Read an Excerpt
Getting Past Your Past Understanding the Five Steps to Jumpstart Your Life
"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."
---Robert Louis Stevenson
I was my father's favorite. It would have been my oldest brother, David, but when he died I became not only the official middle child of the remaining five but also heir to Dad's affection, a limited, qualified affection, with many complex strings attached, although I didn't realize it until much later.
I always thought of my dad as sophisticated and charismatic, an accomplished psychiatrist and brilliant healer, a military doctor who seemed so authoritative and dashing in his dress whites with all his ribbons and medals, just like Gregory Peck in Captain Newman, MD. As I sat by his hospital bed with my youngest son, Zach, who had insisted on coming with me to Tampa in case it was the last time he would see his ailing grandpa, I thought about how difficult it was for my father to use his gifts of caring and compassion for anyone in his own family, let alone himself. It took me years to comprehend fully that my father's emotional detachment colored my life and shaped my relationships, making me as desperate for love as I was sure that I didn't deserve it.
As I watched Dad drift in and out of sleep while Zach played with the new Beanie Baby we'd just bought at the gift shop, I realized that, though my father had been in and out of hospitals since I was a teenager, this time he would not be coming home. I read Zach his Beanie's "adoption papers" and burst into tears. It said on the tiny heart-shaped tag that the toy bear had been named Ariel for a little girl who'd died of AIDS at age seven, not much older than my son was then. I was overwhelmed by the pain and sadness; years of it came rushing to the surface as I held my sweet boy in my arms and tried not to frighten him with my tears. That's when I determined to change my father's legacy in those last days of his life, and in changing his, change my own.
As a veteran communications and public relations executive now running my own coaching and consulting firm, I was sought after as an expert in guiding my clients to identify and articulate what made them unique in their marketplace and then build a brand around it. My motto was "passion, planning, and perseverance," and recently I'd become more focused on working with individual and corporate clients to understand how their past affected their future, so they could determine if the energy they were expending was truly getting them where they wanted to go. Now here I was being put to my own test. As I sat by my father's bedside during his last days, I knew that as he was preparing to leave this life behind, I was beginning to build a new life.
My little one and I let Grandpa rest while we did what any heartsick mother and son would do---we rented a bumblebee yellow Mustang convertible and hit the road for an afternoon of alligator farms and amusement parks.
Jumpstart Your Life
It took me a long time to realize how much of my personal story---that is, my beliefs about myself, my value system, and decision-making process---had been shaped by my family's story. Finally, at the age of forty, when I found the courage to admit that I was flat-out miserable and that the image of the successful professional I presented to the outside world had little relationship to who I was on the inside---I realized I had merely fulfilled a legacy designed by my family instead of by me. That insight was the first step on a profound process of self-healing that I've come to call "traveling hopefully."
Traveling hopefully is a way of moving through the world: the infinite number of decisions we make on a daily basis which, when woven together, form the pattern of our being. Sometimes we make our choices, large and small, based on a set of beliefs about ourselves that we didn't create, but rather accepted. When I recognized I was living a life built on the shaky foundation of my family legacy---my father's emotional distance, my mother's bitterness, my stepmother's mental illness---I understood that I had allowed my history to define my present and determine my future.
Once I accepted the fact that I was living a life that was more a reflection of that legacy than true to who I really was, I began the difficult but rewarding process of personal excavation. I began to strip away the faade that I'd been showing to the world for so long that it had become my reality, although it bore little resemblance to the real me. Only then did I begin to see myself as a living work in progress, a hopeful traveler intent on finding the purpose and the passion that would allow me to create the life I envisioned for myself. That process would allow me to write my own story---and to help you write yours.
Getting past your past and overcoming your family story so you can find your most joyful, passionate self isn't easy, but it is possible. There's an old expression: "The easy road often becomes hard, but the hard road often becomes easy." We're not going to take the easy road, but I'm going to make the hard road a little easier by showing you the Five Steps to Jumpstart Your Life. Jumpstarting your life is a process of intentionally designing a specific plan of action so you can envision and then actively create the life you want, instead of waiting around for it to happen.
Even if you're at the top of your game with a great job and a loving family, maybe you've heard that little nagging voice asking why you're working so much and enjoying it so little? Or why you wanted desperately to have children and yet have no time to spend with them? Or maybe you're just not sure anymore what would make you want to leap out of bed in the morning and tackle the day. I'm not saying that once you've conjured up a mental image of the life you want, that it will magically begin to materialize. Not at all. But once you understand what it means to jumpstart your life---in work, recreation, friendships, and family life---you can begin to remove the roadblocks that are keeping you stuck in place and start moving forward toward the life you want.
The Robert Louis Stevenson quote from which the title of this book is derived, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive," may well be the one lesson I took with me when I quit graduate school. I didn't take the master's degree in psychology I'd planned on. Hopeless, I lost all sense of direction and gave up. One of my professors had insisted that we all keep a book of meaningful quotes, and I had written down the Stevenson quote in mine. I didn't understand its significance at the time, but something about the phrase "travel hopefully" resonated very powerfully for me then as it does now. As I began to search for the kind of life that would bring me a deep sense of satisfaction, the true meaning of that phrase slowly dawned on me. I came to realize that traveling hopefully is about moving forward despite whatever obstacles stand in your way as you continually move toward a life that reflects your beliefs and values. The process itself, one foot in front of the other, and not the end result, constitutes the journey. I realized that I am the traveler and hope is my fuel.
The path eventually became clearer for me as I learned to ask the right questions: What was I most passionate about doing with my life? And how was I stopping myself from doing it?
When I stuck to my path by focusing on these questions and looking for the answers, my life seemed to work. When I backslid, losing hope or succumbing to fear, moving forward toward the life I wanted became much more difficult. And as I started to share my story and the tools I'd created for myself out of desperation and a desire to change, I watched others put those tools to use and begin to rewrite their stories as well. That's how the Five Steps to Jumpstart Your Life came into being.
You might not have thought about your life as a story until now. Stop for a moment and consider how the major events and relationships in your past have shaped you. Can you see how those events have influenced your present and can continue to influence your future? Like it or not, you have written a story about yourself based on a set of assumptions you've either come to on your own or been handed by others. Your story is the sum total of the beliefs you hold about yourself.
Maybe your story is satisfying and positive and there are only a few aspects of it you'd like to rewrite. Or maybe, like I did, you want to throw out the story you feel is perpetuating outmoded beliefs and values, and start from scratch: what kids on the playground would call a "do-over." For many years, my story was one filled with pain and loneliness. Finally, I made a conscious decision that there was a lot more to me than that and I was willing make the necessary changes to rewrite my story to include greater portions of freedom, creativity, and passion. I still have my moments of pain and loneliness, but they no longer define my life.
As we work through these tools together, I'll provide you with concepts, broken down into written exercises and mental meditations, that embody the spirit of traveling hopefully and the process of jumpstarting your life. As you'll clearly see, all Five Steps are inextricably interwoven, yet require separate explanation so that you firmly grasp the concepts involved before you combine them.
The Five Steps To Jumpstart Your Life
- Step One: Dissect Your Past So You Can Direct Your Future
If you are living in denial about who you are and where you came from, it's going to be difficult to assess your current status and make the necessary changes to rewrite your future. Maybe you're the adult child of an alcoholic and have minimized your parent's addiction. Your reluctance to see the situation as it is, or as it once was, doesn't change those circumstances, it just makes it harder for you to figure out how they've shaped you and how you can begin to change. Or maybe you don't consider your childhood especially traumatic, but you remember all too well the sting of the little slights and offenses and have begun to comprehend how even those minor wounds taken to heart over a lifetime have left their scars.
- Step Two: Learn to Link Internal Clarity with External Action
The potent combination of internal clarity and external action will be the cornerstone of your transformation. The problem is most of us do one without the other. We develop a heightened sense of internal awareness, what you might call trusting your gut or following your intuition, but don't act on it. Or just the opposite: Many of us are constantly on the go, but we haven't taken the time for the internal homework, so we don't really know where all that movement is supposed to take us. We're in motion for the sake of motion, like my son's pet mouse inside its little Plexiglas ball, just rolling around and bumping into the furniture. Once you learn to link internal clarity with external action, you'll have the insight to know where you want to go and the action steps to get you there.
- Step Three: Recruit a Support Squad
Is this all starting to sound a little trickier than you bargained for? Relax, you don't have to do it alone. If, like me, loneliness has long been a part of your personal story, you may be used to telling yourself that you have to do everything alone because:
- Nobody ever wants to help me
- I don't know where to turn for guidance
- I can't let anyone see how needy I am
- I can't trust anyone to do anything the way I would.
Now let's rewrite that lonely story and imagine a life populated with generous folks who have your best interests at heart: your own personal Support Squad. Whether it's two people or twenty, it's much easier than you might think to create a support team to offer insight and inspiration, to help hold you accountable, and to celebrate your success.r
- Step Four: Create a Traveling Hopefully Personal Roadmap
Here's where the proverbial rubber meets the road on your hopeful travels. The first step has helped you understand how your family legacy has contributed to shaping the life you're living. The second step has shown you how to develop your internal clarity, then translate it to external action. The third step shows you the value of a support system and how you can establish a custom team to keep you motivated. This step guides you in creating a detailed roadmap with very specific, measurable goals to which you, or others, can hold you accountable.
- Step Five: Keep Moving Toward What You Want and Away from What No Longer Serves You
This positive momentum is the essence of hope---something you must never be without---because even in your most desperate, frustrating, or challenging times, you need to, as the old expression goes, "keep keeping on." The fifth step will teach you what all winners know---that perseverance is everything---and show you how to make perseverance a habit.
It took me a lifetime to learn the lessons I'm about to share with you, but it doesn't have to take that long. In fact, you're beginning right this very minute. Traveling Hopefully is a process of shedding the outdated family legacy to which you've been clinging, consciously or not, and then replacing it with a level of awareness and self-compassion you might never have experienced before.
In addition to the Five Steps to Jumpstart Your Life, I have developed 21 Hopeful Tools to provide a framework for looking at life in ways that will guide you toward your goals. These philosophical concepts are reduced to exercises that will help you turn those ideas into action steps. Ideally, you should complete the exercise outlined within each Hopeful Tool before you go on to the next one, at least the first time through. After that, return to any exercise you want, whenever you want, to recharge your motivation. These tools are meant to you keep moving forward even when you're feeling frustrated.
As you read this book, I'll be asking you to do some deep thinking and intense soul searching. Much like life itself, what you put in to this process will be directly proportional to what you get out of it. You may also want to start a Traveling Hopefully Daybook, a journal you can keep on your bedside table or carry with you, so that you can capture your thoughts and chart your progress while you work your way through the exercises described in each of the 21 Hopeful Tools. If you are concerned about tackling these exercises, not to worry. Just give them a try, there's no right or wrong. You might even surprise yourself at how quickly you get into the spirit of positive change.
Dissecting Your Past
Contrary to what you might think, given the premise of this book, rather than dwell on the past, I just want you to examine it. If you're not careful, you can get so caught up in your history that you neglect---or avoid---taking action steps toward your future. But looking back is a necessary starting point to moving ahead. So let's begin to deconstruct your past.
The first questions I want you to ask yourself are:
- Do I ever feel that I am hanging on to the emotional relics of my family legacy?
- Can I think of any negative messages from my childhood that continue to influence me, even though they hold me back from getting more of what I want out of life?
Just as a family inheritance might include stocks, an antique bracelet from a favorite aunt, or a mountain cabin where you vacationed as a child, a family legacy is the emotional inheritance that a family passes down from one generation to the next. Was your family life filled with love and laughter, leaving you a legacy of compassion and close relationships? Or was your family life marked by pain, illness, or cruelty, leaving a family legacy of worthlessness and fear of intimacy?
The bracelet from your aunt may become a cherished symbol of her love for you, while the mountain cabin where you endured childhood vacations filled with chaos and misery may be something to be disposed of. Emotional relics are a lot like that cabin. They are the negative aspects of the legacy you inherited from your family. You can either hang on to them or dispose of them. But you have to recognize them as the outdated and useless aftermath of your upbringing before you can loosen your grip on them. See if you're holding on to any of the following:
Lack of confidence
Lack of money and opportunity
Need for chaos and turmoil ochVictim mentality
Sense of entitlement
Unwillingness to take risks
Need to control
Inability to trust others
When I had my midlife epiphany and began to acknowledge my deep desire to make the second half of my life significantly better than the first, it was as if I'd sent some kind of cosmic SOS out to the universe. Once I made the commitment and accepted the risk of bringing more passion and purpose into my life, the positive changes I envisioned began to materialize. I was astonished. I felt a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. I had the power all along, I just didn't know it.
We'll be exploring Tool #1 and Tool #2 in this chapter to start you on the first step of dissecting your past so you can direct your future. If you answer the upcoming questions thoroughly and honestly, you will be able to inventory the emotional baggage you're carrying, then begin to unload it once and for all. Traveling Hopefully is not about blaming your flaws or disappointments on your parents or your grandparents or your siblings, and then running away from any responsibility. You can't change the past, and you can't control anyone's behavior but your own. What you can do is start to gain a healthy new perspective on your past by looking at the family messages that contributed to shaping your personality and your methods of decision-making. Once you begin to see some patterns emerge, you can decide if you are hanging onto baggage better left behind.
Naturally, families come in all shapes and sizes so even if I refer to parents, feel free to substitute the family members who fit as you assess your relationships and begin to identify the blocks that might be holding you back. Adjust your answers or the exercises themselves to fit your situation. In other words, don't get hung up on my language or the specifics of my family situation and especially don't use them as an excuse to reject the tools I'm offering you. You're reading this book for a reason, so let's face the past and embrace the future together....
Copyright 2004 by Libby Gill