“The largest part of what we call ‘personality’ is determined by how we’ve opted to defend ourselves against anxiety and sadness.” ~Alain de Botton
I know fear and anxiety. We’re old friends. When I was fifteen, and school was over, I’d have to force one foot in front of the other. It was time to go home. I always kept going, and with every step I’d psych myself up.
You see, once I’d gotten home, fixed my dinner, and finished my homework, my mother would come home. It was then that we would begin the nightly ritual of me talking her out of killing herself. I succeeded, but every day was a struggle.
As I got older I became terrified of leaving my room and fixated on studying so I could go to college and leave her dramatic mood swings behind.
I did get out. I went on to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a highly ranked school, studied abroad in England, and even went on to get a Masters Degree in International Studies from the University of Sydney in Australia. I worked hard and climbed in my career as a humanitarian worker.
But the problem was that the fear and anxiety followed me. The chaotic energy of my childhood was still in every cell of my body. And as a result, I attracted people very similar to my mother and I was attracted to dangerous situations, such as visiting former war zones for work.
After seventeen years of carrying this weight around, I buckled. My work suffered and I fell apart emotionally. I felt like a pilot trying to land an out of control jumbo jet with both engines on fire.
I just couldn’t carry the weight anymore, so I began to unload toxic relationships left and right—quite to the shock and dismay of my family and friends.
As I felt better and cracks of clarity began to seep through, the people around me pushed back. That’s when I made probably the biggest most dramatic decision I’ve ever made.
I sold my house in Washington, DC, worked out a part-time telecommuting position with my boss, and moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I knew that I needed space to figure out who I was and to spend some quality time dealing with my past.
Four and a half years later, I feel like a completely different person. I believe in myself, like really believe in myself. I meditate. I have clear boundaries that I stick to, and at a cellular level, I feel at peace.
Now, I still have work to do, but I don’t dread it. Instead, I look forward to my continued work and getting to the next level of fulfillment, and I see life as full possibilities and joy.
During this journey people have continually asked me how I did it. They’re amazed that every time they see me, I somehow have jumped to a more fulfilled level. Well, let me tell you.
1. I made personal development my number one priority.
Every time I made a leap, my relationship with myself improved, my relationships with others improved, new opportunities appeared in my life, and my business became less stressful, more streamlined, and more purposeful.
2. I embraced my emotions.
It was messy at first. I’m not going to lie. I cried every day for two years and I still cry fairly often, but it’s over quickly and I feel much better afterward. I understand now that I had to grieve for the childhood that I never had.
The two tools that kept me sane and helped me push through were a) a regimented and strenuous workout routine that allowed me to get my anger out in a physical way and b) Iyanla Vanzant’s online Forgiveness Workshop, which guided me through why I was angry, allowed me to get to the heart of my anger (and more importantly, my hurt), and allowed me to let go.
3. I stopped identifying myself as a victim.
I’ll be honest, this one still comes up for me in surprising ways. I realized that I had been taking pride in being a victim. It had become part of my identity, and it was holding me back from believing in myself.
4. I embraced that it’s how I feel that is the most important thing in my life, not the amount of money in my bank account, the status of the people around me, or the car that I drive.
Danielle LaPorte’s book The Desire Map was instrumental in this mind shift. After reading it, I finally understood that when I coveted material things or relationships, I wasn’t coveting them; I was coveting how I thought they would make me feel. My whole life changed when I realized that I could have positive feelings now without these things.
I began to incorporate experiencing belonging, feeling loved, and feeling safe into my morning meditation.
There was a lot of reaching at the beginning. These weren’t emotions that I had ever experienced in a holistic and healthy way. But I kept meditating on them, and slowly, things, programs, podcasts, and people showed up in my life that showed me what those healthy emotions did feel like. And my meditations on them became more and more real. And now I know with certainty that my life will be filled with belonging, love, and feelings of being safe for the rest of my life.
5. I embraced affirmations and mantras.
I began to write down affirmations and post them throughout my house. When things were at their worst, I printed out on a piece of paper in huge font the words “I love you” and taped it to my bathroom mirror.
I still cry thinking about how lonely and unloved I felt when I looked at that piece of paper every morning. But I kept it up there and I even started to say “I love you” to myself in the mirror.
At first I could barely look myself in the eye, but after over five years, I look myself clearly in the eye and smile every time I say it, because I mean it.
I also started to identify how I wanted to feel so I could create mantras. I still do this. At the moment I’ve borrowed one of Gabrielle Bernstein’s favorites and adapted it. Every time I am at rest I repeat to myself “I am supported in my life and business” and everyday I feel more supported.
6. I got a dog.
It may sound simple to some, but getting a dog has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The obvious perks are the unconditional love, the constant shoulder to cry on, and someone who is always ecstatic to play with me.
But the actual reason goes much deeper. Dogs’ behavior reflects the energy we put off into the world, so they’re like an instant karma meter. If we’re feeling chaotic and unsure of ourselves, they might protect us by attacking other dogs or misbehave.
People always assume it’s the dog’s fault if he misbehaves, but the fault is almost always the human’s energy. Once I figured this out, I felt an even greater responsibility for the energy that I was putting out in the world. I now had to be calm, direct, and assertive so that my dog could have a happy life. During this process, he has helped me identify countless things to clear.
7. I set firm boundaries.
This one was and still is paramount to my happiness. I grew up in a family with essentially no boundaries. My parents would tell me about their love lives, their problems, and didn’t really allow me to have any material possessions that really felt like mine.
So as an adult I had very poor boundaries. I’d let people take advantage of me and then get mad behind their backs. I’d ask inappropriate questions. The list goes on and on.
One day my therapist mentioned boundaries in passing, so I looked on Amazon and found another life changing book, Where you End and I Begin by Anne Katherine. It rocked my world.
I honestly had never even realized that I was allowed to set boundaries. I started setting them right away and my whole world started to shift.
I now tell people when I don’t want to talk about a subject. I leave a party if I no longer want to be there and I only do things I want to do. As a result I am so much happier and grounded, and more importantly, I am now free to explore what it is that I really want.
8. I understand that what people say often reflects what they think about themselves.
This was a hard one. I grew up thinking that everyone’s emotional state and actions were my fault.
As a result, I had a chronic need to please—and if I didn’t, I felt horribly guilty about it afterward. As I worked through my own emotional chaos, I began to understand how the energy that I brought to a situation could completely shift its outcome.
I realized that I was creating a revolving mirror of chaos by projecting my own insecurities onto other people’s words and actions. Once I had reined in my inner chaos and could see the world with some clarity, I realized that most people do the same thing I was doing.
In some cases I realized it didn’t even matter if I was in the room; their insecurities were the only thing that mattered in their world. Whatever I had to say wasn’t going to change anything.
This realization was downright magical. I finally felt free. I look back and realize that so many situations that had made me feel bad had absolutely nothing to do with me. This has not only allowed me to forgive more people, but it has allowed me to more easily spot secure people who genuinely listen and gravitate toward them.
9. I expelled negative messages from my life.
I realized that the television shows I watched, the music that I listened to, and the furniture and objects I put in my house all impacted my subconscious.
As a result, I stopped watching television where the main character was on the verge of dying or the world was going to end in every episode. This doesn’t mean I switched to shows with unicorns and bunnies. I’m an intelligent person who likes complex plots. But what I did was make sure that the shows I watched reflected how I wanted to feel.
I started curating my music more carefully. If I loved the beat, but the song had negative messages about women, it got tossed. If the lyrics were about self-sabotage or unhealthy self-doubt, it got tossed. Or if I just didn’t like the beat, it also got tossed.
What is now left is positive, affirming music that actually feels like me. I’ve even had people comment that the music I listen to feels like my artwork.
I gave away or threw out all furniture or objects that I didn’t like or that reminded me of someone that I didn’t like. If an object made me feel guilty, it got tossed. If something was broken, it got tossed.
I even threw away my dining room table! Every time I would drive to the Restore or Goodwill with a full car I was filled with guilt, but then when I drove away empty-handed I always felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
I realized that I was so busy cluttering my house up with obligations and broken things that I wasn’t showcasing the things I loved and that brought me joy.
10. I believe in myself.
When I was trying to study abroad in England and get my Masters in Australia, I felt so sure of the outcome—in my mind there was no other outcome—and I felt so focused and purposeful. I realized this year that I had lost that drive.
Going through my past in painstaking detail in order to heal had really taken its toll. In some ways it had dragged me into a holding pattern and I couldn’t see a life beyond it.
Then I started to listen to the Tim Ferriss’ podcast. It’s a complex show hosted by a complex man, so you could take away any number of things. What I’ve taken away lately is that I need to start asking myself more absurd questions.
Essentially I need to start thinking bigger. So when Tim mentioned an old 1959 book called The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz, I devoured it. It is lifting me up in ways that I never expected (and making me chuckle at its totally 1950s take on life).
As a result of this book, I finally understand what Tony Robbins has been banging on about—successful people and businesses are successful because they truly believe they will be successful, and they’re willing to do any amount of personal growth work to get to their goal.
They are so sure of the outcome that nothing, not even their most horrifying ghost will stop them. They’re not going to push against the ghost, they’re going to embrace the ghost, feel its pain, and move through it.
I believe that I can. And I believe that you can too.