Your Call to Embark on Your Hero’s Journey

Almost every great story follows the format of the monomyth, or Joseph Campbell’s description of the Hero’s Journey.   But it’s not just a great story in a book or movie. The Hero’s Journey has to do with our daily, even ordinary lives as well.

My masters capstone was on callings. During my research, I have come to believe that a calling is really just our sense to pursue our own Hero’s Journey. That Journey is comprised of distinct phases, most of which are not easy. Pursuit of the Hero’s Journey requires that we face our inner or outer demons, grow and change.  The story of Luke Skywalker is perhaps the classic example of a Hero’s Journey, and compelling and universal for that reason.

However, given the epic nature of the Skywalker tale, the images of the Hero’s Journey are always in a circle, as so astutely pointed out by The Sage Abyss. Does that mean Luke has to repeat the cycle again and again? Doesn’t he just go home and retire? Get book deals and interviews and live the good life?

Apparently not.

I suppose each Hero’s Journey cycle isn’t necessarily of the epic scale of Skywalker. But look at the Harry Potter tales. Harry apparently had at least 7 Hero’s Journey cycles while at Hogwarts, each rising to their own epic proportions.

Thankfully, each of us are not likely battling the likes of Darth Vader or Voldemort, though our own challenges may feel that way on certain days. As I look back on my life and the times that I felt called to pursue a scary path, I realize that each one represents a Hero’s Journey cycle. The turning points in my life include deciding to value myself when others were trying to control or devalue me, moving away to graduate school 1500 miles away, choosing an academic career, choosing to stay in academia each year when I felt on the brink of failure, choosing to give up tenure and research for a healthier life, choosing to separate from my husband of 20 years, going back to school to focus on positive psychology, and choosing to distance myself from those who were trying to subjugate, devalue and control me (note the cycle there too).  Each challenge resulted in greater growth and wisdom   That’s 9 or so cycles, and I’m only 52.

Buddhism tells us not to get attached to things, situations or circumstances because all things are impermanent. The Hero’s Journey tells us that each phase of the cycle is temporary (as long as we don’t get stuck indefinitely) and that upon completion of the cycle, the cycle will later return in another form.   I suppose we can resist our own Hero’s Journey cycle and insist on staying stuck in one place. After all, the devil you know…

Choosing to stay stuck in one place may feel safe in the moment, but it’s much like financial investing. I’m worse than an amateur when it comes to money but even I know that doing nothing with your money (savings account or mattress methods) means that I’m missing out on financial opportunities. The stock market historically yields 8% interest, so as long as you can stomach the swings, over time you’ll do much better than your mattress.

Same with your life.

Monomyth says your life will cycle, but over time, you’ll grow and reap the rewards of your investment. It’s scary. You have to be brave and ride out the downturns but the reward will be yours in the end.

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Hero’s Journey cycle

Breaking the Ego

Our 4-month old wild-child puppy Kennedy has finally gone into obedience training. Be calm. Walk on a lead. Sit. Lay down. She struggled and fought against the inevitable, thinking she could best the leash, the GentleLead, her daddy and an expert trainer combined. She cried. She fought. She felt sorry for herself.

She eventually gave in.

The trainer said, “You see, we have to break her ego.”

Wow.

Now that’s profound.

What is the ego? The ego has several meanings, including our degree of self-confidence or, in Freudian terms, our sense of personal identity. Part of the personal identity comes from the interplay between the conscious and unconscious, according to Freud. Our unconscious being what it is, often we forget that we are driven by needs, beliefs and assumptions that we are not aware of.

Modern psychology is revealing that that unconscious is even more at play than we suspected. Jonathan Haidt, author of the Righteous Mind, states that the unconscious drives all of our behavior while the conscious unwittingly then back-justifies the decisions made by the unconscious.   It is for this reason that some question whether we really have free will or are we simply slaves to our unconscious (another WOW).

One area that we seem to struggle as a species is acceptance.   I am not in financial ruin. My health is fine. My husband still loves me. My best friend treats me respectfully.   My weight gain is temporary. My alcohol use is under my control.  I am getting enough rest.

However, when we’re in denial of reality, reality fights back. I get another bill, now with interest and penalties. I get a sinus infection. I argue with my husband over the new bill and sinus infection. My BFF makes another unreasonable demand then gets mad at me. The zipper on my very expensive designer dress broke.

You get the picture. Sometimes life has to break our egos before we accept what is.  Only after we accept it do we have a fighting chance to change it.

Our older schnoodle Romeo knows his limits and opportunities. He knows his place, his limits, what he can do and should do, and as a result he has a very good life. He’s peaceful and happy. He’s well-cared for.  He gets to sleep in the big bed. He’s a successful dog. It is partly a matter of reward, but it is also just as much about not fighting against the inevitable and knowing how to work with what is.

Our lives are the same way. I don’t know if there’s a Great Master in the Heavens who is trying to put a GentleLead on all of us, but I do know that when I fight reality, I spend a lot of time in the proverbial crate. Showing gratitude for the good in my life instead of constantly focusing on what I cannot change gives me access to life’s treats and privileges. I become a successful human.  I work for what I want, need, and believe in based on what’s real, not how I think life should be or how others should be.

Kennedy is doing much better now. She’s not chewing up our electronics or making flying leaps off of strangers and loved ones. She has a wider area she can roam in the house and more time to do what she does best: loving and delighting us all, especially Romeo.

She’s going to be just fine.

This is Silver Lining’s 450th blog.  Thank you for sharing your journey with me!  

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Inner/Outer Congruence

As humans, it is unavoidable and in our nature to be hypocrites (see the Hypocrisy of Hypocrisy). Therefore, one of our biggest challenges in our journeys to become our better selves is aligning our inner intentions and goals with our behaviors. Whether we strive to be a good leader, kind, compassionate, fair, strategic, loving or generous, sometimes we are our own worst enemy towards consistently being that person both inside and out.

When life is good and stress is low, that consistency feels relatively straight-forward and achievable. However, add in a dose of fear or uncertainty, and ignite it with a dollop of lack of self-awareness, and it’s pretty easy to see how we may start acting at odds with our core values and beliefs.   Add a touch of arrogance, and now we’re defending the actions that we criticize in others.

Wow.

You know it’s not pretty. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably have to admit that we’ve all been there, done that, in some manner. We don’t do it intentionally. It’s just that when we get into that flight-or-fight mentality, even if we’re unaware of it, we tend to get a little stupid. I, personally, get really stupid and even self-destructive. You know that feeling that you’re going to win this at all costs, even though part of you knows you’re barreling down that path to self-destruction? Yeah, that’s when it’s really bad.

Hindsight is 20/20 because once our fear and stress hormones subside, we get wise enough to view the damage that we’ve created.   It’s like a fear hangover, where you’re wondering, “What did I do?”

I’d be lying if I told you that I’m immune to this now. Like so many other things in my life, this is an ongoing journey for me and all I can say is that I’m better than I used to be. My self-awareness and ability to identify and manage my fears are much better, and my blind spots are fewer.   My arrogance? I’ll leave that conclusion in with my other blind spots.

I think what has been most helpful to me has been an increased openness. Though I’m still fairly opinionated, I’m less certain of the definition of reality, especially when it comes to human relationships.   I’m better at stretching the period of time that I’m looking for input before forming a conclusion. I’m better at being a little less certain after I’ve formed that conclusion. I’m better at being more curious and reflective about someone else’s perspective and reality. I’m better at observing others’ tone and body language when hearing their words.   I’m waaay better at avoiding judgment of others. After all, I’m doing the same dance with my own hypocrisy: it’s the height of hypocrisy to complain about someone else’s hypocrisy.

It’s hard to be a congruent person. However, the beauty of that struggle is that we can always improve, and that’s what matters.

Eliminating Self-Limiting Beliefs

What self-limiting beliefs do you have that are seriously holding you back? You may have minor ones, like “I don’t look good in orange,” or “I don’t enjoy jazz.” Likely they are not impeding your ability to live your best life unless, in this case, you’re married to a jazz musician.

I am sensing a self-limiting belief that circles around my professional capacity: I can do this, but not that. It’s a sense of doubt/respect for my limits, rather than a sense of incompetence in general. But even that statement sounds like a rationalization. Laaamme.

I tell others, and often myself, to not limit your concept of what you can do and who you can be. We should not place constraints around our potential, because we can exceed even our own wildest expectations. We don’t want to venture into the grandiose necessarily either; perhaps just maintain a sense of openness to what is possible. No more, “I can’t do that,” “I don’t like that,” “That’s not for me.” Instead, try: “Hm,” “Interesting,” or “Maybe.”

Right now, I wish to intentionally shatter my self-limiting beliefs. They’re mostly on the small end now, but my theory is that if I start with small beliefs I can then tackle the larger ones. My most recent success has to do with my belief that I can’t run/don’t enjoy running. I am now running and enjoying it (it’s very early folks; don’t get excited). I love how I can see progress almost each time I run. I can run faster or longer with each workout! Though I do not have any race or marathon goals, I’m also trying to be open to the idea that I may want to do that someday. After all, I used to say I’d never go back to school.

Next I want to tackle the thing that scares me the most, ie singing or doing comedy. I think I will sign up for something this spring. They both scare the pants off me. To balance, I also wish to sign up for a class doing something I’ve always wanted to try: martial arts. I’m taking tai chi now and I’m loving it! I don’t know (another limiting belief) if I can balance all these new endeavors with the other things on my to do list this spring but I’d like to try! I have a feeling that sense of empowerment will bleed into the other areas of my life.  Join me and let’s see what happens together.

Your Gut-Wrenching Truth

I spent much of my life with a pretty superficial self-awareness and self-expression with only occasional incursions to find my deep truth. However, I ignore the ongoing undercurrent of my truth at my own peril.

What do I mean by my truth?

I think of my truth in 3 levels. The first level is in my head and is something like: I want to lose weight so that I can look good and feel good. It’s pretty safe to say the truth in my head to anyone I might meet regardless of their response.

The second level is in my heart and is something like: I want to lose weight so that I will feel attractive. I probably wouldn’t tell a heart truth to a stranger in the checkout line but probably I’d tell my friends even if their response might hurt my feelings.

The third and deepest level is in my gut and is something like: I want to lose weight so that my husband will find me attractive and so he won’t leave me.   This type of gut-wrenching truth I may not admit even to myself because the belief itself is devastating. (Note: I want to differentiate “a personal truth or belief” from a fact, since husbands generally don’t abandon their wives when they gain weight.)

Though our truths seem to fall into the same general categories, we feel our personal truths are more frightening or devastating than someone else’s. For example, these truths may be “I need to be/am not feeling (loved, lovable, respected, heard, relevant, attractive, smart)” or I don’t want to be/am feeling (invisible, irrelevant, abandoned, unsafe, lonely, incompetent).” They act as a dark force inside us when they remain hidden from our consciousness, and we feel completely alone.

Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do

And they settle ‘neath your skin

Kept on the inside and no sunlight

Sometimes a shadow wins….

It’s hard enough to admit these truths to myself; it’s even harder to admit them to someone else, especially if they are sparking these feelings. When we fail to acknowledge or challenge those truths, we become a slave to the dark force. Those feelings tend to fester and intensify as we feed them with the belief that we are somehow irrevocably flawed. In a relationship, the dark force can cause chaos and conflict. Shining a light on those hidden beliefs makes them less powerful.

….Don’t run, stop holding your tongue

Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live

Maybe one of these days you can let the light in

Show me how big your brave is….

Sharing truths with others takes another level of courage, yet takes illumination to the next level. A really devastating belief should perhaps first be shared in the safety of therapy. The therapist can either guide the couple through the conversation or help prepare an individual to have the conversation elsewhere. Most of us must learn the skill of how to communicate our truths, which is really the definition of intimacy: “into me see.” When you discover that you are loved or accepted even with/because of that messy truth, there’s nothing in the world better than that.   When you are willing to see and lovingly acknowledge someone else’s truth, there’s no better gift than that.

….Say what you wanna say

And let the words fall out

Honestly I wanna see you be brave

– Sara Bareilles, Brave

This blog is dedicated to my sweetheart, Chris, who makes me feel Brave.

I’m Too Humble to Tell You How Humble I Am

I’ve lived all my life feeling that I was a very ordinary person.  I never really stood out in academically, I was never that popular or talented, but people always told me that I had something “special”.  “You will change the world someday”, they told me.  But I didn’t believe them at the time.  

I really did not have any intention to change the world.  All I wanted was to have a family and do my job, but people kept asking me to step up and lead.  I never knew my ability to inspire others could be used to inspire others.  And now, here I am, poised to change the world for the benefit of all of you who don’t understand what it is that needs to change….

I’ve written once before about the quality of humility and narcissism as being circular blind spots.   For example, if I think I’m humble, or am telling you about my humility, then I’m not being very humble.   The story above, totally fabricated by yours truly, is an example of how someone can brag about being humble without realizing it.

I guess all I can say is that if you catch yourself bragging about your humility and you wish to be viewed as humble, you might want to rethink this approach.   I suspect that the lack of humility is rarely lost on the listener.

Take it from me, someone with genuine humility.  🙂

Message to Asian Parents

Growing up I was told that Asian kids are just smarter.  This stereotype seemed to be buffeted by all the hyper-accomplished Asian students with the perfect GPAs and mix of extracurriculars (BTW I was kind of just average or above-average or so all around). Indeed, Asians tend to be over-represented in institutes of higher learning and highly technical fields.   However, I’ve never seen any data that shows that Asians are any smarter than people originating from other continents.

Asian students do have a secret weapon though: their parents. It’s maybe not so much the parents per se as the culture. At least speaking for the Chinese American culture, it was simply a given that we’d go to college, and probably graduate school. We’d have a sport, learn Chinese, and play a musical instrument. Being cool wasn’t important, but your GPA was. Indeed, some of my Chinese American childhood friends went on to that Ivy League school and are literally world-famous.

For some of us, that formula and pathway works perfectly well; we’re 100% suited and passionate about a career in a STEM discipline, or maybe law. For the others of us, well, too bad.

Asian parents, I know you want the best for your children and economic security is paramount. I ask you, though, to weigh the degree of economic security (do they really need to make in the high 6-figures to be secure?) against the psychological cost of doing a job you don’t love. For me the toll was psychological, physical, and relational. My body and life were shutting down because I couldn’t keep doing that job.

Parents, I’m not saying that you encourage your kids to throw caution to the wind and hop a bus to LA in hopes of being the next “It” girl.   What I am saying is that maybe our young people should be encouraged to pursue that passion and dream but have a reasonable Plan B ready to go if that dream doesn’t work out, preferably one that allows them to pursue that passion at least as a hobby.

I didn’t tell you earlier that one of my Ivy League Chinese American friends ended up pursuing a non-traditional path (non-doctor/lawyer/engineer) and became world famous anyway. Many of the parents I know would not have supported that path, but fortunately for him, his did. In other words, it is possible to follow your heart and dreams and achieve that economic security. Had he pursued engineering, he might be secure enough, but would he be as happy or successful?

I know from my own experience that pursuing my Plan A (which temporally came to me in late life) not only means that I’m passionate about my job, but that work enriches my personal life and wellbeing too. And that’s worth all the money in the world.