Give Them a Break

“I think we should bring up our children with much less pressure to compete and get ahead: no comparing one child with another, at home or in school; no grades. Let athletics be primarily for fun, and let them be organized by children and youths themselves.” – Dr. Benjamin Spock

I saw a quote on Facebook the other day that bothered me:  “I don’t want my children to follow in my footsteps.  I want them to take the path next to me and go further than I could have ever dreamt possible.”

Although I understand the positive intent of this quote, I’m sorry to say I sense an underlying message that, to me, is anything but positive, a message that sets children up for almost certain failure and a hefty dose of stress and anxiety in the process.

Why, you ask?  Because to me, the idea expressed in this quote suggests a narrow preoccupation with a certain kind of success: significant athletic or artistic achievements; university degrees; respectable, high-paying careers; big homes and fancy cars; perfect health; perfect relationships, and so forth.

Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well and The Price of Privilege, says:

“Every measure of child and adolescent mental health has deteriorated since we’ve decided that children are best served by being relentlessly pushed, overloaded, and tested.  Our current version of success is a failure.”

Dr. Levine notes that while a lot of children today look like high achievers, they are, in fact, more depressed and anxious and are experiencing both psychosomatic disorders as well as a sense of inauthenticity.  She points out that when asked, parents say success means their children are happy, well-adjusted, and all that other nice stuff.  However, when children are asked what constitutes success, they indicate “making a lot of money.”  So what’s happening?  Do the children’s responses simply indicate a childlike perception of success or are they absorbing (not so) subtle messaging from their parents?

Let’s face it.  There are all kinds of children.  Some excel academically or possess entrepreneurial skills, others do not.  Some are athletic or artistic, others are not.  Some are naturally high achievers while others just get by.  Some of our children will end up being janitors, service industry workers, clerks and garbage collectors.  This sort of work needs to be done, and no one is the lesser for doing it.

Some of our children will struggle with health, relationships, and finances.  For those young people with physical or mental health issues, managing to hold down a job, any job, is the best they’ll do, and depending on the extent of those issues, that may be a major accomplishment.  Some of our children will be dealing with relationship breakups and custody battles, credit card debt and bankruptcies.  Does this mean they failed or, ahem, we failed?  At the end of the day, most of us will not have children who reach the pinnacle of professional, athletic or artistic achievement, so why do we try to raise them like that with all the pressure that ensues?

Sure, we all want to see our children do well for themselves and succeed, but I think it’s time to re-define what success means.  Rather than pushing our children to excel, be involved in endless activities, go to university, and rise to the rank of CEO, how about letting them figure out their path?  How about teaching them to look after body/mind/spirit, be good to people, care about the fate of the world, be independent, live within their means (whatever income they earn), and participate in activities they enjoy?

I know many adults who aren’t working at high-flying jobs, making tons of money, living in huge homes, or driving expensive cars yet are still pretty content.  For them, it doesn’t all boil down to prestige and the almighty dollar.  Yes, if our children want more material wealth or social status, they’ll have to figure out how to do that, but a lot of them will be happy with less while having more time to relax, be with family and friends, and do things they love.

I have two university degrees, and I’m a federal public servant.  I’m happy to have the job I do, and I’m thankful for the great benefits and pension plan.  Am I working at my dream job?  No, but it works well enough for me.  Does my job make me any better than the lady working the cash at the local supermarket?  Nope.  My education and good job have not spared me from a marriage break-up and a chronic health issue.  Nor have they prevented me from making poor choices.  I suspect it’s the same for most people, and it will be the same for our children.

I’ve seen many “successful” people who are caught up in the trappings of success while leading unhappy lives.  I’ve seen people working very long hours and enduring a lot of stress in order to climb the professional ladder or maintain a certain lifestyle, often at the expense of their health and family.  Heck, I’m guilty of working too many hours myself a lot of the time and to what end?  I’ve seen people counting the days, hours, and minutes to retirement so they can finally do what they want.  Is that what we wish for our children?

I think the best thing we can do for our children is to support them in their interests and endeavours, allow them to experiment, give them responsibility, and let them figure out their path.  Let’s stop pressuring them to be perfect and teaching them that success is defined by reaching the highest levels of academic or professional success.  Instead, let’s model good judgement and decency.  Let’s teach them that life can be hard and that they won’t make it to the end unscathed.  But let’s also help them build the inner resources to deal with the issues they’ll face.

Our children have their own lives.  They are not here to live the way we think they should and do the things we think they should.  They are not here to measure up to a narrow vision of success.  And most importantly, they are not here to fulfill our wishes, dreams and fantasies.  They’re here to fulfill their own.



Seeing the Future

“No, I would not want to live in a world without dragons, as I would not want to live in a world without magic, for that is a world without mystery, and that is a world without faith.” – R.A. Salvatore

I have a crystal ball.  It’s a nice decoration but dusty from lack of use.  I admit that I’m intrigued by crystal balls and other types of divination tools.  In fact, I’m fascinated by the mystical, and I believe that a lot of things we term weird or freaky really aren’t.  We just haven’t figured out how they work.

Personally, I’ve experienced some mysterious things over the years, things I can’t explain.  For example, there have been times where I saw (or heard) things that later happened.  Before you write me off completely, let me explain.

Back in early November 2003, my husband, Raymond, broke his back.  It started out as a misty, grey November day.  We had been raking leaves on our property when Raymond decided to clean the upper story bathroom window.  He situated the ladder and up he climbed, Windex and paper towel in hand.

Meanwhile, I was in the backyard still raking leaves.  While I was looking down, mentally bemoaning the fact that we had too many trees on our property, a picture flashed right before my eyes: Raymond, in his yellow rain jacket and rubber boots falling off the ladder from the second storey, the ladder crashing down on top of him.  I gave my head a quick shake and kept raking.  About ten or fifteen seconds later, I heard a loud noise, and as I spun around, there was Raymond falling to the ground, the ladder in hot pursuit.  It was the exact scene that had played out in my mind only seconds earlier.  Two weeks in the hospital, a few weeks wearing a brace, and he was back in business.

Fast forward a few years later.  I was in the bathroom one evening and opened the mirrored medicine cabinet above the sink.  I picked up a bottle of prescription medication when a voice, as clear as a bell, said, “You better get that renewed.  Sherwood Drug Mart is burning down.”  Sherwood Drug Mart is the drugstore I go to for prescriptions.  Of course, I put the bottle back on the shelf, closed the cabinet, and started brushing my teeth.

About thirty seconds later, the phone rang.  My daughter, Hannah, picked it up.  Next thing she yelled, “Mom, Sherwood Drug Mart’s on fire!”  It was one of Hannah’s friends who lived not far from the drugstore calling her to report.  I went downstairs to tell Raymond about the experience I had just had in the bathroom.  About twenty minutes later, Hannah’s friend called again to say that the drugstore and adjoining restaurant had burned to the ground.

I know many people will say that I imagined those premonitions after the fact or that I’m delusional.  But I can say with absolute certainty that I imagined nothing, I did not mix up the time frames, and I’m no more delusional than the average person.

My experiences have led me to question if we really can glimpse the future.  Are premonitions real?  Most scientists don’t delve into this kind of territory, but there are exceptions.  Psychologist Dean Radin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) performs experiments where participants see and feel into the future.  Daryl Bem, a respected social psychologist from Cornell University is well known for his precognition experiments.  Both have made some interesting findings.  As expected, much of the scientific community discounts their research because it challenges the established worldview.

So, do we dismiss the results of researchers like Radin and Bem because they challenge the dominant paradigm?  Before answering that, here are a few things to consider:

– When Galileo Galilei claimed that the earth orbited the sun (building upon the work of Nicolaus Copernicus), he was placed under house arrest for committing heresy.

– When Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis introduced the idea that hand washing reduced the incidence of puerperal fever in obstetrical clinics, his findings were rejected by the medical community.

– Dr. William Harvey, who first proposed that blood passed through the heart, not the liver, was ridiculed and ostracized by the scientific community.

– Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, proposed the idea of dominant and recessive genes, only to have his work dismissed until years later.

And the list goes on.

I know some people will say, “Yes, Heather, but in those times, we didn’t have the knowledge or the technology to measure and understand these things.  Now we do.”  My point exactly!  I think much of what happens that we dismiss as fictitious, superstitious or hocus-pocus is, in fact, very real.  We just haven’t developed the knowledge and technology to prove it.

I appreciate science.  I don’t appreciate fraud and quackery.  But one of my criticisms of science is that it can be slow to change its paradigms.  There is much about life that is mysterious and cannot be explained.  Perhaps some things will never be explained.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

My favourite scientist, Albert Einstein, said, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”  I agree, so let’s be open to the mysterious, and let’s not be too quick to discount what we can’t explain.

Christmas in August

“I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” – Charles Dickens

One day in August 2006, my husband, Raymond, and I were taking our daily walk around the suburb where we lived. Close to one of the intersections we crossed almost every day, I noticed a slightly weathered-looking yellow envelope, the size that holds a child’s report card, lying on the ground.  I briefly thought about being a good citizen and picking it up, but I didn’t.

For the next two days, Raymond and I walked a different route.  However, on the third day, we were back on our usual one.  As we approached the same intersection, I noticed the yellow envelope was still there.  Despite the wind, it had not moved, and despite the steady traffic, no one had picked it up.  This time, Raymond noticed the envelope and stopped.

My usual response would have been, “Why are you picking up garbage?” but this time I said nothing.  The envelope wasn’t sealed, so he opened it.  Inside, there was a green Christmas card with a gold-embossed nativity scene on the front.  Raymond opened the card.  It was not addressed to anyone nor was it signed.  A verse simply read:

Christmas brings a gift of peace no words can quite impart,

Christmas brings a gift of love that blesses every heart,

Christmas brings a gift of hope to lighten all the way,

May all these perfect gifts be yours

on this Christmas Day.

Inside the card was a small white envelope, the type that holds a gift card.  Neatly printed on the front of the envelope was the name “Heather” and “$50.00.”  Inside, there was a gift card to Indigo bookstore.  My first reaction was that this was a used up card that had fallen out of someone’s garbage bag.  But then I thought, “What the heck.  I’ll stop by Indigo with it just to see.”

Later that day, I went to Indigo and told the lady at the cash register that I had found this gift card and was wondering if there was a balance on it.  She ran it through her machine.  “Yes,” she said, “you have $50.00.”  I asked her if there was any way to track down the purchaser, but she said there wasn’t.  “It’s yours,” she said.

Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” He was right.


The Sunday Drive

“Sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination.”

If you read my blog post last week, you know that as a child, I went about a lot of my business free from the watchful eye of my parents.  That said, my parents didn’t ignore their children.  They read to us, played board games and card games, and chatted with us too.  Although my parents didn’t follow us everywhere, and we entertained ourselves most of the time, there was one regular activity that rarely got missed when the weather was nice: the Sunday drive.

Mom and Dad had four kids which I imagine could be overwhelming at times.  Mom always said that while she loved her own kids, she wasn’t a kid lover in general, and I get that.  Runny noses and sibling rivalry aren’t for everyone.  So, on Sunday afternoons, partly to give us something to do, and partly, I think, to give Mom a break, we all piled into the car to go for a drive.

(We’d be Sunday driving age here.  I’m wearing the yellow shirt.)

To start, there was usually a fight over who got to sit in the front seat between Mom and Dad.  I screeched long and loud but rarely won because my oldest brother, Andrew, got car sick, and sitting up front helped alleviate that.  I used to say that I felt sick, but I think my parents recognized the lack of sincerity.  The thing is, on occasion I would actually feel a bit nauseous but unlike my brother, not badly enough to throw up.

Has everyone peed?  Do we have Gravol?  With that taken care of, we were ready to roll.  Some Sundays there was a destination in mind – Rainbow Valley, Fairyland, Fantasyland, the Exhibition, the Car Museum and other places I can’t remember.  If we were lucky, there was also a trip to the Seatreat, Idle Oars or the Canton Café for supper.  The destination drives were the best ones.  We weren’t cooped up in the car for too long a stretch, and we got to go somewhere awesome.

However, there were some Sundays where we simply drove.  Perhaps my parents wanted to see another part of the Island.  Maybe Dad was investigating a business endeavour or doing some genealogical research.  It’s possible Mom wanted to see a shop or something.  I don’t really remember.  But those drives were the ones that had the potential to cause some angst.

Whereas today I enjoy the aimlessness of a Sunday afternoon drive, as a child, a drive without a destination in mind was borderline anathema.  In those days, we didn’t have electronic gizmos to keep us entertained on the road, meaning a tablet was something you took for carsickness.  It was highly unlikely for my parents to even turn on the car radio.

On those “destination free” Sundays, it often played out something like this:

“Kathy touched me!”  Keep your hands to yourself.

“Robert’s taking up all the room and he’s hurting me!”  Push over and leave your sister alone.

“I’m bored.”  Sit back and be quiet.

“Andrew won’t stop looking at me.”  Well, don’t look at him.

“Heather’s talking too much.”

At this point, it was not unusual for my father to turn around and let out a roar.  That usually shut us up for a while.  There may even have been the occasional swat on the side of the head (not unusual for parents of that generation to do).

Suitably silenced, things would stay relatively quiet for a while.  But then the inevitable would happen, the thing that drives every parent around the bend…


“We’ll be home in a bit.  Can’t you wait?”


“For God’s sake.  Harry, pull over…” at which point one or more of us would pile out and hit the ditch or the woods.  Of course, my brothers had it easier, being boys and all, but eventually I figured out you could angle your backside in such a way as to miss hitting your shorts.

Along the way, my brothers stopped coming for Sunday drives.  They were a few years older, so the time came when they could be left at home to hang out with friends and eventually, make out with girlfriends.  Then it was just my sister and me, so things got a bit quieter.  I do remember wanting to participate in my parents’ conversations, and sometimes they would indulge me.  Other times they’d tell me to sit back and be quiet or stop interrupting.  When that happened, I’d stare out the car window and sulk.

Sunday drives have lost their popularity.  They were probably even on the decline when I was a kid.  Nowadays family life is different.  Both parents are often working, and weekends are a time to get caught up around home or taxi kids to their various activities.  If there is a free Sunday afternoon, people are more inclined to head out to a specific event or just stay home.  And considering the environmental concerns associated with gas-fueled transportation, Sunday afternoons spent meandering around the countryside in a car may not be the best investment in the future of our planet.  All that said, I have fond memories of my family’s Sunday drives.  Those afternoons were a time for all of us to be together for something besides supper.

Even if the Sunday drive has lost its status, the important thing is that families still take time to do things together whether that be a trip to the beach, a visit to an amusement park, a hike in the woods or anything else that appeals.  For it’s these things that strengthen family bonds and form lasting memories like the ones I have of my family’s Sunday drives.

I’d like to end with a suggestion.  For those of you with kids (or grandkids) who are still young enough to require some supervision, try a “throwback Sunday.”  Pile the family into the car and head out for a drive with nowhere in mind.  Leave the electronics at home, and do nothing but look out the windows or talk to each other.  At the end, stop for ice cream.  I’d be really interested in how that goes.





Let Them Be Kids

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

I was raised on the north shore which, like many places on Prince Edward Island, is rather special – farmland, woodland, and beaches inextricably linked, forming one giant playground for a little girl in the 1970’s.  I spent a lot of time outdoors, particularly from spring through fall.  I played in the yard, roamed through the fields, and spent hours in the woods exploring and climbing trees.  Most of the time, I was happy to be outdoors, the notable exception being when I was locked out because my mother was scrubbing and waxing the kitchen floor.  It was those times I banged on the door, whining to come in – not out of any real need but simply because I knew I wasn’t allowed inside.

There were all sorts of outdoor activities.  I picked mayflowers with my brothers and sister along the edge of the woods.  Although I delighted in their sweet-smelling perfume, this was a business endeavor.  For you see, delivering a big bunch of mayflowers to Grandmother (who was actually my great-grandmother) guaranteed pocket change for the next trip to the store and a golden yellow apple.  Jackpot!  Our grandmother and mother also received bouquets, but never as big, because they weren’t inclined to pay up.

I learned to skate on a patch of ice that formed in a low section of our front lawn.  My father would come out and hold me up until I got brave enough to try it on my own.  Despite my weak ankles, I eventually managed to stay upright most of the time.  With this skill mastered, I was allowed to skate on the frozen cranberry bog just across and up the road.  No one strung up lights or flooded the ice.  You took what you got and that was that, but it was good enough.

My parents had a giftshop called Thymewood, and I loved to hang around there.  My grandmother worked at “the shop,” and I was allowed inside for certain periods of time after which I got chased out.  I loved to roam through the shop and admire the fine jewelry and crafts (we didn’t deal in the tacky tourist merchandise), and I spent a lot of time conniving to get more of the rock candy that sat for sale on the front counter.  There were two flavours, peppermint and humbug, and I loved them both.

We had pony rides that my older brothers ran at the ripe old ages of nine and ten, and I used to hang around there with them.  I can remember that even though I’d be only about five years old, my brothers would let me help saddle up the two ponies, Cross and Mayflower.  Cross was black with white markings, most notably a white cross on her forehead.  Mayflower was pure black.  She had a curve in her back which made her my choice for riding bareback to the field at night, because it was easier to stay on her.  I rode the pony ride trail many, many times, and even led kids who were older than me around it.

I climbed trees, fell out of trees, and made forts in the woods.  I jumped around in the barn loft, got chased by headless ducks and geese, and climbed on the old junk pile while my mother yelled at me to put something on my feet because of the danger from old, rusty nails.

I learned to ride a bike by having my brother push me down the hill behind my house.  I remember the bike falling on top of me more than a few times.  But there were no training wheels.  You fell, got scraped and bruised, cried, got up, and tried again.

I had pet earthworms and kept caterpillars in old shoe boxes that I filled with grass and sticks.  I checked them several times a day, and then let the butterflies go free.  I ate so many carrots from the garden that my skin started to turn orange, and I kept eating fresh strawberries despite the nasty hives they gave me.

By the time I was five years old, I wasn’t supervised outdoors.  My parents were busy, and even though they loved their children, we were not, quite frankly, the center of the universe.  So although they knew I was in the general vicinity, they didn’t really know exactly where I was.  The main thing was that I had to show up for lunch, supper and in time to have a bath before bed.  I’m certain there were times they came looking for me, and I do remember one time getting a swat on the backside because I couldn’t be found and was supposed to be helping on the pony rides.

There was boredom too.  After all, we had only one TV channel.  There was a lot of excitement when we got the second channel AND color TV.  There weren’t many organized activities that I was involved in.  After all, we lived in the country, and in the 1970’s, parents didn’t generally invest a lot of money and spend a lot of time running the roads for that sort of thing.

Of course, we started working much younger as well.  Around the age of eight or nine, I was picking strawberries and weeding parsnips, and by the time I was twelve, I was working a couple of evenings a week in my grandfather’s grocery store.  By fourteen, I was working full-time during the summer in the family vegetable business while still holding down that part-time job in the store, and I was expected to do a lot of chores around the house.

(My kids, Max and Hannah, in their fort c. 1998)

I know I’ll sound like an old-timer, but things are different for kids today.  There are no more long stretches of unstructured time.  Parents plan “play dates.”  There are cellphones, laptops, tablets, video games and other technology I don’t even know about.  In most homes, both parents are working, so kids are off to daycare where the days are generally pretty regimented.  They don’t roam around, left to their own devices, finding things to do, complaining about being bored (Okay maybe, but definitely not as much.).

And then there’s soccer, baseball, swimming, gymnastics, dance, hockey, music lessons, art lessons, summer camps and any other number of extracurricular activities.  After all, it’s important that kids have things to do so they keep out of trouble.  They need to be well-rounded and able to compete.  However, I reminisce about the days where sitting on the doorstep blowing soap bubbles was an exciting afternoon activity, and a trip to the fast food joint happened four or five times a year, making it a major event.

Parents seem to have taken it upon themselves to ensure that their kids are happily engaged at all times, even if it means that we have to drop everything we’re doing (or want to do) to make it happen.  You didn’t show up at your kid’s hockey game (even though you hate hockey)?  Bad parent!

Unlike past generations where kids didn’t garner a lot of extra attention, today they’ve  become a focal point in their parents’ lives.  I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, but sometimes I think the pendulum has swung a bit too far the other way.  I remember the days when I complained to my mother about being bored, so she’d give me a few suggestions, and when I didn’t want to partake, she’d basically tell me to get out of her hair.  I also seem to vaguely recall the suggestion that she could put me to work.  So I’d skulk away, complaining, and go find something to do.  What we’ve forgotten is that kids need to experience boredom, because it’s then that they have to use their imaginations.

I also believe that too many kids are getting stressed out from their highly charged schedules.  Many people will disagree with me and say that their kids love to be involved and on the go.  Maybe, in some cases, but sometimes I wonder if we have a tendency to live vicariously through our kids.  Secretly, don’t you love that they look good and perform well?  Do you love that you might be giving them an edge in this competitive world?

I’ve seen a number of parents who invested insane amounts of time and money in their children’s activities, and yes, those kids learned to be pretty good athletes or artists.  But the reality is that it’s only the very few who go on to be wildly successful and earn tons of money in those endeavours.  For most, these sorts of activities become a pastime.  Of course, this is no reason not to have your kids involved in activities, but what if they were allowed to disappear in the neighbouring woods, run all over the neighbourhood with friends, or chase butterflies for a while?

We fear more for our kids’ safety.  The world is a dangerous place, you know.  There are pedophiles lurking on every corner and people waiting to abduct our kids from the playground.  Sadly, that exists.  But in reality, the risk is higher that our children will be hurt by someone they know.  I find it sad that kids can’t just disappear for a while with the direction to show up on time for supper.  No, we walk our kids to the park and sit there while they play or stand at the monkey bars so they don’t fall off.  We never say, “Go outside and find something to do.”  In reality, our world is actually a much safer place in many ways, and now we teach our kids more about personal safety.  Yes, there are more vehicles on the roads and they travel faster, but kids can be taught to stay off roads and observe basic safety rules.

Enter electronics, the new babysitter.  I’ll admit, I plunked my toddler son in front of Barney re-runs on many occasions since it was one of the only things that kept him from running around in circles screeching his head off.  But I remember not being allowed to sit in front of the TV for hours and hours on end.  At any rate, there were only a couple of channels so most TV wasn’t very interesting.  When I got older, Pong and Pacman made their debuts, but my parents didn’t buy into the emerging video game world.  So I played video games if I went to my friend’s house, and even then, I didn’t spend much time at that because she always beat me.  Today?  The American Academy of Pediatrics is providing guidelines on healthy digital media use habits for babies, toddlers and preschoolers for heaven’s sake.

So what is the result of all this?  Researchers are finding that kids are more stressed, anxious, depressed and overweight.  They aren’t developing proper attention spans.  They’re losing contact with and appreciation for the natural world.  I don’t know, but I can’t imagine how this is good.

Despite my waxing on eloquently about my childhood, it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops.  There are definite advantages to being a kid today.  But I wonder if we could balance things out a little more…limit the electronics, put kids outside, give them some freedom from the constant, watchful eye of parents, let them be bored and find their own things to do.  Fresh air, nature, and regular physical activity are essential.  Endless extra-curricular activities, highly structured schedules, and massive amounts of time using technology are not.  (And I will not be responsible for what I do if I hear the words “play date” one more time.)

I say more butterflies and soap bubbles.  Free time and tree climbing.  Boredom. Unstructured play with less parental oversight.   Let them be kids.  Is anyone with me?



Shed the Mask

Do they love you or the mask you put on everyday? – Shimika Bowers

Alicia-Joy Pierre is a writer, poet, and storyteller living in London, England.  I admire her work, so I enrolled in a self-paced course she offers called Raw Writing.  Alicia-Joy describes it as a course that will “…create deeper, more heartfelt connections with your readers.”  In the course, Alicia-Joy devotes a module to The Mask, what she describes essentially as being a barrier people erect to protect themselves.  She points out that by removing the mask, you can be a better writer, because you begin to share your unique perspective with the world.

Although Alicia-Joy’s course focuses on the mask in relation to the writing process, it’s not just writers who wear one.  We all do.  Sarah McDugal, author of One Face: Shed the Mask, Own Your Values, and Lead Wisely, describes masks as “…the faces you wear that don’t reflect your core values, the things you pretend so people will love you more…the habits or actions that cover the way you really feel and prevent you from healing and growing.”

We wear many masks, but here’s my personal favourite.

I bet a lot of you are familiar with it.  I could have a stressful day at work, an argument with my husband, a major disappointment, a verbal slap in the face, or an anxiety attack, but I’ll plaster on a smile regardless.  That big, wide grin is my default mode.  Now, more often than not, I’m in a good mood – meaning most of my smiles are genuine – but somewhere along the line, I came to the conclusion that people react better when you’re pleasant.

Like so many, I began developing my mask in childhood.  I learned that if I worked hard, behaved, stayed reasonably agreeable, and didn’t express too much anger or angst, I was pretty well guaranteed approval from parents, relatives, teachers, and friends.  No surprise there.  BUT…this meant I didn’t always express my true feelings in any given situation.  I’d end up doing a lot of things I really didn’t want to do or conversely, not doing things I wanted to do.  Things like being lazy, angry, sad, resentful, jealous or stubborn certainly got me attention, but not the kind I wanted.  So more and more, I buried those sorts of feelings and behaviours and tried to be a good girl.  None of this is particularly unusual, and I believe most of you can relate to some degree.

As I approach fifty, I’ve thought more about who I am, what I want, and what I want to do for the rest of my life.  This got me thinking about the mask I wear and what’s really at the basis of it.  I came to the conclusion that the #1 reason people don masks is FEAR…of disapproval, a bad  reputation, and downright rejection.  We fear jeopardizing our relationships and our sense of security.  We fear loss.

The mask serves us in one sense.  If it didn’t, we wouldn’t wear it.  It can bring short-term happiness and comfort.  It can make us more “likeable.”  We can use it to hide our transgressions and cover up the parts of ourselves we’re ashamed or embarrassed about.  The problem is that you can’t hide behind a mask forever, because one day things are going to erupt, and that darn thing will be torn right off your face.

Case in point…Think of public figures who fall from grace much to the delight of the media – caught in undesirable circumstances – for example, the well-known politician espousing family values caught having online sex or the pastor condemning homosexuality  discovered in a secret gay relationship.  Unfortunately for these people, their masks are exposed in the public arena and cause great personal and professional damage; however, even those of us who do not live our lives in the spotlight are not immune to the damage that the mask can cause to our relationships, careers and health.

It’s not easy to remove the mask.  You may shock a lot of people including yourself.  Doing so may have a significant impact on your life.  Initially, it may lead to personal upheavals if you admit you don’t love your partner, you can’t stand your job and want to go back to school, or you start sharing your true feelings and opinions.  But in these cases, you need to take a long, hard look at what wearing the mask is doing to you over the long term.

(Photo credit: Allef Vinicius)

So how does one remove the mask?  I could offer lots of suggestions, but our masks are personal, and people need to figure out for themselves what they can live with and how far they want to go.  So rather than give advice, I’ll offer up some questions for reflection.

What mask(s) do you wear?

How is your mask serving you?

How is your mask a disservice to you?

What will be the consequences of removing your mask?

What will be the consequences of not removing your mask?

What steps can you take to remove your mask?

What support will you need if you want to remove your mask?

How will removing your mask impact your life in the short term?  The long term?

These are difficult questions,  and if you want to get serious about it, they demand a lot of reflection.  There are no easy answers, and the answers won’t always be easy to accept. But remember, although life is short,  the days can feel long if you aren’t living true to yourself.

Are you ready to make a change?  Are you ready to start taking steps to remove your mask? To reveal to yourself and the world who you really are?  You don’t have to expose everything or be dramatic about it, but every small action, every little step you take, will gradually reveal your face to the world.  And here’s the bonus: What an amazing face that is!






Feel It

“Your emotions will never lie to you.”

Human beings experience a complex array of diverse emotions.  However, for many reasons, including a lifetime of conditioning, we often learn to shy away from certain ones, particularly those that are powerful or painful.

Instead of dealing with these emotions, we suppress them by turning to sources of perceived pleasure like drugs, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, television or social media.  Or, we engage in things like endless dieting, excessive exercise, workaholism, perfectionism and constant busyness.

What we’re really doing, though, is numbing ourselves.  There’s no issue with distracting ourselves from time to time as a means of coping with intense emotions, but if we’re constantly numbing ourselves, then we’re never really confronting our issues.  Thus, we never find resolution, and the quality of our lives diminishes.

It can be scary to face ourselves, because we may have to contend with difficult realities: we aren’t happy in our relationships, the kids are struggling, we don’t like our jobs, we’re feeling unfulfilled, we’re in rut, we need to lose weight, and so on.  These are big issues that are hard to confront.  And darn, that bottle of wine might just help us forget all about it.

Alert:  The less you feel, the less alive you feel.  When we numb ourselves, we settle for lives of quiet desperation.

(Photo credit:  Gabrielle Fortin)

If you’re content to live in the grey zone, no problem.  You can choose whether or not to continue reading.  But if you want to start facing the reality of your life, what can you do?   I don’t have all the answers, and I’ve engaged in more than my fair share of mind-numbing activities.  That said, here are some things that I’ve learned and am working on.

Be aware – If you sense that you’re engaging in a particular behaviour to avoid feeling a powerful emotion, stop and ask yourself why.  Move beyond your comfort zone, and just sit with the emotion.  Don’t try to resist or suppress it.  Instead, acknowledge it.  It’s trying to tell you something.  Reflect on the cause of the emotion and look at ways to cope or to change the situation.

Don’t judge – All emotions have a place, and none of them are “bad.”  A feeling is just a feeling.  Emotions don’t have to dictate our actions.  As you take time to feel the emotion, be open and curious about what you’re feeling.  That way the emotion will have less control over you, and you won’t be so easily triggered.

Embrace yourself – None of us is perfect.  We all have aspects of ourselves we need to improve, and other aspects that are perfect the way they are.  Instead of numbing the parts you don’t like, embrace them, and do the work that’s needed to change.  Transformational coach Brandilyn Tebo said, “I thought that if I allowed the rejected parts of myself to be expressed, I would lose myself. What I discovered was that only through facing and eventually embracing these parts of myself did I truly find myself.”

Seek assistance – None of us is alone.  You are not the only one who is experiencing a particular issue with its resulting emotions.  Find others who are experiencing the same sorts of difficulties.  Console each other.  Help each other.  Get professional help if that’s required.

We can suppress our issues and not allow ourselves to experience our emotions, but this keeps us from finding resolution and peace. We may avoid the pain, but there is no healing. Therefore, instead of engaging in numbing activities, work through your emotions.  Long-hidden pain, even trauma, may emerge, but it’s the light of consciousness that will allow for healing.

For health and true peace of mind, become comfortable experiencing and working through intense emotions with courage and grace.  You may need help to do this, but the results are worth it.  Don’t settle for bleakness.  Allow your life to be the kaleidoscope it’s meant to be.


Write About the End

“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” – Robert Bryne

I have a certificate in thanatology.  Before you ask, “Thana-what?” I’ll explain.  Thanatology is the academic study of death and dying.  Thanatologists study, teach, and conduct research into the cultural patterns, attitudes, anthropology, sociology, and psychology of death and dying.

Thanatology is not the same as palliative care which is a medical specialty covering pain and symptom management in dying patients. It also differs from non-specific grief support, a general service which many psychologists, clergy, and health care personnel may provide.

Why do I have a particular interest in death and dying?  It’s hard to say.  I suppose it’s because we’re all going to die.  In years gone by, I was very fearful of death.  Yet despite my fear, I was drawn to the mystery.  So I decided to learn more.

My studies in thanatology strengthened my resolve that regardless of one’s religious or spiritual beliefs, life is a journey.  However, given that the reason for life and death is largely unknown, most of us will, at one point or another, question why we’re here and what we’re meant to do.  Sometimes we may get lost and wonder if our lives have meaning.

While I was immersed in thanatology studies, I participated in a one-week workshop called For the Death of Me.  This intensive session looked at the social aspects and physiological processes of dying, explored how people keep death awareness submerged throughout their lives, and assisted participants to develop a personal spiritual meaning of their own death.

During this workshop, I learned that one of the best things you can do is strike up a serious relationship with the end of your life.  After all, the concept of your impending death can be a great teacher.  So how do you begin that relationship?  You can start by writing your obituary.

What?!?!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Write your obituary.  I learned from this workshop  that by looking at our lives from the perspective of the end, we may see more clearly the reason for our existence.

Writing your obituary can be a daunting and time-consuming task.  However, I’m going to help you out by giving you some prompts.  Your responses will provide you with the basis for your obituary, and even if you go no further than responding to the prompts, you’ll still get value from the exercise.  Remember, this is for you.  It’s not about what others think or want for you.

You don’t have to do this exercise in one fell swoop.  In fact, I would encourage you not to.  Rather, take some time to reflect before writing anything down.  The only deadline attached to this is the end of your life.

So let’s get started.  First of all, I’ll ask you to think about, and then answer, the following:

  1. During my life, I made contributions in the area of _____.
  2. Five major highlights of my life were _____.
  3. I had always hoped to _____.
  4. Six words that I would like to say described my life are _____.
  5. Describing what my life meant to me, I would say _____.
  6. At the time of my death, I was working on _____.
  7. I will be remembered for _____.
  8. In order for my obituary to be “complete,” I need to _____.

Did anything interesting or surprising come up?  Once you’re satisfied (and that may not be right away) take some time to answer the following questions:

  1. If I died today, would I die happy?
  2. Am I satisfied with the direction in which my life is headed?
  3. Am I happy with the legacy that I’m creating?
  4. What’s missing from my life and what can I do about that?
  5. What is one thing I can see myself doing now to advance my purpose?

With all this information in hand, you are ready to write your obituary.  Go for it.  Use your obituary to explore the person you are or want to be while you still have the chance.

I realize you may choose to read these questions and prompts, say “That’s nice,” and get on with your day.  No problem.  However, if you feel inclined to give this a try, I can attest that it’s a pretty powerful exercise to jump to the end of your life and describe who you were, what you accomplished, and what you contributed during your lifetime.  It certainly got me moving on a few things.

Our lives do have purpose, and it is through our relationships, professions, callings, interests, health issues, challenges, failures and successes that we find meaning.  I also believe that engaging with the end of life, before it arrives, can clarify things even more.  We all have a date with destiny, so take charge of yours.  By writing your obituary, you may find some answers that will help you do just that.

(The content of the exercise I outlined, i.e. the thirteen questions, came from various sources: readings, coursework and workshops.  The rest is mine.  As well, to be a thanatologist requires, at minimum, a master’s degree.  I’m not a thanatologist.  Have to keep it honest!)

To Do

“In the midst of chaos lies creativity.”

I don’t remember when it started exactly.  High school, I think.  It was gradual.  I started with occasional use, but then I got hooked and couldn’t function without it.

Yes, I had fallen victim to…

(Photo credit: Cathryn Lavery)

…the to-do list.

It all started innocently enough, trying to keep track of homework, tests and assignments.  Then it was extracurricular activities and appointments.  This was followed by lists of things I needed to accomplish on any given weekend.  I got very good at making lists – spent a lot of time writing and re-writing them.

Eventually, I purchased a black, vinyl-covered agenda.  A page for every day of the year.  My random to-do lists now had a neatly organized home.  That’s when I started to lose control.  At one point, it got so bad that I was close to scheduling my bathroom breaks.  In medical circles, there’s a name for this.

Then I got a Blackberry and my “black book” was tossed out like last week’s leftovers.  Now everything I needed to do was stored in electronic format.

Even though I now rely on technology, I still write my Saturday to-do list on paper.  The issue is that my list never really changes from week to week.  Why I do this despite the fact that my Saturday routine is burned into my brain?  I’m certain that professional analysis would determine something like mild OCD tendencies which I wouldn’t be able to deny given my penchant for continually straightening things up (I settle for nothing less than perfect alignment.).  The other thing is that I get an odd sense of satisfaction from taking a pen and crossing things off my list as they are completed.

So where am I going with this beyond revealing that I have a slight problem?  I’m not sure, so I’ll rein myself in and try to make a point.

I bet you’ve been known to write a to-do list from time to time.  What sorts of things are you writing on it?  Groceries, chores, children’s activities, bills to pay, appointments and the like?  But ask yourself, “Where’s the fun in that?”  What about all the wonderful, unique and creative things you could be doing with your life?  Should they not be included on your to-do list?

With that in mind, I propose an experiment.  Instead of limiting to-do lists to the humdrum routine of daily existence, how about developing a “to do before I die” list?  Personally, I might try to keep this list in my head so I don’t put further strain on my Blackberry.  On this list, you’re allowed to include only those things that will serve to create your legacy.

I’ve already thought of a few things for my “to do before I die” list:

– Write poems.

– Take more pictures of beautiful things.

– Write a book.

– Schedule more activities with loved ones.

A “to do before I die” list can take commitment and a bit of courage.  The blank slate is often a daunting affair.  If, however, you give up the idea that what you do or create has to be mind blowing or of significant value, it gets easier.

So what do you think?  I’m not asking you to drop the normal to-do list (mine will likely accompany me to the grave), but I am asking you to start a list of the really important things you’d like to accomplish and commit to doing them, a few minutes here, a few minutes there.

I’m going to challenge myself to stop being an errand girl.  And I’m going to throw out the challenge to you.  Write that “to do before I die” list.  Make sure it includes ideas that are as unique as you are.  Do what only you can do and create what only you can create.  And after you’ve worked hard on your masterpiece(s), take a break and go get the groceries.

Just Say No

“If you’re not saying Hell, yeah! about something, then say no.”

Life coach Susan Gregg says, “No is a complete sentence, and so often we forget that. When we don’t want to do something, we can simply smile and say no.  We don’t have to explain ourselves.  We can just say no.  Early on my journey, I found developing the ability to say no expanded my ability to say yes and really mean it.”

One one hand, I admire someone who feels highly enough of herself to be this straightforward.  On the other hand, I find that not offering any explanation at all is a tad harsh.  Even when I do say no, I usually accompany it with a reason (or excuse).

When I was really young, I recall saying no a lot.

Drink your milk. – No (usually accompanied by tears – still hate the stuff).

Pick up your toys. – No.

Be quiet. – No.

Go to bed. – No (half-truth…I usually didn’t mind going to bed).

(Photo credit: Andy Tootell)

Somewhere along the way – I don’t remember when – I stopped saying no and became a yes girl.  I suppose saying no got me into trouble too many times, and I learned that saying yes, even when I didn’t want to, earned me positive accolades.

Then, in my teenage years, I said yes in order to fit in.  It got to the point that throughout my adulthood, I’d avoid saying no as much as possible.  Instead, I’d make excuses even if they were only half true.

Do you want to come out with us Friday night?

Actually, I’m busy. (If you count stretching out on the couch with a book as busy.)

Can you look after Billy Bob Jr. on Saturday?

I have an appointment (with myself).

Why not be more straightforward?  Really, it all came down to seeking approval.  People who say yes are nice, and if you’re nice, then people will like you was my line of reasoning.  This, however, is and was faulty reasoning and signaled something more serious: a bad case of low self-esteem.  I think being conflict averse also creates a hesitancy to say no.  Say yes, and there’s no argument or fight.  Also, saying yes means you’re less likely to disappoint or hurt someone (at least in the moment).

So what happens if you just keep saying yes all the time?  You get resentful.  But did you know that resentful thoughts become emotional responses that can lead to a variety of issues from minor ailments to fairly significant illness?  Based on my own experience, I think this is largely true although I haven’t scoured the studies to say with certainty.

If you’re a yes person, how do you change?  Not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight.  I think it first starts with self-reflection.  Spend time asking yourself the question, “What is at the root of my unwillingness to say no?”  I would suggest that as with most things, the root cause is fear, but you’ll need to figure that out for yourself and then decide what to do about it.  Maybe you’ll need some help.  That’s up to you.

To get better at saying no, it’s good to start small with unimportant things, for example, politely saying “No thank you” when you really don’t want to take that telephone survey.  After some practice with those types of things, you may find you’re ready to turn down the theater invitation because you really prefer movies.  From there, you might find yourself better equipped to say no when asked to serve on yet another committee.  And so on.  Also, remind yourself that people don’t die from saying no or by having someone say no to them – not in most cases anyway.

I still think it’s a bit harsh to stare someone down and say no without any explanation at all, but I’m a sensitive type.  So if you’re ok doing that, go right ahead.  However, if you’re like me, you can soften it a bit:

– I’m tired;

– I’m not really interested in that;

– I’ve already got too much on my plate; or

– I have other plans (even if those plans are with yourself);

The main thing is not to lie, because that just ends up adding guilt to the equation (plus having to cover your tracks).

I really haven’t offered any magic bullets here, and I’ve barely brushed the surface of the issue.  If saying no is a problem for you, there are things you can do: get counselling to deal with underlying issues, read books on the topic, take an assertiveness training course, and practice.  Do whatever works for you.

At the end of the day, it comes down to loving yourself enough to say no.  When you are able to do this, not only will you feel freer, but you’ll also leave a whole lot more room for a heartfelt yes.