The Pattern Begins
You might be surprised to learn that from birth to age 15, I grew up in a New York City Housing Project.
It’s still there – Pomonok in Flushing, Queens. These photos are of my actual apartment building. My childhood there was lively. Street smarts and independence were developed early. I grew up on games like stick ball, stoop ball, hand ball, jump rope, and skully.
The apartments were small. I shared a bedroom with my younger brother in the cramped 2-bedroom apartment in which we lived with my single mom. Some families had 3, 4, and 5 kids in those same sized apartments. The kids shared bedrooms while the parents slept on pull-out sofas or rollaways in the living rooms.
While there is a lot of resilience to be gained from growing up in such an environment, it wasn't easy. There were drug addicts in the stairwells, gunshots at night in the park behind our apartment, and the elevator, stairwell, and hallways smelled of urine. Domestic violence was commonplace and could be heard through the thin walls between the apartments.
I was a latch-key kid by the beginning of 1st grade. We lived on the top floor of the building, so if the elevator was out, I had to walk up the 7 flights alone. The addicts hung out on the last landing, so I would run up the last steps as fast as I could, slam the stairwell door behind me, and apartment keys already in hand, let myself into our apartment as fast as I could. My heart still starts to beat fast when I think about it.
I grew up with a more than moderate dose of looking over my shoulder… thus the adrenaline fight-or-flight feelings – heart racing, fast breathing, slightly anxious undertones – were a familiar baseline chemical milieu for me.
The only way out of Pomonok was by my own steam. And I wanted out – badly.
Fortunately, academic achievement – and a tiny bit of entrepreneurship – came naturally to me. I used these to secure my escape!
In 4th grade I set up an enterprising macrame jewelry business and saved a little money. I remained top in my class. I tutored students who were struggling in class – often because of language barriers. By 6th grade I’d won several science fairs and spelling bees. My teachers doted on me. I volunteered, working with my mom to start and run a Young Democrats Club chapter in our neighborhood. I built my resume. It made me stand out.
Unfortunately, being bullied somewhat regularly in late elementary school was a price I paid – we humans can be mean to those who are “different” and my achievements set me apart at that time. But with grit – and the emotional and physical protection of a few loyal neighborhood pals (yes, Paula, if you are reading this, you were there for me and I've never forgotten it!) – I got through.
I was accepted into a prestigious public high school in the Bronx and joined its world-famous debate team (for the record, I no longer enjoy intentional arguing). It was a nearly 2-hour daily commute – each way – 1 bus and 2 trains to and from Queens and the Bronx. There was a long, long walk through dark neighborhoods in the wee hours of the morning and again in the late evening – alone as a 15-year old girl.
But it paid off. By age 15, I had been accepted into college, on scholarship. I was on my way to achieving my dream of becoming a physician. And getting out of the ‘hood. High achievement was my one-way ticket out and I left Pomonok behind me forever.
Or so I thought…
Maladaptive Default Patterns
Survival mechanisms are powerful driving forces. They also easily become hardwired as default behaviors. We may unwittingly continue to act and react to threats that are no longer present. Our fight-or-flight mechanisms kick into hyper-drive at the slightest whiff of danger – the hint of a threat that triggers a cellular memory of the actual threat. We hold onto these response patterns for dear life even when they are no longer needed – often unaware that we are doing it. Once adaptive and protective, these patterns can eventually become maladaptive.
In addition, it is a common human tendency to feel most comfortable with the emotional state most familiar from our childhood, and even to recreate it as adults regardless of whether it is healthy, as part of our maladaptive response.
In my case, my upbringing had forced me to make “achievement” and drive a priority, and living with stress my “normal” or familiar emotional state. Even when hyper-drive was no longer necessary, it was hard to slow down – I was achieving and constantly recreating the state of stress with which I was so familiar – only now I was doing it with deadlines and projects, rather than facing bullies after school or drug addicts in the stairwell!
Some years ago I was giving a keynote, and after I listened to myself being introduced – which typically includes someone listing off your accomplishments – I got up, took the mike, and said, “Wow, I’m exhausted just listening to that. The woman you just described is an overachiever.” I was joking – and also serious.
Self-Acceptance and Understanding
I’ve learned to accept that this ‘driven-ness’ is a part of who I am – and it’s not all bad.
At this stage in my life my energy and drive lead to a passionate (and compassionate) desire to participate in making revolutionary healthcare and environmental changes for our present and future health. The overwhelming health and ecological crises we face inspire me to think, write, teach, and create. I’m filled with enjoyment in what I do. I recently saw a Pinterest picture that says “I work because I love this shit” and thought, “Yup!” As a colleague (Dr. Mark Hyman) said to me recently, “What we do is not just work, we’re on a mission.”
But there is a dark side. On some level, until recently, I had never truly left Pomonok behind. I have a successful life personally and professionally, and being a physician thankfully frees me from the likelihood of poverty; thus I should be able to relax and create purely from a place of enjoyment and passion. However, until recently, deep inside, I have been driven by the fears of that young girl from the projects – of poverty, of being stuck, of having no control of my life. I have lived as if the What If’s, the Scarcity Mentality, and the Fear of Being Trapped that were nipping at my heels as I high-tailed it out of my childhood were still relentlessly chasing me. Oddly, that fear created comfort and familiarity because it was a common feeling from my childhood.
As a result, I have spent an inordinate and unnecessary amount of time pushing and striving to achieve security. A nagging insecurity was pushing me to work too hard too often – not to prove myself to anyone, but out of old survival mode patterning. And all the while I was recapitulating familiar feelings of stress and anxiety.
There are risks to this type of living: emotional and physical burnout, even frank illness. I was lucky. I started living a natural, balanced, and healthy lifestyle at a young age – just after leaving Pomonok and moving to the Berkshires for college. I eat an uber-healthy diet, usually sleep about 7 hours at night, rarely drink coffee, and have done yoga and engaged in mindfulness practices for a few decades. Thus I’ve generally avoided the health pitfalls that living with these self-imposed stresses can cause.
Recently, after 7 long, grueling years of medical education – during which one almost constantly endured stress, pushing, striving, and anxiety, I decided that enough was enough. I'd had it with stress. With that old adrenaline feeling. It didn't feel good anymore. I'd outgrown it. So I decided to make some changes. I was finally outgrowing my old Pomonok ways.
I decided to spend less time pushing and striving, and more time enjoying life, breathing deeply, trusting the world to be a friendly place. I decided to to experiment with allowing myself to feel secure and safe.
Push and Strive
Push and strive are a pair of really annoying twins. They are relentless. Push is an impatient task-master affecting peace of mind, sleep, and even our adrenals (that’s where that fight or flight biological mechanisms come from). Strive is all about control and so blocks creative flow.
I know I am not alone in my history of push and strive. Did you know that an average of 9.2 paid vacation days go unused by employees in the US? Seriously! People go to work extra instead of taking vacations – even staycations! This number has gone up steadily in the past few years. As a culture, we are spending more time at work than ever, eating lunches over our keyboards, sleeping less, subsisting on coffee and diet cokes, and not exercising much, all in the interest of achieving more. We have become driven by the fear of not having enough, not climbing high enough on the ladder, and we’ve been led to believe that high achievement requires continual pushing and striving.
Push and strive leave no room for just BEING IN THE PRESENT. Perhaps this is why most of us spend about 30% of our time worrying about the past, 60% of our time worrying about the future, and only about 10% of the time actually being in the HERE AND NOW. Push and strive directly oppose letting the magic and the process happen. For letting go and letting life…
Enter a New Way of Being: Don’t push, breathe…
There is a softer, dare I say more feminine way of going about achieving success in life – whatever that means to us individually, from being a great mom at home with your kids to being a corporate kick-ass queen – that has nothing to do with pushing or striving at all. I am dubbing it the No Push Method of achieving success and I am learning to live it!
Here’s how it goes.
If you’ve ever seen a birth scene in a movie, you know that women are typically told to hold their breath and push. Hard! Harder!! Harder!!! There’s a lot of straining and grunting coming from a beet-faced woman who appears likely to blow every blood vessel in her eyes. And a lot of screaming coming from nurses and friends counting to ten while the woman is exhorted to PUSH! PUSH! PUSH!
As a midwife it was extremely rare that I ever exhorted a woman to hold her breath and push hard like you see in Hollywood films. That technique was reserved for emergencies, because while widely portrayed and accepted as the way to have a baby, this method of pushing is not optimal. It can prolong the pushing stage, make the work much harder, increase the risk of tissue damage and tearing down below for the mom, and can deprive the baby of oxygen!
This is also true of life and the quest for success. When we are pushing too hard on our goals, worrying whether we will or won’t achieve this or that, we are expending energy ineffectively and unnecessarily. We are making the process longer, harder, and more traumatic.
This no-push method encourages us to give birth to projects – with openness, trust, letting go of tightly held muscles – much as we might imagine ideally birthing our babies. It includes more deep breathing. Being in the present and letting go of fear and worry. It’s also about defining and owning what success really means to you – and going for that.
Now don’t get me wrong, natural birth is a lot of work. So if you are creating a book if you are an author, a healthy home if you are a stay-at-home mom, or a company if you are an executive – I’m not saying there won’t be hard work and even some sweating along the way. There may even be times your work interferes with sleep. But working smart is different than working hard.
The No Push Method encourages you to take more time to relax and JUST BE, get more sleep, and even take some days off of work and away from your projects – all of which are associated with higher levels of work performance and productivity … and personal happiness.
So how am I taking this into my everyday life?
First, by affirming my personal definition of success – which includes plenty of personal time, freedom to pursue things just for fun and pleasure, time with family, and in nature. Yes, of course, financial security is important to me, and I do still kick into survival mode now and then. But I have learned to identify the signals that it is survival mode doing the talking – those racing, anxious, churning feelings that smack of fear. I don’t allow myself to act from this place. I take a few deep breaths. I don’t push. I tell myself I am safe. I give that girl from the projects an imaginary hug and honor the strength that my background does give me. I try to only take on projects that feed my spirit – not that feed my fear that I have to keep doing more and more to get to a safe place!
What have I been finding? I am much happier while still able to create wonderful things – with and for wonderful people like you! Wonderful things are happening – and more easily. Sure, doubt and insecurity might start to creep in – but now I see them as a reminder of where I've been and how far I've come and can let them go quickly. And strangely, since I've been practicing this, they are visiting less often
I no longer need to create anxiety to feel comfortable. I recognize it for what it is too. I thank it for helping me to stay safe and get me where I am, and I remind myself that the mature woman feels comfortable with a relaxed heartbeat and deep belly breathing.
Of course I still work hard at my ventures – I am happy when I am being creative, writing, teaching, and taking care of patients. And I am also playing a lot more, and in this, finding even more inspiration.
I hope that in sharing this, there might be some wisdom and inspiration for you to transform your own hard push into open surrender. To pursue your passions out of joy and positive drive, not fear and worry, and to create an inner milieu that reflects where you want to be in your life right now, not recreating an outgrown one from the past. I’ll be right there with you, working on it, too!