a better life for a better you

Finding Our Future

winding roadThe future is always one step ahead of us. No matter how much we have planned or prepared; no matter what we or others expect,  the future has a way of completely confounding us. The future in this context can seem to be very overpowering or overwhelming with its ability to keep us in check or keep us guessing.

Our future is a fairly abstract concept which emerges out of our understanding of time. It represents what we can’t see or know for sure despite our many plans. Yet; the idea of preparing for our future is our own way of being involved with the unknown.  Planning tomorrow as it were, is therefore to be commended. It suggests foresight and strengthens the idea that we can have some control over what we can’t know for sure. On our part, planning for our future suggests diligence, wisdom and organization.  While these traits are all great, life teaches, however, that they are usually not enough.

How then do we lay hold of or maximize an often elusive but preferred future? The truth is, we may have to learn to redefine how we perceive the idea of “future”. Of course we sometimes successfully plan our education, career, life partner, financial investments, holidays and the like. We also feel very good when our lives roll out as we imagined within a particular time-frame. The problem is that these incremental successes can lull us into a false sense of security.  They can trick us into believing too deeply in our own infallibility and accuracy.  And of course we sometimes make prudent choices because of our education or previous life experiences. This, however,  is no guarantee that our lives will always line up as planned.

Several years ago I penned the following lines to a poem after receiving some devastating news which altered both my present and my future.

“I knew who I was this morning
Now I’m not so sure
Life happened somewhere between the sevens
And now I am unfurled” (From “Life Happened” by Denise J Charles)

These words seek to communicate the idea that our lives can change in one split second; no matter what we have planned. A child’s defiance,  a spouse’s betrayal, a bad diagnosis,  a job cut, a broken relationship, an accident or any unexpected occurrence can happen anywhere “between the sevens” ; an image for the unpredictability of time. Yes, between seven in the morning and seven at night, there can be unpredictable shifts which have the potential to rock our existence.

Finding our future in these spaces; even when “life happens”, is critical for the recovering of our peace of mind. The following key principles may help us to decipher our own blessings from the mess we sometimes encounter:
1. Accept that we don’t know everything: While planning is good, we must accept that in life, there are no absolutes or  guarantees. We can’t predict every eventuality and must accept that surprises will happen.
2. Accept that the future is dynamic: While we may plan a “preferred future”, life will deliver curve balls and detours on the road as we journey. This does not signal the end; it simply means that we must take the time to discover a new path. Very often, we can realize that this new path may even be better than the one left behind.
3. Seek to embrace transition: Because we can’t predict every eventuality we must balance having a stranglehold of control on our lives, with accepting the eventual shifts that do come.  It is at the point of change that we encounter transition; this speaks to our adaptation to the unexpected change. Embracing transition allows us to find peace in the knowledge that life is not a fixed state but a haphazard journey.
4. Decide to re-frame experience: Our perspective on our experiences can immobilize or galvanize us. While fear of the future can drive us into inactivity or even depression, redefining painful experiences as powerful life-lessons, allows us to appreciate their value.  This creates a context for our personal growth and strengthens our ability to help others.  Ultimately, our future should not be perceived as a fixed utopia where we can only be happy if life is perfect. Rather, we must view our future as a continuum from which empowerment can emerge, even amidst the uncertainties of life.

finding purposeWhile doing a training session for a group of professionals, I decided to candidly share a bit of my life story. In talking about the challenges of my broken childhood home and of my resulting interest in helping others, I ended up doing something I didn’t set out to do or even recognize at the time. I was actually made aware of what I had done because of the warm feedback which followed and it had nothing to do with any title I had given myself in my introductory bio.

After my presentation, a participant said to me “I didn’t know you were a motivational speaker . . . I would pay to hear you talk”. Others confirmed having a powerful “light bulb experience” as they too saw their lives played out before them as I spoke. This audience connected readily with my theme of pushing towards one’s dreams and this would have been one of the expected outcomes of my planning.

Although as a professional trainer I was more than prepared with my slides and handouts, I  had in no way planned the “side-stories” which spontaneously sprung from my heart nor could I have anticipated their impact. Through my unplanned self-exposure, I was in essence making myself vulnerable to a group of people who were not exactly my bosom buddies. That is when I had my own epiphany.

I had, in fact, moved beyond mere clinical training. I had motivated. I had given hope. I had helped my listeners to see that there was life beyond their current profession or circumstances. I had influenced them into thinking that they too could also dream differently; that they could extend themselves beyond their current limitations. That is when I recognized that my gift had made room for me.  My ability to communicate and to be vulnerable in self-exposure, had yielded unexpected dividends. It created a real context for me to be identified as a “Motivational Speaker” not simply because I said so but because others recognized it in me. This situation defined for me an aspect of my purpose and I didn’t even have to fight to make it happen.

We currently live in an age of experts; some legitimately trained; some self-styled and self-defined and others, authentic teachers drawing from the wisdom of their own life-experiences. While we may not all have such titles or the same experiences, each of us can lead a fulfilled life because we have made it a priority to do more than just work or earn a living. When we desire to connect with our gift or when circumstances make it glaringly obvious, we should count ourselves blessed.  Whether it’s the ability to communicate, play an instrument, excel in a sport, lead a non-profit, be artistic or grow a business, connecting with our gifts will both satisfy and define us.

We are often gifted in an area because this is where we can flourish and thrive for the benefit of others; it’s a small part of why we were created. Yes, our gifts can open doors but it’s never all about us. Our gifts may or may not be our primary source of income but if we learn to embrace these strengths and make them our passion, we may find ourselves walking into surprising and fruitful opportunities which often enrich our lives.

 

Counting Blessings

Originally posted on Better Blends Coaching:

thankfulness While having an attitude of gratitude may sound terribly old and cliché, it’s a core life principle which we need to continually hold dear. Many of us today are plagued by a Cinderella syndrome which prevents us from truly enjoying the blessings which come our way. Not that I’m suggesting that Cinderella in the classic fairy tale was miserable, complaining and ungrateful; because she wasn’t. But we know that she was stuck in a rut engineered by her wicked step sisters and step mother which seemed to need an external intervention.

Very often we seem stuck in a rut which appears to be fueled and controlled by the actions of others. Maybe we got passed up for a promotion because we were not the boss’s favourite or we failed to get the approval for that loan. Maybe our boyfriend or husband dumped us and we were left wallowing in a…

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an authentic brandWho are we when no one else is looking? The concept of life or of the world as a stage where each of us is set to perform is a familiar theme in literature. It hints at the idea of grasping opportunities for success and playing out our many-faceted roles well. Today, we would perhaps tweak it a bit more as branding or re-invention. We have the ability, especially with the advent of today’s social media, to build a successful brand. Whether in our personal or professional lives, we are blessed with the opportunity through photos and words to advertise our “brand” for the world to see. The idea of “the world stage” suggests that somehow we have the ability to put in the good or bad performances which will more or less determine our continued life’s success or by the same token, prophesy our failure.

While there may be absolutely nothing wrong with public “performances” or with sharing our successes, who we really are when the “audience” has left the figurative building, is even more critical. And who exactly is our audience? It is often friends, acquaintances, work-colleagues and to a lesser extent family. Since the latter tends to also see us at our worst, less effort is often expended on impressing them. Nonetheless, living authentically before those closest to us, usually guarantees their utmost respect.

The concept of emerging an authentic brand which is true to life, speaks of the value of being a person of excellence whether it’s an audience of one or of one thousand. In fact, the Biblical notion of not letting our left hand know what our right hand is doing speaks of the values of humility and genuineness and makes perfect sense. When we do good out of our purest motivations; because it should be done and not because our audience is watching, then we are a step closer to emerging an authentic self.

At the same time, moving away from a spirit of competitiveness is also an essential part of clarifying our personal motivations. When we compete, we attempt to make ourselves look good at the expense of making someone else look bad in the spirit of “may the best man win”. When we use ourselves instead as the bench-mark for our own self-improvement, then this forces us to be introspective. It encourages us to desire personal change because we believe that the scope for a better self is contingent on our own sense of personal responsibility. Whether in our personal relationships or in our performance at work, we can honestly ask ourselves “how could I have done this better?” or “how can I be a better spouse/parent/colleague/friend?”

The success of the early Coca-Cola advertising campaign “it’s the real thing” was predicated on the fact that people generally desire authenticity in life. Whether it’s a relationship or a beverage, we tend to be wary of dilution or pretense. We want the real thing! Similarly, becoming a person of influence necessitates that we humbly expose who we really are to those we hope to influence. This may mean having to say sorry, even when in a position of leadership or admitting that we don’t know everything nor do we always get it right. Acknowledging our own flawed humanity, even in our striving towards excellence, is a powerful step towards living an authentic life.

Is Your Life A Plan “B”?

plan_aWhen it comes to life and the way we experience it many of us have a list of expectations buffered by an unspoken time line.  We want to have our dream job, dream home and 2.5 kids by the time we reach 30 or 40 depending of course on our socialization or culture.  The point is that we live our lives hoping and expecting that our dreams will become reality in a time frame that will show everyone how very successful we are. That’s in an ideal world.

Real life enters the equation, however, and suddenly our life plans are no longer as straight forward as we thought they would be. Our husband leaves for good, we experience disloyalty or betrayal in an intimate relationship, we lose a cherished job or our kids disappoint us in a major way. Whatever the case, our lives seem far from ideal and our expectations for the most part, have been shot. This seeming negativity or perpetual Plan B is outside what we want for ourselves and can impact us adversely; if we allow it to.

A Plan B existence does not only occur when life serves us a curve ball. It is not always contingent on external forces where we assume the role of a victim who has somehow been dealt a harsh blow.  Sometimes our Plan B existence is of our own making. Maybe we failed to plan for what we really wanted so failure became imminent and unavoidable.  Sometimes bad choices, following the wrong advice, self-doubt or fear may have restricted us and influenced the chain of challenges which followed. Sometimes we believe we have less than an A plan simply because we’re comparing ourselves unfavourably to others and have set impractical benchmarks for measuring success. In this respect, we beat ourselves up simply because we haven’t kept up with the figurative Jones’.

This belief that our experience and existence is somehow flawed or inferior is, however, problematic in itself. This idea emerges from the thought that somehow perfection or a utopia awaits us and only when we experience this elusive ideal can we really be happy. We become like Cinderella awaiting our own personal fairy god-mother to make our every wish come true. Seizing a Plan A experience from our very real Plan B existence, is however critical for our personal growth and development.

Imperfection propels us to desire excellence. Broken relationships remind us of what is unacceptable to us, yet they can teach us the power of forgiveness. Bad professional choices teach us to seize new opportunities for training and promotion, while discontent can motivate us to take risks. We shun imperfection but without it, there would have been no Psalms of praise to take us through our dark journeys; no songs of triumph, no poetic words or lyrics to chronicle the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. As much as we abhor it, our imperfect lives and experiences keep us grounded. They remind us of our humanity and of the truth that we need divine guidance and each other.

Ultimately, our happiness should not be contingent on external trappings of success but rather, by the success we are able to grasp from each moment. Seizing a Plan A experience when things are not going our way is a powerful reminder that value, learning and growth can be had in any circumstance.  This is what makes our lives, literally, “A” okay.

Falling Up

Falling UpNobody likes to fall. Of course as babies, when we are learning to walk, falling is a fairly regular part of the process. We must learn the art of balancing as we become familiar with the rhythm of movement. Eventually we get the hang of it and walking, even running, become like second nature which we do almost automatically.

But then we still fall. We lose balance, we trip, we slide, or perhaps move off too quickly and our painful connection with the pavement or floor can actually tell us something. Falling is never permanent. The embarrassment and pain we experience is transitory. We either pick ourselves up independently or we’re helped up by a friend. We brush ourselves off and move on again. The point is that falling causes us to rise. We don’t go further down into the ground; the next movement after falling is usually up.

When we are confronted with the challenges of our own mistakes and failings it’s important to understand that our next movement must be “up” because actually, after falling, we do have a choice. We could stay put. We could wallow in our pain and discomfort and refuse to move for a while. Eventually, however, we will reach a stalemate and will need to choose to move on. Why then do we hold on to painful mistakes or even things done to us and refuse to let go of them?

Sometimes sitting down in our pain is the easy way out. It requires little effort. I’ve seen individuals who have held on to hurt others have caused them and it usually stunts their own personal growth. Imagine wrapping your arms around anything that’s really big; maybe a big old tree or a huge piece of furniture. That thing will hide you and dwarf you, even as it becomes your prop. It will appear larger than you are because your actions have made it so. The same happens with bitterness and unforgiveness. Failure to “fall up”; to get up and move on and away from hurt and pain will do the same to us. It will make us appear really small. It will rob us of our joy as that thing we refuse to release becomes a self-defining and powerful stumbling block to our own progress.

Whether we fall through our own failing or are pushed by someone’s harsh action, staying down is not an option we should entertain. While I’m in no way romanticizing pain and difficulty, we must use them for times of reflection and redirection. They can, if we let them, teach us about our own resilience. A failed marriage or relationship can cause us to zero in on our own self-worth and clarify for us what we are unwilling to tolerate. A lost job opportunity can give us the impetus to improve our qualifications, start our own business or sharpen our professional skills. Of course there are no magic potions which will bring us to a place of growth. Personal development often requires a willingness not only to be self-critical but also to make the required changes.

Truly moving on from any place of difficulty can only happen after we meet certain conditions. These include acknowledging our pain, processing it, accepting personal responsibility where applicable, and forgiving both ourselves and or the individuals who have hurt us. These “upward” actions can empower us to release and move on.

Telling Our Story

two-women-talking-400x400Most people groups the world over have story-telling traditions. The story-teller serves to preserve the values or morals of his/her respective society. As an artist in her own right, the story-teller fashions tales which affirm our beliefs or are lesson-based. Whether Greek myth, African folklore, European fairy tale, Biblical parable, or Caribbean/Latin-American narrative, stories simultaneously define us and shape our thinking. And while based on human-experience, not every valuable story must be true in its entirety, to hold truth. So what has happened to our story-telling traditions today?

 The reality of instant information at the press of a button or sliding of a screen does shape our current experience. Stories fly at us from every available end and we can become overwhelmed by information overload. The tabloids, the box-office and the best-seller all attempt to send believable stories our way. On the other end, while many bemoan what technology has done to human relationships, the existence of social media is in itself an attempt to reinvent intimacy and to re-tell our stories.

 But how can we deal with the challenge of hiding who we really are beneath the person we really hope to be? While Facebook and Instagram are new vehicles for us to tell our stories, they are also excellent tools for creating an unreal existence. And this is where our stories become robbed of their potential power; our modern day technological fables have become places where we hide.

 As a consequence, we create stories with no innate value. We become hooked on the invented reality of social media and lose who we really are. We become seduced by the high of one thousand Facebook friends who on a real day are actually not our friends. We can become instantly “famous”, “popular”, “successful”, or be “trending”, with some well-calculated details which may actually be hiding the truth of the entire picture. Of course I value the power of social media myself in a world which is now virtually flat. It most certainly has its place in forging social and professional connections and should be appropriately utilized. But where do we draw the lines between reality and fiction? And do our concoctions hurt or help others?

 In our real-life circle, away from our photo-stories, how vulnerable, honest and exposed are we really? Do we connect with friends and family to forge real intimacy? Do we expose our weaknesses and flaws? Can we allow our mistakes to guide a friend? Are we open to correction and guidance from others if our real story leaks out? Do we offer genuine advice based on the life-lessons learned? Have we allowed our public profile to subsume who we really are or are we even connected to our real story? What about that story that is uniquely ours; do we really know its details; its value? Are we intimately in-tuned with our own experiences, motivations and behaviors or are we coasting on auto-pilot? Are we reflective, self-aware and capable of growing past the limitations which our own stories may suggest?

 Of course in sharing our stories I’m not talking about the indiscriminate “confession” of every intimate detail of our lives with complete strangers every time. Honest and open sharing of our challenges can have a valid place depending on our life role. At another level, a life that is open to sharing is not one governed by pride and pretense. It is one which does not need to be always right, nor one that must mirror perfection. Living authentically should reflect the balance between moving towards our ideal self while embracing our humanity. As we let our barriers down and expose our true stories to others, then our lives can begin to take on a whole new meaning as other become enriched through our lives.

 Denise J Charles is Director & Counsellor/Coach at Better Blends Relationship Institute e mail betterblends@gmail.com

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