Years ago, when I was married to the President of a Fortune 500 company, I went to a black-tie event at the San Francisco De Young Museum. For whatever reason, it had been a bad day. As I walked into the reception, the first people I came upon were two of San Francisco’s A-List socialites who I thought, in my naivete, were friends. Politely, they asked me how I was. That their eyes protruded in horror, that their jaws clenched, that their entire bodies recoiled did not stop me from giving them the full report on how I was, in full detail. The next day, I told a real friend, who howled in response, then schooled me. “Emily, the answer is ‘fine’ or, if you have to say something else, ‘don’t ask.’” And then she proclaimed, “All of San Francisco’s A-List is being told, ‘Don’t ask Emily how she is.’” We joke about it to this day. She trained me well, for the only people who know how I really am are my besties – a small handful of wonderfully loving, empathetic, and interested friends.
Today, in my session with my coach, I learned how much I was keeping from myself, how few truthful details I was really noticing. The ‘too much information’ (TMI) I had stopped relaying wasn’t just in social communications as I moved along in the world, but also to myself. She threw open the door to the houseful, not roomful, of information that I’d buried, compartmentalized, and lied about to myself. I had become polite, surface, socially acceptable to the one person I couldn’t afford to be that way with, me.
Here is a label my coach uses, that I think captures the problem: “weather reporter.” This is who we are when we look at ourselves, our experiences, our thoughts, our feelings and report them rather than actually own them. And here’s why that’s bad: Revealing our information to ourselves, really connecting with it, allows us to better understand the personal patterns that don’t do us any favors, i.e. aren’t getting us what we want, whether it be happiness, success, relationships, financial stability, etc.
While mulling this insight over, I reflected on Brene Brown’s (love her!!) work on shame and guilt. Brene (how I wish we were on a first name basis) defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” She goes on to say, “Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame leaves women feeling trapped, powerless and isolated.” Guilt, according to Brene, “is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.”
Was I giving myself weather reports, so I could avoid feeling unworthy? Ashamed? Guilty? Uncomfortable in any number of ways?
In the work I’ve done post-divorce to move forward in my life (happily I will add), I owned up to a lot of personal garbage, the pain I experienced during my marriage and divorce, along with the slings and arrows I dodged (or wasn’t smart/fast enough to dodge) throughout the regular course of my life. I hadn’t expected to fail in my marriage, I hadn’t expected people in my inner circle to dump me as well, so clearly, I needed to figure out my role (recommendation, Maybe It’s You by Lauren Zander). I dove into my painful baggage headfirst, waded through a ton; so much so that I refer to my current life as Emily 6.0. The “ha-ha on me” moment came today when my coach opened the houseful of stuff that I hadn’t yet owned. Major ouch. It’s so not easy, this seeing yourself for who you really are.
When I sit with potential clients, I tell them quickly, “We’re going to be in a sacred and safe place, judgement free, and there’s no such thing as TMI. Accurate, personal information is exactly what we need in order to have your legacy plan, and/or your philanthropy represent who you truly are.” I go on to describe how we self-judge, how we edit our thoughts and feelings, how critical we are of ourselves.
Oh, how insidious self-criticism is, no area of our life is safe from it. We know we’re supposed to love/like our children equally and if we don’t, we would never ever admit that to anyone for fear of being called the worst parent ever. Hard to create an estate plan if you aren’t going to own your feelings and then figure out what you want to do about it.
We know cancer is a killer and decide we’re horrible people if we don’t want to donate to end that scourge. Hard to create a meaningful philanthropic plan if you aren’t open to investing in and donating to your passions even while acknowledging the many other issues that confront our lives, the many ills that befall mankind and our world.
Here’s what happens when I encourage my clients to tell me how they’re really feeling, to allow themselves to speak freely without those social constraints. First her proverbial toe dips in the water. Then, as she experiences encouragement to speak more, her body gets comfortable in the pool. Soon she’s swimming laps. The shoulders go down, the facial worry lines relax. That’s the moment our work can really be transformative. That’s when our intimate discussion of what will happen in the future (ex., the estate plan for after death), the resultant openness and revelation of how she truly feels, changes her life in the present. That’s when she is able to accept herself for who she is and own her true desires.
I’ve always been interested in people, about what makes them act and think the way they do. Intuitively and instinctively, I know the questions to ask that will allow for deeper feelings and thoughts to emerge. Listening to their answers, their fears and hopes, I feel great compassion for all their complexities. What I don’t do well, and I would postulate others don’t do as well, is practice self-compassion.
Kristin Neff (love her too) defines self-compassion as “extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Self-compassion as being composed of three main components – self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.” She continues to explain that compassion for oneself is the same as the compassion one has for others, “self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself.”
Oh, do I have work to do, which is why, I suppose, I hired a coach.
I look at my problems and dismiss them as “first world or luxury problems.” Easy for me to do for I’ve participated in many humanitarian trips all over the world and have witnessed, up close and personal, “real” problems. My standard line about the problems in my life is, “There’s not a woman in the Congo who says, ‘your life is too difficult, I’ll stay where I am.’” I have a very healthy dose of perspective and know how fortunate I am to have the life I have. You probably do too.
Here’s the problem with lucky people like us. We tend to view self-compassion as self-pity. Or maybe that’s just me. I went many rounds with a previous coach on this topic and refused to align my thinking with hers; I just couldn’t see self-compassion from her perspective. One day she said to me, “What would you say to your friend who came to cry on your shoulder about what was happening to her – her husband suddenly not wanting to be married, her cousin abandoning her, her best friend betraying her by going after her husband, another close friend dumped her to ‘follow the money’?” “Oh my God,” I said, “I’m so sorry. I’m here for you and will be as supportive and loving 24/7 as you need me to be.” My coach then handed me a mirror and said, “You’re now your friend. Repeat those words to you, your new friend.” And with that, I got it.
Apparently, I needed the reminder, thus my new coach’s revelation. I trust that you do too.
That’s why I implore my clients (and the other people I love) to ignore the fear of TMI. That’s why I encourage all of them to trust, own, and relate their feelings and thoughts about their wealth. We all need a person with whom we can be our true selves, without the trepidation of “it” coming back to haunt us. Here’s what you need to know at a very core level: while I guide you through the process, serve as your facilitator and confidante, what you tell me will never be used against you, won’t be brought up in a fight, won’t change my opinion of you. Not ever. I’m a vault and I hold your most valuable treasure – you – safely. And maybe when you’re done, you’ll feel less inclined to be a weather reporter in your own life. Wouldn’t that be nice.
"If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and, judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive." Brene Brown