The Importance of a Friend

My Brother’s Keeper, an Obama Foundation led initiative to provide mentorship to young men of color, found a special home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It was an honor to tell its impact story in this video. The partners from the community, the school and school district as well as the men who commit to years of mentorship, are making a difference one young man at a time.

 

Water in the Desert

This is a story about the gift of contrast. Water and desert are used as analogies not labels – I could use, for example, the polar ice caps and the tropics. Water and the desert just work for me.

Imagine you’ve focused your life’s work on the study of water and you move to the desert.  Like anyone who has a career specialty, we hive together feeding off each other’s energy, comparing our pails of water.  When I moved from Toronto/New York to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I had no idea where to put my bucket.

It’s a beautiful thing to be a stranger in a welcoming place. You must learn to navigate a new space and before you can know where you belong, you have to know where you are.

Now, you may think you know where this story is going. The water/desert metaphor is just too strong and it would be easy to assume that there is an epiphany of the desert needing the water.

Cue the plot twist.

As I look out my big studio windows,  my current body of work reads:

  • episodic hourly drama series pilot/pitch complete
  • reality tv show pitch complete
  • two podcasts in development
  • national staged project fusing sciences and arts in production
  • jewelry design company
  • special projects for regional organizations that utilize my particular ‘water skillset’

This has been the most productive time of my entire career. Yes, of course, obviously, there is a lot of creativity and artistry in the foothills of these mountains- that is a given. Yet in learning about this place, I have learned so much about myself. It has redefined my work with a freedom that I did not find while swimming in the ocean with my bucket.

Huh! Plot twist revealed –  Turns out that what my study of water was missing, was the desert.

 

 

Love Liberates…

My previous post Turn Off the Gas, discusses a  negative aspect of not having appropriate, clearly defined boundaries. Not my typical upbeat topic. What I have learned in researching, exploring and writing these articles about boundaries, is that a boundary is actually quite liberating.  It can provide the framework for successful love relationships.

Maya Angelou wrote ‘Love liberates.’ The next line is equally important, ‘It doesn’t bind.’ For me, this reaffirms that within the structure of respect, a relationship finds freedom. My husband and I married as ‘late bloomers’. And, we were in a new state, new city – and for me, a new country. There was a lot to figure out, including the creation of a new identity/audience for my work. This takes time. And it takes a great partner. This is the ‘love liberates‘ recognition – my husband has remained incredibly supportive as I have worked to build opportunity and then step into it. It includes working odd hours, lots of weekends and evenings, often volunteering, as a way to get to know the community and for the community to know my work. His understanding and patience  has allowed me the space and time to figure all this out, while he has shouldered many of our personal responsibilities. Thus, the line ‘it doesn’t bind’ also fits.

And here is what is reaffirmed with each new exploration I undertake about boundaries. They are, in fact, about freedom. Boundaries aren’t about restricting or confining. Once you have established the parameters, the sky is the limit.

Relationships are like dances – the fluid motion of two people who navigate a shared space. Trying to keep in step and in harmony. Being aware of the other’s personal boundaries while protecting the one they create for themselves. It’s binding, it’s liberating, and it’s absolute bliss.

 

Turn Off the Gas (Or, Be a Nora!)

 

My recent posts have explored the role boundaries play in creating healthy relationships, first for and with myself, and then with the rest of my world.  These essays have looked at the ways respect lives at the root of every healthy boundary we set, to define how we are treated, what we stand for and how we treat others.  Trouble can occur when someone we work or live closely with, does not respect these clear relationship parameters.

Even after seeing the 1938 classic movie  ‘Gaslight’ starring Ingrid Bergman, I would have described ‘gaslighting’ to be a horror movie concept, not understanding it as a real, day by day, insidious psychological form of emotional and mental abuse . Over the past decade, numerous publications about gaslighting, have surfaced on wellness and health improvement websites but honestly, I still didn’t fully understand what it meant to fall prey to ‘gaslighting’. Until one afternoon over a long cup of coffee, a close friend revealed how her boyfriend had initiated months of psychological abuse.  ‘Nora’ has allowed me to share bits of her story throughout this boundary exploration. It turns out, Nora’s experience is a classic example of gaslighting.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline , “gaslighting is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts and sanity”.  It is strategic, intentional, and often impossible to identify when it starts, until you are well engaged in an otherwise happy relationship – which by then it’s often too late, as self-doubt has set in.

When Nora first started dating her boyfriend ‘James’,  he was attentive, fun, kind, and romantic. As is typical when relationships last longer than that first heady stage of new love, there was an explainable and seemingly healthy shift to a less intense stage. It was around eight months that in retrospect, Nora experienced the start of sporadic challenging mental and emotional incidents. James would be warm and affectionate, then suddenly cold and withdrawn. He rarely if ever complimented her anymore on her appearance or her achievements, which on its own she didn’t feel was really a big deal, but he often complimented other women when Nora was present. And if it wasn’t in words it would be very approving looks, gazes that held too long, with little winks or a charming smile. I asked her if she said anything to James. And she admitted she hadn’t. Because it made her feel petty. And overly sensitive. But it was hurtful. What Nora couldn’t fathom until much later, was that it was also intentional.

The odd behavior started to ramp up. One evening after work, they were happily on their way to meet his co-workers and their spouses for drinks.  Upon arrival at the bar, she quickly realized that she was the only significant other in attendance. Her boyfriend said jokingly, ‘Nora doesn’t let me out without her.” A funny remark until she had the feeling, that James enjoyed seeing her squirm as his co-workers laughed. When she questioned him later, he brushed it off saying it wasn’t a big deal. And it wasn’t. Until the next time when they showed up to meet a co-worker and his wife for dinner. Or so Nora was told. It was again, just James’ co-worker. When his friend said outright, ‘if I had known you were coming Nora, I would have invited Sarah’, Nora says she looked in confusion at James who again feigned ignorance remarking ‘Nora never misses a chance to eat at a restaurant.’ Nora says in the moment, trying to keep things light, she laughed too. But then responded by saying ‘Obviously, there was a misunderstanding about tonight. I have no problem with James going out.’ Which again, made her feel incredibly awkward to respond and react to a purposefully challenging situation that was not of her making. And which her boyfriend took noticeable pleasure in watching. (Plus, did he just ‘food shame’ her??!!) Now it was becoming a ‘thing’.  I asked her why she kept going? She candidly responded, “I have no idea! We weren’t going out a lot so it’s not as if this happened two or three days in a row. Between these moments, our relationship was pretty much, well, normal”.

This is the success of gaslighting. It is a long game.

The weirdness however continued to escalate. Besides mis-representing her to his co-workers, he started doing the same when they were out with their mutual friends and family. At every opportunity, he would volley between being overly critical of pretty much everything  she said or completely ignore her when she spoke. The same fun-loving man the group enjoyed being with would treat her with a kind of contempt that would be masked by mean-spirited teasing. It was around this same time that she began catching him in little lies. Usually about really inconsequential things. Nora began to realize there was a bigger issue at play.

Okay, so I agree the guy sounds like a jerk. But does that make him a ‘gaslighter’? Passive aggressive for sure. Maybe even a tad narcissistic. But capable of long term psychological warfare? Every couple bickers in public sometimes and don’t always treat each other with proper respect. We can’t always be on our best behavior. I have to confess, I still didn’t really believe this was gaslighting. Besides, what is the point of gaslighting anyway?

In reading articles for this essay, the examples given were extreme cases where the abusive partners were highly manipulative with a targeted viciousness which left the victim an emotional wreck, a mere shell of their former selves. But that is not always the dynamic. Because just as every work, family, love relationship is unique, so are the ways that this psychological undermining, manifests. What is the same in all cases, is that it is about power. One person wants control over another. This power can be to enact more abuse, or it can be to hide something – such as financial problems, legal issues or affairs.

Nora completely understood my hesitation, revealing that it took an unexpected conversation with her brother, to fully see what was happening. They were at a family event when her brother pulled her aside, questioning Nora about James’ erratic behavior. He described watching Nora defend herself against the nasty jabs by laughing it off to avoid a confrontation. Then abruptly, James shifted  his attention to everyone in the room but Nora. He noticeably withdrew, was cold and dismissive. Nora opened up to her brother about the increasingly confusing and often mean behavior, including the newly realized lying.  For the first time, Nora could discuss her concerns because her brother had witnessed it. ‘For the longest time, I thought I was over-reacting, or it was in my head. James would say I was too sensitive or he would shake his head in disgust like I was reading into things.’  Her brother simply said, ‘Nora, this isn’t how we treat people we love, and it isn’t how you deserve to be treated.’ Nora knew this was the truth.

My friend Nora is a really strong person with a history of healthy relationships. She was ready for this conversation with her brother because she realized the relationship was unhealthy.  Once Nora had made the decision to no longer accept this treatment, she became less emotionally dependent on her boyfriend. This distancing gave Nora a clearer perspective as she saw through his behavior, stood up for herself and finally left.  It was not until she was out of the relationship, that she discovered James had kept up this disturbing behavior in part, to hide a series of inappropriate relationships with other women. A charming manipulator, he formed emotional bonds with other women, many times turning physical and always leaving the woman feeling that ‘he really understood’ them. The little lies Nora had called him on in their relationship, had foreshadowed something much bigger. Classic.

And this is why I have subtitled this essay ‘Be a Nora’. Anyone of us can fall victim to gaslighting. At work and in relationships. Age, gender, race, it does not discriminate. Gaslighting is only successful, if you doubt yourself, lose your identity and become completely undermined by the perpetrator. Nora never allowed this to happen. Even when giving him the benefit of the doubt or a third and fourth chance, she never stopped listening to her own intuition. In retrospect, Nora would say she stayed in the relationship too long. But I think she is a bit hard on herself. She did not accept his bad treatment. She did not accept his insults. And eventually, she did leave.

After hearing Nora’s story and reading a lot of articles about gaslighting, I do believe this is what Nora experienced. The textbook cases are extreme examples, but this behavior can manifest in any type of relationship – work, family, love. It doesn’t have to be extreme to be damaging. Besides, love relationships, especially, should be fulfilling not undermining.  If any of this story rings true for a relationship you are in then do some reading, talk to friends, and ultimately if you aren’t treated well, then Be A Nora, and leave.

And one last important note: This essay is for my own personal discoveries about boundaries. I am not a mental health expert, nor is this article intended to offer advice or mental health related treatment suggestions. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provided excellent information for this piece. This 24/7 support network can be reached at http://www.thehotline.org/

 

 

Being the Author-ity of Your Life

When Nora Ephron, the famed director/writer of notable works such as ‘When Harry met Sally’ and one of my favorite of her books ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck; and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman’, died from complications from cancer in 2012, it was a complete shock to most of her friends and colleagues that she had even been sick! Ephron had decided to die the way she lived – on her own terms. She controlled the narrative. By doing so, she wrote her own story, maintaining the authority of her life.

In being the author of our own lives, we choose to pen our narrative. Our ‘story’ is the life we live. The plot is our day to day actions and interactions, the setting is where we are rooted and where we journey, the cast of characters are those we choose to have around us. Our narrative told in our own unique voice!

Being our own authority takes on richer meaning. Now that we recognize we are the authors of our own lives, are we holding tight to its authority? We should be! For me, being the authority of my life means that I am the best one to tell my story. I try not to give this power away. In defining my voice I have realized that when I give someone else authority over my story, it is seldom to my advantage. There is no benefit to giving energy or time, to those who belittle, insult or undermine. Instead, I put my energy to action – taking on projects that ring true to me and my story; having people in my life who honor; and building strong intentions to continue to create a narrative of which I can be proud. This is when I am in full authority of my story.

As the author and the author-ity, we are fully accountable. This place of ownership is where fruitful partnerships can blossom. It is learning to keep your own power by creating respectful boundaries for yourself. From here, you can be mindful of others boundaries too.

Nora Ephron created some of the most seminal works for women at a time when we were just finding our collective voice. It’s good to be reminded that when we take author-ity of our lives, we define how the world perceives us and also, a clearer picture of our story is created. Nora’s personal mantra remains true for me – ‘above all, be the heroine of your own life.’

In The Room

Being in the room is standing in a space that desires your full presence. It’s that place of  understanding and respect we hold with each other. It is found in all aspects of our lives. When you aren’t metaphorically in the right room, there is little you can do to make that room fit.  The dynamics between people create that space and, if that place does not expect and want the best of you, then not only is it not your room, it can never be your room.

I used to joke that I could make an entrance, but for the life of me, I could never make an exit! It was a tongue in cheek analogy for my propensity to trip on doorsteps, but truthfully, for how I engage in my life. A loud enthusiastic ‘hello people’ meant that I could enter most rooms with confidence – boardrooms, interviews, auditions, parties, relationships… But knowing when it was the right time to leave, to make my exit, was typically fumbled. I stayed too long or, the worst, forgot something and had to return! How many times have we realized it was time to depart but stayed anyway –  a job, friendships, lovers? It’s very humbling to have made my final dramatic gesture, only to slink back to retrieve my handbag.

The key is of course to exit that room as soon as you realize it’s not your space. That truth is confirmed when you can’t thrive, your contributions aren’t valued or your voice is not respected. In the most toxic situations, your core values are compromised. If  that  knot rising from your belly stifles your breath at the thought of holding that space, it is not your room.   Recognizing you aren’t in the right place, means knowing for what you stand. Boundaries have been set defining your expectations of yourself and of others. In how you treat them, and how you are treated. Life experiences provide the best lessons, and I now try to recognize the signs sooner.  If someone you hold space with, makes you doubt your gut instinct, well, back away. Your inner voice is aligned with your core values, and it is to be believed.

The real power comes in the creation of our own rooms. Who is in your room? Do they treat you with honor and respect? Are they fully present in the gift of being a part of  your life? Do they allow you, to witness fully the living of their lives? Nate Berkus, in his book The Things That Matter, says  “Your home should tell the story of who you are, and be a collection of what you love brought together under one roof.’  It’s the ideal analogy for creating our life spaces, our rooms. Who you bring into your room should reflect the life you want to live, and they should want that for you too. An invitation to the room is built on trust and the understanding that what is in your deepest personal space will be honored. It is sacred and it is safe. It is reciprocal and it is earned.

You can’t always choose to leave a room nor to make a graceful exit. The best choice is to be true to yourself. To remember that regardless of the actions of others, your response is your own.  For me, I turn to the one thing I know will always make things more bearable. In those instances when it is necessary to hold that space, my only option is to tie my shoes a bit tighter, turn up the music, and dance my way through.

Here’s a bit of dancing music to get you through your room. GO TEAM!

(Thanks Disney and JT)

Can’t Stop This Feeling

Courage to Stand in Your Truth

 The root of the word ‘Courage’ is the latin ‘Cor’ meaning ‘heart’. Even Dorothy, in that terrifyingly unfamiliar place somewhere over the rainbow, knew that deep in the heart of the Cowardly Lion lay courage.

I have been watching with wonder these past few weeks, as a collective energy of progress, decisions, outcomes has overtaken many of my friends and colleagues. Have you felt it? This is more than the delicious outcome of dedicated work or the begrudging realization that we are the catalysts of personal change. Each has made a courageous choice to stand and live in the truth that is their life. By doing so, by giving themselves permission to acknowledge what they want & who they are, by firmly standing in this honest place they open the possibility for their greatest potential! Writers acknowledging ‘I have something worthwhile to say’; Singers/Songwriters believing their music is going to find an even wider audience; Friends committing to decisions that will drastically alter their lives; realize indeed the best is then yet to come…

I believe that to be able to tell your story of who you are with your whole heart, is the ultimate definition of Courage. Standing in our truths can seem difficult, almost impossible, when we feel responsibilities and obligations to colleagues, friends and loved ones. It has been, at times, for me. Yet I am reminded, somewhere over the rainbow in a place that beckons which is unfamiliar, scary, exciting and irresistable, when I find enough courage to stand in my truth, I will be more rooted then ever, strong enough to face the wondrous potential ahead of me. Heart in my hand, story in my song, feet firmly planted in my truth, ready to launch into my next leap of faith!

This photo is my son Nate, courageously launching himself into an abyss of unknown, trusting that wherever he lands he will have the strength to face it!