The voices in my head have names...how I learned to let them go and create a life of joy and zen
On September 8, 2018 I had the honor and deep joy of celebrating World Physical Therapy Day by giving the keynote address to the newest incoming class of Emory University Doctor of Physical Therapy students at their White Coat Ceremony. For those less familiar with medical education, the white coat ceremony symbolizes the transition from the basic sciences to the clinical sciences. It is a bridge during which students hear speeches and tidbits of advice from faculty members, physicians, and, well, this year, they heard from me too. I pondered over what to say to the full auditorium of roughly 72 students, 200 parents and friends and 20 faculty members, but it didn't take me long to figure it out. As I sat down to write the speech, some familiar voices started speaking up in my head and panic washed over me, as if writing the speech 3 weeks in advance was not enough time. Those voices have names you might recognize, like Perfectionist Polly, Overachiever Oliver and Type A Theresa. I knew as I sat and listened, yet did not react, to those voices, that I needed to practice what I preach and embrace and honor the strong emotions and voices I was feeling and hearing, respectively, and not allow them to overtake my actions. I also knew that speaking to the crowd about how this was a small morsel of the example of my own journey from living a life of chaos and stress, one that was defined by these voices on a daily basis, to one of zen, peace, and mindfulness. This practice, which has undoubtedly taken some blood, sweat and tears to become not just a practice but a lifestyle, has brought an enormous amount of joy, love, and pure love into my life, something that I never knew to exist beforehand. For the longest time I thought that these voices were my own voice. But it took hitting rock bottom several times by setting expectations that were way too unattainable for me to realize that no, in fact, I did not have to toil and slave to accomplish my goals. There was a much more peaceful and fun way to get there. Taking the less popular, yet more peaceful path, has paid for itself in dividends in my health, life, and career. And now I am so honored to include this in my health + life + career coaching work with girls and women who lead similar lives and may have similar voices in their own heads.
Just like I used to, my clients struggle with a feeling like nothing is ever good/done/finished enough, like there is always another to-do list item to be checked off, and like there just isn't enough time in the day to take care of everyone else (and themselves). They may also struggle with hormone and period problems for which nobody has really seemed to be able to help them. Or they may struggle with a lingering sense that they feel stuck in their jobs or careers without a clear vision and without the discipline to actually complete all of the projects and goals they would like to achieve. It takes a village, and I couldn't have gotten to this point without my own coaches. They know who they are, and you can read more about how they helped me below.
Asking for help from them was easily one of the most vulnerable and brilliant things I could have ever done. So I challenge you today to consider what it will take to create health, a life, and a career you truly love--one where you can truly put your head down on the pillow at night without the hamster wheel of voices ticking off the items on tomorrow's to-do list, or perhaps without feelings of guilt and anger for the items you didn't get done today.
What will it take to feel like you are on the right path to taking care of your health, one that doesn't involve feeling afraid to eat certain foods because they may make you feel more exhausted, sick, or stressed out?
What will it take to actually learn to start saying no to all of the projects your boss keeps demanding that you do? Many of you have asked, and I'm excited to share the transcript and an encore performance of the speech here with you today. It is intended for teens and adults of all ages, so please feel free to share it with someone you love! It's a reminder we all, myself included, need almost daily.
I can't wait to hear from you!
Delivered Saturday, September 8, 2018
Emory University School of Medicine
Doctor of Physical Therapy Program White Coat Ceremony
Thanks to the Emory DPT faculty for inviting me and congratulations to all of you for being here in such an amazing place. I feel so honored to speak to you all, share my story, and offer some inspiration.
As I pondered over what I would say, a couple of key points came to mind.
975 days from now (yes, I counted!), you’ll not only become a DPT from an amazing place, but you’ll also become a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the “real life” adult world. “Adulting” can be hard, and I’ve got some insider tips.
Most importantly, I wanted to talk about the perks of being a rule breaker. This may sound surprising to some, because 12 years ago when I sat where you are, I was anything but a rule breaker. I didn’t get a mile long resume of accomplishments (that you just heard about) by breaking rules (well, not usually at least).
But I have changed a bit. I’ve got some stories to share about how daring to break rules just might be the most important lesson you can learn to expand your career, our profession, and your career.
3 weeks ago I sat down in my office to write this speech. I don’t love procrastinating.
But interestingly, 3 weeks didn’t feel like enough time. Panic washed over me as I felt like I was already down to the wire.
I got still, meditated and listened a bit.
A song was playing in my head, sung by a choir filled with singers named Perfectionist Polly, People Pleaser Penelope, Overachiever Oliver, Type A Teresa, Fearful of Failure Frannie, Charlie the Competitor and Colin the Control Freak.
Yes, I named the voices. Stick with me to find out why.
That soundtrack, while a rare occurrence these days, used to play nonstop through most of my life and the first 5 years of my career.
Back then, as I checked all of the boxes on my resume—at an astronomical pace no less—the choir also sang that nothing I ever did was good enough.
And you know? Marching to this soundtrack, or you might say, to this set of rules, reinforced itself over and over again.
I won awards and got plenty of praise for my hard work.
Now I’d be lying if I said that hearing these things didn’t feel really good. But it was never good enough.
Many people would take praise one step further & say, “Gosh, I don’t know how you do it!”
That’s exactly what I, unconsciously, wanted them to say. Even though I wanted all the achievements, I didn’t want it to look like I’d tried very hard to get there. I preferred the “I’m a magical unicorn” approach. So I not only worked my tail off to succeed, but also wto cover my tracks toward success.
Turns out I was not alone. A groundbreaking 2004 study published at Duke University called this behavior and mindset “effortless perfection.” Guess where I went to college?
We live in a world where we place high value in people’s accomplishments (and the busy to-do lists it takes to get there). We also knowingly or unknowingly shame people, especially women, for “being too Type A, for trying too hard or being aggressive” when they do accomplish something. So it’s all too easy to desire the magical unicorn mirage of effortless perfection.
And it is just that-a mirage. In reality, for me, and for most people in this cohort, it felt more like a runaway freight train.
Laundry and dishes piled up in exchange for an overwhelming and neverending to-do list. My family accepted that not hearing from me was just the norm-no news was good news. Reading for fun never happened (“fun” books? What were those?), and taking even the smallest vacation without feeling guilty was nonexistent.
My husband would gently (and sometimes not so gently!) warn me that this approach to life was not sustainable.
But I let the choir drown out his voice. In fact I usually rolled my eyes and said something like “You don’t’ get it, this is just how it has to be to be a good PT.”
Or so I thought.
At my 5 year PT anniversary, I was away at a course when insomnia and brain fog crept in. I felt exhausted but unable to sleep (tired but wired). I even had to excuse myself from class to hide and breathe in a bathroom stall because I couldn’t focus and felt so scattered in class. This felt humiliating: I wasn’t one to miss class.
On the plane ride home, the walls of the plane closed in on me as my heart started to race.
I felt trapped, figuratively and literally. I was on a plane and could not escape. Sitting next to my boss (a woman I loved and admired), I was mortified because I couldn’t let her see me like this. Panic hit me like crashing waves. I overtook the mounting terror by doing what any normal human would do at this point—watching Frozen (obviously). The irony was not lost on me that I continued to feel waves of panic as Elsa sang “Let it gooooooo.” This helped just enough to get me home, but the truth was, I could not let it go.
I felt something I’d never truly felt before: completely out of control. Soon thereafter, I woke up in the middle of the night unable to catch my breath. You could see my heart pounding at nearly 200 bpm through my chest.
This was it, I had thought. I am dying.
At the hospital, an EKG, echo and a million tests proved that no, I was not dying. It was a panic attack.
I missed several days of work (something I never did) for what I told them was an unexplained “illness.” Nobody could know that the perfect PT who easily held it together could now only hold it together by assuming the fetal position on the couch while binge watching Friends.
I had no idea how to get myself out of this cold, dark rock bottom place. I felt so alone and scared.
Something had to give.
After dialing and hanging up several times, I mustered up the courage to make a call.
On the phone with who is now a dear friend and soul sister, Dr. Shawn Haywood, a life coach, I learned that for professionals like me we’re often striving so much because we’re fleeing from fear of any number of things: feeling not good enough, failure, losing control or missing out (also known as FOMO). Check, check, check, check. All of those were true for me.
If we slow down long enough, recognizing those fears can put us into a panic, so we’ll escape it in any way. Some people drink, others shop. Some compulsively work out or compete in sports/races. Others compulsively clean. For me, it meant constantly staying busy with seemingly “virtuous” things.
In reality, I was mindlessly and robotically living by the voices of Polly, Penelope, Oliver, Colin, Teresa, Charlie and Frannie, who said to me If you are just perfect, or calm, or smart, or accomplished enough, and if you make it look easy, you won’t feel afraid, judged or unloved.
For as long as I could remember, I thought those voices were my voice. But that wasn’t true.
This is why I gave them their own names.
Slowly, by asking for Shawn’s and several other people's help, I found my own voice and learned it was rooted in self love, authenticity, adventure, and freedom from chaos and stress. I learned that uncertainty didn’t have to be scary, but could be fun, like what you might feel when opening a present or riding a roller coaster.
And perhaps most importantly, I learned that my identity was not defined by my career.
To slow the runaway freight train, I found the courage to say a really hard word to myself and others, one that often felt like a curse word. Do you know what the word is?
Initially, saying NO felt like I was constantly breaking the rules or letting people down. Then it felt rebellious (which was kind of fun), and eventually, it felt right.
I also learned I could still reach all of my goals with a fraction of the energy, and if I did work hard, it was ok to talk about it. This also seemed like rule breaking. Wasn’t I supposed to toil and slave but pretend like success was just a magical unicorn trait of mine? Apparently not.
Slowing down and owning the vulnerability and messiness of the process instead of the “certainty” of the outcome meant I bravely became a human BEing, not a human DOing.
Having more energy and courage was helpful, because nearly a year to the day of those fateful panic attacks, I was diagnosed with a rare sarcoma that only 100 lucky people are diagnosed with every year. I’d gotten my magical unicorn wish after all. Effortlessly, in fact.
The grapefruit-sized tumor had overtaken the upper lobe of my right lung. I’m not going to say I never felt afraid about this thing, but all of the energy I previously would have spent on fear was put into tackling cancer. And I totally did. After 9 months of chemo, 28 rounds of radiation, and three surgeries that ultimately cost me 4 ribs, a collarbone, part of my sternum, my right phrenic nerve and diaphragm, the cancer has not progressed in 3 years.
But it was almost as if hitting rock bottom a year before and feeling like I was dying because of so many mythical expectations I’d put on myself was the catalyst I needed to prepare me for when I was actually in a life or death situation. Hitting rock bottom and choosing the brave path to climb out gave me practice in letting go of control, choosing courage over fear, and rulebreaking—practice I was ready to put into action when I was told “You have cancer.”
And once I beat cancer, applying these practices to my career and life has been the gift that keeps on giving.
First, I left my old job with no plans for a new job. Talk about giving up control and breaking rules for someone whose head voices previously loved certainty! Then I started my own business, something I said I’d never do. I’d seen that in colleagues, mentors, and friends who seemed to work nonstop, and I didn’t want that.
So I rewrote the rules up front. 1) Do my best, however that looked that day, and that was enough. 2) Live first, work second. That was it.
By living by these rules, I have better patient outcomes, more fun with my work and BONUS--more income as a result.
The gift of breaking rules kept on giving in ways I never expected as I combined my personal journey as a coaching client into part of my professional path.
After extensive training with another Emory PT graduate, Dr. Jessica Drummond, I am now a certified Girls’ and Women’s Health & Life Coach.
Now, in addition to helping my PT patients, I help go-getter girls and women (like me) find simple ways to shift their mindsets and lifestyles to eliminate chronic pain and pesky health and hormone problems. I also coach and mentor health professionals to find innovative ways to authentically build their careers and specialties without burning the candle at both ends.
In short, I now offer an integrative bank of services to help both PT patients and my coaching clients rewrite the rules: to let go of the seemingly requisite stressed out mentality of today’s world; to embrace zen and quality of life over quantity of what’s on the to-do list.
But here’s the thing. I don’t believe you have to wait until you’re falling apart or overrun with stress and fear to learn this, which is why I’m here today, encouraging you to do as I say and do now, not as I (and so many of my classmates) did when we were in your shoes.
While I do have a new soundtrack, the old one comes up for me on occasion like it did 3 weeks ago. The trick is to recognize it, but choose not to follow those rules anymore.
I’m curious your soundtrack sounds like now and how it will be as you move forward with your career now and 975 days from now, when you enter the real life, adulting world.
I have a few suggestions. First, do learn and follow obvious rules like your state PT practice, APTA code of ethics etc, the Emory DPT Program policies, etc. But also dare to get rules changed if you don’t feel they are best for you or your patients. I have a few other suggestions for you too:
Dare greatly to take imperfect action. We spend an awful lot of time and energy trying to control things we can’t control, to be mythically and effortlessly perfect, or to please others. This may seem like it will get you everything you want in the short term, but it’s all a lie. Don’t waste all of that time, energy, and money trying to be perfect. Just get out there and take action. That is good enough, and oh so brave and daring.
You are 100% responsible for your experience of life. Much credit to Dr. Shawn Haywood for this line. The things that are on your plate are there because you said yes to them. Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You choose where you’re going and what falls onto your path. Saying NO to things means saying YES to yourself and what you truly want on your path.
There's no such thing as failure, only lessons. As you forge that path, get out there and give things a try. If you don’t like them, you can always change your course. When I quit my job with no plan, I still had bills to pay, so I took a temporary PRN job doing acute care PT—something else I said I’d never do. Stepping out of my comfort zone 7 years into my career brought a steep learning curve, from which I fell on my face and learned lots of lessons, and it was definitely worth it.
Never stop learning. When you transform the concept of “failure” into “lesson,” it makes it easier to dare greatly, because you know that no matter what, you’ll learn something. And I bet you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t love learning.
Practice what you preach to patients. You are worthy of asking others for help—whether it’s professors, clinical instructors, mentors, or even me! It may feel scary, which is normal. And I assure you on the other side of fear is breathtaking success.
Put on your own oxygen mask first. I bet you’re really good at taking care of others—otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But be sure to include yourself on the to-care-for-list. You get one life: make the most of it.
It’s not a race…but I warn you—especially if you’re the competitive type, it’s going to reallllllly feel like it is. Stay in your lane. Do NOT compete with each other. We are all on the same team working toward the same goal. Just do your best, even if it isn’t the same as someone else’s best or your best from yesterday.
If you truly and deeply want something, own the hard work it takes to get there. Don’t hide! Let your inner nerd and geek shine, and support each other for doing so.
Leave time to serve the underserved. People who have seemingly so little can lead such full lives. So please, take any and all opportunities to meet them. You just may learn more from them than they do from you.
Get clear on who the standalone version of you is, independent of the roles and labels you & others give you. Ask yourself what you would do or be if PT, healthcare and JOBS were not a thing. You are not your job or your career. So who are you, then?
I can’t wait to see how you put these tidbits of advice to use to write and break your own rules. I’d love to hear from you all as you continue on the path toward being the best and most authentic versions of yourselves. With that mindset, you guys can advance the depth and tone of our profession to one that not only serves others, but that shows up the best version of ourselves from a daring, rulebreaking and value-driven foundation. Thank you guys again for having me, and I wish you the very best for your future lives and careers.
Thanks for taking the time to read this!
I can't wait to hear from you!
With love and blessings,
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