“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.

“In Search of Love”

It has been said that sharing your life with a partner magnifies the highs and lows, and I really believe that’s true.  After my husband Sid’s passing, I spent a lot of time reflecting and mourning the loss of this extraordinary man, and I now realize that I’m ready for a new relationship in my life.  I’m sure that the last thing Sid would want is for me to be by myself, and I miss that feeling of sharing and togetherness.  Having had two bad marriages and finally a wonderful one, at this point I know a thing or two about relationships.

Keeping those lessons in mind, I’m now looking for a man who’s not afraid of commitment.  I want to feel secure that my partner has my best interest at heart even when we’re not together, and I want to feel the same way about  him.  I know that a relationship like this doesn’t happen overnight, of course.

Over the years, I’ve come to see the importance of having some specific qualities in mind when I’m looking for a relationship.  I’ve tried it the other way — getting into a relationship without much thought — and I’ve suffered the consequences.  I know there are plenty of men out there who are just looking for a good time, a physical relationship with no strings attached, and that’s fine — but that’s not what I’m looking for this time around.  I’m looking for someone who can make me smile, who appreciates my interests, my dog Monty and my children.  They’re grown now, with lives of their own, but this is still important to me. I’d love to be swept off my feet by a handsome man who appreciates me, and who appreciates life.  Life is too short, and fun and happiness are important.  I’m also keeping in mind what I don’t want.  I don’t want a man who doesn’t like my friends, because they’re so precious to me and I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t include them.  I also don’t want someone who wants to change me.  I like who I am, at long last, and I’m not interested in making any changes.

Love biking along the West Side

Love biking along the West Side

I’m also ready to have fun — and that doesn’t mean in big, spectacular and expensive ways, but in comfortable, day-to-day ways.  I like going to the grocery store together and planning a meal, simply enjoying one another’s company.  Also, with so much stress in our lives these days, I’m looking for a partner who can turn off his thoughts about work and simply focus on the joy of being together.  Having overcome so many challenges over the past few decades, I want to be with someone who is truly “present” for me, someone who appreciates life and wants to embrace it as much as I do.  I want a man who is comfortable in his own skin and truly able to connect, to let down his “Berlin wall” when it comes to his emotions.  A man like that is able to express and experience love, and understands the importance of commitment. Also, I love music and I love to dance, and I want a partner who shares those pleasures too.

I hate to say it, but the list of qualities I’m looking for has become rather long.  I want to share my life with a good listener, who’s kind, and takes care of himself.  I’m looking for a man who is cultured and polite, and — most importantly — who appreciates me for who I am and who loves me as much as Sid did.  If I can find someone who loves me that much, it would be like winning the lottery.  Imagine that!  Some friends have told me that I’m limiting myself by being so particular, and that my long list reminds them of that joke about “the department store where women shop for a man.”  The punch line to that joke, of course, is that by “moving from floor to floor,” and being more and more particular about the qualities the ideal man must have, you ultimately reach a floor that’s empty — because there’s no “perfect” man out there.  I believe the man who’s perfect for me is out there, however, and I’ve decided not to settle for less.

This may sound odd coming from a blogger, but I love old-fashioned courtship.  Back in high school, a boy would approach a girl to ask for a date — never the other way around.  As much as I enjoy social networking here on the Internet, I’m not really interested in an “e-courtship.”  I like getting together in person.  Although the way that men and women interact has changed so much over the years — mostly for the better — I think that most men still prefer to be the one asking for a date, and that’s comfortable for me too.

At this point, you may be thinking that I really have my act together, but I must confess that the “dating scene” scares me a bit.  My friends are often telling me how hard it is to find someone they really care about.  They’ve also told me to lower my expectations because a man isn’t going to want a woman who brings “baggage” to the relationship.  My belief, however, is that if you’ve reached this point in life and you don’t have any baggage — previous marriages or relationships, children, and so on — then you haven’t lived much of a life.  A first date is not the right time to talk about my past, of course, and I certainly don’t plan on doing that.  Besides, I’m looking for fun and the joy that comes with getting to know a new friend for the first time.  If we hit it off, and we start spending more time together, there will be plenty of time to talk about all that later.  I don’t want to compare notes on our past relationships, at least not on the first date.  I want to take things slowly, so the relationship has a chance to develop naturally.  Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmo, had a great rule about not rushing into anything.  She said, “no sex before the third date,” and I agree.  As for the baggage, I think you should leave it alone until the fifth date.  If you make it to the fifth date, and you’ve found someone you still want to continue seeing, then I think you can start talking about your past in more detail.  For the time being, all of my baggage is in storage.

If you see the man I’m looking for out there, please let me know.  I’m not anxiously and desperately looking for him, however — and after all these years, I’ve decided not to change who I am in order to accommodate a relationship that’s not quite right.  As much as I’m looking for a new relationship, I’m not willing to make any changes.  In some sense, I think of myself as “starting from zero,” and it’s an exciting feeling!

frog in hand –

I know that there are a lot of women out there looking for a man, and I realize that I’m not the young, sexy girl I once was.  Still, I’m proud of all that I have to offer — including the wisdom I’ve gained from countless challenges, and a determination to make each and every day something special.  I also know that if I don’t find that man I’m looking for, I’ll be okay.  For me to share my life, I need a partner who is just as enthusiastic about engaging with life as I am.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  At this point, finding love would be a bonus, like the icing on the cake.  I’ve finally come to a point my life where I appreciate myself, and I’m enjoying the experiences and people who come into my life every day.  One day, perhaps one of those people will be the man of my dreams!

“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.

“The Moment”

me sitting on stairsI was standing in my bathroom.  I splashed water on my face and was washing away the heavy makeup I’d been wearing.  I had just come home from hanging out with some of the popular kids at school, who I had worked so hard to become one of.  And when I looked up and saw myself in the mirror, I realized: I don’t like this person.  This girl in the mirror… I don’t like the things she does and I don’t think the people she surrounds herself with are the people I want to be around. In that moment, for the first time I saw myself – and my life – clearly.  In that one instant, I could see what was right and what was wrong, and I knew with a certainty I had never known before that I didn’t feel good inside.

It happened again.  I woke up in bed beside my husband, my white knight who had whisked me away to a new country and given me children and a comfortable life in the suburbs.  Only I wasn’t comfortable, and he didn’t love me, and he didn’t love our children.  Instead, he rolled over, and in three sentences he tore my life to shreds.  Talk about an epiphany.  In that moment, I stepped outside my body and took a good, long look around and I thought, “You’ve been here before. This is just a horrible nightmare.”  But, unfortunately for me, this nightmare was real.

Life changes all the time. It’s when you change that you have The Moment. The Moment is where you realize you’ve got to stop this, that you can’t behave this way anymore, that this is just not where you want to be.  When you look in the mirror and you don’t like the person you see, it’s an awakening.

It’s when you finally understand that you’re responsible for your life and that you can’t keep looking to other people for approval or validation rather than looking inside. For the first time, it’s all about you, in a positive, constructive way.

Most of us are not programmed to look at things this way.  We’re taught to look at ourselves the way other people look at us, to think about what others want of us and try to match that.  The problem with this is that what other people want of us is not necessarily the right thing for us.  When you’re finally able to turn things around, to know what’s right and what’s wrong for you, that’s when you have The Moment.

Everyone can have these experiences if only we would just be a little more open and believe in ourselves.  When you’re happy– truly happy – it’s because you’re loving yourself and loving others.  It’s when you’re genuinely excited to get a B because you worked hard for it, and when your friend got a C+ instead of a C because you helped her.  That makes you a cool person, a good person.  And that’s what will enable you to listen to what’s inside your heart. We all have bad experiences and go through times when negative energy just pervades our lives.  But it is within our power to get past this.

In the long run, the bad parts don’t matter.  They just don’t.  What matters is that you stayed and enjoyed the moment despite the bad.  What matters is that you cherished every second of your time, and you realized that no mistake is a mistake if you can learn from it. When you let the negative go, you have The Moment, and from that point forward, you can totally reinvent yourself and be anybody you want to be.

Life is too short to be sad. We need to enjoy it. Nobody ever told me that if you just stop and take a breather and look around you, you’d be better off.  Because in that moment – The Moment – you can dream.  And dreams are what make our future bright.  Just listen to yourself, and you can have everything that this amazing world has to offer.

“Fighting for the Next Generation”

With the economy limping along the past few years, many of us are struggling to stay on our feet.  Overwhelmed by our own problems, it’s been difficult to look beyond our struggles to consider how this is all going to play out for the next generation.  I had the opportunity recently to visit with a group of 9th graders at the Freedom Academy in Brooklyn, and I left feeling like I’d just been knocked over the head.  In a good way.

I was visiting the school to give a talk about self-esteem and I quickly realized that I was not prepared.  I thought I would be speaking to a captive audience, but the students had higher expectations for me.  They did not want to listen; they wanted to engage.  I was deluged with questions almost immediately: “What is self-esteem?”  “How do we get self-esteem?”  It’s amazing how often we throw around the phrase “self-esteem” but never stop to consider if the kids actually understand it.  To these kids, “self-esteem” was a buzz word.  They knew it was good, they wanted to have it, but they didn’t know where to start.  They had questions, so I quickly revised my plan.

I was struck by how very intelligent these kids were. I couldn’t get over how quick and smart they were, how much energy there was in that room. These kids wanted to learn, not just sit around a room and listen to some lady talk. They wanted answers. They wanted to talk about it. They wanted to be involved. I had been given the impression that these were “problem kids,” from the worst school and a bad neighborhood, and that I shouldn’t expect them to behave.  But the minute I started talking about how self-esteem could help them succeed, they did listen and they wanted to know more.

What I realized in conversing with these children was that they do have self-esteem.  What they don’t have is the benefit of having been taught how to succeed.  I could feel through their eager gaze that these students wanted something more. They have the intelligence and the ability to become amazing students, to go on to college.  They are grasping for a good education, but they just don’t get the attention and support that they need.  They don’t have anyone telling them, “Yes, you’re intelligent. Yes, you can move forward. Yes, you have the ability to do anything you want.”  Instead, they think that other people go on to get important jobs and travel the world, but that it can never happen for them.  They want all the opportunities that every other child has.  They like who they are and just want to be accepted.  They want the American Dream.  They want to be successful human beings.

But we’re failing these children.  Wrapped up in our mortgage payments and our job demands and our own insecurities, we’re overlooking the dreams of an entire generation.  It’s our responsibility to make sure that these kids can dream, that they can imagine a life of success and that they feel empowered to go after it.

After meeting these children, my dream is to build a program where the students would write articles and create videos about self-esteem and present their projects to each other.  In addition to giving them hope and confidence, it would also give them business experience and help them build marketable skills.  It would work with their skills – writing, teamwork, leadership, production, project management – and build on their strengths.  It would give the students a chance to show their talent and build within them a sense of accomplishment.   It would give children a sense of validation that says, “You are worthy. I love what you created. It deserves to be shown somewhere that people can see it.”

If you give opportunities to children who are not used to getting opportunities, you get a response.  I know because my son was considered one of those “problem children.”  School was really difficult for him and he ended up at one of those dead-end schools, where you either make it or you don’t.  And what saved my son was an internship that let him see that there was opportunity for him, even if he didn’t do well on his standardized tests.

Sitting in that room and listening to the kids talk about self-esteem, it hit me that they were 14, the same as my son when he hit his turning point.  I realized that the early teens – 14-16 –is the age where you can catch them, where you can encourage them to take their adolescent energy and devote it towards growing into a successful adult, or you can let that energy overwhelm into and push them into self-destruction. With a little more care, we can move these kids in a different direction. They are developing who they are and they are open to input. And yes, it’s idealistic, but I really believe that if we just give these kids an injection of confidence, they’ll remember it.  It’s time that we all fight for these children, the same way we fight for our own.

 

“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.