What I Learned from Giving a TEDx Talk

I could see the audition room from the nook I had found in an effort to pull myself together. Located in a university library, the room looked like a small study space. Given my long history with such rooms, my mind said the familiarity should bring some comfort. My nervous system vehemently disagreed. I tried several tricks of the trade to calm my internal anarchy: deeply and slowly breathing with a loooooong exhale, holding a river rock in my hand to ground and center my body, huffing lavender essential oil, asking my fear brain to chill out (with lovingkindness, of course). None of these things worked. My body decided this place was engulfed in flames. The only way to help me survive was by furiously signaling that I needed to get the hell out of there. My mind, of course, refused to listen. Too many hours spent crafting, editing, and memorizing five minutes of speech meant the most stubborn part of me dug in her heels. I was staying unless or until something catastrophic happened.

The five interviewers arrived, and I walked into the audition shaky and about to pass out. In that moment, the past performances and travails I successfully navigated in this lifetime disappeared from the map. So what that I had given a commencement address in the not-so-distant past in a large stadium. Never mind that even more recently I made it through the trauma of lying naked on an operating table for a dreaded c-section. Somehow, the task of auditioning without notes disabled the parts of my brain that knew how to do something besides freak out.


Sure enough, while delivering my five-minute talk, I flipped my lid, to borrow from Dan Siegel. The words disappeared, completely. Erased from the white board of my mind. If I had not had some PowerPoint slides to cue me, I could not have retrieved the speech to save my life. I walked out of that library convinced that my anxiety would forever squander my dream of giving a TED talk. I simply was not cut out for this kind of performance.

Herein lies my first lesson: do not believe what your inner critic tells you.

As a recovering perfectionist and academic, I know my critical manager intimately. When she senses danger, she takes over like a boss. Despite knowing about her tendency to dominate unsafe spaces, I heeded only her voice after leaving that audition room. I believed hook, line, and sinker that I had been an unmitigated disaster. I would hear nothing from the TEDxCU committee except that my idea was not worth spreading.

I therefore felt incredulous when I received an invitation to speak at the 2018 event. After accepting the invitation, I shared the intensity of my audition nervousness with one of the interviewers. She said it was not evident to her; rather, I clearly had invested a lot of time and energy on rehearsing my speech, and that showed. Once again, my mean-spirited protector had cast only shadows. I usually imagine this critic as a bright red lobster. By forcefully pointing out the flaws she deemed in need of correction, she thought she was helping. But this old, brow-beating strategy, taught and learned at a much earlier time in life, when I encountered criticism at nearly every turn, no longer serves. The work of unlearning the harsh tales this critic effortlessly weaves is worthwhile, even if it takes a lifetime.

After recovering from the shock of appearing on the TEDxCU speaker roster, I encountered my next lesson: persistence highly correlates with triumph.

This TEDx gig reminded me of an interview with author Kate DiCamillo. DiCamillo collected nearly 400 rejection letters on her way to becoming a Newbery medalist. About persistence, she wrote,

I've been in so many writing workshops, writing classes, and to the right of me and to the left of me, there's always somebody much more talented than I am. And what I figured out is they're not willing to go through the rejection, which is enormous, and then the compromise that comes with editing your work. I decided a long time ago that I didn't have to be talented. I just had to be persistent, and that that was something that I could control — the persistence.

When I learned I would be climbing onto the TEDxCU stage, my immediate thought was, I cannot give this talk without notes. I knew in my bones that having my written speech in hand constituted the one and only way for me to me to speak to a public audience, with cameras rolling, for longer than 10 minutes.

One of the most useful practices I have as a psychotherapist is knowing how to distinguish survival resources from creative resources. As it turns out, helping others to discern one from the other tends to be easier than doing it for ourselves. Survival tools helped us to get through something. The issue with them is that we keep using these resources past the time they benefit us. We know they have become a survival resource when they make our world smaller. Creative resources, on the other hand, open up our world. They motivate us to get out of bed in the morning and wholeheartedly jump into life. Sometimes creative resources morph into survival ones, and vice versa, as life circumstances change. In my past, notes had helped me to publicly defend a dissertation, give numerous academic and professional presentations, and teach college classes. I now sensed I needed them, and my utter dependence on notes transformed them into a survival resource.

So when I approached one of the people who was guiding us through this TEDx process about using notes on the day of the event, he told me in no uncertain terms, "If you go on stage with notes, you will be the only one who does so." Although I did not particularly appreciate this feedback, it helped me to identify that my attachment to notes had moved me into the land of survival resources. Absorbing the reality that TEDxCU speakers were expected to give a memorized talk set me on a path of figuring out what creative resources could allow me to give this talk without my beloved notes.

For example, I read Tim Urban's post on doing a TED talk and learned that memorizing the talk to the point of being able to recite it like "Happy Birthday" allowed speakers to focus on other things than the speech's content--like being present and engaged. As he wrote, "[T]he human brain is able to engrave things to that level if you just rehearse enough and sleep on it enough times." Now I had a concrete goal toward which I could work, which assuaged some of my anxiety. I also had a lot of work to do to realize that aspiration, which is where persistence comes in. Any time I could manage to practice the talk, I did--in the shower, during my commute to work, while cooking a meal. After my toddler went to sleep at night, I not only practiced the talk but also videotaped myself giving it as I got closer and closer to having it memorized cold. That damn talk involuntarily played in my head for days after the event it was so ingrained in my brain.

I also developed a plan B. Since my talk was all about suspending judgment, I figured that I would keep notes in my back pocket. If I went totally blank on stage, as I did in the audition, I could pull out my notes and talk about how this moment was not a failure but a growth opportunity. Embracing this alternative as a viable option caused the anxiety to drop precipitously.

Beta-blockers were another significant creative resource I sought out to persist with this goal of giving a TED talk. I am grateful to my psychopharmacology teacher from therapy school for de-stigmatizing what turned out to be an amazing aid for me. She casually mentioned that she took beta-blockers when giving a big presentation, and I tucked away this nugget of wisdom for future use. When I work with clients who are debating whether or not to take psychotropic medication, I frequently send them to mindfulness teacher Tara Brach's blog post on this topic. She brings compassion and wisdom to bear in acknowledging

...for some people, no matter how hard they try something else is needed to engender safety and bring anxiety to a manageable level...There are no absolute recipes for working with this issue of taking medications. In making choices on our path, it’s important to ask ourselves whether or not they will serve awakening and freedom. Our best answers are found by honestly looking into our intentions.

My deeper intention than completing this TED talk was to face and work through my fear of failure. The beta-blockers helped me to do that. Nevertheless, I persisted.


The final major lesson for me came after I gave the TEDxCU talk and began sharing it with the world: Do not take anything--and I mean anything--personally.

Intellectually, I knew this adage forward and backward. I frequently share with clients a favorite quote from a favorite chapter on not taking things personally:

Prior to giving the talk, I also explored with a therapist how to work with my fear of criticism from people in marginalized communities. I knew this talk was challenging the tendency in social justice circles to take a morally righteous stance. From testing out my ideas in various audiences, I surmised the probability was high that I might trigger a negative reaction from those I most wanted to support and least wanted to upset. When I checked in with myself, however, I felt clear about the importance of moving beyond right/wrong and good/bad dualities while challenging systemic harm. I would not diminish my truth out of fear.

Instead, I reflected long and hard on my words and invited feedback from various sources to ensure, to the degree I could, that my intentions lined up with the impact of my statements. But one cannot control another's response, which is, to again borrow from Ruiz, "a projection of their own reality." My next step was to work on accepting that others' reactions to my talk were beyond my control.

Additionally, I used a trauma therapy technique of imagining my protectors, nurturers, and wise guides were in the room with me as I gave my talk. The owls and hawks I frequently see with my child during evening walks in Colorado were flying amongst the audience, creating a safeguard between harsh critics and me. On the stage, the many courageous activists, teachers, and spiritual guides I have been lucky enough to encounter in this lifetime stood alongside me, reminding me that I was not alone. They also wisely reinforced that these ideas were not mine; they were shared ones borne of our interdependence.

Even with all this preparation, a mean-spirited online comment about my talk from a stranger on a queer parent Facebook page cut me to the quick. I could not get it out of my head. Yes, this was a virtual community of virtually unknown people, but I still had a sense that it was my community, and someone within it slammed me. What most helped me to come out of the turtle shell into which I was fast retreating was David Wong's article, "Why You're Being Kept In a Constant State of Impotent Rage." In it, he acknowledges the new frontier onto which we have entered:

...this system has a magical way of making even a hugely successful person feel helpless, because they're being attacked by nobodies who lash out because they also feel helpless. This helplessness comes from being raised to expect things from the world that it can't actually give you....if you are a public person in 2018, you will at some point be used as a punching bag by a bunch of strangers. That's the purpose you'll serve in their life, a thing they can hate without risk, and then forget about. It's part of the tradeoff of being a public person, and oh by the way, in the social media era, everyone is a public person.

In addition to placing the Facebook comment into a larger sociocultural framework and, so, depersonalizing it, this article brought me back to a central intention of doing this TEDxCU talk in the first place: to interrupt the helplessness that so many of us feel and that often spurs more violence and abuse. Ironically, the talk's central theme played out in a social media thread about the talk itself. At least the talk had some relevance, I suppose!

For those of you out there who absolutely believe you cannot realize an important dream, I hope you will dig beneath the self-doubt, turn away from the internal and external naysayers, and look around to see if untapped resources within and around you can bring that vision to life. Since I love an inspiring quote, here is one from Maya Angelou, "My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still."






Getting Unstuck: Downgrading Expectations and Setting Boundaries

Hazel at 9 weeks old This little lady has taken up more of my time these days, which is the main reason I have not been writing as much or as often. I thought I'd share the cuteness because hey, who doesn't like a puppy? I also wanted to introduce Hazel because the goal is for her to become part of my therapy practice when she's a little older. In the meantime, I have been thinking about the following:

I recently felt surprised at the intensity of my anger. I've spent several years practicing mindfulness and self-compassion and thought my capacity for rage had largely subsided. But a relational issue sprung up to remind me how the interaction between expectations and boundaries (or, rather, a lack thereof) can spur intense anger. Happily, Pavel Somov's book Present Perfect came into my life just in time to help me attend to the burning embers rather than react from them. This quote in particular initiated a very helpful pause:

By insisting on reality being a certain way, we get stuck. To get unstuck, downgrade your expectations to preferences. Whereas an expectation is an unwarranted entitlement, a demand that reality comply with your vision of how it should be, a preference is just a wish...Practice expecting nothing and flowing with what is.

This simple act of shifting an expectation to a preference significantly calmed my desire to lash out at the person whose behavior triggered so much angst. I could still wish for them to be more respectful and considerate of my time and efforts but not view this desire as a just desert. As I changed my stance, the self-righteous anger dissolved. What came in its stead was some very useful information.

For one thing, I realized I had not been attending to my boundaries. I took a historical look at this relationship and acknowledged to myself--really acknowledged--how frequently I did not say anything to this person about the behavior that was bothering me so as to avoid conflict. I feared that conflict would result in this person cutting me off, and the relationship mattered enough to me that I did not want to risk its loss. But as Donna Hicks asserts, when we avoid conflict we oftentimes violate our own dignity. As she says, "Stand up for yourself...A violation is a signal that something in a relationship needs to change."

Upon recognizing how many times I tried to overlook the parts of our relationship that needed to change for me to feel okay about it, the strength of my anger was no mystery. The metaphor of the pot boiling over rings true: we can only ignore our experience of indignity for so long before we explode or experience other symptoms of de-selfing such as depression and anxiety. Setting boundaries really amounts to saying yes to ourselves.

Somov's book has helped me to engage in a cooling off period so that when the opportunity arises to set boundaries, I can do so calmly and with kindness. I particularly liked his exercise "Open the First of the Past":

When wanting to let go of painful thoughts of the past, try this. Think of the worst part of what happened in the incident that's bothering you. As you do, clench your first as tightly as you can. Notice the tension. Think of this as the tension of holding on to the past. Recognize that you have a choice right now: you can stay tense or you can let go. Decide if you want to hold on to the thought or if you're ready to let go of it. When you decide to let go, gradually open your fist to drop the issue. Notice the release of the tension. If it still has a hold on you, repeat this process until it doesn't. If what happened bothers you in more than one way, think of the next worst part. Repeat the sequence.

So downgrading our expectations to preferences is not the end of the story. We still get to respect ourselves, which is precisely what boundaries allow us to do. With courage, practice, and support, we can set boundaries with lovingkindness, recognizing that difficult truths can be expressed without thorns. In Hidayat Inayat-Khan's lovely words, "What use is there in a blunt truth thrown like a stone, which breaks the heart? There is no virtue in truth which has no beauty."

Going Home

Describing Bowenian family systems theory, James Bitter wrote,

Bowen taught individuals or couples about triangulation* and then expected them to go back to their family-of-origin to extricate themselves emotionally from these triangular patterns. The purpose of going home again is not to confront family members, or even to establish peace and harmony, but to encourage clients to come to know others in their family as they are.

Credit to Hey Girl Social Worker

I recently returned to my childhood town for my twentieth high school reunion. Although this event did not directly involve my family-of-origin, it did involve a kind of "going home again." While I looked forward to discovering the shapes of my classmates' lives, I also entered into that space with a fair amount of trepidation. After all, high school had been a challenging time for me despite my efforts to put on a happy face much of the time. As I performed the role of a high-achieving, engaged student from a "stable family," most of my peers had no idea that I begged my parents to let me leave our huge, competitive, suburban high school or that I struggled with the significant anxiety and depression that accompany perfectionism. I worried that I would face limited and limiting perceptions about who I am, thus feeling like a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of the person I consider myself to have become during the past twenty years. I imagine I was not alone in carrying this fear into the event.

How grateful I was, then, to encounter warm hugs, smiles, and heaps of curiosity about where we each had been during the last two decades. I learned of meandering career pathways, children born and children lost, and relationships that came together and fell apart. For the most part, we weren't there to prove something to each other but, rather, to reconnect with a significant part of our life history and those who contributed to it.

I have learned the hard way that trying to reject our experience is a recipe for suffering. We derive peace and contentment from developing a coherent life story that includes its many chapters, not just the ones we like best or that feel comfortable. As May Benatar eloquently stated,

So many of us have accepted, wholesale, someone else's version of our lives. If you have been told forever that your childhood was idyllic, you might be tempted to go along and not validate some of your own memories, or even your weak suspicions that things were not always perfect...It is truly amazing how much fog, depression, confusion and anxiety begins to lift when the story one narrates starts to be one's own. It needn't be a pretty story or even a wholly accurate story -- just one's own.

The people I encountered at my twenty-year high school reunion reminded me that being the author of our own stories directly and positively correlates with our well-being. I like to joke that I genuinely took back my own narrative in a parking lot a few years back when my dad asked, "You always wanted to be a [MD] doctor, right?" I responded, "No, Dad. I always wanted to be a writer, and I AM a doctor [of the PhD kind]." I needed years to know myself as I am so that I could assume roles I freely chose, such as writer, therapist, and recovering perfectionist instead of professor, striver, and stressball. That work allowed me to enter into my high school reunion speaking as the author of my own story and so feeling less scared than I otherwise would of my peers' projections of me. To the best of my ability, I listened to others' narratives about their own becoming, without assumptions or judgments obstructing my hearing. I am thankful for feeling heard in just this way by so many people that night.

My classmates also reinforced my sense that our ability to trust our experience as it unfolds is essential to feeling freedom and joy. Letting go of limiting beliefs (e.g., my childhood was idyllic) and roles (e.g., the good girl and the high achiever) that we learned from people and contexts outside of ourselves clears the path for such trust to take root. In the poetic words of Kaveri Patel:

Someone is Dying


That someone is me.


Not a 6 month to one year prognosis from a terminal illness, but a letting go of all I have ever known.


I used to believe that fear would save me. Worry just enough, and maybe even sprinkle just a little extra anxiety to convince myself I can control future events.


I know nothing. Except for this moment. Beginner’s Mind, my mind is like an empty page. The words cannot be written, the colors cannot


be painted until the moment arrives.


And when it does, I will know who to be, what to say, what to do. I am on the right path. I wish to let go of all my preconceived notions of what will happen. The only thing I wish to hold onto is trust in this practice.


Good bye old mind. I do not hate you. I do not wish for you to die sooner than you must. You brought me here. I will collect ashes from your pyre, let them scatter with the wind and float on the river.


You will join the earth, as I am born again.


* For those unfamiliar with triangulation and curious about what it is, Bitter did a great job summarizing Bowen's theory: "Bowen (1976) notes that anxiety can easily develop within intimate relationships. Under stressful situations, two people may recruit a third person into the relationship to reduce the anxiety and gain stability. This is called triangulation. Although triangulation may lessen the emotional tension between the two people, the underlying conflict is not addressed and, in the long run, the situation worsens."


Letting Go of Addiction

Recently I gave up coffee. I was a serious coffee drinker, having developed an addiction to it as a graduate student that I actively nurtured for over a decade. The idea of not having a giant cup of joe (well, several cups in reality) upon getting out of bed in the morning seemed both cruel and ludicrous. Why, then, did I quit this amazing source of liquid caffeine? The primary catalyst was a wake-up call from my partner on the heels of a major loss. An unwavering appeal from an acupuncturist to quit all forms of coffee soon thereafter sealed the deal. Sometimes we need those outside ourselves to hold up a mirror before we can clearly see what is reflected back at us.

I had been plugging along, jittery as hell, through graduate school, a three-year stint as an academic, more graduate school, and, finally, my beloved new career as a psychotherapist. Through much of that time, being on a caffeine-enhanced edge had its benefits. I could not sit still very long--or sleep very well--and so worked a ton and pushed my body to its limits. Accordingly, I accomplished a lot and consistently received the external validation that I used to crave even more than the caffeine. Plus coffee went hand in hand with the beer I also started to drink in graduate school. The alcohol facilitated winding down at the end of the day, after so much coffee consumption, and eased my anxiety about the many tasks left undone, particularly when I was a tenure-track professor. It also muted a deeper, more insidious sense of inherent deficiency.

As I've written previously, a lot of healing can and has come from self-acceptance and the understanding that imperfections actually serve to connect our vulnerable human selves. I mean, who wants to hug perfection? You might mess it up! Moving toward lovingkindness and away from self-judgment greatly decreased my desire to numb out with a beer or two.

Unfortunately, changing our beliefs does not necessarily eliminate the anxiety coursing through our bodies. I come from a family chock full of anxious types. A backward look, through more than one generation, bolstered my decision to quit coffee because in the various cases of alcohol and drug abuse, obsessive compulsive behaviors, perfectionism, rigidity, and stubbornness that I found, I could see the legacy I inherited. As epigenetics has revealed, stress and trauma can affect the gene pool for three to four generations. All of this is to say that an historical glance at my family system supported a decision to halt the incessant self-blame for my anxiety--I was predisposed to this shit after all!--and call on the power I actually had to alleviate my own suffering.

The fact of the matter is that coffee contributed to a sped-up, fearful, hardened self that I no longer wanted to inhabit. More pointedly,  I experienced a fair amount of emotional reactivity while using coffee to weather my long days, which was brought home to me in the face of an unexpected death that profoundly shook my personal and professional worlds. I am grateful that my partner risked expressing concern about my coping strategies during this time of intense grief and raw vulnerability. That care challenged a misguided sense of resilience I had been carrying around: "I will push through this pain." Letting go is different than fighting or giving up, and this tragedy flipped my palms up in a gesture of surrender--to the inevitable sorrow accompanying loss, uncertainty of life, and impermanence of being.

Once I allowed myself to hear the love behind the request to stop inhaling coffee, I could see the remnants of a divided life that I still embodied. Despite the energy and time I had poured into undoing the conditions and habits that fed a deep fear of failure, I had not yet attuned to the embodied aspects of my daily reality. The abovementioned difficult loss presented an opportunity to be more open and honest with myself about the parts of my life that were not working all that well.

I have long aspired to be present to this life and the lives of others, and I can do that more readily when I feel calm, grounded in my body, and well-rested. I may not be able to accomplish as much or create a spurt of short-lived energy to get through something without the false refuge of a 20-ounce coffee, but I can tell you this:

My fears feel less overwhelming. Breathing comes easier. I sleep more readily and restfully. My yearning for an alcoholic beverage at the end of the day has dramatically dwindled. The regulation of my emotions--particularly when I confront something upsetting--requires significantly less effort. I am in greater touch with what is happening in my body and therefore can respond more appropriately to sensations like exhaustion, hunger, and pain.

Weaning myself off coffee over several weeks with the help of half-caff and decaffeinated beans seemed to diminish but not completely eliminate the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Nevertheless, we human beings are amazingly adaptable when we allow rather than resist our experience. Not battling the fatigue, headaches, and flu-like signs of withdrawal helped them to move through and out of my system in a couple of weeks.

Perhaps some day I will be able to have an occasional cup of coffee and savor it. For now, I can accept that my particular family legacy and high doses of caffeine are not a great pair and, so, gently and patiently let go of that over which I have control--my addiction to coffee.

And by failure, I meant unforgiven...

Being this moment is who we are. In being the awakened life we are, our practice effort is noticing what blinds us. These blinders are self-centered emotion--thoughts interwoven in forms, conceptions, and sensations. Practice effort may be defined as labeling thoughts and being bodily present, as noticing strategies and experiencing...If we are unclear, we may think practice is about making things better, about changing and improving. Though improvements may occur, they are not the aim of the practice.

--Elihu Genmyo Smith

Because I present myself as a recovering perfectionist, I have had the honor and challenge of working with several clients who also identify with this label. For me, the difficulty of this collaboration resides in an intimate understanding of how fearing failure can create impenetrable fortresses, within and beyond the therapeutic setting. Needless to say, working with perfectionists as a perfectionist means clients frequently hold up an obvious mirror to my face. I do my best to meet what reflects back at me. Admittedly, I sometimes run away until I have calmed my fears or can only be with the reflection for a few moments at a time before my own carefully crafted walls start creeping up, around, and over me, doing their best to safeguard my soft underbelly. The moments of staying with that reflection, without doing anything with or to it, have taught me the following about the blinders of perfectionism:

When we repeatedly and consistently pummel ourselves for our imperfections, the hardest part of our humanity often surfaces in an effort to protect us.  Although we are hurting, those with whom we are in relationship may only see a severe, glaring mask and so withdraw from us or react with their own venom to this perceived enmity. In the moment we most crave connection, we inadvertently create barriers to it. That is what defense mechanisms do; they produce the very phenomenon against which we are trying to defend. Unfortunately, we miss the chance to connect when we harden since bonding in an authentic way requires that we take the armor off and show ourselves to the world, vulnerabilities and all. As Ash Beckham said in her TEDxBoulder talk, "If you want someone to be real with you, they need to know that you bleed, too."


How do we open and soften to others in the face of the failure specter? My fellow perfectionists, I write with the utmost sincerity when I say that acknowledging our own suffering begins the pathway to healing. We cannot let down the barricades to others until we open to our own experience with curiosity, friendliness, and tenderness. Said differently, we start the recovery process by saying to ourselves, "I'm sorry"--not to apologize but to show care and concern toward the pain within. We begin saying yes to our experience and the life that is here by forgiving it.*

If these words spur all sorts of judgments toward me or yourself, I ask that you foster curiosity about that inner critic. In my experience, that judge is our best and strongest builder of the blockade that is attempting to protect us but is actually keeping us separate, from others and ourselves. She emerged to help us survive at an earlier point in time. Perhaps she showed up when we could not meet parental expectations as children, no matter how hard we tried. Or maybe she appeared when a primary caregiver told us s/he loved us no matter what but modeled a highly conditional self-love (i.e. was a perfectionist him or herself). Beyond the family, perhaps we went to a highly competitive school or spent a lot if time in social institutions where we repeatedly received the message that any performance below some arbitrary ideal represented a failure:

of character

of achievement

of beauty

of "normalcy."

My point is that although the critic means well, she's not helping us a lot of the time. So we can decide to let her go. But that action is easier said than done. Usually, she's a master of wall-building--after all, she's been at it for a long time--so we need to be very intentional and disciplined about cultivating and then employing another, gentler voice. A question I find useful in the service of letting the inner judge go is, What would I have to face/feel/experience if I suspended my judgment?  Generally, when I contemplate setting down the shield of self-judgment, I find what we therapist types call "primary emotions"--the softer, more vulnerable feelings of fear and sadness. If we allow ourselves to investigate these feelings with friendliness, we may generate enough heart space to begin offering ourselves forgiveness. We may even (dare I say it!) want to replace the incessant criticism with blessings of lovingkindness: May I be happy, be safe, be healthy, live with ease.

In addition to offering forgiveness to myself, I find that unlearning dichotomous, value-laden ways of thinking (right/wrong, good/bad, success/failure) opens doors to more wholehearted ways of approaching this life, which is so much more dynamic and complex than rigid black-and-white thinking allows. As I've written previously, this truth has been so important to my own healing that I tattooed a reminder on my body: "Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."

But with what do we replace these binary frameworks? Enter Sharon Salzberg's wisdom, which I recommend reading again and again and again:

the immediate result of an action, and how others respond to it, is only a small part of its value. There are two other significant aspects: the intention giving rise to the an action and the skillfulness with which we perform it. The intention is our basic motivation, or the inner urge that sparks the action. The skillfulness with which we act involves carrying out the intention with sensitivity to and awareness of what might be appropriate in any given situation. While the skillfulness of an action has a great deal to do with the result, it is the intention behind an action that is critically important. We can't control the response to an action. We can do our best to act skillfully, but it is at the level of intention where we make a crucial choice. An action can be motivated by love--or by hatred and revenge. Self-interest can be the source of what we do--or generosity can be. If our intention is wholesome, we can have faith in the workings of interconnectedness to continuously unfold our action, no matter how small or big, in positive ways.

For perfectionists, the "inner urge" driving much action is external approval and/or the achievement of some ideal. But as Salzberg pointed out, we leave a whole lot of our well-being to forces beyond our control when we focus our attention on others' responses and immediate results. What might happen to our actions if we made our intention to forgive ourselves for our imperfections, to offer kindness to ourselves rather than judgment? You will need to try it to believe it, but I know from my own experience that I have oodles more love and compassion to offer outwardly when I can muster friendliness toward myself. I also have more freedom. Moreover, and to circle back to the quote opening this post, I often see the present moment with more clarity when I am forgiving of myself and so remove the blinder of self-judgment. In other words, I tend to act more skillfully from this clear-seeing place that recognizes the "matrix of conditions" influencing this moment.** But that "improved" skillfulness and whatever results it engenders were not the intention. Self-improvement was not the goal. Forgiveness and lovingkindness were.

Once again, we arrive at a question that each of us must answer for ourselves: What stands between me and stripping away "the entangling, unhealthy ways of relating to [myself] with dislike and diminishment"?*** I imagine the answer to this question involves at least some pain that has thus far been covered over. In light of the fact that I permanently placed Rumi's words on my arm, you likely will not be surprised that I am going to close with his words, too:

Don't turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That's where the light enters you.

* As usual, Tara Brach heavily influenced this post. For this one, I particularly drew on her retreat talk, "The Heartspace that is Our True Home."

** Here, I again was borrowing from Sharon Salzberg's Faith.

*** More Sharon Salzberg!