) decision? Do you wait 24 hours before hitting “send” on that angry email you’re dying to write? Do you walk around the block a couple of times before heading into the house — and careening into dinner — after a stressful day at work? Do you take time to release the toxins of fear and anxiety from your body through yoga or exercise?

The size of the gap is not what matters here. It could be two minutes, two days, or two months–if you have the luxury. What is crucial is to CREATE SPACE for reflection. As Eckhart Tolle might put it: to find your way back to NOW.

Step Three: Stay in Focus

It is a common refrain to hear that you need to “stay focused” during difficult times. This is a no-brainer. What you hear less about is WHAT to stay focused on –or how to determine if you really are staying focused. For many of my clients, staying in action “feels” like staying focused. But is it? Or perhaps even more common: focusing on fear! (I guess that’s what I’m doing right now. Ummmm). The point is this: just telling yourself, or others, to “stay focused” is not particularly helpful. We are all, always, focused on something.

I break “focus” down to a more granular level. What you really need to attend to are two fundamental dimensions of focus: internal/external and time-based (past, present, future).

In the first case, you have to become aware of whether you are overly “externally” focused –taking care of everything that is right in front of you but ignoring your own needs–or vice-versa: withdrawing into your own emotional world, becoming distracted and dis-engaged from what is going on around you. The key is balance–moving back and forth between inner/outer focus as needed (see my blog post June 2007, titled, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom for more information on this particular form of focus).

In the second case, the issue is knowing whether you are too focused on the future (living in your fantasy or vision) and ignoring the present needs of the business. Likewise, you don’t want to get caught up in ruminating about the past– bemoaning lost opportunities or lamenting the “good old days” — and again, miss the issues right before your eyes. You need to have awareness about where you are putting your attention: be in the present, but thinking of “possible futures”…be focused on others, but caring for self, etc. The key again is balance: crafting a vision for the future, but living moment-by-moment in the NOW.

For more information on the subject of focus, I highly recommend The Power of Focusing, by Ann Weiser Cornell.

Step Four: Don’t Blame, Re-frame

The issue here is that we all have a tendency to “play the victim” at times. When there are so many things that impact our businesses that appear to be out-of-our-control, it is natural to get discouraged and want to point fingers…or blame the messenger. The key to staying positive and on-track in the midst of the mine field of economic bombs being dropped on you from all directions is to remember one key principle: there is only one thing you can truly control and that is how you SEE THE EVENTS.

We are always creating a “story” — a narrative– with which we explain what happens in our business…and in our life. The key to “staying afloat” during rough seas, is to not get caught up in the negative frame, but rather to “re-frame” the story — to look below the surface of what might appear to be bad news– and find the gold. You can always re-interpret the story as one in which opportunity abounds, no matter how bleak the picture looks in the moment. As Jim Kramer says on his TV show: “there is ALWAYS a bull market somewhere…it is your job to find it.”

Step Five: Stay in Balance

This subject of this step, like focus, is something that we hear in mantra form all the time: “Get a life.” Of course, as nice as that sounds, we all would likely admit that true balance is the first thing that gets thrown out the window as soon as we find ourselves in “fear-mode”. Anxiety breeds over-activity (and less sleep), and stress breeds exhaustion and irritability. The idea that we need to maintain balance (e.g. work/life balance) is certainly not new. What is missing, however, from most of the “self-help” literature on the subject is the answer to a key question: what, exactly, do I need to keep in balance?



It is not enough to maintain a balance between work and life (in fact, the colloquialism “work/life balance” is an oxymoron: since when is work NOT life?). For most business leaders working “under the gun” of stress and fear, work becomes life, and vice versa. It is not enough to find a temporary median point on the see-saw of “life” and “work”. In order to release fear and stay energized, optimized and optimistic, there is a balance more fundamental than that between work and life: the balance between head, heart, and body.

What really matters, at the end of the day, is that you balance your “thinking” side with your “feeling” side…and that you align both with your physical well-being. If you spend all your time thinking about the business and forget to sleep or eat, well, I can predict the outcome: disaster. If you spend all your time in “emotional meltdown”–crying jags, screaming fits and the like–well, here too, I can predict the outcome: disaster, but worse, you’ll be alone. Everyone who might support you, will flee! The key to “staying in balance” is not to focus on work vs. life (not possible anyway) but to focus on keeping aligned: mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Suggestion: reflect back on a typical week (especially one when you were in “stress/fear” mode). How much time did you spend attending to your feelings? How much time did you spend doing mental gymnastics–thinking, thinking and more thinking? How much time did you spend tending to the vehicle that seemingly effortlessly carries around all those heavy thoughts and feelings–your body? What is the balance between the three?

Step Six: Watch for Blind Spots

The issue here is that when business leaders (or all of us for that matter) are in “fear-mode” they have a tendency to deny/avoid confronting the truth. As in step #1 above, it is crucial that a leader be open and honest about his/her experience of anxiety and stress. We have to remember that even as the CEO, you are a human-being…vulnerable to the same fears and stressors as the lowest person on the totem pole.

Step six, however, is not just about “confessing” and naming your fear…it is about being willing to get clear, objective and tough-love feedback from people who will tell you the truth about what you may be doing that is unproductive and hurtful, or what you may be missing (e.g. the big picture?). As the leader of an organization, of three or three thousand or more, you are not immune to the darker aspects of human nature.

Often, denied fear–or avoided stress if you prefer–shows up in the outer world as something rather unpleasant. Do you recognize any of these behaviors from a place you may have worked: raging employees,

We've all been there

We've all been there

angry bosses, nasty co-workers, arrogant customer-service agents, condescending superiors, dismissive department heads?

Ok you get the idea. We all have our “shadow” side. As Carl Jung pointed out so profoundly many years ago: “The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate.” The fear and hurt in our hearts that we would deny and push away, shows up in the world anyway, as projection. We unconsciously toss on to others what we refuse to own in ourselves.

This step may be my last (for the moment) but it is key: when in fearful mode in business, and in life, we all need to find someone–or maybe a whole community of someone’s–who will give us the hard, cold skinny on how we are behaving. Only then, with a little reflection and humility, can we bet back on track…and show up as the leader/role model that we know our best self to be.

Question to reflect upon: How often do you get real, useful feedback in your life? Do you take the risk and ask for it? Do you have someone who will tell you the truth, no holds barred?


So…there you have it. My recipe for riding out the storm of anxiety, stress, and worry–FEAR–that is likely gripping you, and me, and everyone else, at least now and again, as the economic tide of woe flows by. We all know that economic tides, just like the ones pulled by the moon, will turn and ebb and and change. We are not on the Titanic, and I, for one, don’t believe there is an iceberg ahead.

We're all in the same boat

We're all in the same boat

Times will get better. But for now, we all have to do whatever we can to keep our backs up straight, our hearts open, and our heads above water. We are all in this boat together–so please send along your additions to my list…there is plenty of room in this life raft!

Dr J

Coping with Fear? Take a Breath

As some of you may know, I recently had the opportunity to garner a couple of minutes of fame–by being profiled in the NY Times. If you haven’t seen the article, here’s the link: NY TImes. In addition, I will be featured in an article in Investor’s Business Daily–on “Managing Success in Tough Times”–sometime in the next couple of weeks. It has been exciting to get a little attention from the media, especially since I’ve been writing and coaching executives and business leaders about coping with fear and anxiety, stress and worry…all that stuff that we are ALL experiencing these days, for many years. Not that I’m really thrilled to be focusing on the dark side of life, so to speak, but at least the media is taking a fresh look at the issue of fear — in society, business, and life — and not everybody, at least not me, is selling meds!

Is this YOU?

Is this YOU?

That said, I’ve been surprised by how difficult to understand the journalists find my rather straight-forward advice. If you’ve read my blogs before, or seen my website, you’ll note that I believe there are basically six key steps involved in moving through fear — and getting your life back on track. It seems that step #2, however, is a real sticking point…at least with journalists. Then again, maybe they are a specific demographic who need their own “prescription”…or as the New Yorker says in the musical “Rent”: “I don’t choose fear, but I’m a New Yorker, and FEAR is my life!” Hah. A media lament?

Anyway, just for the record I want to clarify and reinforce the importance of my second step to releasing fear: Don’t React, Respond. You see, once you have taken the first step–RECOGNITION–and actually become aware of the fact that your stress, worry, anxiety, irritation, short-temper, etc. are, in many cases, ALL symptoms of an underlying sense of dread–FEAR–then, and only then can you take the next step: REFLECT. BREATHE. Create some space between your thoughts/feelings and your actions. Is this so difficult to grasp?

or is this you?

or is this you?

Perhaps, the issue is not understanding but more an issue of admission; admission of our anachronistic, out-dated, type-A habit of REACTIVITY: acting without thinking. We all do it. We all, in fact, have been told over and over again by just about every self-help book and leadership training seminar that ACTION is where it’s at. You know the mantra: “Get moving”. “Get a goal”. “Get a trainer and GO”. Well, yes…and no.

The NY Times writer had particular difficulty with my second step. He was constitutionally unable to write words like “breathe” or “find space to reflect” or “be responsive rather than reactive” — all quotes that I had hoped would end up in the NY Times. Instead, as you’ll see in the article, I got “use calm deliberation when making a decision instead of being rash–or something like that–and then he added that I said that I “hammer this distinction into my clients.” OY! First of all, as a psychologist I know better than to hammer anything into my clients…or anyone else for that matter. That’s right, go ahead and hit the man when he’s down. NOT.

But no matter, I’m thrilled to have been provided that opportunity to express some semblance of my views in the NY Times, so I have no beef with the writer. I just wonder why it is so challenging for these guys to “get” the idea of stepping back, taking a deep breath or maybe five deep breaths, getting centered and grounded before acting. It seems that in our Type AAA world, the idea of repose, reflection, and BEING (instead of doing), is very nearly revolutionary. I’m not sure that you’ll find the work of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer or Marianne Williamson on the book shelves of the average newspaper writer. That’s ok. BUT — they really miss the boat…and the boat being captained by what I’m going to call the “Type B” leader has left port bound for smoother seas. Type A…or more recently Type AAA, captain’s ships have sunk.

In fact, it is just this type of “shoot now, think later” kind of action-hero business and political leadership that has gotten us into the current economic quagmire in the first place. The same old stuff is just not going to work anymore. It is time to grow up, to step back, become more conscious of the impact of our actions–and take RESPONSIBILITY for how we BE in the world.

Fear, that ubiquitous blanket of anxiety that drives so much of our lives, does not have to WIN. Life is not a battle to be fought but an experience of richness, depth and experience to be savored. BUT, you’ve got to create the space for the experience to unfold…and that requires a G-A-P between feeling, thinking…and acting. A breath. A moment of repose. As Eckart Tolle might say, a moment of NOW.

So after taking a few deep breaths on this chilly, blustery, sun-washed Saturday morning here in NY, I rest my case against FEAR: it does not have to own us, or control us, or take us down the garden path towards despair. It is a feeling, a series of thoughts that grip us tight sometimes, but only as tight as we allow. The key step in releasing the demon of anxiety is NOT a prescription medication but rather a practice of BEING alive and remembering to breathe, create space between the words, the decisions, and the action of life.

Funny, the journalist from Investors Business Daily and I share something in common: a home in the woods just north of New York (where I was pictured in the NY Times). That article hasn’t come out yet…and I was a little concerned that he too, had trouble grasping the idea of “stepping back” from the brink of reactive action-mode…but I’m hoping that maybe just before he writes the article, he takes a long walk in the woods. Maybe he’ll stop by a river and sit for a moment. Maybe he’ll gaze up at the sky, scan the horizon of beauty that surrounds him, be visited by the delicacy and grandeur of a deer (one not pursued by a hunter!)…deer-photoand then, once back at the computer…he’ll take a deep breath and share my ideas from a place of “calm deliberation”–a whole, centered, blissful place that is always available, always within us all. A place of mystery and depth and joy–a place beyond fear.

Ok, I can always dream!

Happy breathing!

Dr J