Growing Into Authenticity Part One

Over the last year, while designing and leading workshops meant to nurture the personal and spiritual development of my attendees through the symbolism of tending our lives as a garden and honoring the changing seasons and our changing realities, another path was revealed. A few of my sacred gardeners (including myself) experienced profound growth a decade ago with a friend of ours who created a strengths-based program she dubbed ‘Moving Forward’, and as we referred back to that work again and again, we each thought it would be cool to see that offered once more, for the benefit of others.

Now, the brilliant woman, who developed such a meaningful program which she shared with friends and her beloved community, had since become an ordained Unitarian minister and moved across the country to nurture and lead a congregation of her own. But when I asked for her blessing to ‘move forward’ with her torch, her reply was, “Oh, yes! We’ve got to spread that shit everywhere!” (Ministers who say ‘shit’ have a special place in my heart, you know.)

Around that same time, I saw a post from a woman I recently started following on facebook at the suggestion of a friend who saw us as doing similar work in the world. She posted about a process from a book she had worked with three years ago to develop a mission and vision of the future, and how she had just come across what she’d written to discover her vision had indeed been made manifest.

I thought that sounded amazing and ordered the book through addall.com (a great way to find used books). As I reviewed the author’s process, I thought it would flow nicely into the program my friend had created. So, I spent some time weaving together a workbook that would invite a seeker to own their strengths, identify their skills, create their core values statements, define a mission statement, and plant the seeds of a future vision.

Seven weeks ago a group of friends stepped onto a path of discovery with me, and it has been a delight to witness and honor the process for each. We were each in a place of questioning. Either wondering where we might go next, how to move forward from a place of paralysis, or how to find more meaning in each moment, wherever we are. In the early weeks of our work, we lost two of our authentic gardeners to illness and grief. It is difficult to go deep when we are lost in the fog, and so each will return to their respective plots of land when they are ready to once again turn the fertile soil of their souls.

Of course, what happens in any of my workshops stays within that sacred and trusted space, but I can share a bit about my own discoveries of self-awareness, as I chose to recommit to this process with my fellow travelers. After all, eleven years is a long time and I am not the same person I was in 2008. Also, the inspiration to add the mission and vision work to the process arrived so close to the start of our first meeting, I had not yet done what I was asking my friends to do. So, I would do the homework and share my discoveries with the group, hoping to encourage and inspire their own.

First of all, I love the format that our friend created for this work. It is a great deal of solitary homework, but it is fortified in the group setting, as we receive encouragement and inspiration from the courageous vulnerability of others. When we speak of our obstacles and perceived limitations, there is always great insight and possibly a deterioration of those barriers when we are able to learn from the life experience of another. Not to mention how our esteem may be bolstered by the loving support of respected members of our community. I love the platform of growing within community. It makes me feel alive.

I was first introduced to Clifton’s StrengthsFinder through an HR Leader who had challenged my boss to ‘discover his strengths’ and share them, before he would accept an executive job offer. At the time, I assumed it was a leadership tool, and since I didn’t consider myself to be a leader, strengths did not receive my embrace until friends started discussing the workshop they’d attended. So, when she was offering it again in 2008, I jumped at the opportunity, and I brought my life-long friend along for the ride.

The creators of this tool utilized thousands of Gallup interviews to determine that there are 34 strengths themes, and that those who are moving through the world utilizing their top five strengths are happy and successful. In other words, they are using in their daily work their inherent talents, rather than trying to fit into roles which require them to become something they are not.

My strengths profile, after completing the online tool, affirmed my top five strengths to be Empathy, Developer, Connectedness, Input, and Responsibility. Some of my friends have recently redone the module to see if their strengths have changed, and they each found slight differences. But for me, the strengths results from eleven years ago actually feels more true for me now than ever before. What has changed is the opportunity to actually use them.

A few years ago, Marcus Buckingham released a new strengths based book called Stand Out, which also offers an online tool for discovery. My results informed me that I was a Teacher / Connector. At the time, working as an executive assistant with zero opportunity to do anything but serve and support my partner, this insight was impossible for me to see. However, now that I’ve been liberated from that past life, and through my own creative inspiration to design, deliver, and lead groups through workshops of self-discovery, I am ready to own those defining themes.

So, my first instruction for Growing Into Authenticity was to sit with your results for a while. Even if they don’t feel true right now, it may be just a matter of opportunity to shine that will reveal the full potential of one’s inherent strengths. And if they still don’t resonate, decide which strength feels true and replace the one the tool falsely offered. After all, many factors may affect the results of an online test on any given day, but the insightful and self-aware human should know themselves better than any computer. Also, forcing yourself to own a trait that feels really wrong does not nurture authenticity.

One of the gifts of StrengthsFinder, for me, was getting to own Empathy as my number one strength. Previously, though I knew that I could feel the emotions of others, and was often confused about whether my emotions were my own or belonged to someone else, I figured that was an esoteric kind of thing that would sound wacky to others. But once I saw it in print in my own personal profile, I no longer felt it necessary to downplay that ability.

Another cool thing about the tool is that it will take your other four strengths into consideration to inform you of how each strength makes you stand out. In other words, though my best friend and I both have Responsibility in our top five strengths – hers reads differently than mine because our other four strengths are vastly different. Here’s what that looks like:

Responsibility in MY Strengths Profile
“Chances are good that you choose your friends with care and caution. Like you, these individuals have a reputation for honoring their commitments. Like you, they do exactly what they say they will do. Your most enduring friendships are built on a foundation of mutual trust. (All true. I have the very best people.) Driven by your talents, you may wish to have a broader range of control and accountability on the job or in your personal life. By nature, you have a strong sense of commitment. It motivates you to make sure that things are carried through to completion even when difficulties arise. Instinctively, you are held in high regard because of your dependability and consistent values. You are someone upon whom others often rely. Why? You do exactly what you said you would do.”

Responsibility in my BUDDY’S Profile
“Your Responsibility theme forces you to take psychological ownership for anything you commit to, and whether large or small, you feel emotionally bound to follow it through to completion. Your good name depends on it. If for some reason you cannot deliver, you automatically start to look for ways to make it up to the other person. Apologies are not enough. Excuses and rationalizations are totally unacceptable. You will not quite be able to live with yourself until you have made restitution. This conscientiousness, this near obsession for doing things right, and your impeccable ethics, combine to create your reputation: utterly dependable. When assigning new responsibilities, people will look to you first because they know it will get done. When people come to you for help – and they soon will – you must be selective. Your willingness to volunteer may sometimes lead you to take on more than you should.”

The strength that I once thought kind of boring and questionable was Input, but now I see how wonderfully it serves me… and others. The definition is, “someone who craves to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.” At first I felt it resonated because I collect books that I have not read, but like to keep as a sort of reference library to share with others who are seeking more information. For example, I am not an herbalist, but my small collection of books on the topic (which I’ve never read) supported my friend’s first published book, Nettie’s Tea House. And on a trip to Ireland, when the tour guide failed to share information on the places we were going, and because I spent six months preparing for the trip by reading and watching documentaries on the places we would see, my fellow travelers would say, “Melissa, tell us about the Druids!” And of course, the workshops that I create and share now are each offerings of little bits of knowledge, wisdom, and creativity that I’ve gathered over the years through an inclination to explore and gather experiences that fill my soul. Perhaps something I share will fill the soul of another, and that would make my Empathy, Connectedness, and Developer very happy!

I think what I love the most about Strengths work is that we each have the opportunity to take a deep dive into our own innate talents to really have a good look in the mirror to see how valuable we truly are. For a former self-loather, that is no small thing!

The other treasure to be found here is acceptance. I can now accept that I do not have discipline in my top 5. In fact, it is probably number 34. And I can also accept that those who do not show up on time or even 15 minutes early, as I do, are not being disrespectful or uncaring about the value of my time. They simply do not have Responsibility and Empathy in their top 5. Understanding my own strengths helped me to understand that I don’t have to take the behavior of others personally. Like me, they are operating to the best of their ability with the talents they were given.

And finally, I can accept that those things which do not come easily for me because they are way down on my personal strengths list, are things meant for others. When the boss who loved me was preparing me for her departure, she suggested that I work to develop my analytical skills so that I might offer a future executive budget planning and management. The thought of that made me feel sick to my stomach. My reply to this sweet woman who cared deeply about my future was, “I would be miserable in that work. I would rather leave than try to become something I am not.” And I did leave, when a leader came along who wanted to be managed rather than supported, and chose not to see my authentic value. (Thank the gods!)

Through the process of owning my strengths (though it took me a long time to get here) I have figured out how not to betray myself by remaining where appreciation and mutual respect are lacking. I have learned to be Responsible for my own happiness.

Empathy and Responsibility inform me that this post is now over 2,000 words, and that because I care for those who are so generous as to read what I have taken the time to write, I should share more about what blooms in this blossoming garden at another time. Next time, I’ll write about Skills and Core Values.

Thank you for walking this path with me.
My unique Strengths honor and affirm YOUR unique Strengths,
and I bow to your glorious authenticity with reverence.
Isn’t it great to know that you are perfect exactly as you are?!

A Pride of Warriors

Where I live, the month of June carries a great deal of weight. The most
obvious, here in the State of Florida, is the arrival of oppressive heat and
torrential rain. Many of us are grateful for those daily downpours, as they
often manage to lower the temperature from around 99 degrees to somewhere around 88 degrees, if we’re lucky.

June is also Gay Pride month (not just in Florida), and celebrations occur
at various venues throughout the month. You’ve probably heard of Gay Days at Disney, which is loads of fun in a sea of red and rainbow. Today, my former workplace raised the rainbow flag in front of the corporate office, to proudly fly a commitment to diversity, honoring the dignity of ALL. The induction of the Pride Alliance into the employee networks several years ago was monumental, even if it felt ridiculously overdue. It’s never too late to get it right.

But the other thing about June… that which makes it not just hot, but also
heavy, is a certain anniversary. A horrific, terrible, nightmare in memorial.
In the early morning hours of June 12, 2016 a domestic terrorist entered the Pulse Nightclub, right at the heart of one of our Central Florida
neighborhoods, and murdered 49 sacred members of our beloved community.

Oh, how we long for the days that our theme parks made us special. No city on the planet wants to be a member of the mass shooting club!

Pulse was a gay nightclub, where friends could gather for dancing, for
laughter, for music therapy, and stress relief. It was a place where those who walked through the entrance doors could feel safe to be their authentic selves. It was, for many, a homecoming to acceptance.

They tried to tell us that the shooter was angry about something happening across the globe, but the truth was far more disturbing. He was angry with his culture, his religion, and our society, who would have him carry his unspoken truth inside, never to be fulfilled. He wasn’t allowed to be who he wanted to be, and so he took it out on those who could.

A world of harm comes from pretending to be something you are not, while
swallowing shame placed upon you by others. It is the most bitter poison one can ingest. It can only lead to turmoil and destruction, whether it be to one’s self, or to a room filled with sacred souls.

I don’t really understand the societal repression, oppression, and
aggression that seems to come from patriarchal religions toward those who are LGBTQ. Especially, since the big three of the patriarchy claim that God is love, that God created everything and makes no mistakes, God is the only judge, etc. And don’t forget the ‘golden rule’ – do unto others as you would have done unto you. Seems like a really big disconnect, if you ask me, when they would have the rights of others limited or removed altogether.

Gratefully, I’ve not seen or heard this ridiculous cry from anyone in my
personal circle, but THIS is why there is no ‘straight pride month’, people!
Society does not force straight people to bottle up their truth inside walls of protection in lieu of living an authentic life. They get to live each day, out in the open, holding hands with the one they love. They don’t have to worry about being beaten for wearing the clothing that makes them feel confident and comfortable. Their family members are less likely to disown them for being who they really are. Some might say… they are lucky.

I grew up in the Unitarian Church, and my parents’ best friends are a
lesbian couple who have been together for decades. So, when I fell in love with a woman in my mid-twenties, I didn’t hesitate to share the news with my parents. My relationship was embraced by my family and by my friends, and I wasn’t in a situation where I had to dance around pronouns when I spoke of my partner. But I do recall feeling fearful of public displays of affection, like holding hands while walking down the street. I had been bullied and taunted for not being thin, and so I understood the mean spirit of broken people. Standing up to adversity requires courage. In public, I felt the need to be cautious in order to stay safe.

We were together for eight years, and we remain friends, to this day. My
therapist told me, back in the day, that I was the only client who had ever
expressed shame and regret for discovering that I was NOT gay. I mean,
really… if I could flip a switch, I would, because the men in my romantic
life have been a real disappointment. But that’s another story.

I have friends who have loved one another for decades, whose lives are
completely entwined, and yet they were only recently able to legally marry. And I have a friend who is transgender, who after years of this awareness and self-discovery, is beginning to step out into the world donned in garments that make her feel more at home in her skin.

Can you imagine what that is like? To have gone to work every day dressed like someone else? To look in the mirror and see an impostor? To reply to co-workers, when they ask about your weekend plans, while creating language to dance around the truth of the person that you will share it with, and whom you cherish the most in all the world? You know what? You don’t have to be an empath to know that it feels fake, false, empty, lonely, and sad. NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO FEEL THAT WAY!

Let me tell you something. The beautiful LGBTQ souls everywhere are great
warriors, one and all. Whether they have found the strength and courage to be authentic and live an out and about reality within our judgmental and often hateful society, or if they are carrying their truth on the inside – longing for such freedom, they have my respect, my admiration, and my undying support. I am just aching to be asked to be a stand-in Mom at a wedding, for someone whose own parents were too broken and close-minded to love their own children for being honest and seeking happiness. I have more than enough love to go around.

This weekend, I watched the sequel series on Netflix for Tales of the
City
by Armistead Maupin. It is set in San Francisco and the nucleus of
the story is a transgender woman named Anna, and the beloved community she has created and nurtured over many years. This updated series takes us back to Anna’s courageous and heartbreaking ‘new beginning’, transitioning at a time that was even less inclusive than now. It also shows us details of the relationships of the other residents of Barbary Lane (the home Anna opened to others as a safe space to thrive), who are gay, straight, bisexual, and transgender.

As a friend and ally of the LGBTQ community, I watched every episode with a sense of deep caring for these characters. I wanted to protect them from the ignorance of others, and I wanted them to know that I have felt rejected and abandoned by love, too. I have stood in the mirror willing my body to look different than it does. I have sometimes had the courage to put myself out there again, in order to find the love that I deserve, and I have also locked my heart inside a closet in order to keep it safe.

One thing that occurred to me as I watched each episode, exploring self
discovery and actualization, affection, sexuality, and sensuality in many
forms, I could remember how strange it felt, long ago, to see two men kissing on screen for the first time. I’ll admit, that as a young person, it made me feel uncomfortable, but only because it was not something I had seen before. I love that movies and television are finally beginning to reflect the real world. Perhaps the more we see loving relationships between caring people of all genders and identities, the rest of the world will get over its fear and discomfort with what once felt unfamiliar, and get back to focusing on their own happiness, and allow others to do the same. You know… as they would have done unto themselves.

It’s hard to imagine that reality, right now, with so much bitterness and violence being nurtured and celebrated by the so called ‘President’… but I do believe we will get there. I have no choice but to believe in the probability of peace and the power of love to overcome this darkness.

I doubt that any of us imagined we would celebrate marriage equality in our lifetimes, and yet many of us have either been attendants or guests at gay weddings over the last few years. Or as I like to call them… weddings.
Someday the silliness of the distinction will be obsolete.

In the meantime, we celebrate how far we’ve come. We wave our multi-colored flags, not as a sign of defeat, but as a symbol of freedom. There
is a quality of fierce assertion required to stand up and declare one’s
authentic spirit to the world, and so I think of this remarkable community as a Pride of Lions. A fellowship that learned it must protect their own.

But to be who you are truly meant to be, when the world would have you be just like everyone else – fitting inside the limitations of smaller minds, one must stand with the sureness of a warrior.

So, at the occasion of a month dedicated to the celebration of individuality and fabulousness, and at an anniversary of a horrific moment that my beloved community will never forget, I salute this Pride of Warriors!
I pay tribute to their courage to be who they want to be. I honor their divine perfection, because though I am not religious, I know that who they are is not a mistake. And I bow my head in sorrow for our fallen warriors, and our beloved survivors whose dreams are surely haunted.

As for those who are struggling with the concept of acceptance, respect, and loving kindness for ALL beings (yourself included), consume these wise words from one of our favorite New Yorkers (Ms. Cyndi Lauper):
YOU’LL CHANGE THE WORLD WHEN YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND!
Thank you for walking this path with me.