“Health for a Lifetime” Part III

In the first two parts of this essay, I wrote about a new Harvard essay offering scientific proof for what many of us have known for years – that eating in a nutritious way and getting regular exercise can prolong your life.  After looking at why it’s so easy to resist this common sense approach to life, I explained how keeping a journal in which you record everything you eat and drink and the activity you engage in each day can help you make small changes that will enhance your health, energy and lifespan.

When seeking a motivating reason to improve their health, many people say “I’ll do it for my children.”  I’m not sure that this is such a good idea, however.  You really need to make these changes for you – and not someone else.  It’s great to be a role model for your children, to encourage them to develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime – but be sure to take these actions for yourself, not your children.  Do it because you acknowledge that you are important.  A lot of people – especially women – sometimes feel guilty if they spend even a moment doing something for themselves.  It’s time to get over that.

Also, support groups like Weight Watchers and A.A. can be helpful, of course, but I strongly encourage you to make sure that you’re making the changes in your life because you know that you deserve it and because you feel the results, not because – as part of a group – you’re “supposed” to be doing these things.  If you quit smoking for the benefit of your children, once they’re grown and out of the house, you may easily pick up those cigarettes once again.  If you’ve curbed your eating because you’re a member of a diet club, once your friend drops out of the club, there’s a great risk that you’ll fall right off the wagon yourself.

If you just look around, you can easily find plenty of reasons to motivate yourself to take action.  You can easily see what happens when people don’t limit the amount they eat each day, and you can see what happens when they don’t make exercise a regular habit.  You can also see medical photographs of the diseased lungs of lifelong smokers.  These are all compelling reasons to embrace a healthy lifestyle.  Also, if you’re not taking action for yourself, it can be very easy to join a friend in overindulging when life feels stressful – whether that means digging into a big carton of ice cream, or some other destructive behavior.  Misery loves company.

You need to step into these changes with strength and determination, and in a way that will last.  In the past, you may have told your friends that you were skipping dessert “because I’m on a diet.”  Chances are good that your friends were not surprised to hear this, because they fully expected that within just a few weeks you’d be back off your diet and joining them for dessert once again.  It’s time to stop this “yo-yo” behavior, and make a permanent change in your behavior instead.  Don’t “diet” because you want to fit into that special dress.  Instead, adjust the way that you eat on an ongoing basis, so that you can literally add years to your life.  Don’t experiment with “juicing” as a fad, but instead create meals that include plenty of fruits and vegetables with the intention that you’ll be doing this for years to come.  Embracing these new habits with the right attitude means that you won’t be slipping easily back into your old habits.

This is a “back to basics” plan for health and fitness.  I’m not asking you to run a marathon.  I’m asking you to walk up and down a few flights of stairs.  I’m asking you to be observant, not in denial.  Pay attention to the number of calories that you’re consuming at each meal, and be honest with yourself about how they add up.  I’m also not asking you to deprive yourself of the things that make life joyful.  In fact, I think you’ll find that by making a few simple changes, you’re actually adding more joy to your life.

I use the word “joy” because attitude and emotion are important ingredients if this plan is going to work for you.  Just as you’re making careful notes in your journal, notice if you tend to complain a lot.  Complaining often leads to the behavior we’re trying to address here – overeating, drinking too much, and indulging in other bad habits.  Instead, tell people what you love about your life and what you’re grateful for.  You may find that this takes a little effort at first, but soon it will come easily and naturally.

For those of you worried that I’m asking you to make big changes in your life, I have some good news for you.  I’m actually opposed to making drastic changes that are big.  Those who are passionate about running know that it can be dangerous to overdo it.  Making little changes, however, can put you on a great path.

Like the mice in the Harvard study, it’s time for us all to start adding years to our lives – and adding joy and energy.  As I’m sure you’ve concluded, the most important ingredient to making this plan work is you.  I believe you’re capable of great things, and I look forward to hearing your story, and to celebrating your new life!

 

 

 

“Health for a Lifetime” Part I

Unless you subscribe to the scientific journal “Nature,” chances are that you may have missed the announcement of one of the biggest breakthroughs of our age.  Scientists at Harvard University’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have concluded that it’s actually possible to reverse the aging process.  True, this breakthrough was discovered in a study involving mice — not human beings — but the finding is reason for all of us to be excited nonetheless!  The study echoes common sense, of course — because I think we’ve all known for many years now that if we quit smoking, get plenty of exercise, and eat in a healthy way, we’ll maintain a high level of energy and remain relatively disease free well into our later years.  What I find most remarkable, however, is not this dramatic news from the medical research community that it’s actually possible to “turn the clock back” and reclaim our health, but the fact that so many of us have been ignoring this common sense advice for years, sometimes decades.

Why, then, don’t we live our lives in a way that supports our health and wellbeing?  The simple and frustratingly illogical answer is because “it’s not cool.”  For several generations now, it has been “cool” to embrace a lifestyle that includes smoking, drinking and sometimes even (legal and illegal) drugs.  Most of us went through one or more of these phases too, so we’re not in a position to claim that we were immune from this pressure ourselves during our younger years.  The problem, of course, is that many young men and women who neglect and even assault their health during their younger years never change their ways.  They continue these destructive habits into their college years and beyond.

A lot of these bad habits offer us a much-needed escape from life’s pressures.  Young mothers often are embarrassed about the changes their bodies are (quite naturally) going through during this phase of life, and taking a cigarette break or joining the girls to enjoy a cocktail often seems to make it all easier to take.  Young men, facing the pressures of building new careers and still adjusting to the new demands of family life, succumb to the desire to escape too.  When it comes to over-eating, still an epidemic in this country, many of the so-called solutions turn out to be totally ineffective, with the result that millions of men and women are engaged in a lifelong pattern of frustrating “yo-yo dieting.”  As the mice in the Harvard study would tell you if they could, this kind of lifestyle is not one to aspire to.

Living a healthy lifestyle is easy for some of us, and harder for others.  When I was in my thirties, many of my friends were starting to get sick from neglecting and abusing their bodies and I didn’t want to fall into the same trap.  Around this time, I also began to notice that having a healthy state of mind could make a major difference too.  A number of my friends were good about exercising, but they were highly stressed and didn’t feel good about themselves – and they were getting sick as often as those who didn’t exercise at all.  They all had plenty of excuses, of course, but this didn’t really matter.  Many of these friends were suddenly showing their age, and even in my thirties I was determined to remain as youthful and energetic as possible.  I also believe that it’s easier to get on the right track earlier in life when it comes to taking care of yourself rather than trying to undo years of damage and neglect later in life.

Many of these friends frequently complained that exercising and sticking to a healthy diet is difficult, but I disagree.  The truth is that staying healthy is a simple matter of common sense.  As St. Augustine wisely advised nearly two thousand years ago, “everything in moderation” is the secret to a wonderful life.  My friends who frequently indulged in smoking, drinking too much and overeating – and those who did nothing to reduce the stress in their lives — continued to deteriorate.  Many of them developed arthritis, diabetes and a variety of other health problems – and they’re well on their way, of course, to paying the “ultimate” price for this kind of abuse and neglect.  It’s time for all of us to understand the consequences of too much sugar, too much alcohol, and too many calories – because failure to understand how the various pieces of “the health puzzle” fit together can literally be fatal.  On the other hand, taking action to incorporate this knowledge into your daily life can reverse the damage.  All it takes is simply being conscious.

If I’ve inspired you to ask what you can do to start reclaiming your health, the answer is simple.  Make a list.  For seven days, write down absolutely everything you eat and drink, and also make careful note of your activity – walking, using the stairs, sitting in front of your television for three hours, and so on.  During this week, don’t do anything differently because the idea is to take an accurate look at the way you’re living your life right now – and this assessment will probably shock you.

Now that you have your list, as you start your second week, it’s time to make one small change in your normal routine.  Remove one thing that is bad for you – something you eat or drink, or some way that you avoid exercise – and replace it with something that is good for you.  (Be sure to continue making notes each day just as you did during week number one.)

For example, if you’re in the habit of using the elevator at work, it’s time to start using the stairs.  Even if your office is only on the fourth floor, this simple change is an improvement over a daily routine that is completely sedentary.  You may be surprised to find other people doing the same thing, and you’ll start to notice that you have more energy at work.  With this new burst of energy, you’ll find that you’re more productive – and even your boss will be impressed.  This all comes from making one simple change in your daily routine.

In the next two parts of this essay, I’ll focus on why it’s so important to make these changes for you – not for your children or your friends, and not because you’ve been told that you “should” make these changes to your lifestyle.  I’ll also discuss why attitude is so important to successfully adopting new, healthier habits – and how these changes can bring a new, joyous edge to your daily life.

 

 

 

 

“My M.B.A. in Life” – Part 1

Many people have heard the expression “the business of life” and wondered exactly what it meant.  For me, that phrase has a great deal of meaning.  It’s how I forged a successful career in the corporate world based on the lessons I’d learned overcoming a variety of personal challenges.  Those challenges included learning how to hide so that people didn’t notice the enormous “port wine stain” birthmark that covered half my face until laser surgery gave me “a new life” decades later, finding a way to support my two young children as a single mother when my husband left me, and – most recently – creating a new life following the untimely passing of my third husband a little over a year ago.

Having challenges of various kinds thrust upon me over the years gave me a chance to learn a number of key insights regarding people.  I’ve learned a lot about the importance of appreciating people, the way we connect with one another, and the value of each individual’s contribution to a group effort.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these lessons and insights have not only helped me with personal struggles but they can also be directly applied to the workplace, as I discovered during my career in the business world.  Now, I’m enjoying sharing those lessons with others, to spare them some of the pain that I’ve experienced over the years – and also to provide a few “short-cuts” to the success they envision.

One of my first jobs in the business world was that of a list broker assistant.  Even at that early stage of the game, it was all about people – buying names of potential customers, learning how to target the best prospects, and how all this information fits together in a database.  From the very beginning, I learned the value of “streamlining” – a skill that I had been using when educating my children and supporting their school, long before I ever traded my role as a homemaker for that of a businesswoman.

I wanted to make sure that my children and their fellow students had the very best when it came to education, and this meant doing some fundraising and connecting with the administrators who handled enrichment programs. The best way to get anything done on a large scale, of course, is to “aggregate” – bring everything together – and that meant reaching out to other schools in the district who shared our goals and concerns.

A computer database is the best way to handle large amounts of information like this – and the more details you have about your customers, the better.  When you have a detailed understanding of exactly who your customer is, you have the key to success – but you also have to know how to talk to your customer.  Together, this knowledge and this talent for rapport combine to make outstanding customer service possible.

The customer service scripts I’ve written for Qwest, Bell South and Verizon emphasize both of these ingredients — factual information about the customers and products, combined with effective communication strategies.  The members of the customer service team should know all about the company’s products and their benefits, of course — and they should be able to anticipate the questions that may arise in any conversation with a customer.  Being prepared — both in terms of background knowledge and communication skills — is essential for establishing a genuine connection with each customer, which is the only way to attract loyal and long-lasting customers.  Not surprisingly, it’s also essential that every member of a company’s customer service staff genuinely like people, because that smile comes through in their conversation — whether that conversation is face to face or by phone.

Having learned how wonderful it feels when a fellow human being genuinely cares, it’s easy for me to see how important qualities like compassion, curiosity and respect play in a business situation.  With this in mind, I quickly became very successful at coaching customer service teams, and this lead to my work with ABI and Database America, which in turn, brought me into contact with an even larger number of companies. Often my challenge was to figure out a way for two very different companies to work together most effectively, a challenge that – once again – is all about people. My work teaching sales teams how to talk about various products was really a kind of problem solving. As I mentioned, by that time in my life, I had a lot of experience in solving problems — especially in terms of getting people to work together for a common goal.

I loved my work with customer service teams because it was very easy to measure success, and I discovered that I’m a bit of a numbers junkie.  For some unknown reason, many of these companies – some of the largest in the world – often were not able to recognize overlapping markets of customers and other people-related problems that were quite obvious to me.  For example, I told the marketing team at Microsoft that by buying customer information from eight different companies, there was a huge amount of overlapping information, which they somehow failed to recognize.  I pointed out that if they ever wanted to succeed they’d have to expand their market and eliminate this problem of overlapping databases.  I helped them map out steps to overcome this problem, and then I moved on to other assignments.

In Part II of this essay, I’ll share my thoughts on why it’s important to recognize and appreciation employees at all levels of a company, and why loyalty is such an essential quality. In Part III, I’ll stress the urgency of creating new opportunities for young men and women eager to put their talent and creativity to work.

 

“Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence”

For the past few months, I’ve enjoyed contributing to a wonderful website called HereWomenTalk.com.  When I learned recently of the horrific murder of a member of that online community – a beautiful, sensitive woman and loving mother whose life was brutally cut short by her ex-husband – my immediate reaction was anger.  More specifically, I find it disturbing and outrageous that over the past several decades we haven’t made more progress in taking a “Zero Tolerance” stand against domestic violence or abuse of any kind.

images-2During her 25-year run, Oprah brought a fair amount of attention to this issue, and way back in 1984 the courageous Farrah Fawcett starred in disturbing made-for-TV movie about domestic violence, “The Burning Bed.”  Now, it’s more than 25 years later, and not enough has changed.

The statistics regarding this kind of abuse are truly disturbing.  The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.  The National Institute of Justice and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report that an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner every year.  Further, a recent study by the CDC reveals that here in the US, 24 people per minute are the victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.  That’s 12 million individuals – mostly women – every year, and this is simply unacceptable.

If we ourselves are fortunate enough to be free from this kind of terrible abuse, the odds are good are we have a friend, relative or co-worker who is caught in this terrible situation right now.  We need to open our eyes and look for the warning signs, and when we see them, we must get involved.  More than perhaps any other situation in which lives are in jeopardy, we seem to be blind to the warning signs – black eyes, bruises, burns, frequent visits to the emergency room.

The fact that one human being would cruelly inflict physical harm on another, when they have entered into what was thought to be a loving and supportive relationship is disturbing enough – but perhaps the worst aspect of a situation like this is when children witness this kind of abuse.

In their tender years, children learn so much from what they observe in the household – eating habits, how to manage money, the importance of being respectful of others.  In households where domestic violence takes place, they are very likely to perpetuate it.  (The heartbreaking experience of watching one parent physically abuse the other is bad enough, and the damage resulting from this kind of instability at home can literally last a lifetime.)

The perpetrators of this kind of violence are not always who you might expect.  We read about rap artists and musicians accused of this kind of thing, but a Harvard educated stockbroker can just as easily be guilty of this kind of horrific behavior.  One of Europe’s most esteemed financial leaders became the subject of front-page news last year when he was accused of sexual assault by a maid working in a New York City hotel.  Did the fact that apparently his wife was accepting of his philandering ways make this situation any less disturbing?  We mourn the death of a beloved singer, but when it was clear – years ago – that she was enmeshed in an abusive and controlling relationship, did any of us step up and intervene?  Now, of course, it’s too late.

Stories like these are still far too common.  Whether it’s the death of a talented musician or the abuse suffered by a friend or neighbor, we can no longer turn a blind eye to this kind of cruelty.  After all these years, isn’t it time to finally take a firm stand against domestic violence and abuse?

“Resolutions: Avoiding the Pit Falls & Making Them Work”

As the new year gets underway, the sense of excitement and anticipation we all felt a few weeks ago remains.  When the clock struck midnight on December 31, we all had a blank canvas of 365 fresh new days ahead of us, and we were ready to make 2012 a special year to remember. Now that the holidays are behind us, however, those ambitious dreams seem a bit more out of reach and the challenge of achieving them seems a bit more daunting.

I remain excited about the adventures that will unfold for all of us this year, and I want to share some strategies that have worked for me whenever I get that feeling that perhaps I’ve “bitten off” more than I can chew.”  There are a number of pitfalls and challenges we’re all likely to encounter as we turn our resolutions into reality, and I want to share a few ideas with you that may make the process a bit easier.

Over the years, as I’ve faced a number of challenges and set some major goals, I’ve learned that two things are essential when it comes to achieving goals and dreams – taking action and being honest with ourselves.

By definition, the things we focus on in our resolutions are ambitious and not easy to achieve – so it’s natural to feel that perhaps we’re not really capable of achieving these goals, and this uncertainty and self-doubt can indeed undermine our progress. Often times, the reason that something we claim to want doesn’t work out is that, within our own private thoughts, we really didn’t want it to work out.

Putting ourselves “on the record” in a very public way with our friends and family is a great way to move us away from these doubts and uncertainties, and making a few resolutions on New Year’s Eve is a great first step, but these declarations must be followed up by taking action. Whether we dream of finally losing an unwanted 15 pounds or starting a wonderful new hobby, visualizing those things really happening is exciting, but all too often those wonderful ideas come crashing down to earth before they really have a chance to take flight and become reality.

The excitement and desire we feel regarding these wonderful new goals provides the fuel for our journey, but as the first few weeks of the year unfold we quickly realize that making them happen is like any journey — a step-by-step process, and not something that falls into place easily or overnight.

IMG_0012_2It’s important to remind ourselves, right from the very beginning of this journey, that every road has bumps and “pot holes,” and we must remain determined not to give up when we encounter them. Every road – especially the long and winding ones – also has side streets and detours, and we will almost certainly be drawn to them from time to time.

When unexpected distractions and obstacles appear, and the rapid progress that was so exciting at the start of the year becomes more of a slow crawl, don’t be discouraged – and don’t beat yourself up when you find yourself experiencing doubt and uncertainty.  Everyone who has achieved a great goal, triumphed in sports or business, or come up with an idea that has changed the world has had the moments of doubt too.  It’s all part of the journey.

Also remember that many of the most successful and extraordinary journeys are solitary ones.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy the companionship of friends and loved ones, but at the end of the day, this is your journey – not a shared adventure.  It’s natural for those around you to want you to stay the same, even if they don’t say so.  We all have a tendency to embrace the status quo, and worry that we may lose the connection we currently have with those we’re close to.

Knowing that it’s likely to be a long and challenging road ahead on the way to achieving that goal means that it’s important to strengthen your determination, and take bold action rather than timid little steps.  Rather than simply having “a preference” for making a change in your life, make an ambitious declaration about what you will achieve, and take the uncertainty out of the picture.

“The Power of a Moment: Part I”

Maui Hotel view

Sunrise

I woke up in Maui to sunshine and a warm sea breeze.  As I luxuriated in my plush hotel bed, my husband was taking our children for a walk.  Though everything was as it should be, the only feeling I remember having at that moment is guilt. Yes, my life was perfect, but I wasn’t happy.  Yes, I loved my children madly, I loved my husband, and I was in the middle of a dream vacation, but I wasn’t fulfilled.  Something was wrong and I didn’t want to admit it to myself, so instead of recognizing that moment of premonition for what it was, I wallowed in my guilt — feeling that I was not properly grateful for all that I had been given.

Pool Side

Pool side Maui

Sometimes we just know that something is wrong.  In a single moment, we look at our lives and realize that something is off. But we don’t know what to do, so we push this feeling away, shove it down underneath our routines and our obligations and all the things we think we’re supposed to be doing and feeling. And we let that feeling or intuition stay there… at least until it forces its way out.

Six months later, my husband walked in and told me that he was leaving me.  That was the moment my life turned upside-down. Though abrupt development turned out to be the right thing for our family, the way it all came about was traumatic for me. And I know today that if I had listened to my gut back in Maui and taken action, much of that trauma could have been avoided.

The people I admire most are the ones who can look at themselves honestly and admit when they’re not happy.  Instead of bottling it up or feeling guilty about it, they say to themselves, “There’s a reason I’m not happy and I need to find out what it is and do something about it.”  These people are always great communicators.  They talk to their spouses and their children and friends, and they communicate that they’re not doing well.  In this way, they are able to work through their unhappiness and forge change in their lives in ways that are healthy and productive.  Unfortunately, for most of my life, I wasn’t one of those people.

Instead, I was one of the people who gets hit with a trauma and just wants to stay in bed. After my husband left, enjoying my life was hard, if not impossible.  I struggled to hold things together, to take care of my children and pay my rent, and I was sinking under the weight of it all.  And then one day I had another moment.  I reached the point where I had to decide whether I was going to make it or whether I was going to give up.  I realized that I liked who I was and I loved my children, and I didn’t like the way my life had been going. And more importantly, I realized that I didn’t have to continue letting this event ruin my life.  I decided that I would not spend another minute being a victim of my own inaction.

I know for a fact that there are a lot of other people out there today dealing with the same feelings that I dealt with.  Most of us put those feelings in a box and bury it deep inside.  The essential truth, however — a lesson that I had to learn the hard way — was that in time, that box has to open, and the longer you wait, the more self-damage you’re going to do.  I know that we’ve been taught that we’re supposed to think and feel and behave a certain way, but sometimes we just can’t do that anymore.  And it doesn’t get us anywhere to deny that.  If we continue to do the same things day after day, it’s not fair for us to expect different results.  Instead, all we get in return for our perseverance is anger and bitterness and loneliness.  Those negative energies have an effect on us – mentally, physically, and emotionally.  Those negative energies literally make us sick.  But the power to heal ourselves is in our hands.

Iao Needle

Iao Needle Iao Valley National Park

When my children’s father told me it was over, I felt as if I was being thrown off a tall waterfall with jagged rocks at the bottom.  And when I survived that fall, I felt like a fish out of water, flopping everywhere and gasping for air.  I was an emotional wreck and became someone I didn’t even know.   I was all by myself, I didn’t know what to do, and I needed release.  So I talked and talked to anyone who would listen, sometimes even to a wall.  This felt good at first, but later I was mortified at what I’d done.  Instead of sharing what I was going through with the right people, I shared it with anyone, and it was embarrassing having these people know the intimate details of my life.  In retrospect, the entire situation could have been avoided if I had only listened to what my heart was saying that morning in Maui.

Life is not a light switch.  Learning to listen to yourself and make a change in your life is not an overnight process, and you have to be prepared to really work at it.  It’s not easy to teach yourself that there is nothing wrong with you, and that there’s nothing you should feel guilty about.  When you have a moment of clarity, the important thing is to communicate to the right people.  I knew when I was lying in bed in Hawaii that my life was wrong.  That realization wasn’t a mistake.  The mistake was not discussing these feelings with my husband and working through it together, even if that meant divorce.  Instead, I hid my feelings, and when my husband blindsided me, I was plunged into insanity.

If I could do it over again, I would have controlled the insanity.  I would have communicated my feelings right away. I would have done what I now call “getting naked” — load my iPod with happy songs and go for a walk, read a self-help book, and talk to my girlfriends about anything besides my trauma.  This for me is the recipe for recovery.  My walks give me time to be introspective and work through my feelings. My books give me support and advice.  And my friends are there to keep me grounded.  Talking with my friends gives me the chance to take a break from life’s challenges, and just be silly for a few minutes.  It’s a great way to remind myself that life is not always hard.  And if all that wasn’t enough, I would have had no trouble turning to a therapist who would listen to me without judgment.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the challenging moments in my life, it’s don’t settle.  If you settle for what you have and don’t go for what makes you happy, it will eat away at who you are and change you into someone you don’t recognize anymore.  I know because it happened to me.  None of us can escape the trauma that’s a natural part of life.  Marriages end, loved ones die, and jobs move on without us. Sometimes our moments are more subtle, just a feeling we get when things are supposed to be perfect but we know they’re not.  Either way, the key to minimizing the pain and being aware of life’s great lessons is through communication and trusting in ourselves.  We don’t want our sons and daughters to make the same mistakes, so we need to set the example by sharing our feelings and working through them together. When we start making the right decisions for ourselves, it’s not just a moment anymore, but a gift – a gift of investing in who we really are and in our own happiness.  And that’s a gift that you can only give yourself.

“New People in the New Year”

I’m fortunate to have a long list of hopes and dreams and things I’m looking forward to in the New Year.  I’m eager for the kids at Freedom Academy to start their internship program, and I’m looking forward to watching them develop and grow.  I’m excited to continue my blog and to have readers who like my work, and I look forward to seeing my work in magazines and publishing my book. I’m dedicated to taking care of myself in every way – eating right, exercising, keeping my mind stimulated, and finding the balance between working hard and playing harder.  Most importantly – and most challenging for me – I’m putting myself out there like never before in hopes of bringing new and wonderful people into my life.  I spent much of my past hiding scared, but in 2012 I’m ready to confidently become a part of the world.  And it’s exciting.

Fireworks!

I started 2012 with fireworks and friends. Having never hosted a New Year’s Eve party before, I decided to kick off the year by inviting neighbors, loved ones, and acquaintances old and new to share sweets at my apartment and celebrate as the ball dropped.  My number one goal this year is to start socializing and meeting new people and dating again, so what better way to begin than by inviting everyone I know to a New Year’s bash?  This is my opportunity to shine, and I’m hopeful that I’ll find fun and romance along the way.

To even think of myself dating is a scary thought.  My life right now isn’t complicated, and dating is going to add a whole new wrinkle.  I love people, of course, but I still find that meeting new people is a bit out of my comfort zone.  It makes me feel vulnerable and anxious that I might be hurt again.  Like most people, the last thing I want is to feel rejected.  But that risk of rejection is also why dating is a rush.  Yes, there will be negative experiences, but I am ready to take them on, because otherwise I’d have to shut myself out and miss all the good that comes along with the bad. Feeling joy is an essential part of life, but we wouldn’t appreciate joy if we never felt any pain.

So I’m putting myself out there in 2012.  I’m bracing myself for the worst, but I’m really hoping for the best.  How wonderful it would be to have someone nice in my life, someone to share life’s joys and sorrows with.  At the same time, I’ll never allow myself to settle.  Instead, I will be resilient and remember what means the most to me: being free to be who I am and surrounding myself with people who respect me for it.  I’m going to give myself a chance to make this dream a reality, by going out and meeting people and creating opportunities for the right people to wander into my life, whether it’s two people or ten or twenty. Maybe I’ll fall in love with one of these people, or maybe we’ll just have coffee and watch a football game. Either way, I will know I made the effort to connect.

Creating a new life is not easy, of course.  The most difficult part is getting to know yourself and learning what makes you happy.  This is also the best part.  When we believe in ourselves and make the changes in our lives that we know we need to make, we make ourselves happy, and we make everyone around us happy too. When I feel good about myself and my life is balanced, the people I love feel that calmness too.  It brings calm to their lives because they know that I’m okay, and as long as I’m okay, they’re okay too.  And that’s a very special place to be.

Yes, meeting new people can be scary and uncomfortable, and I’d much rather sit at home with my dog, but I’m starting this New Year off by taking that first step towards putting myself out there.  My plan is to take it one baby step at a time.  Hopefully by March, I’ll have an even wider circle of friends and all kinds of new activities to enjoy, and an even better beginning of my new life. I’m going to stand tall and open myself up to the possibility of being liked, of being a new friend, and also of being a better friend.  I’m opening the door to happiness and success.  Yes, in this New Year, I’m going to do things a bit differently.

“Overcoming Loss One Step at a Time”

I’ve experienced my fair share of challenges and tragedies, but nothing quite prepared me for losing my husband to heart disease.  With my kids grown and moved out by the time my husband passed, I suddenly woke up one day and was alone, responsible for everything and yet feeling incapable of doing even the most basic tasks.  I could not plan a thing. I could not figure out how to eat.  Just breathing was a task.  I couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t figure out how to move forward.  It was a crushing loneliness – unadulterated despair – and I simply couldn’t face the challenge of crawling out of the hole I was in.  I was emotionally dead.

My children gave me the strength to face each day.  I realized that seeing me in that state was not healthy for them; they needed to learn how to move forward after a tragedy.  So I knew inside that I needed to be a good example, to gain my strength and move forward.  I decided to treat my grief like an illness.  Yes, I needed to take some time off to recover, but I would rebound from this.

IMG_2690I reached out to my friends because I needed to talk, and they were there for me.  But eventually I realized that they couldn’t be my only lifeline.  Everybody who goes through a tragedy needs people to talk to, but I realized that if I kept talking about the same thing over and over, eventually they wouldn’t want to hear it anymore.  It was just too depressing to bear.  So I realized that I didn’t want to wake up seven years later and still be talking about the same thing, still be trying to find a reason to justify why my husband – the love of my life – was taken from me so soon.  I realized that I would never find a reason, and so I instituted a self-imposed statute of limitations.  I gave myself a year to wallow in my sadness, to figure out how I wanted to live the rest of my life, and then I needed to move forward, become my own lifeline.

I started by taking stock in myself.  How was I taking care of myself?  Did I need therapy to deal with what had happened?  I began by putting one foot in front of the other, baby steps.  The hardest thing was learning how to live by myself, so I went back to the basics.  Instead of eating at restaurants every day, I went grocery shopping and cooked my own dinner.  Instead of staying in the house, I forced myself to go for a walk every day.  Instead of spending each night in a daze of insomnia, I forced myself to sleep.  I realized I needed something to keep me busy, so I started taking tennis lessons, something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a child.  And tennis made me smile.  Walking made me smile.  Just getting out of the house made me smile – encountering a happy dog on a street, seeing children laugh – these things helped me get back on track.  It was hard, at first, but I realized that if I stayed inside, I just felt sorry for myself.  I got more and more depressed, I gained weight, I just felt miserable.  And that’s no way to spend a life.

Recovering from loss is a working process – you have to experiment and you have to try things and you have to be brave.  You need to work through your stress and anxiety.  For me, walking was the key that allowed me to assess my pain and think it through.  It’s amazing what you can overcome by just being in the sunshine with positive music playing on your iPod.  I found that twenty minutes of this was all it took to put me in a better mood, so no matter that I didn’t feel terrific most days and didn’t want to leave my house, I forced myself to do it every day and I was surprised how much it helped.  Suddenly not only was I feeling better, but I was looking better too. I shed that waxy indoor complexion, and then one day I looked in the mirror and I was myself again.

Sometimes we have to take a period of time and isolate ourselves to make ourselves stable.  I was not ready immediately after losing my husband to move forward, and there was no shame in that.  I needed that time to process, to plan, to get a grip on myself and my emotions.  I needed to talk it out, and I needed to create a new life for myself.

When you’ve experienced a tragedy, in order to move forward you need to rise above yourself.  You need to figure out what’s next so that you can start working toward it.  Start by looking at yourself from a stranger’s point of view.  Identify your areas of opportunity and put them in black and white on a piece of paper.  I looked at my life and realized that I had all of the freedom and opportunity of a 21-year-old, but I also had a lot more experience and wisdom under my belt.  I realized that I still had a list of things that I wanted to do with my life, things I wanted to enjoy.  I forgot about that list for a while, but it was never really gone – I just needed to look for it.

Just as you would take care of friend who was sick or working through their own loss, take care of yourself.  Encourage the woman you see in the mirror to keep on living.  Tell her you love her and that it will be okay.  Give her hope and hold her hand when she is doubting.  And when things just seem too much to bear, tell her to lace up her jogging shoes and get out to the park.  She’ll never know what she might find.

“Tween Esteem: Loving the Skin You’re In”

Something that no one ever told me when I was young is that different is actually good

Discovering who you are will take you down many different paths.  You may start out as a goody-two-shoes cheerleader and evolve into an edgy punk rocker.  Maybe today you’re a class clown but tomorrow you’re a champion math whiz.  More likely, you’re none of these, and you just won’t know where you fit in for a very long time.  And that is okay.  As you move through life, the choices you make and the activities you engage in and the places you live will change.  Every time you do something new or accomplish a new achievement, you will become something and someone different.  The challenge is to embrace the growing and changing you and to love that girl no matter who she may be at any moment.  IMG_3364

Everyone has talents: piano, basketball, cooking, making a friend feel appreciated and loved.  But sometimes we don’t always recognize those talents in ourselves.  In my case, I was too preoccupied with fitting in to spend much time thinking about what made me special.  I wanted to hang out with the right crowd, have the right clothes, go to the right places.  Gaining the acceptance of the “popular” crowd sometimes required me to do things that made me uncomfortable.  Stepping out of our comfort zone – to do public speaking or ask someone on a date – can be a valuable way to grow and learn something new, but if you’re never in your comfort zone and you’re engaging in self-destructive behaviors, after a while you start forgetting who you are.

In addition to all the usual teenage woes and insecurities, I also had a secret.  I literally wore a mask every day of my life: a mask of heavy makeup covering up a large birthmark which spanned much of the left side of my face.  I was so worried about my mask slipping – smudging the makeup on my turtleneck, letting anyone touch me – that it became hard to relate to people.  They couldn’t really see my face, and so how could they ever really know me?  I was different than everyone else, and though I hid my physical differences as best I could, I still felt different on the inside.  Maybe my classmates couldn’t see my birthmark, but they could see my wildly curly hair, the weird sandwiches my mother packed, my lack of athletic abilities.  And so that feeling – different – stuck with me for many years.

It didn’t help when my parents split up the year I turned 14.  Now not only did I feel different, but my life actually was different.  Everything I knew from before was no longer.  It’s difficult trying to feel good in a place where everyone around you is unhappy, when your family is shattered and your friends don’t really know you and you’re constantly trying to hide a secret.  I retreated into my makeup case and applied my mask ever more diligently.  I just knew that if anyone saw what was underneath, it would be the end for me, that I would finally be completely and utterly alone.

And then one day I had an epiphany.  I woke up and realized that my challenges have been remarkable, but I still came through them.  I’m a firm believer that you aren’t handed a challenge that you can’t overcome.  Challenges build character.  Challenges make you think.  Challenges teach you to solve problems and to trust in yourself.  And when you stop and really think about all of the challenges you’ve already overcome, you start to realize that you can conquer the challenges you’re dealing with today, too.

We all have challenges.  Maybe you just moved to a new school, where you have no friends and no allies.  Maybe there’s someone who’s putting you down, trying to make you feel bad about yourself.  Maybe you just feel different, you know you don’t belong but you don’t know what to do about it.  The key is to look your challenge in the eye and never let it bat you down.  You can deal with this, and you will be better for it.  This is part of finding out who you are and learning to love the skin you’re in.

When you like yourself, you will shine.  Self-esteem is kind of like a beacon – it comes out in the sparkle in your eyes and the smile on your face, and when other people see that you are happy, they will be drawn to you, because they want to be happy too.  You will find friends who will love and accept you just the way you are, because you’ve accepted you just the way you are.

Focus on feeling good about yourself.  Point out all your wonderful qualities to yourself and do the things that you do well, because that will make you happy.  You can be anything you want to be; the future is up to you.  The only person who can ever really stop you is you, so you need to be your own best friend.  Make good choices for you and don’t ever give up on your dreams.  If anyone would have told me that I would end up in New York City working as a successful businesswoman and a writer, I would have laughed at them.  But I did it, and if I can do it, anybody can.

As a young teenager, I would have given anything to have been ordinary.  But over the years, I’ve learned that the best part about who I am – what I like the most about me – is the fact that I am different.  Different is good.  Love what makes you different and let yourself shine.

“Lessons from an Ugly Duckling”

I was not a “pretty girl.”  With a six-inch port-wine stain birthmark covering nearly the entire left side of my face, I spent much of my teenage years struggling to avoid teasing and humiliation.  From the age of four to 30, I applied a mask of thick makeup to my face every single day in an effort to hide my disfigurement from the world.   Baby001

Like a normal teenager, I yearned to be liked and I did what was necessary to run with the popular crowd.  My life revolved around an endless parade of boys, parties, and, regrettably, sometimes drinking and drugs as well.  I was overwhelmed by my own desire to fit in and never-ending pressure from my parents, so I lashed out with outrageous behavior as a release.  This was a common feeling for many of my friends at the time, but inside, I was carrying a heavier weight than most.  I knew that if I let my mask slip – let people see who I really was, birthmark and all –  the result would be too painful to even imagine.

I saw escape as my only means as survival.  I knew I was different.  I wanted to be something else and I didn’t know what, but I knew from the very beginning that I needed to go somewhere else.  When I enrolled in college, I set out for the big city to chase my dreams, but I soon made a mistake that would knock me off my true path for many years.  Instead of fulfilling my aspirations, I got married.  My ill-fated marriage quickly fell apart, but with two small children and only myself to lean on for support, I had no choice but to move forward.

Happily, medical science had made progress in treating port-wine stains like my own and I began undergoing treatments to remove my birthmark, over 50 surgeries in all over a 20-year period.  By the time I was complete, my birthmark was all but invisible.  For the first time in my life, I felt began to feel beautiful.

Looking back over my years of hardship as a teenager, I realized that the people who were mean to me treated me badly not because I somehow deserved it, but because they felt bad about themselves.  If I could go back, I would hold that truth in my heart and let those people keep talking, because if you know you’re living your life right and being who you are, then no one can put you down.  Instead of chasing the approval of the popular crowd, I wish I had sought out people who made me feel good about being myself.

If there’s one thing I wish I could tell every girl in America, it’s that it’s all about how you approach a challenge.  Everyone faces challenges in their lives, but a challenge is really a gift, an opportunity to become a better person.  No matter how bleak it seems at the time, when you look back at today’s challenge it will never seem so bad as it does right now.  That’s because with every hardship you overcome, you change and grow and learn, and you become better prepared for whatever life throws at you next.  It’s important to step aside, take stock in what’s going on, and review who and where you are and what this challenge is about.  And always seek professional help if you need it.

Though I’m glad to be rid of my port-wine stain today, I’m grateful for the strong character that my childhood flaws and early mistakes helped build.  Life is totally different because I don’t feel the pain and uncertainty in myself that I used to feel.  I have done so many things that I’m proud of.  My hope is that every girl will hold tight to her uniqueness and trust in her own value, no matter how difficult life may be.  My hardships gave me an opportunity to do something more special than I’ve ever dreamed and I wouldn’t trade my “ugly duck” experience for anything.