Tag Archives: therapy

What If You Stopped Giving?



If you read me…you’re going to have to sit a spell.  Pour a cup of something and pause.  I refuse to go into sound bytes…  With love, here is what I share with you today:

Somebody asked me the other day if I know how to receive without giving.

Huh.  I’d never really thought about that before.

I proceeded to tell her how I’ve been trying to receive the beauty of Montana this summer, as a writer and seeker and feeler– just being, rather than always running to the next thing.  Just being in my creativity before my writing retreat season begins in a few weeks.  And then I started to tell her about the book I’m writing and how I think it will help a lot of people and and and–

She cut me off.  “You were talking about receiving.  Then you switched gears.  And now you’re talking about giving.  I asked you if you can receive…without giving.”

Ok, fine.  She might have been a therapist I recently hired to help me get out of a period of life overwhelm with a kid in the throes of college recruitment, and wearing just too many damn hats in general.

I had no plain answer to offer her.  “It’s not like I think of myself as some sort of Florence Nightingale or anything.  I’m a gal who likes to take long baths and long walks and ride my horse.  I try to grab moments for myself as much as my life will allow.  And what’s wrong with a symbiosis of giving and receiving, anyway?”

She cut me off again.  “What do you do now that is just about receiving?  Especially from people?”

I thought about it.  “Well, I love what I do for a living.  I love what it feels like to help people fall in love with their words, their voice, their self-expression, Montana.  When I see those lights go on and their faces soften and open to their truth…it’s the greatest gift I’ve known.”

Her face was deadpan and now with a dash of severity.  “I’m talking about receiving from people without giving.  Do you have an example of that in your current life?”

I scrolled through my daily life for the purely receiving peopled moments.  I couldn’t think of any—not any I was exceptionally proud of.

“I have a great chiropractor,” I said.

“People you don’t pay,” she said.

“Well I have a lot of good friends,” I said.  “A couple of them did nothing but listen to me when I was going through a rough patch a few years ago.”

“What about now?  Now that you’ve gotten into the business of being of service.”

92631D5A-0404-471D-89A2-F4BD8D260510“Uh…”  I thought of all the remarkable people in my life.  And I thought about how when they give to me, I almost always feel the immediate compulsion to give back.  Or feel guilty for not giving back.  “Just plain ol’ receiving, huh.  Did I say I take a lot of long baths?”  I paused.  ”But I mean, the truth is, even when I take a bath, I feel a little guilty about it.  Like I’m stealing the moment from something or someone.  Guilty pleasure, I guess.”

She stared at me, holding her pen to her paper.

“I wasn’t brought up to feel pleasure.  I was raised by World War II people.  My mother’s famous line is:  What do you think I do all day—sit around and eat bon bons???!!!  We are not bon bon people.”

She stared at me.

Oh God—was I paying someone $150 to have them tell me I have to eat bon bons?  I cut her to the chase, “I eat chocolate, you know.  I enjoy good wine.  I love to go out for dinner.  I took my kids to Europe for Christmas last year.  It’s not like I’m some kind of a deprivation-ist.  It’s not like I get off on penury!”

She said, “Is receiving always about pleasure?  What if it was about support?

Huh.  Time was up.  Thankfully.

So I went for both—pleasure and support:  I went out for lunch with a friend who gives the best advice, who eats cheeseburgers and fries like they’re an entire food group, and who prides herself on day-drinking.  I once told her that her porn star name would be Guilt-less Pleasure.

We sat in a dark pub on a sunny day.  “Do you think it’s possible for you to receive without giving?” I asked her. 92631D5A-0404-471D-89A2-F4BD8D260510

She didn’t skip a beat, dipping her French fry into a ketchup puddle, her gel-polished nails shining with the same color.  “Of course.  I love receiving gifts.  I don’t just have a birthday week, I have a birthday month!”  She guzzled her beer.

“A birthday month, huh,” I said, doing the same, pretending I like beer.

“Oh come on.  You know how to have fun.  You had a kick ass 30th, and 40th, and 50th birthday party.  I was at all of them.  I’ll never forget that lobster you flew in from Maine.  Or that marimba band you hired in your back yard.  And that Christmas party you used to throw.  Straight up Dickens.  With the lumineria all the way up the hill?  Magic.”

I thought about it.  “I do like to throw a good party.  But this therapist I’m seeing would tell me that I’m doing it for my guests as much as I am for me.  I don’t know how to throw a party for just me, I guess.  Doesn’t sound like much fun, frankly.”  Then I added, because I didn’t want to be pathetic, “I take a lot of baths, you know.”

She gave me the same deadpan look, but this time it was for free.  Bonus!

“What’s wrong with me these days?” I said, staring at my cheeseburger.  “Once upon a time, some would say that I was a hella good hedonist.”

She’s one of those friends who takes a question like that seriously.  This time she pointed at me with her bloody French fry and her bloody fingernail.  “You’re terrified of being called selfish.  Aren’t you.”

Shit.  The Call of the Bluff.

I stared at my hamburger, suddenly un-hungry.

She moved into her cheeseburger with vigor.  “I bet someone called you selfish when you were a little girl, and you’ve been running from it ever since.  That’s what I think.”  Juice ran down her chin, and she wiped it and licked her finger.  “But what do I know.  I’m not a therapist.  I’m just a single mother.”  She winked at me.

I didn’t wink back.  “I know I know.  Selfishness is out.  Self-preservation is in.  Self-care is an industry.  That’s why I finally hired a therapist.  I need to figure out this Self-care thing.”

“I think she’s on the right track.  I dare you to spend a week asking for help.  Without giving a thing back to the people you ask.”  The final French fry: “And not feeling guilty about it.”

The waiter came.  “Can I get a To Go box?” I said.

So I spent the week not asking anyone for help.  And feeling guilty about it.  And even worse about how sorry I felt for myself that no one offered me help on their own.  And how lame I feel with this new awareness that I don’t ask for it.  And so instead, I hired a Self-care coach, just to practice.  And then I felt pathetic for having a Self-care coach, and a therapist, when I’ve been such a glutton for the fact that I haven’t had a therapist for ten years.  I’m so “evolved.”  I can do life so “alone.”  I “help” people for a living.  I am of “service.”  I take a lot of baths.


92631D5A-0404-471D-89A2-F4BD8D260510Okay, so as it goes when you are wandering around with a blender head full of new awareness and longing and confusion…my car broke down in a parking lot.  Dead battery.  As I was coming out of a consultation, feeling very wonderful about helping someone construct their book project.  Turned the key.  Nuthin’.  Turned it again.  Shit.  And me without my jumper cables.

I got out of my car and asked a few people if they could give me a jump, feeling very not wonderful about bothering them in the middle of their day.  Neither of them had jumper cables.  So I called Triple A.  Tipped the guy $20, I felt so grateful.  This receiving without giving thing wasn’t going so well.

And then today happened.

I drove the Going-to-the-Sun road through Glacier National Park to take a hike up at Logan Pass.  I decided that it’s easier to receive from nature, and what better place to receive than this glorious part of the world—this definition of mountain majesty.  The wildflowers were out in profusion—the rose and blue gentian, the lavender aster, the spiking fuchsia fireweed.  The sky was blue, the clouds plump, the air pristine, the subalpine fir scenting it all with a heady elegance.  Receive receive receive.

Human being walking by with nice smile.

Me, taking shameless selfie.

“Would you like me to take a picture of you standing on that rock?  You look so happy!”

“Absolutely!  Thank you!”


I started to ask if she’d like a photo of herself in return.  But I stopped myself.

If she wants one, she’ll ask.  Selfish of me?  Nah. 

I decided to lie down on the rock and just be– feel the sun baking me into the earth.  So far so good.  Nature, humans, all abundant.  Receive receive receive.  And this feeling of great wholeness overtook me.  Was it pleasure I was feeling?  Maybe not.  It was more like support, like the therapist said.  This rock, this warm rock on this mountain top, held me.  I had everything I needed in that moment—warmth, water, space, time.  People around if I needed help.  Beauty resplendent in 360.  Receive receive receive.IMG_7506

And I thought, I feel relief right now.  I feel detonated.  Deactivated.  Benign.  Neutral.  I need to lie on more rocks in a place that is neutral.  Yes, neutral is what I’ll go for.  Not accelerate.  Not brake.  Not give.  And maybe not receive.  Just find this place of neutral at least once a day.  Maybe when I wake.  Or when I feel spent.  If there’s something to receive, it’s this.  This is the gift.  I’ve been trying too hard.  Maybe receiving happens when we stop giving.

So, wouldn’t you know…when I got back to my car, in this mountain-top parking lot, my battery was dead again.  And I’d forgotten my jumper cables again.  In my defense, I’m loaning out my sturdy Suburban with all the bells and whistles to my son, and am driving the “kid car,” and apparently haven’t learned one thing about life in Montana after twenty-five years.

The day was waning.  It wasn’t quite an emergency, but I knew that I would absolutely have to go Blanche DuBois, whether I liked it or not.  So with the dependence on the kindness of strangers bannered across my forehead, I bothered car after car, asking for a jump.  All tourists.  No luck.  The Visitor’s Center didn’t have cables either.  “I promise you, someone out there will give you a jump.  You just have to ask,” the ranger told me.


Processed with VSCO with f2 presetI liked neutral much better than ye olde ask and…

So I went back into the parking lot, hating to bug all of those nice travelers, fresh off their mountain high, to dig into their trunks, and my engine.

I asked two guys fitting fishing poles into backpacks.  “Hey, do you have jumper cables?”

They looked at each other.  “Yeah.  But we can’t give you a jump or we’ll lose our parking place.”

My hamburger friend’s line blared at me with bloody shiny fingertips:  God, I’m so selfish for forgetting my jumper cables.  God, I’m so selfish for not getting my battery looked at.  God, I’m so selfish for working so hard that I don’t have my priorities straight.  God, I’m so selfish for taking the day off to play in the mountains and lie on rocks and be in neutral when I have a list a mile long of things that need to get done for my kids, and my career, and my house, and duh—my car.  I’m so selfish.

And frankly, I don’t know how it happened.  But apparently God responds to self-loathing mind rants.  Because suddenly, there was a gang of smiley people all gathered around me, with a petite woman with long black hair taking charge like we were on Survivor.  She pointed at people and things and my car and me, and I took her orders.

“Get in your car,” she said.  “Put it in neutral.”

Yep.  Neutral.

IMG_7502And four strapping men stood at my hood and one of them shouted, “Push!”

Another strapping guy was at my window saying, “Crank the wheel,” and I said, “which way?” and he reached in and grabbed the steering wheel and cranked it for me.  “Now brake,” he said.  And I braked.

“Pop the hood,” another one said.

“Uh…this is my daughter’s car.  Not sure I…” like I’d never driven a car in my life, and never dealt with one crisis moment in my life, and believe me…normally I am the woman with the long black hair.  Two weeks ago I was galloping through a Montana meadow while a horse bled out, to get help.  (The horse is fine.)

But I was just…frozen with all this help.

And this guy reached in to my car and pulled a lever and the hood popped, and there was a truck, a bright blue truck, hood to hood with my car, and people were “operating” on my engine, and I was just out-of-body, cable to cable, charge to charge, until one of them shouted, “Turn your key.”  And I obeyed.

The car started.  Everybody clapped.  Surgery successful.  The girl with the black hair hollered, “God Bless America!”

I wanted to jump out of my car and hug them all and ask them where they were from and offer them local’s advice about where to go in Glacier, and in the Flathead Valley, and to take down their names and send them thank you notes, and heck, invite them all over for dinner.  But I didn’t.  I just said, “Thank you.  May someone do something nice for you today.”

And I drove off.

And yeah…I felt a little stupid.  But more than that, I felt supported.  And what I didn’t feel…was selfish.  Not in the least.

And when I came home and told my story to my hamburger friend, she said, “Has the Universe ever not supported you, Laura?”

And as much as I wanted to say, There have been times when it hasn’t…the truth is that no.  Never.  I’ve always had support.

I just have to live in a way that lets me find it.  And that might mean that I have to ask.  But mostly, that means that I have to receive the support that is all around me.

If you would like to take a break this fall and live the writer’s life in the woods of Montana, find community, find your voice, and maybe even find yourself…check out this video and info, and email the Haven Writing Retreat Team asap to set up a phone call!

September 6-10 (FULL)
September 20-24 (FULL)
October 4-8 (FULL)
October 18-22 (one spot left)

February 21-25 (now booking)

The rest of the 2018 schedule to be announced…

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New Year’s Hope: Winged Victory

So Now What?

So now what?

Not very long ago, I was told that I would lose my life as I was used to living it.  “Fasten your seatbelt,” someone said—someone who’d recently been through a divorce, lost her house, her children half the time, her dignity.  Her face had the map of near-catastrophe to show for it.  As I looked down the unconscionable barrel of divorce, another recent divorcee said, “Out of the two of you, I put my money on the pony that is you.”  I looked at her dumbfounded.  I had never been the bread winner.  I was the hearth keeper and full-time mother.  That was the agreement from the beginning and for twenty years, and I had put all of my security and dreams into the life we had created, the house, the land, the marriage, the co-parenting.  So, I was fetal with fear, trying to figure out how to get out of bed and have the courage for tea, never mind total reinvention worthy of a good bet.

According to statistics, my parting husband, the mediator, and most everyone I knew, I was going to have to down-size.  The house was in foreclosure, I didn’t have health insurance, savings, a job, or any income whatsoever.  How was this possible for a smart, savvy, well-educated, well-raised, feminist mother?  That’s what I asked myself on a rolling tape that tsunami-d over me until I was barely holding the weeds at the bottom of the ocean of fear, and worst of all, shame.

Another divorcee said, “I promise you…in one year’s time…your life will be better than you could ever imagine it.  I promise.”  I hate when people act like they have a crystal ball.  But I held on to that promise, because I wasn’t sure what else to hold on to except the fact that my kids were thriving and my motherhood was too.  That’s all that mattered to me.  Getting out of bed, facing the day, getting through it with some level of grace, and being there to be the mother that I had always been, even when they weren’t with me, even when half of their lives was totally outside of my control.

In those impossible moments, their bedrooms empty, no homemade dinners to serve, no sleepy morning breakfast heart-to-hearts, no lunches to make and wrap with little loving notes…I surrendered myself to the foundation I had given them and the fact that they’d eaten enough organic food to counter-balance whatever they now were being served—they could survive on fruit cups and Jello and supermarket rotisserie chicken, and whatever else was now their reality…couldn’t they?  In those grueling dark nights of the soul, I took heart.  One year from now.  Better.  How was this possible?


What wings?

What could make life better?  I was told I had to start looking at condos in town.  I would lose the land that held my little family and all our sledding parties, birthday parties, Christmas caroling and luminaria, a million walks with six dogs, raptors riding thermals over our heads as we picked splinters and told jokes, played cards by candlelight, coyotes echoing it all back to us in the night.  A condo in Montana?  I couldn’t think of anything more counter-intuitive for the life I had set up, curated, procured, and which gave me infusions every day, as a once wife, always mother, and woman who needs her muse to run naked in the woods.

I have always been stubborn and when I lack the practical common sense behind my convictions, there is a question that I ask and it has guided me well since I was a little girl:  What can I create?

So sitting there in my house one day, crying in fear and desperation, I asked myself:  What can I create?  How can I keep my house, my land, my children’s lives from unravelling any more than they already have?  This was never something I imagined for them, or for any of us.  How can I make this work?  What do I know how to do? 

At that point I’d published a New York Times and international bestseller, and as always was working away on more book projects, but even so, the writing process takes time, and the publishing world is complex.  The long and short of it was that I was in deep financial trouble with no immediate practical way out that I could see.  I’ll spare you the gory details.  And myself too.  Here’s where the hope lives and why I’m sharing this with you:  On that day, I put my fear and shame to the side and opened my mind to the world of possibility.  If my friend said she’d put her money on the pony that she said was me, and my other friend promised that my life would be markedly better in a year…what could I see for myself?  What did I know how to do that could be fairly and significantly monetized?  But not find me selling out my dreams, my writing, my total dedication to my true purpose.  My sole true purpose was mothering and writing, wasn’t it?  What else was congruent with who I am?


Open your heart, mind, arms…and jump!  Trust in your wings!

Well…I knew how to write.  I knew how to sit myself down and write no matter what was going on in my life, and always had.  It had gotten me through hard times and it had resulted in published work that landed in people’s hearts.  I could speak about perseverance and dealing with rejection and the practical application of philosophies I’d learned along the way in the realm of emotional freedom and empowerment.  I could be transparent, vulnerable, heart-in-the-hand honest and loving.  I was natural at leadership and well-seasoned in the dynamics of intimate groups and how to keep them safe and healthy.  I could create and hold the space for people to find their way to these life-lines which had been my guide for years.  And I could come up with very relatable and inspiring exercises to help people learn what I’d learned– to help people give themselves permission to find their unique voice and express it, using the power of the written word.  And as if in Shakespearean choir…a few other friends with crystal balls had whispered Writing Retreat in my ear for months.  I hadn’t really listened until that moment when I knew I could not live by fear any longer if I was ever going to get to the other side.

Without a whole lot more rumination, (I’ve found that fearlessness works best that way), I put it on Facebook:  Anyone want to go on a writing retreat in Montana with me?  In two hours, twenty-four people signed up, and Haven Writing Retreats was born.  Five years and four hundred people later, if there was a race to be betted on, and a winner’s circle and wreath of roses around my neck…and a lucky person who gambled on the longshot, I can say with humble-pride that maybe some people deserve their crystal balls.  I can say that I am grateful for their confidence when I didn’t have it for myself, never mind my future.  And I can say that it is absolutely possible that you can take exactly who you are and turn it into a business, a career, and even financial stability.

Winged Victory!

Winged Victory!

Whether you’re a single mother going through a divorce, or recently fired from your job, or in re-invention without a view into your future at all…ask yourself this powerful question:  What can I create?  It may be right under your nose.  And it may be some of the most important work of your life.

And even if you’re not, even if you have all the security in the world in the people, places, and abundance of your life…never take it for granted.  Don’t live in fear of the rug being ripped out from underneath you.  But do know what your passions are and live them with all your might.  I’m glad then, that my passions were in a row when the rug got ripped out from under me, even if my ducks weren’t.  Passions are mine-able.  Anyone can be an alchemist, if they have something powerful to work with.  And the most powerful matter I know…is the truth of who you are, the special way you have of showing up in the world, where you find the ease of true power and purpose, and give yourself permission to live it, use it, be it.

The field of possibility...

The field of possibility…

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Happy 2017 from my family to you!

So as we enter 2017, to all of us who are toiling to see brightness in our future, or a future at all…take heart.  If I could have seen that day in my world of hurt, what this Holiday season looked like, I wouldn’t have been able to believe my eyes.  I would have seen a mother and her children in Paris, eating macarons in a beautiful boutique hotel, old and new friends feasting over long dinners of delectable food, laughter and love, toasting and fond reminiscing.  Smiles that beamed as bright as the Eiffel Tower at midnight, and as deeply and wisely as the Mona Lisa’s, and as mystically as the Gregorian chants in a candle-lit Notre Dame.  I would have seen a mother and her young adult children– a trio so powerfully woven as they walked the medieval streets of Bruges, Belgium holding hot chocolate and Gluhwein, basking in the Dutch countryside, caves and chateaux where earls and knights once lived, writing wishes for each other on slips of paper for 2017.  And I would have seen them in a holy pause for a week in Amsterdam in a 17th century little house around the corner from the Westerkerk that kept Anne Frank’s hope alive, chiming every fifteen minutes as if to remind us that we are here, and we are together and we are not just thriving.  We are happy.

P.S.  And I kept our house…and am deeply into three books, hopefully coming to your bookshelf sooner than later…

A Slice of Haven Writing Retreats: 

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreat 2017 (ranked in the top 3 writing retreats in the US!)

You do NOT have to be a writer to come…just a seeker…looking for your VOICE!

February 22-26 (one spot left)
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22











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Haven Winter Blog Series #1: “Finding Your Creativity”

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Send a young deserving writer to Haven Writing Retreats and change their lives!  To contribute, learn more, and get special perks, click here! 

Every winter I give my blog over to alums of Haven Writing Retreats who have all come to Montana to dig deeply into their creative self-expression, using the powerful and transformational tool that is writing.  Leading Haven Writing Retreats is my way of giving the support I was either too stubborn or too scared (likely the latter) to give myself in all my years of writing.  It is my deepest pleasure and honor to offer this powerful program, which is really a writing retreat and a writing workshop in one, to people who long to learn how to write a memoir, how to write a novel, how to become a writer, how to write a story, how to start a book, or simply how to find their unique voices and stories…and set them free!  The Haven Writing Retreats community is all about continued support, and the annual Haven Winter Blog series is one way that we offer just that.  My blog is their blog, and in it we parse the creative questions that so many of us have.

This year’s theme is one of my favorites so far:  ”How do we give ourselves the permission to be creative in the first place…and what does that look like?”

In the next weeks, while I go into the winter dormancy of Montana and give myself my own permission to write, these Haven alums will be diving into their heart language to share with you how they show up for themselves creatively.  I hope you enjoy their posts.  I will be chiming in with some of my favorite winter recipes along the way so stay tuned, stay warm, making a nice cup of something soothing, and “lend an ear.”  From Haven to you.  yrs. Laura

Now Booking 2016 Haven Writing Retreats in glorious Whitefish, Montana:
February 24-28 (one spot left)
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

Post #1  by Justine Brooks Froelker 

“In Awakened Color”

The floor to ceiling windows allow the sun to wash away some of the darkness that is often brought into my office. As if the sun has the power to wash away the dark with light and hope. My office, a therapist’s office, despite feeling like sitting in a sunlit filled tree house, is the place some of the hardest work on earth is done. No matter what is brought into that room, my job is to hold the space for love, hope and change; to hold it enough for my clients when they are unable to themselves.

When we speak the dark into a space of safety and love, it loses power over us, especially the present and future us. In that place of light we have the space to heal.

My clients sit across from me in that sun washed room surrounded by warm light speaking words they may have never spoken out loud before. For 45 minutes they sit on my dark brown leather couch facing artwork with words like shame, self-compassion and empathy. They sink into that brown couch at first as someone stuck in the prison that has become themselves and their life, only to eventually soften into their true selves. In a space of new language and hard work they learn, change and create.

“You want me to color?!?! Like with crayons?” said always with the same look of disbelief and the you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me I-am-paying-money-for-this-advice-? look.

With complete seriousness seasoned with the childlike joy that coloring can bring out for many of us I reply, “Yes, I want you to pick up an adult coloring book and color. You can use crayons or colored pencils. My favorite is actually a combination of colored pencils and fine tip markers, whatever you like. 5-10 minutes a day, that’s it, all I’m asking.”

“You color?” spoken at this point with the attitude of an exasperated teenager no matter the age of the client.

“Every damn day.” I speak as an ornery smirk of knowing comes across my face coupled with true ownership of my own recovery.

Before the work of my recovery, when I lived my life like most do, in the doing-what-I-am-supposed-to-do-just-getting-by life, I used to say I was not a creative person. I’d sit across from my clients teaching them how to change their lives as someone who had been shattered by her own.

Who the hell has time to be creative? I’d bitterly say to myself and sometime angrily at others.

Infertility had become a part of my vocabulary and worse, we had lost three babies and I had spiraled into the deep darkness that is grief and loss. I became the shell of who I once was and yet knew I could never be her again.

And so, I began excavating myself out of the hole and practicing what I teach every day to my clients.

Therapy, exercise, move, cope, meditate, pray and be creative!

Brené Brown’s research shows that we are all creative people, that creativity is part of the wholehearted life, and more than that, unused creativity is not benign. And for me, in the darkest of dark, coloring seemed like the easiest place to start. As the person who trips, drops or breaks something at least once a week, I sure as hell was not going start with something as advanced or difficult like painting or sculpting!

And so every morning, every damn morning, I sit at my midcentury dining room table in front of my own floor-to-ceiling windows at home and I color while being saturated in the sunrise light. I color even when I am not feeling like it, even when I am traveling, even when I am not emulating “big magic” creativity.

I color while listening to my morning playlist.

I color to calm anxiety and depression.

I color to be aligned with my values, and therefore honor myself.

I color to spark my creative heart in a childlike joy that makes the world seem not only conquerable but also more alive.

I color to strengthen my voice into the glow of my truth.

Because when my truth radiates my light, my voice shines.

I can speak and write with my whole heart.

To thrive, not only survive.

To truly live and create.

- Justine Brooks Froelker  www.everupward.org

Post #2 by Susan Gregory
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The moment my phone alarm chimes I pull the down comforter over my head and bury my face in the defiant darkness of my pillows. I have waited for the alarm as I have this uncanny ability to wake myself with looming deadlines. A flood of appointments clamor for my attention as daybreak peers through my lace curtains. I resist the temptation to host superfluous thoughts reminding myself that staying balanced is a choice. I savor a few lingering moments wrapped in my blanket, meditating and giving myself permission to start my day in peace. Many expect me to create, or be, something wondrous. Staff, clients, colleagues, and my youngest daughter all depend on me to show up and be enthusiastic, ready and competent. How will they ever be impressed if I am waiting to cultivate my starlike qualities?

I utilize warrior skills to feel creative at work because let’s be real, being an Elder Law attorney does not lend itself to dazzling, creative outlets. I solve other peoples’ problems. I counsel clients and their loved ones about myriad worries. Burned out caregivers rely on me, and at times, I don my power suit and pearls to advocate for confused exploited seniors protecting them from those, sometimes children or grandchildren, hell-bent on stealing their assets and dignity. I apply a lens of aging, illness and incapacity with everything I do, and I hold daily discussions about death and dying. Does that sound creative to you? I think it does.

I spent my morning as a panelist for Tidewell Hospice discussing end-of-life choices. By two  o’clock I sat next to Sandi listening to her grieving the loss of her husband, Lenny. As she sobbed, a chunky ring on a delicate chain around her neck bounced up and down. “Tell me about the ring you’re wearing,” I asked. “This was Lenny’s college ring,” she beamed. “We met sixty-eight years ago at The University of North Carolina.” I smiled and asked, “Did you know I graduated from UNC?” “No, but what a small world?” she replied. “I have a theory about that small world, I believe good people find each other,” I said with a smile.

In a conference room I had painted in coastal blues and eider white that beckons comfort, I guided Sandi regarding her advance directives and Last Will. Through tears, she talked about what little money remained and what she hoped would happen when she dies or becomes ill. What I brought to the table, turned the tables. By just being me, in the present moment with Sandi naturally expressing who I am, my creative self-expression flowed. I was her counselor first, and then counsel reminding her a person’s legacy is not entirely about the money left behind. One’s legacy consists of contributions, both positive and negative, to each other, our community and the world. Modeling how a legacy is fashioned by how we treat others, I listened. I served her with compassion. I eased her worries regardless of material value. I am, after all what I value and how others identify me. I am, your Legacy Lawyer.

Handling matters, especially the emotional situations impacting clients like Sandi takes its toll on me. What inspires my creativity when I am drained and feeling like my brain is a twisted pretzel? Deliberate self-care. My mantra becomes a hymn of self-care.

Listening to music driving home shifts my mental landscape, and, weather permitting, I drive with the top down on my silver convertible. The feel of the wind rushing against my face and legs stirs happiness from within, and with gratitude I let the wind carry my cares away. I like speed. I drive a six-speed manual, and I am not shy about it. Real transformation occurs once I slip into comfortable clothes and leash my dog. We like to traipse together under the live oaks and slash pines leading to a lake. A watering hole really where a multitude of animals congregate. A pair of crimson-capped sandhill cranes or white tail deer usually join us while I meditate on the saffron and blue hues of a Florida sun setting. Observing nature grounds me. Rhythms unfold from within so I carry a journal to jot inspirational notes. Abandoning the material world is freeing, allowing my thoughts to become malleable like moist clay encouraging spontaneous insights for me to mold. Hindsight is 20/20, but peering into my journal feels like divine sight. The feelings and thoughts captured on a nature walk prompt some of my best poetry. When I creatively express myself, whether through a poem or encouraging a client like Sandi, Joy is my natural state. It feels incredible really, and you must realize this is a choice.

- Susan Gregory

Now Booking 2016 Haven Writing Retreat Schedule in glorious Whitefish, Montana:
February 24-28 (one spot left)
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23


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What I Learned on Career Day…

as featured in Huffington Post 50

Recently, I was asked to be on a panel of professionals for Career Day at a local therapeutic prep school in the Montana woods. I had no idea what to expect. I went to a prep school, but not a “therapeutic” one. I went to one that was all about having big answers to the “what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you- grow-up” question. As a dreamy, driven teen, it was a challenge that both daunted and inspired me throughout my high school career. My dreams were always out-of-the-box — an artist of some sort — an actress, maybe a film-maker … but luckily I was someone who figured out how to be comfortably in-the-box, keeping my out-of-the-box thoughts mostly to myself. So I wrote a lot. That practice turned into an obsession which turned into a craft which turned into a career. That was the goal for this Career Day: panelists were supposed to tell our stories — talk about the arc of our careers, then and now. But we weren’t talking to in-the-box kids. It turned out, we were talking, quite frankly, to our interior adolescent selves.

Given the nature of the students at this school, I knew that my story had to be as transparent and true as possible. These weren’t kids who dance to any level of BS. They’ve been through hard stuff and they don’t want the Kool-Aid. They want the raw, the real, the impossible possible.

I practiced my 15-minute presentation in the car as I drove further and further into the woods. I speak and lead retreats about the power of using my profession (writing) as a therapeutic tool, so I figured I had this one in the bag. All I needed to add to my well-developed story was the part about how I discovered that creative self-expression on the page is an excellent way to process life, and how I’ve learned to practice this every day, against the odds. How it sustains me personally, and now financially. Lesson: find out what you love and do it with all your heart, no matter what, and eventually you will succeed, whatever that means to you. I’m living proof. Easy.

The first panelist to present was a prosecuting attorney. I prepared for a serious talk from a serious person. Instead, he talked about wandering. Living in Hawaii. Surfing. Snow-boarding. Bartending. Being misunderstood. Feeling like a loser. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. And finding his way eventually to a profession that meets his needs. The second panelist was a successful web-developer with prominent clients all over the world. In his presentation, he talked about wandering. Living in New Zealand. Surfing. Skiing. Bartending. Turning down corporate America for mountain living. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. Inventing things. When it was my turn, I found myself telling a very similar story, mostly the wanting-something-different component. Oh, and I bartended too. And wandered. And worried my parents.

We had three rotations of students who listened to our presentations, all with interesting questions, and a modicum of blank stares. These kids were listening. And we on the panel were listening to each other … three times. It’s one thing to wow a crowd with your best one-liners, cutting honesty, and slightly irreverent stories. But looking into the eyes of these kids who’ve travelled miles of hard road, there was zero room for schtick. I pride myself on heart language. Turning heart language into schtick is a depressing trajectory, but truth-be-told, it’s happened to me along the way, likely out of a self-preservation that grows from being constantly on the road, sharing your message. Given this Career Day format, there was no way it was happening here. Quite probably because of this fact, what I saw in myself and my co-panelists (we supposed “experts”) was a fountain of truth.

The first time around, we gave blow-by-blow plays on the journey of our careers. Fascinating details. Twists and turns. Yellow brick road of success with pitfalls you only admit when you’ve found your way to Oz. The second time, we three offered more — personal stuff, odd vignettes that ended up inspiring major life choices right down to a conversation on a plane and a pair of flip-flops. But before the third group of students came into the classroom, one panelist admitted, “I’ve been telling it wrong.” His eyes lit up and he offered to go first. He spoke about inventing things — got deep into what made him want to invent things and why. Which begat a confessional from the other panelist about how he didn’t always love his profession, but how he has learned to live by his principles, moment by moment. And when it was my turn, I got ready to tell my usual story — about wanting to follow my passion with all my might, even if it left me poor and unpopular … but instead, this voice escaped like it was pulling free from very old shackles:

“I wanted to be famous. Really famous. Meryl Streep famous. I was jealous of Julia Roberts. I wanted that career. I was jealous of the literary brat pack from the 80s. I wanted those careers. Desperately. But the voices inside my head were so loud: you’re not good enough, your dreams will never come true, who do you think you are to have those lofty dreams, you’re a show off, you’re self-centered, you’re not talented, you’re an embarrassment to your family, you’re a failure.” My heart pounded and my face heated, but I continued. “I’ve let my inner critic run me. Until very recently. Even though I give speeches and lead writing retreats about how to become aware of that voice and shed it, I’ve still allowed my inner critic to hold court. I don’t want that for you all.” And then privately, a very new thought brought me to my proverbial knees. And I added, “I never realized until this moment … that I’ve allowed her to be much freer than I am. She lives out-of-the-box. I’m the one still somehow in-the-box because she tells me the story, and I dance. I don’t want a story. I want to be rid of stories and just be.”

I looked at those kids and I realized: that’s what they wanted — to be free of their story. Of their pain, their pressure, their past. To free themselves of boxes altogether. And yes, to have permission to wander. And worry their parents.

I ended up staying for lunch. I sat with the students and answered more questions but mostly I listened to them. I commended them for being different and admitting it and wanting to understand themselves, truthfully. I commended them for being honest and outed for exactly where they are in their evolution. “Most of the stories we tell ourselves are myths,” I told them. “If there’s one thing to live by, it’s that. Find your truth, no matter how inconvenient, and live into it. And for what it’s worth, the “experts” are really grown-up high school kids, scared, just like you.”

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Retreat Season: A Time to be Mindful

As featured on the front page of Huffington Post 50
dock_2Mindfulness is on the map.  Time Magazine ran it on its cover last January:  “The Mindful Revolution.”  The Chicago Tribune headlined it:  Use mindfulness to pull yourself out of a funk.  An article in The New York Times urges us to use mindfulness and meditation as a powerful resource in healthy living.  The Washington Post challenges us to be mindful at work.  The Huffington Post offers 5 mindful things to do every day.  And Forbes touts mindfulness as a tool for Success.  (And we all know what Forbes means when they talk about $success$.)  It’s like a miracle or something.  Mindfulness has been my dearest pursuit for as long as I can remember.  I just didn’t know what word to attach to it.  And maybe that was because I was fairly positive that mainstream society wouldn’t support it.  I’ve never been very good at being called names.  So in an effort to lessen the offense, I decided to call myself a Writer.  And I moved to Montana where nobody seemed to care one way or another.

I have spent the last 25 years living in Montana, writing with all my mindful might.  The natural world is the perfect stage to develop this practice, this prayer, this meditation, this way of life, and sometimes this way to life.  I fiercely believe that creative self-expression on the page should be up there with diet and exercise as a therapeutic tool in the realm of preventative wellness…whether or not it adds up to a published work.  Writing is the best way I know to process this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life.  And nature has been my best writing (mindfulness) teacher, calling me to retreat into my most sacred, quiet, deliberate place and find the wilderness of my words.

This time of year is a loyal reminder of the power of retreating into that still place.   As summer winds down, my muse steps out of the huckleberry bushes and mountain lakes, stretches and notices the trajectory of things.  Like dragonflies on screens.  And Monarchs on Echinacea.  And bats hanging in eaves.  This is the time of year when I stop the flurry of my summer check list, and start to imagine the world white again.  Dormant.  Where I get still, the world sleeps, the woodstove teases ideas into words which turn into stories, and most important, morph into understanding.

Late summer’s corner into autumn is the perfect time to abide with the rhythms of the natural world.  To pay attention to how it prepares slowly, methodically, mindfully, for that dormancy.  Nothing is an accident.  Every winged thing knows that everything counts, especially the ones who stay.  Every hibernating creature is taking stock, making sure it has just the right kind of burrow with the right kind of egress.  I follow their lead, preparing for a winter of words.

It’s the same every year.  After months of ignoring the stacks in my house, the clutter in my closets, the flung grenades in my garage, I find myself hungry to clean it all out.  I go through my pantry, making sure I have the basics:  flour, sugar, clean Mason jars for the jam and canned tomatoes I’ll put up in a few weeks.  I gather the gardening tools which have been too long leaning against fences, hose them down, return them to their home in the shed.  And my office—I divide the things that I thought would matter from the things that do matter—trash the former, file the latter.  In other words, I throw away a lot.

All of this is in anticipation of autumnal work which I have learned is essential to my winter work.  Autumn is the time to prime the pump of my creative flow.  Prime it so that it will flow through deep freeze.  Autumn is the time for mindfulness at its best:  It’s the time for retreat.

With the first hint of chill, I know that it’s time to retreat into that free zone which summer has procured.  I sleep with my windows wide open to let the night air roll over me, hoping that it will filter into my dreams and fuel my muse.  I keep my journal close to my bed, and I wake up early and open it, feeling my words sift through my mind’s fingers like the larch needles that will fall in early October.  I let them come.  I don’t think about how they might stack up.  I don’t need them to add up to anything other than freedom.  Permission.  Hunger.  Need.  The work will come in winter.  For now it’s time to stretch my mind, loosen what has lodged there in the summer months, let it flow.

Where do we get this free zone in life?  Where is pure expression without scrutiny ever exercised in our lives?  When I am in this corner season, I am less interested in the words, and more interested in where they come from.  It’s like a portal place.  An opening deep in the forest where I used to imagine the animals and fairies and teddy bears went in the nighttime to dance around bonfires.  I believed in that place as a little girl.  When I am finding and releasing words in this way, I am that little girl again.  We all need to be that child.  Children know that freedom is more than a high concept or a goal or that it comes with a cost.  They know that it is a place inside us and they know they have to access it in order to do everything else that constitutes living.

That’s what writing is for me.  That free zone.  That place behind the words and stories.  And that’s what I want other people to know.  It’s not unlike the birds and chipmunks preparing for winter.  It’s taking stock.  It’s finding the basics.  It’s procuring survival.  It is a retreat into self.  I believe in retreats as a vital way to tap into that creative self-expression on the page.  I know I need them and I believe other people do too.  So in the spirit of what I have been practicing for many years, mindful writing, I started Haven Retreats.

This fall, forty brave “grown-ups” will come to Montana to dig deeply into that wilderness that lives in them.  Some will call themselves “writers.”  Some will not.  Some will have stories they want to write.  Some will simply hope for words to come and to meet them on the page like new friends.  It’s my job to lead them to their words by inspiring them to go places they would not likely go on their own.  To facilitate an experience for them that they can walk away with and weave into their daily lives.  When people do this sort of work, they become aware of who they are; that portal place in the woods where they dance around bon-fires, unabashed.

The act of going on a retreat is not woo woo.  Leaving our daily lives behind and retreating into our primal rhythms, our purest flow, has been done since the beginning of time.  The Native Americans went on Vision Quests.  Jesus went to the desert.  Buddha went to the Bo tree.   Muhamad went to a cave.  From those retreats came stories and words.  Wise words that have lasted ages and profoundly informed how our civilization endures.  Mindfulness, especially on a retreat, is ancient practice.  It’s no small surprise then, that our country’s major publications consider this important “news.”  With the stresses of our current world, people are understanding the value of what we have lost and what nature does intuitively.   Mindfully.  Deliberately.  Creating ourselves over and over again.  And that, indeed, is miraculous.


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Following Up: Techniques for Combating the Inner Critic

I had so many responses about the last HAVEN Newsletter which mused on The Inner Critic with the wonderful therapist and writer Stephanie Baffone, that I asked her to write a follow up blog post. People wanted specifics. And while I have worked hard to become aware of my own inner critic, name her, send her packing or in some cases, love her as the scared child that she is…I’m not a therapist. I remind myself constantly that I created her. So I can teach her to be nice. I like nice people in the real world. Why must I pollute my interior world then? I don’t have to. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

In the following post, Stephanie gives some concrete methods which I hope help. yrs. Laura

From the therapist, Stephanie Baffone
My guest column last week about our inner critics struck such a chord that Laura suggested I follow up to provide some additional hints about how to manage these challenging parts of our personalities.

Laura makes a valid point when she says she is “teaching her [inner critic] heart language.”

In my work as a therapist, I find the most common denominator in those that seek therapy is the longing people have to feel heard. Our inner critics are no exception.

Take a message and other techniques
One exercise I suggest to my clients is to keep a notebook, pad of paper or even smart phone handy. Each time that cranky voice starts yammering, take a message. Remember those pink message pads? Tell your inner critic their input has been noted. As a counterpoint, jot down something that makes you beam with pride. Up against even a modicum of success, the most recalcitrant critical voice slinks away in shame.

Another exercise I used personally and that is now a part of my therapeutic repertoire, comes out of Gestalt Therapy.

Eleven years ago, I was nearing the end of my graduate work and the time came to take the comprehensive exams. In order to graduate, I had to pass, and that spring, my “Debbie Downer,” considered this demanding period open season on doubt. Whenever I cracked open my books to study, she sauntered into the room and pulled up a chair.

One evening while reviewing material with a classmate and friend, it became apparent that any further attempts to study productively would be thwarted by Debbie if I didn’t assuage her.

My girlfriend guided me through the process of describing in detail what Debbie looked like, sounded like and even smelled like. We explored ways to silence her for the coming weeks, so I could study without her intrusive and destructive influences.
On closer examination, it was apparent Debbie and I could not co-exist. I needed to exorcise her. I brought her to life on paper then grabbed her by the scruff of her neck, and tossed her into a brown paper bag that my girlfriend dragged home.
The ritual of physically ridding myself of my inner critic was constructive. I breezed through my studies and aced the comprehensive exams.

Joining others in doubt.
Every now and again, when Debbie lurks in the corners of my psyche, I sit her down and say, “Debbie, do you want to go back to that paper bag?”

When she gets mouthy and responds, “I don’t care,” I use a practice I adopted from Mary Piper, therapist and author of the breakout book “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.” In her memoir, “Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World,” Mary writes about her practice of offering up a prayer for all those who might be feeling the same self-doubt or anxiety she is rather than engage in emotional self-mutilation:

“Prayer is vastly superior to worry. With worry, we are helpless, with prayer, we are interceding. When I am troubled I will say a prayer that asks for relief for myself and for all those who suffer as I do. ‘I pray for all other people who feel anxious and edgy at this moment’….May they be happy and free of suffering.’”

Regardless of which techniques you find helpful in combating your inner critic, the best approach is to be proactive. Be prepared. Put a plan in place. In the meantime, I’m offering a one-way, no-cost exclusive group rate for cantankerous inner critics to a desolate island with no vegetation. Takers?


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HAVEN Newsletter– November

The November HAVEN Newsletter went out today to email inboxes around the world. It’s so exciting how the internet has us connecting and sharing in the field of heart language. For those of you who would like to sign up to get HAVEN delivered to your email, click here. Sign up is in the left column.

Next month’s theme will be: Pilgrimage.

I’d like to share the heart of this month’s HAVEN with you here. Please share your stories in the comments section. That’s what it’s all about. My guest, the wise writer and therapist, Stephanie Baffone will be there to respond. The subject: HEAD NOISE. The stories we tell ourselves and how we learn which ones to believe…

(More about HAVEN)

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The Ultimate Thumbs Up.

Thumbs Up by Laura Munson

The other day I was driving my kids to music lessons after school. My son was wondering if his guitar was in the car and I told him “It’s in the back,” pointing over my shoulder with my thumb. We were laughing about something at the time, so I was smiling as I did it. At that moment, something caught my eye and I looked to my right to see an elderly man, standing with a rake over a colossal leaf pile, giving me the thumbs up and mouthing, “Thank you” with a hearty grin in his lips and apple cheeks. My kids saw the whole thing too and as we put the pieces together we simultaneously burst out into laughter. What was a mother’s directions to her son became a compliment to an old man raking leaves. It was one of life’s rare moments of total gift. A misunderstanding just might have made someone’s day. The intention was absolutely impure. Misguided. Misunderstood. And still some good was done in the world at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in a small Montana town in Fall.

And my kids and I started thinking, What if we went around just giving the thumbs up to random strangers all day? How would that make the world a better place? Would we have the guts? Could we climb so fully into the word “Unabashed?” We all decided we’d be too shy. It was too invasive. Who are we to deem someone else’s moment thumb’s up-worthy? What do we know? our inner voices hollered, preaching fear like our own personal televangalists, scoffing at us, bullying us, critiquing our every move.

It was my ten year old son who made a case for the thumbs up. “If it were me, I’d love it if someone gave me a random thumbs up.” Leave it to the very young to see past fear and to not yet be under the grips of inner destructive dialogue.

I was so accustomed to my inner verbal abuse that in order to face her, I had to name her. I call her My Evil Twin Sheila; she made her public debut in my book, THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS. We all have one and it helps to name it. For a while I thought I needed to make her die a violent death and cast her out to sea in a nailed down coffin. Lately I’ve learned that since I created her, and she’s highly immortal, it might be more productive to not be at war with her. To let her have her moment of chatter, but to smile at her, so afraid and so reactive, a scared little girl who thinks you have to fight to win. And in-so-doing, more and more, I love her into submission.

So I’ve been trying it, the public thumbs up. Why not? There’s no want of word exchange or even reaction. It’s just a simple gesture. Good job. Way to go. Excellent. It’s not just a social experiment on how we give and receive random acts of kindness, it’s about publicly declaring that which is right with the world. You’re taking a bike ride on a Sunday afternoon with your three year old? Thumbs up. You’re walking with your groceries instead of driving. Thumbs up. You’re sitting on a bench talking to a friend. Thumbs UP, man! You’re mowing the lawn in the rain with a smile on your face. You’re my freaking hero!

And it doesn’t have to stop there. We can give ourselves a thumbs up. We just finished folding three loads of laundry? We made homemade chicken stock? We took the time to do a puzzle with our kid? We invited the new guy at work out for lunch? Thumbs up.

Please enjoy the following lovely essay by the wonderful therapist, writer, and wise woman, Stephanie Baffone, who teaches us that we can practice giving ourselves a surprise thumbs up even when our internal dialogue wants to tell us that we’re fools. Let’s be fools, then, unabashed.

Take it, Stephanie:

I am the Ultimate by Stephanie Baffone

When I was in eighth grade, about fourteen years old, I fell in love. Not with some young, strapping, adolescent fresh-faced boy with peach fuzz perched over his top lip.
Not even with a human.
I fell hard and fast for a word. When said out loud, the sound of it made me pass out like a fainting goat. It had an air of pretense, which must have been some sort of psychological projection on my part because I was hardly a pretentious girl. Pretense made me feel inferior but this word, strung together with seven perfect letters relegated me to the likes of a Marcia Brady type-the Marcia who pined away for Davy Jones from the Monkees.
The word was ultimate and when I prefaced it with the, I decided we should declare our love publicly.
“I am The Ultimate,” became the signature phrase I used to announce my triumphant arrival into a room. Arms open wide, forming a big Y over my head, I made a grand entrance one afternoon afterschool when I greeted my Mom in the kitchen.
My Mom came from hearty Irish stock and as my Dad says was, “a real lady.” My father embraced his self-appointed role as God’s laughter lieutenant and gravitates to the spotlight. My Mom, in contrast, preferred to play the part of a spectator. She raised the five of us to embrace humility and while she found us entertaining she went to great lengths to be sure we knew our place.
She canned applesauce every fall from the apples she and my aunt picked at our local orchard and taught us about the birds and the bees without one euphemism. On winter Sunday afternoons, she curled up in the crushed orange velvet recliner in her bedroom and soaked in the sunny spot by the sliding glass door. After reciting her daily rosary, she wandered off into the worlds that lived inside the stack of books resting on her glass-top table.
That fall afternoon, she must have had enough of my shenanigans and found my love affair with the word ultimate no longer tolerable or appropriate.
Still dressed in my Catholic school uniform, I hiked up my skirt and with my white blouse inching up over my belly I hopped up on the countertop and reached for a glass.
“I am The Ultimate,” I repeated; poking around in the cabinet propped up on the laminate, marble countertop.
Just as I found my favorite glass, my Mom tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Steffi, stop saying that.” She lent me her hand to get down. “It’s not very becoming.”
My identical twin sister, sat at the kitchen table, munching on a snack and laughed.
“Mooom! Seriously?!” I slid down from the counter. “I don’t actually think I am the ultimate. I just think that word is funny. It cracks me up.”
“Steffi, I know that but it’s just not funny and it’s certainly not becoming,” she walked over to the stove.
An early exchange like this between a mother and a daughter is a therapist’s playground. Clients internalize experiences with their parental figures that go on to form introjections, defined as “the internalization of the parent figures and their values; leading to the formation of the superego.”
The superego is the place inside us where the critical, punitive voice of our psyches resides. This part of our psyche buddies up with criticism like macaroni does with cheese. Think Laura’s critical voice “Shelia,” as she named and outed in her book.
That short exchange with my Mom, formed a personal introject for me that’s become a real stage five clinger.
I loved my Mom. I knew she believed in me and as daughters go, I think she actually thought I was the ultimate. I harbor no ill feelings toward her for saddling me with this introject. Her lesson on humility that day was taught with a spirit of love and compassion. Bravado, even if only in jest, from her perspective, for her children-had no comedic value.
My mother’s intent aside, what I’ve noticed is that I have a tendency to qualify myself, especially when people encourage me to believe in myself. My knee-jerk reaction is to make a mad dash to my emotional closet and don that pesky reminder that I am NOT the ultimate.
In sharing this story with others over the years what I’ve discovered is how important it is for me (and them too) to let go of the tired, worn-out introjects whose main jobs are to self-sabotage. I’m learning to replace those tired introjects with mantras more psychologically productive.
Recently, I stumbled across a useful exercise for doing just that. “Defeating Your Inner Critic,” was originally posted at QueryTracker.net as help to writers struggling to conquer and quiet their critical voice. This exercise is very effective and is not only useful for quieting the writer’s critical voice but for quieting our critical voice across the board, regardless of what in particular it is yapping about. I use it personally and also professionally in my psychology practice.
If you too are struggling with an old belief that plagues you with self-doubt and tempers belief in yourself, try these exercises. You might just discover that you indeed, are the ultimate.

Stephanie Baffone, LPCMH, NCC is a licensed, board certified mental health therapist and writer in private practice with a specialty in grief and loss, couples counseling and issues related to infertility. Prior to going back into private practice, Stephanie worked as the coordinator of the children’s grief and loss program at the largest hospice in the state of Delaware where she had the distinct privilege of supporting and guiding children whose loved ones were dying from terminal illnesses.
Stephanie is a consultant to other agencies developing programs on grief and loss and is thrilled to be an expert columnist at Savvyauntie.com on the very same issues.
In addition to wife of husband who loves her like you see in the movies she is “Mom” to two dogs and two goats and “Aunt Steph,” (by relation) to thirty-nine nieces and nephews. She is working on a memoir, Doris, Sophia and Me: A Memoir About A Mother Who Didn’t Live Long Enough and A Daughter Who Was Never Born.
Stephanie is a proud graduate of Villanova University, a member of The American Counseling Association, National Board of Certified Counselors, RESOLVE, The American Fertility Association and the American Academy of Bereavement. Stephanie has been featured and used as a trusted source in print, radio and television media including, The Huffington Post, Counseling Today, First for Women Magazine, Blog Talk Radio, CN8 and WHYY.
The consummate Italian hostess, she loves to host visitors at her blog StephanieBaffone.com. (Amelie—can you hyperlink this?) To contact her, email her at Stephanie@StephanieBaffone.com.


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Okay—I’m back.  Suitcase still sitting in the corner of my bedroom.  Mouse droppings all over my office.  River birches flaxen.  Dark cool mornings.  Silence at night save for coyotes and the occasional logging truck down-shifting out on the road.  Ahhhh…home sweet home.


My New York, Hartford, and Chicago area events were all a success, and by that I mean that I felt the love.  From high school students at my alma mater, to the women who helped raise me, now in their 70s, to friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years, to the many supportive fans who came out and said hi…it was quite frankly, a love fest.  And love fests are a good thing.

But they don’t necessarily cure claustrophobia.  As many of you know, I took a stand for myself recently in this regard, knowing that I was going to spend the next little while in elevators and airplanes and subways and buses.  Things with doors that close and don’t provide easy answers to opening them.  It was getting in my way and I wrote about it here on my blog.  In short, I was limiting myself.  I was spending hundreds of extra dollars to not have to take small planes or stay in hotels that required an elevator.   And when I couldn’t find one, I was walking up and down 15 flights of stairs in business attire, trying not to trip over my boots on lonely, dirty stairwells–and arriving to every meeting in a full sweat.  I was carrying around anti-anxiety meds just in case.  It was exhausting.


I was embarrassed and fed up and I called on the help of my new friend the wonderful therapist La Belette Rouge to share her wisdom.  She told me about EMDR, and after hearing her success story, I promptly scheduled four appointments with a local practitioner.  I wasn’t sure if it was working at the time.  Though I recalled intense early childhood memories including crying in my crib and what it was like to actually be stuck in the elevator in the John Hancock building at age five.  I didn’t do much research before I signed up for the sessions, mostly because I didn’t want to walk in a doubter.  I just wanted to get “better.”  And I’m happy to report…that I think I did.

Here’s what happened for me:  in every re-processing of my traumatic memories with the bi-tonal sounds in my ears and the vibrating paddles in my hands, I was able to see that nothing contains you.  You contain you.  Life is no better on the outside of where you are.  And short of a lifetime in prison, you can usually get out, eventually, from where you are.  And when you can’t, I’d hope for the grace to call upon the container that is me, and find solace there.

What I really got to see and feel is the amount of exhaustion that comes with drama, not unlike the driving forces of my book.  The payoff to engaging in the drama is thin compared to the freedom of non-reaction.  It’s less spiritual (though I’d like it to be moreso) than it simply is self-preservation.  It’s easier to sit on an airplane and not be staring at the door wondering when they’re going to close it, thinking about how hard it would be to get them to open it again and let you out.  It’s easier to stand in the elevator and think about what the woman next to you is wearing, or how your next appointment is going to go, or what you want for lunch, than invent and indulge a 70s horror film that has you in a blackout, stuck with a birthing woman and an axe murderer.  It just is.  I spent $500.00 to figure this out.  Well worth it.  I recommend it highly.


But here’s something else I learned.  I’m not particularly nice to myself.  In watching those mental movies they ask you to re-live in EMDR as you re-program your mind, I wasn’t often that able to be my own gentle mother.  I told myself at every turn to buck up.  Suck it up.  That there are far worse problems.  And guess what:  it doesn’t do a damn thing but make matters worse.

Mostly I was okay on this trip. I got into elevators and small planes and subways without incident, and when I started to engage those old patterns of thinking, I was gentle with myself, using the methods they teach you in EMDR. But more than being a spokesperson for those methods…my larger message is to be gentle with yourself.  If you need to take the stairs up nine floors, oh well.  It’ll be good exercise.  If you need to talk the person’s ear off next to you in the airplane, so be it.  They’ll survive.  Go gentle into that dark night.  And call it good.


Filed under City Hits, My Posts

Phobia (Faux-bia?)

HAVEN Newsletter
September, 2010
Theme: Phobia
Guest: The fabulous therapist, dream analyzer, writer, blogger, and much more: La Belette Rouge

It is the Mission of HAVEN newsletter to provide a safe place to share. Please feel free to share your experiences with phobias and, if relevant, how you moved through them. Those who do will be eligible to win a free, signed copy of THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS. This month we will forgo a live chat and focus on giving you a platform from which to express yourself and some room to breathe. I hope we all learn something. Yrs. Laura

Me and the Otis Company. By Laura Munson
I like to think of myself as a level-headed person. Calm in crisis. Rational in an argument. I can multi-task with fluidity and be proud of the results. I generally go into group problem-solving situations with instant leadership tendencies. I’m happy to sit in the Exit seat. The driver’s seat. Take the lead on the trail on foot or horse. So you might think this incongruent: I can’t stand elevators.

Sure, I spent the good part of an afternoon when I was five in an elevator in the John Hancock Building in Chicago, trying to find my way back to the apartment my family was occupying for the weekend. But it wasn’t like I was stuck, necessarily. I just couldn’t reach the right button. My older brother and sister and I had been to the pool, and on our way back, they exited the elevator, and before I knew it, the doors closed and I was being sucked back down a thin shaft in one of the tallest buildings in the world. I remember thinking, “Uh-oh. This is bad.” So I kept jumping up, and hitting the buttons I could hit, (including STOP ELEVATOR) waiting as the elevator doors opened and shut, opened and shut, opened and shut. I went back up as far as I could reach in fits and starts. And back down again, floor by floor for every failed jump and push. Finally, a teenaged girl entered at one of the stops, asked me if I needed help, I told her “yes, I do,” gave her the floor number, and after peeking under door after door, I finally recognized the emerald green rug, the glass and chrome table, an orange quilted chintz floral sofa, and pacing espadrilles and Gucci loafers. We knocked. My father opened the door, and there were my siblings, sitting on that chintz sofa, slumped over in the we’re in trouble pose. My mother stood, facing them, her face red. She looked up and said, “There you are,” and hugged me, thanking the girl. I remember feeling really badly that my siblings had gotten into trouble. I remember feeling like it was my fault that I hadn’t followed them faster out that elevator door. I remember crying and saying I was sorry.

Elevators never really bothered me though after that. They weren’t necessarily happy places, but I was oblivious to them. They took you places; great places. City places. They were simply transportation.
And then college hit. There was a small elevator in the English department that brought you, sardined with self-important future writer types, (wink) up the ten floors. I got in, one minute perfectly happy to be on my way to learning about Proust, and suddenly went cold, wet, pale and other more high-brow adjectives that one co-ed chose to point out. And I shouted, “Don’t let the doors close,” and pushed past them all, back into the foyer. Either I was allergic to English majors, or I was having a latent reaction to something from my past, because very suddenly, I was claustrophobic. And not just in elevators.

I’d never liked tight places. Had momentary distress on rollercoasters when those metal bars came over your head and locked you in to place. Really didn’t enjoy standing in back-to-back humanity on the spiral staircase in the Statue of Liberty with no way up and no way down unless I screamed “Emergency!” which as a pre-teen, I wasn’t about to do. Or chair lifts which stopped, high above any reasonable jumping-off place, and just swung there, who knew, indefinitely. I’d suffer through situations like that, laugh it off and say, “I was a breech baby. I have an innate sense that I am stuck and that I need to get out. ” But I’d never had it like it hit me that day in college. I must have tried three times to get into that elevator. But even when it opened up empty, I couldn’t get myself into that evil steel chamber. So for four years of college, I walked the ten floors. Said I liked the exercise.

When I spent a year in Italy, it didn’t help that my family lived on the 8th floor. But I wasn’t about to put myself into that cage. The stone steps that climbed around it were just fine by me. And when I delivered flowers from a delivery truck in Boston after college, I was happy to have the doorman call up to the recipient, and tell her that if she wanted her flowers, she’d have to come down and get them herself. I did everything I could to avoid taking crowded buses and subways. I started to become keenly aware of where Exit signs were and ensure that I had a bottle of water with me, because if I was trapped, Lord knows I’d need water. And maybe something minty, like Halls, or Altoids, and maybe some herbal calming pills, and later, maybe some hardcore pharmaceutical tranquilizer like: Lorazepam. Just in case. Ask me if I have a bottle of Lorazepam in my purse. Ask me how many I’ve taken. The answer might not impress you. Think: placebo.

I was ashamed. I’m still ashamed. And I ask myself: just in case of what? It’s not that I’m scared of small places. It’s that I’m scared of myself in small places. I’m scared of the story that I tell myself when I’m in them: that I can’t get out, and I need to get out because if I don’t there’s no fresh air, and I’m going to get hot, and it’ll be hard to breathe, and I’m going to feel faint, and my heart’s going to race, and I’m going to…to…what…die? No. I’m not going to die. So what’s the big deal? What is my problem? For shame.

One night in the early 90s, I was travelling from Chicago to Boston in a freak March snow storm that hit hard. There were 64 airplanes that sat on a runway two miles out from the gates at O’Hare. I was in one of those planes. Not a particularly large plane. They ran out of food and water. I, of course, had water, and truth told, I hoarded it. It was a blizzard and one of the planes, in turning back, had spun out and blocked the runway for the rest of us. We waited there for 12 hours. Over and over I thought, I’ll say I’m having a medical emergency, and they’ll have to let me off. But I instead talked to the people around me, met a charming girl from India who wrote down a bunch of recipes in my journal that I still have. Got to know an older businessman with kids my age who told me great stories about a trip they took to the Galapagos. Comforted an academic who was to be, that night, honored at an awards ceremony at Harvard. This was before cell phones and other glowing screens. People either slept, or read, or talked. When I walked out of that airplane, I felt like I had been cured of ever being claustrophobic again.

And then I moved to Montana. And after 17 years of living in Big Sky country, so open and free to roam in endless terrain, I’ve got it worse than ever. I’ve been to therapy for it. I know how to wrap my mind around it: I’m safe. I’m contained in my body. Nothing can imprison me if I don’t let it. We even took a long look at my breech birth. I know all the mental-ese, and devoutly try the spiritual-ese…and still, I duke it out internally when I’m in the small planes that fly in and out of our valley, and when I am faced with an elevator, I stand there and try, and try again, people looking at me strangely as the doors open and close, open and close…and then I turn around and ask for the stairs. I don’t care how many flights I have to walk up. Sometimes they don’t let me take the stairs. And I have no choice. So I push that button—I am the right height now for all the buttons—wait for the doors to pull open, take a deep breath, and cast myself out to the non-infinite non-sea of that little sturdy box that unfairly I have called fickle instead of faithful, carting people up and down all day long, year after year, with groceries, and heavy equipment, and briefcases full of important deal making moxie. I suspect that one day, I will be thankful for the ride. Old bones, and old lungs and old heart. And then I will know better than to think that there is such a thing as being stuck, or that there really ever is a good way out. Or that there really ever is a place where you are not free.

But for now, no. I’m not going up, but thank you for asking. I’m taking the stairs. And no, I’m not proud of it. Maybe freedom starts in giving yourself a break for who you are and what scares you. Especially when what scares you is not outside you. It’s just plain old you. That’s good news, right? It means there’s room for growth. I am dedicated to that growth.

To that end, let me introduce the wonderful therapist, dream analyzer, writer, blogger, and new friend, who online goes by Belette Rouge for purposes of privacy and whimsy.

A tale of two phobias
by La Belette Rouge
The story goes that I was three years old and happily playing out in the garden while my mother was in the house; she came out in the garden and discovered that I was playing with a snake. Not a garter snake, some overgrown earthworm, but a SNAKE. In my mother’s version of this tale, it was the size of an anaconda. My mother, having a long-standing terror of snakes, reacted in a completely calm and measured manner: she called the fire department, the police department and the Marines. Okay, maybe not the Marines, but there was a whole lot of hullaballoo, and I remember being lectured repeatedly that I must never play with snakes ever again.
It was not an anaconda or even a rattlesnake that my mother had reported to the 911 Operator. It was a Kingsnake. The firemen explained to my mother that this was a very good snake that would keep the bad snakes away. My mother didn’t care. She remained terrified of it and wanted it out of her garden, “NOW!” That day was the birth of my snake phobia.
After that snake incident, there were no other childhood run-ins with legless reptiles; that day was enough to turn my non-poisonous playmate into an enemy. At first I was just afraid of them, but as I got older I grew increasingly terrified. I couldn’t go into a pet store unless someone verified they weren’t selling any snakes. Before seeing a film I had to ask the theater if the movie was snake-free. When I moved to Las Vegas with my husband, I called the Chamber of Commerce to ask them how many people died of snake bites a year in the city. The woman who answered the phone had the nerve to laugh at my question and warned me that the casinos were a much bigger threat to its residents and visitors than its snakes.
I never considered getting treatment for my snake phobia as I was convinced that there is some wisdom in being afraid of creatures that could kill you. That said, since I had only had one rather harmless run-in with a snake, I did often wonder what my snake fear was really about.
I began my first Jungian analysis when I lived in the city where what happens there stays there. I hadn’t planned to tell my Jungian analyst about my snake fears, but she saw that they had been starring in my nightmares. When my analyst asked my associations to snakes, I replied, “If I see a snake I will die. Just its mere presence will kill me. It doesn’t even have to bite me. I will just die.” Even as I said it, I knew it sounded irrational and yet felt true. Happily, my analyst didn’t argue the point. “Tell me more about snakes,” she invited. “Snakes are creatures without legs. They are unpredictable. That’s what I don’t like about them. You never know which way they are going. That terrifies me.” My analyst surmised, “Snakes are symbolic of a fear that you inherited from your mother. They are symbols of your greatest fears. They are not actually your greatest fears—they are hers. And in your encounter with a snake you didn’t die. What died is your sense of the world being a safe place.”
In my Jungian work we never worked directly on my fears of snakes. My analyst never worked with my fear literally but always metaphorically and symbolically; working this way was much more appealing than attempting to get over my literal snake terror.
Just three months after I began my Jungian analysis, I went into a Vegas pet shop with snakes in a large aquarium right at the entry of the store. I found myself uncharacteristically fascinated by them. I didn’t walk up close to their glass container, but I stood at the door and stare at them. This was HUGE. Only a few months ago I would have darted for the car, filled with terror that somehow one of them had escaped and found its way into my Volvo sedan. Yet there I stood, watching them–I was amazed to hear myself thinking that I found them strangely beautiful.
Six months after that, my husband and I were hiking in Big Sur, and I meandered off from the main path and came upon four little snakes curled up in a nest. I calmly pointed them out to my husband, who was in disbelief. He knew of my terror firsthand, as on our first hike we had encountered a baby Kingsnake (and I had scaled him like a tree). It was shocking–I had seen snakes and wasn’t climbing up my husband or fleeing the scene.
The next night I had a dream (we Jungians are big on dreams). I was in my kitchen and there were lots of little snakes. Dozens of them. I was picking them up with my hands and putting them in small Ziploc bags. I didn’t need my analyst to tell me what the dream meant. My fears were now smaller. They could be handled. And they were contained.
That said, I still have no interest in visiting a reptile house at the zoo. And if I saw a large Kingsnake in my garden, I can’t promise you that I wouldn’t overreact. But I do feel sure that my snake phobia is more manageable, and that is good enough for me.
After a particularly horrible experience on the 405 freeway many years ago, I developed a fierce case of freeway phobia. This is not a good affliction when living in L.A., a place where every road leads to a freeway. After a few weeks of trying to take surface streets from the South Bay to Venice (a truly epic ordeal that added an extra hour to my already hour-long drive), I decided to see an EMDR therapist to help me get over my extreme fear of the 405. My reason for choosing to work with an EMDR therapist on this issue was that it didn’t feel like my freeway phobia was symbolic, but was literal. Unlike my snake fears, I was highly motivated to get over this fear, as I was feeling trapped, dependent and significantly inconvenienced by my inability to drive on a freeway.
I made an appointment with a well-regarded EMDR therapist who practiced two freeways away from me. Two times a week for a month, my husband drove me to her office. I would sit across from her and recall the initial experience that had begun the phobia. My therapist would ask me to rate my anxiety as I recalled the memory on a scale of one to ten, “one” being not anxious at all and “ten” being the most anxious I ever felt. “Ten,” I answered. Then she would ask me to close my eyes and stay with the memory and the feelings, as she alternately tapped my hands or had me listen to bilateral auditory tones on a headphone. After about 30 seconds, she would ask again, “How would you rate the anxiety now?” After the first set it would go down to about an eight. She would then ask me to share briefly anything that came up during that set, and would begin another set of tapping or bilateral tones as I focused on any thoughts, feelings, images, or memories that had been triggered.
In all honesty, at the time I was sure I was wasting my money, and that I would NEVER-EVER-EVER be able to drive again on a freeway. I imagined having to hire a driver and my life as a 30-something version of Driving Ms. Daisy. I kept going to the EMDR sessions even though I was full of doubt. Yet at each session my “Subjective Units of Distress” began to get lower and lower. I had started at “ten, being the most severe anxiety I had ever known” and was sure that I would die if I ever drove on the freeway again. But by the fourth week I was down to one. I was no longer terrified of driving. The memory of the initial trauma still existed in me; only now, when I thought of it, it felt like the emotional volume had been turned way down and I could no longer feel or hear all the negative cognitions that had once accompanied it.
When I got down to “one” as a subjective unit of distress, I decided to make a chart called “Freeway Successes.” Every time I went on the freeway, even if it was only getting on at one entrance and off the next, I would get a sticker for my accomplishment. I mostly used the kind of gold, red and green stars that teachers use to acknowledge work well done. And when I took a long trip, like L.A. to Santa Barbara, I would get an extra special sticker, a horse or a rainbow or the stickers they give to kids at Trader Joe’s for waiting patiently as their parents’ two-buck chuck, cheeses and gourmet goodies are bagged. With each sticker I would imagine the day when the chart would be full and I would have it professionally framed to hang on the wall. Now when I look at that chart, all these years later, I am reminded of how I was sure that I would never drive again and how I can now drive anywhere, anytime on any freeway. I am so grateful for this visual reminder that I can get over the most immobilizing fears–that fears can lie and how I can overcome them, star by star, sticker by sticker.

Phobia resources:
The Anxiety and Phobia Handbook
Therapy Directory

Belette is a writer and a lisenced Marriage and Family
Therapist/psychotherapist. She holds a Masters Degree from Pacifica
Graduate Institute in Counseling Psychology. She trained extensively
at the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles. She is presently enrolled
in the Adult Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program. Belette
has lectured on psychology at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest,
Illinois and The Jung Center of Evanston. She is presently in private
practice in Los Angeles, California, and works as a
Clinic Therapist at the Jung Center in Evanston.

Belette studied creative writing at UCLA and has published essays and
short stories. Her poetry was selected for an inclusion in a anthology
tribute to Charles Bukowski. She worked as an entertainment editor and
had a weekly column. Belette has maintained the successful and award
winning blog, La Belette Rouge, since 2007. Her blog was named one of
the top ten blogs for Francophiles and in the top 20 of psychology and
memoir blogs. Her writing will be featured in Jamie Cat Callan’s
forthcoming book “Bonjour, Happiness” and the soon to be released
“Forgotten Patient”.

Belette offers Dream Coaching by phone, Skype or email.


La Belette Rouge


Blogging since 2007


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