In the external world, we tend to know each other by our titles, our economic class, our degrees, our position in the family, our neigh borhoods, our race. I'm managing director of a chemical manufacturer, you say, but what you want to add is: I'm not really as much of a geek as that sounds. I'm a real estate broker, you say, knowing in your heart that you're a jewelry designer. You tell people how much you love being a stay-at-home mom, and it's true, but you find yourself wanting to add that you were accepted to a master's program ten years ago, even though you didn't go!
Quick categories help people locate us, and they help us locate them. Unfortunately, they were all defined before any of us stepped into the box labeled "mother" or "oldest daughter" or "executive vice president." Boxes that are designed by others -- our parents, our colleagues, or simply our culture -- pinch and cramp us because they're never tailored to fit our unique soul. Yet we all want to know, quickly, who's the boss, and who's the guy we need to bribe in the supply room. And so we pigeonhole each other, even though when someone asks, "What do you do?" the question makes us cringe.
So the first questions we like to ask the participants of our workshop are: What are you committed to? What are you out for? What do you love?
Often, though, when our leaders ask these questions, they hear comments like that made by Lauren, a stunning Italian beauty with long auburn hair who, after thirteen years, quit her job as an executive in a cosmetics company. Unemployed for a year, Lauren has come to the workshop looking for what her next life will be. She wants to find something she can be passionate about.
"I hate that word," says Lauren. "It gives me a scary, suffocating feeling. It's funny, because when I worked for my cosmetics company, I was totally rah-rah! Now 'commitment' gives me the creeps."
Why Commitments Threaten
One of the definitions of the word committed is being trapped in a mental institution, by others, against your will -- no wonder it drags a lot of baggage behind it! Commitments are scary, I think, for two reasons: We're scared we won't fulfill them, or we're scared they won't fulfill us. The first issue, I'll deal with later. It's the second one I want to discuss here.
We have all, at one time or another, felt that suffocating panic Lauren expressed. Often we shy away from commitments exactly because most of us already know how awful it feels to be committed to organizations we no longer respect; projects we didn't design and don't believe in; relationships we've outgrown; and inherited ways of thinking about the world that box us in.
Often, in groups of people -- especially in corporations -- commitments you've made can be used against you, to get you to do something you don't want to do. This happens because the word commitment is often heard -- or misheard -- as a promise to take a specific action.
What's the difference? you might ask.
A commitment is a looser framework than a promise. It's a steady, unwavering intention to go in a certain direction, rather than a specific set of steps to get there. If you have a commitment to learn to dance, for example, you could do it in a variety of ways -- by going to a class, by watching ballet, by hiring a private teacher, by going to a folk-dance weekend workshop. A promise, on the other hand, is a way of speaking that generates action. It says: I'm going to register for that folk-dance weekend by Friday at five P.M. Now, you don't promise the predictable: You don't promise that you'll get up in the morning, or go to the bathroom, because that's simply stating the obvious. What you promise is the unpredictable. But because it's unpredictable, and because we live in an unpredictable world, it's not 100 percent sure. The truth is, we make promises not because we always know we can keep them. We make promises to help us stretch into the unknown.
I may promise to be in a nurturing relationship with someone, to marry him, for life. But though I made the promise with integrity, I might not have known that, at twenty-two, committing for life might not be an appropriate promise to make. My fundamental commitment may be to be in a nurturing relationship, but at forty-five, "nurturing relationship" might not mean what it meant at seventeen. In this case it's possible to authentically say: I need to revoke this promise. There are, as we all know, consequences to revoking a promise. But there are also many consequences to keeping promises that we can no longer authentically accept.
"My ex-husband is gay," interrupted Jenny, a banker who looks like a bigger and more exuberant version of Jodie Foster.
"When he finally admitted that to me I insisted we stay married because I couldn't stand that he'd broken his promise to be my husband. It went on like that for three years! It was a farce! And I couldn't speak to him for two years after that, even though he really wanted my friendship, because even though I was remarried, I was still angry that he broke his promise. Even my parents were, like, Get over it! And I'm still, you know, fuming. I made a mess."
"Haven't we all," said Hafeezah, the workshop leader.
Sometimes, though we haven't made a promise, our commitments are interpreted as demanding a particular action. Say you tell your boss you're committed to doing a great job, and you are. You do above and beyond the work your job entails, and you achieve results. But if the corporate culture interprets "being committed to your job" as a promise to work from eight in the morning to eight at night, then no matter how spectacular your performance is, if you're leaving in the afternoon to pick up your kids from day care, your boss may ask you why you're not committed. The men in the office may get pretty resentful if they assume that a mother of two is going to demonstrate her commitment the same way they do, which is to live, sleep, and shower at her desk. In a culture like that, it's no wonder we fear committing ourselves!
The Long-Term Power of Commitments
Often when we're doing things we don't want to do because someone (or something, like the corporate culture) is "making" us, we're actually honoring commitments we decided to make to ourselves. We may not remember what our commitments are, because we made them so long ago that we forgot having made them. How many of us work with someone who's always martyring herself? You know, that person who constantly complains about her workload and swears she won't take on another project, and then does? She may say she's committed to balancing her life, but if what she's really committed to is proving that she's the hardest-working camper, then she'll continue to overcommit and overextend.
And what about when no one's asking you to do anything? How often have you eaten something you didn't want to eat, or said something you knew you shouldn't say, feeling almost as if it was happening against your will? With deeply ingrained behaviors, which we feel forced to engage in even after we've recognized they don't work for us, the place to look for change is not at the level of will. Ultimately, we need to look back at the deep commitments these patterns reflect, commitments we made to ourselves long ago. We may not even know we hold these commitments, or remember that we made them. But if you think about it, we must be deeply committed if we persist, even in the face of repeated pain, in engaging in these patterns!
So we may have a commitment to get thin, but at the moment we're eating, we're honoring a deeper, older commitment: I must get my share of pleasure, which won't come to me in any other way. Sometimes it can be as primal as: I must keep myself from starving. Or: we can desperately want to get married, and we can know that to do that, it would probably be a good idea to keep this relationship going more than six dates. But if we hold a deeper, prior commitment to not being trapped by somebody else's limitations, we'll do something to sabotage the relationship no matter how hard we think we're trying to sustain it.
Whether or not we admit it, we already have commitments. We chose them, and now we're honoring them. Our commitments nearly always have consequences in the realm of action, And because commitments are broader than promises, and the pathways by which we can fulfill them are so many, the consequences of holding on to old ones can be enormous. The consequences of keeping one promise are minuscule compared to the huge, long-term consequences of honoring old commitments. Over the course of a lifetime it's like the difference between a shower and the water falling from Hoover Dam.
Most of us intuitively understand the long-term power of commitments. We hesitate not because we're afraid of the unknown places where our new commitments might take us, but because we already know what it feels like to be imprisoned by commitments that don't give us joy. Sometimes we know the fit is bad; these old commitments become like that uncomfortable suit your mother gave you for graduation. But most of the time we've had that old suit so long, we don't even realize we're wearing it!
Lauren, initially, did not feel she was committed to anything. But staying in a job you don't like for thirteen years reflects a profound commitment: to safety, to financial stability, to providing for your children, to maintaining respectability in your parents' eyes -- to something!
"My father always told me I didn't need an education," Lauren added, "because I'd just get married. He was the typical Italian patriarch. He said, 'No man likes a woman who's too strong.' I guess 'all these years, everybody's always said what a great job I had, and how I should be so grateful. I've been just thinking I should go with the program, and not make waves. Now what I'm committed to is losing my makeup case, and everything that went with it."
Thus, even though for six years Lauren has wanted to look for a new job, her prior commitment was not to become the kind of woman -- the empowered job-seeker -- who might threaten her father. Her commitment, as she finally put it, had been "to stay connected to her family."
Choosing the Commitments That Matter
When you look at your commitments actively, you will begin to recognize that you're choosing them, and not the other way around. Accepting that you're not "committed" by others, but only by yourself, frees you to revise your list of commitments to reflect who you are and who want to be now. Some you will choose to reaffirm, others to reinterpret. In Lauren's case, she decided that staying connected to her family didn't have to mean believing what they believed all the time. She reinterpreted her commitment to mean that she had to start letting them know where she was and who she was.
"But not all commitments are so negative!" Elinor cried. Elinor is a telecommunications executive who, in spite of her young, freckly face and mounds of curly hair, practically radiates competency. She is married with two children. "I'm committed to my husband, who's terrifically supportive. We've been married nine years, and I think it's the thing I'm the most proud of in my life!"
Elinor's point is important. The idea is to look at all of your commitments from a neutral place. Even if you're stuck in your life, it doesn't mean you necessarily ought to abandon all the commitments you currently hold. The goal is simply to identify what past commitments you're actually honoring. Then you can decide whether they still matter to you as much as they used to. In a later section of the book we deal with throwing away things: One of our leaders, when faced with this assignment, found that she still had on her key ring the keys to the first apartment she'd bought, which she had been able to afford when she was only twenty-three years old. Amanda was proud of her achievement -- for her, that little studio represented economic independence. Holding on to the keys was asserting a positive aspect of her maturity: the fact that she had taken charge of her financial life very early on. She'd long since sold the apartment, but holding on to those keys was a way of holding on to that achievement.
When she heard about the keys, another participant, Helene, a soft-spoken African-American professor of anthropology, tentatively raised her hand.
"You know," Helene whispered, "on my key ring I still have the keys to a truck I bought years ago, when I had a sort of carefree life and would go off into the mountains. A few years ago I got breast cancer. My two sisters had already died of it, and when I got it in my early forties, like they did, I was sure I'd die, too. I shut down, waiting and ready to die. But I survived."
"Could you speak up?" asked Alane, a software designer in her late twenties with short platinum hair and bright red lipstick, who was sitting next to Helene. Helene was speaking so quietly that no one could hear her.
"I survived the breast cancer," Helene said again. "But then, a year later, I developed lymphoma in my eye. And that just about crushed me. I thought, how can this be happening to me? I guess...I guess I started living to die," she said quietly, and began to weep. "I separated from my husband because I just withdrew into myself. I'm sitting here realizing that I'm living in a commitment to die gracefully. But" -- Helene's tears turned to giggles -- "it's not working. I'm alive!"
"So," said Hafeezah, "I'd like you to write down what you're committed to in this world. You don't have to know, at all, how you're going to fulfill your commitments. Just spend a little time writing down what you stand for, what matters to you. What are your reasons for living? What are you committed to see happening, in the world and in your life?"
"I don't know how to say this, but I want more passion in my life," said Page, a blonde in her early sixties who has enough accomplishments to fill three résumés.
"Page -- it must be hard when you're so inarticulate," quipped Amy Jo, a sparky forty-six-year-old who runs her family's business.
"Really," said Page, "if you looked at my life from the outside, everyone thinks it's fabulous. I wear my wedding rings on the right hand, because I'm left handed, and they get in the way. A few weeks ago a colleague whom I've known for years found out that I've been married for thirty years, and said, 'I can't believe you're married! You seem so...happy.' And it's true, my life is terrific. But on the inside, you know, it just feels, well, drab."
"I want to be at complete inner peace," said Debra. "I want to get my life back. And I want a home that's a refuge where I can go to get some quiet time alone."
"I want to unpack the load that makes it foggy to see ahead," said Mary Scott, an African-American community activist who is associate director of a youth service project that creates programs for over three thousand kids. "And I want to create something for girls. But I'm very shy; I feel like a little girl in a grown-up body. I've only had a small vision. Told myself I couldn't do things. I'd like to write stories for young African-American girls and teach everybody to live in a multiracial world."
"I want to learn to receive," said Jenny, "and to be able to make progress, and anticipate good in my personal life, not just my professional life. I want a better relationship with my husband and my body."
"I want my work to be closely aligned with my values," said Julie, a thin, petite, late-forties brunette with strong, chiseled features and a serious look of integrity. Julie has worked at the same nonprofit for over twenty years, and she speaks almost plaintively, as if searching for a place in the world to do good.
"I was an M.S.W., a social worker, and spent eleven years in counseling," said Sara, a therapist with huge, brown, empathetic eyes and a gentle midwestern accent. "Then I went to work for an HMO. I didn't know I was transitioning into workaholism! I want to free myself of my fears. I find myself apologizing for my lack of credentials when recruiters call me. I want to get off of this treadmill. And...there's something else I want to say, but I feel like I've been complaining so long I just had to stop talking about it. So it's hard to say, because if I say I want it, and then don't get it, it'll just make my current life unbearable."
"And that is?" asked Hafeezah, smiling. Hafeezah has the presence and smile of Jessye Norman, and a way of making each woman in the room feel safe.
"I want to be married and have a child," Sara concluded.
"We're pretty much hitting the big categories," joked Hafeezah.
What I'm asking you to do, in the following exercise, is to dare to stop dismissing your wildest dreams -- even if you have a million reasons why they can never happen.
Exercise: Identifying Your Commitments
1. Write down I'm committed to...at the top of a page in your notebook.
2. Now jot down, quickly, what you're committed to. What are you out for? What are you passionate about? What matters to you? What do you love?
One note: For the purpose of this exercise, the word commitment simply means an important wish, one that gets you up in the morning even if you've never done anything about it.
You may want to add to the list over the next few days, but try to get the most important commitments on paper in the next few minutes. Set aside any judgments of whether the commitment is frivolous. Set aside the question of whether fulfilling it would force you to promise the impossible. And set aside what you think it might say about you -- for example, if you think that, as a mother of three, wanting solitude makes you self-centered, or greedy, or complaining, that's okay. For now, the idea is simply to say it.
Once you've identified your major commitments, the next step is to home in, specifically, on why you want what you want. One way of doing this to ask yourself: What would that allow for?
Asking this question helps you find the straightest path to what you want. Say, for example, that you're committed to getting married. Do you want to be married so you can have children? Or because you think being married would mean you are finally allowed to affirm your body, and let your hair go naturally gray? Is it because you want a companion to go to the opera with? Or simply because you want the intimacy inherent in that relationship? If, for example, you wrote down that you're committed to financial security: Do you want it because it will finally gain your father's respect? Or do you want it because it will enable you to fulfill your dream of living on a sailboat? Because it would make you feel successful enough to quit your job and work in an animal shelter?
If you're stuck wondering what it is you're supposed to want, keep in mind that none of these commitments is inherently better, or holier, or more valid, than any other one. The scale on which to evaluate your commitments is simply how close or how far away they are from who you want to be, for now.
"What if you have a commitment you've had forever, but it doesn't really excite you anymore, but you don't feel you can let it go?" asked Shelly, a soft, slim southern belle in her mid-fifties. "I dropped out three semesters short of finishing my B.A. to marry Mr. Wonderful, and now, I'm not married to Mr. Wonderful anymore. Part of me wants to go back to school; part of me feels like, Forget it, it's too late."
There are three possible ways you can address an old commitment: You can reaffirm it, reinterpret it, or replace it.
Suppose you want to go back to school. And when you ask yourself what that commitment would allow for, your answer is pretty much as you expressed it. Nothing excites you more than sitting in a classroom learning about medieval castles. In this case you'll want to reaffirm your commitment.
Perhaps you're not sure you can go through with the whole degree, and you don't want to start if you're not sure you'll finish. Reaffirming can be frightening, even when you're sure it's what you want to do. Often we don't want to identify or declare or try to honor a commitment because we worry we won't be good enough, smart enough, dedicated or energetic enough to make good. Another version of this is that your friends won't be supportive enough, the world won't compensate you enough, the critics won't be appreciative enough, and so on. If these are your fears, you're on the right track. Read on.
Suppose you think you should have a B.A. You want to be exposed to other cultures and perspectives. But the idea of going back to school with a bunch of eighteen-year-olds nauseates you. In this case, you may decide that what you really want is to take a yearlong trip around the world to expose yourself to the cultures and landscapes you've never seen. In this case you are choosing to reinterpret the commitment to educate yourself through a pathway that excites you.
Say you want to go back to college because you work in a field where everybody has a degree. You now manage a staff of 153 people, all of whom have more advanced degrees than you, and you feel like a fraud. At the same time, you love what you do and don't want to take time off. In this case you may decide that though, all these years, you thought you needed that B.A., you've now decided that the greatest joy is learning to live without artificial certificates of self-worth. In this case you may decide to discard your commitment entirely, and replace that outdated need for a degree with a commitment to enjoy your own natural gifts and to help others live without needing artificial, outside validation. You may want to start, or join, a mentoring program. Or you may want to learn to grow organic tomatoes!
"I'm having trouble," says Page, "because I want to say I'm committed to solitude, you know, to find a higher purpose. But that would mean quitting my job, and my husband's unemployed fight now, so I can't really affirm that. I'm stuck."
One belief that can keep us from homing in on our passionate commitments is that often we think that if we affirm and lock ourselves into one thing, it can't include something else. When you look at them closely, you see that these either/or dichotomies or sets of opposing choices (healthy kids vs. high-powered career, entrepreneurial freedom vs. health benefits and perks, structure vs. freedom, artistic expression vs. financial security, etc.) are often choices other people had to make at some point in their lives. They then say, "That's the way it is in life."
The more specific you get about what you're committed to, the more you expand the possibilities of what actions you can take to get there. One participant had a vague idea that she'd like to work for UNICEF, but given her economics, it wasn't feasible. So she was stuck. Yet when her workshop leader asked what going to work for UNICEF would allow for, Nancy identified that she had a commitment to fight hunger in the world. Immediately, the possibilities for how she might do that expanded. One woman suggested she donate money to a charity that feeds children; another, that she take in a stray dog, another, that she become a vegetarian; another, that she choose to give her leftovers to a shelter on a regular basis. All these were ideas she'd never thought of, because she'd fixated on how she wanted to, but could not, work for UNICEF! When you stop thinking that your commitment forces you to promise a specific course of action, you increase the possibilities for how you can do what you're passionate about.
Chasing your heart's desire can sometimes feel like opening those Russian nest dolls that fit one inside the other. Each time you ask yourself "What's it for?" or "What would that allow for?" you look further inside yourself to see if there's a commitment you care about even more than the one you just expressed. On a fundamental level, when you're sure of what you committed to, you know who you are. I'll get into this more in Part II, but for now, I want to say that often your greatest contribution comes not from doing what you think is helpful, but from being the joyous person you were meant to be. Asking these questions helps you access that person and that joy.
Refining Your Commitments
Three sisters I know from a big family of siblings illustrate how asking "What's it for?" can radically increase happiness. Though they grew up in the same family, each developed different techniques that helped them survive; the commitments they carried into adulthood were based on these survival strategies.
The oldest sister, Barbara, who was put in charge of the younger siblings, developed into a ultraresponsible person. She was full of advice, and worry, for everyone. Now that Barbara's own children are settled in college, she has realized that she's outgrown the commitment to ensure that everyone else is taken care of. Barbara decided that this was a commitment she was ready to set aside in favor of one that would get her her own share of joy. Last I heard, she had stopped baking bread for her neighbor's kids' lunches in order to become a master silk painter.
As a middle child, Vicki learned early on that more than one point of view exists on every issue. To keep peace, she developed a commitment, in dealing with her family, to recognizing others' points of view. As an adult, though, Vicki has now recognized that playing the diplomat has kept her stuck for over a decade in a job where she's been placating a difficult, unfair, and demanding boss. Currently, Vicki is assessing her finances and considering her choices. If she decides she needs her job, she may replace her commitment to keep the peace with a commitment to honestly assert herself at work. Or perhaps she'll redefine -- reinterpret -- her commitment as one to diffuse violence in the world: In this case, Vicki could decide to train to become a family therapist for violent parents. Maybe she'll decide that her commitment is still fundamental to who she is, and that she wants to reeaffirm it by working in a field that promotes cross-cultural relations.
The youngest sister, Margaret, always got the hand-me-downs and the leftovers. Not surprisingly, Maggie developed a commitment to vigilantly protecting her share -- to getting her due and helping others get theirs. She became a litigating lawyer, a job she loves. She has, she says, her dream job and house and life. But a few years ago Maggie realized that she was bickering over "portions" in every area of her personal life. At the holidays, Maggie was driving Barbara and Vicki nuts, insisting that they each contribute the same amount of cooking, of money, and even of the time required to make the phone calls to organize the event. Even her conversations with the checkout clerk at her grocery store seemed to end in a debate about whether Maggie would get what she fairly deserved! When Maggie heard Vicki talk about her commitments, and the struggle she was going through, Maggie decided to reinterpret her own commitment to get her share. What she wasn't getting her share of, Maggie realized, was peace of mind! Maggie adopted a new commitment: to recognize other people's points of view.
Each sister, you will notice, uncovered commitments she'd previously rejected. In the process, they learned more about each other and deepened the bonds among them. Maggie gained new respect for Vicki, whom she'd always thought of as a wimp. And Barbara, who used to treat Maggie as if she couldn't live without the advice of her older sister, has even started to call Maggie for advice on how to negotiate with galleries on the sale of her silk paintings!
When we find ourselves on a regular basis tangling with the people in our lives, it's often because we think we know -- but don't -- what their commitments are. Or we take a defensive position and put down our loved one's commitment to save whales, because we assume that it conflicts with our commitment to care for our aging parents. We take the defensive position that our own commitments are morally superior. Or we chide ourselves and put off pursuing our joy, because while everybody else's commitments seem valid, ours seem trivial. I'll go into this more in the chapter on paradigms, but again, I want to reiterate that though we're all pros at putting all kinds of spin on the commitments we and others hold, none of them is morally superior.
"What about the rest of you?" asked Hafeezah. "Those of you who haven't spoken? What are you out for? What are you committed to?"
After a few more minutes, Zully Alvarado, a designer with a disability who owns her own corporation in Chicago, threw her huge red scarf over her shoulder. Zully is from Ecuador; she was raised by an American family in Chicago after a priest, who had taken an interest in her, brought her to the States for medical care. She has blackberry-colored eyes, a dazzling smile, long black hair pulled back into an elegant knot, and an elegant, stylish outfit that I -- sitting in the back of the room in my dark, tailored suit -- envy. Ten years ago Zully quit her job and went back to school for fashion design, eventually starting a company that creates stylish, one-of-a-kind shoes for people with hard-to-fit feet. She has come to Lifedesigns because she's looking to widen her world even further.
"I want to share myself totally," said Zully. "Just to share myself and be fully self-expressed. I want to get rid of the belief that I shouldn't let people get to know me, because they'll use what they learn against me."
"That's an assumption we'll be looking at," Hafeezah said.
"I work at the Women's Self-Employment Project," said Josie. "I'm a successful trainer of other women -- WSEP got the first presidential award for microenterprise. But I haven't yet achieved personal success. My grandmother said, 'Don't put your shoes on the top shelf of the closet.' I know I'm not achieving, because I'm waiting for approval. I want to do what I want without needing approval."
"I'm having trouble," says Mary Scott. "I know there is a story inside me I want to tell, but I don't know what it is, or how I'd go about it."
"Sometimes identifying your passion is a totally new discovery," said Hafeezah. "Sometimes it's more like remembering what the world taught you to forget, taught you that you couldn't have."
"I want to move to Italy, create design software for a fashion company, and marry a fabulous Italian man," said Alane.
At this, even the most serious and self-important woman in the room roared with delight. Alane blushed and threw her face over her hands as she laughed. But Zully, who was sitting next to her, grabbed her elbow.
"No, you know, that's great," Zully cried. "I love that! Ten years ago I left my job, and went to school to become a fashion designer," Zully continued. "And I'm a success. But what I want is to be more self-expressed."
"I've known Zully for ten years," Mary Scott said. "We came here together. Whatever she does, it's with style. Look at her gorgeous cane with the ivory handle, how it matches her outfit! I had meningitis when I was ten, and got a stunted leg. I've always been
Simple Steps To A Fabulous Life
In My Wildest Dreams
Simple Steps To A Fabulous Life
Have you ever thought about how your life would be if anything -- absolutely anything -- were possible? Gail Blanke, founder of Lifedesigns, is a living example of this philosophy, and In My Wildest Dreams gives you her tools for transforming your dreams into reality, for defining your great life however you define great. Like the thousands of women who have come to Blanke's workshops, you too will understand that you can design a life as outrageously wonderful as you can imagine. Clearly written techniques and a step-by-step set of exercises will show you how to:
* Unravel the mind-set that keeps you trapped in the past
* Declare and redefine your interpretation of a great life
* Listen powerfully to discover new possibilities
* Connect to resources you have at your fingertips but may not see
* Create a strong network of women committed to your progress, who will remind you of your dream, and ensure that you follow through on your life's joy!
So stop settling and starting soaring, right now!