When your flaws are your superpowers

My kid, like many five-year-olds, is fascinated with superheroes. He is constantly aligning himself with ones who embody something he wants to be, from Batman to Spider-Man to the Green Ninja, and raiding the costumes, closets and recycling bin to come up with an outfit that strikes closest to whatever he’s imagining.

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One of the best things about hanging out with a five-year-old is getting pulled into this mindset, this fluid spirit of let’s pretend.

I was reminded of this the other day hanging out with my friend Dana Inouye (of Lean In Mama) and her fabulous five-year-old, who likes to be called Flash, and to assign superhero identities to everyone  around him.

He was extolling his grace and speed (something else kids do so naturally: celebrate their greatness!) and I suggested that I had the opposite superpower — I can’t get anywhere on time and tend to move slow. I asked him jokingly, who’s THAT superhero?

He pondered this for a few moments and said, I know who you are. You’re Ease Woman.

Ease Woman! I don’t know if I could have come up with a better name if I tried. It was such a fantastic instant reframe. I loved this identity so much I drew a picture of her as soon as I got home, and when I’m having moments of rushed frantic overwhelm, I think to myself — hey, I’m Ease Woman. I’m on time whenever I arrive. I don’t rush for anybody.

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It made me think — what other superhero identities can we come up with to embody our flaws? To change up our energy, to embrace our full selves? How can we use our natural ability to pretend and project and play to deal with the frustrations of everyday life?

Wanna try it? Give it a go! And if you happen to know a five-year-old, ask them to help you.

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What if where you are is exactly where you need to be?

Hello everyone! How was your summer? Mine was a glorious mess of contradictions, so most of the time I was days behind in my creative self-work, sorting through the various stressors that had hijacked my nervous system.

When I did have time to catch up with myself – to dance around with my kiddo, to sit down and draw and write in my journal and ask questions and breathe – the knot would loosen enough for me to remember: OH YEAH.

Oh yeah – there’s no such thing as doing it perfectly.

Oh yeah – I am a human being and it’s okay to mess things up.

Oh yeah – that’s how I learn: by messing up. It’s okay for me to be honest about it! That’s the only way to learn from it.

Oh yeah – When I don’t have childcare, things go nuts. Right! I’ve been here before. This happened last summer. I can figure this out.

Oh yeah – what works for someone else might not work for me! That’s not because I am a FAILED HUMAN. This isn’t a contest. No one is winning the Best Mom Award.

Oh yeah – I don’t have to be hard on myself! That’s a choice. I can choose to be gentle and loving. When I do that, it’s easier to be gentle and loving with those around me. Especially my sweet little 3-year-old monster who is figuring out how to be a human being too.

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We relearn the same lessons over and over, don’t we? And then get mad at ourselves for not learning it the first time, even though of course we didn’t learn it the first time. Learning is circular and repetitive!

Look at how much you are learning right now. Look at how far you’ve come. Think of where you’ll be a year from now. What if what you’re doing right now is exactly what you need to do to get there?

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That question is a big one in my life.

I first heard it ten years ago, at a workshop led by an Australian performance artist named Margaret Cameron. The workshop was part of an international festival for women theatre artists. I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right choice to fly all the way to Denmark to take part, but here I was, in a workshop led by a woman wearing (in my memory anyway) a flowing muumuu and turban.

I tried to be open-minded but she seemed to be making it up on the spot, leading us on a ridiculous journey across the stage like we were children. I was jet-lagged and grumpy. What am I doing here? What am I supposed to be learning? What is she training us to do exactly? My inner teenager rolled her eyes HARD.

And then something happened. She asked several questions:

What if this is exactly where you need to be?

What if what you’re doing right now is exactly the right thing?

I know it’s not – but what if it was?

What if you are doing exactly what you need to be doing?

Something about these questions made me stop and notice that I had a running commentary in my head of this is dumb, you shouldn’t have come here, you’re not doing this right…

These were familiar thoughts. I realized that in most moments of my life, my brain was buzzing with this refrain.

And how liberating would it be to imagine – not even to believe, but to CONSIDER – that I might be doing some things right.

It felt radical and dangerous and ridiculous all at once. And in that moment, everything shifted. My energy shifted and suddenly this workshop was blowing my mind. Suddenly Margaret Cameron wasn’t some kook, she was a fucking genius.

I remember thinking, I wish I had the courage to do what Margaret Cameron does. To share my silliest, scariest, most heartfelt ideas and not care whether anyone thinks I’m a fool. To patiently wait for people’s resistance to fall away, or not.

Her blithe confidence seemed absolutely alien to me. I thought, maybe when I’m 80 I’ll be ballsy enough to do something like this.

Today I was thinking back to that time, and I realized: holy shit – not only was Margaret Cameron’s question a great exercise in shifting perspective – it was RIGHT.

I was exactly where I needed to be in that moment. I was doing exactly the right thing. Every single thing was the right thing, even the parts I thought I was doing wrong. They all led me to where I am today – a place I couldn’t imagine ten years ago.

I thought I could never be brave enough, confident enough to risk looking like a fool. But here I am!

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Where will I be ten years from now? I can only imagine, and experience tells me the reality will be wilder than my wildest vision.

So what if it’s true for you? What if everything you’re experiencing now is preparing you for where you’ll be in ten years?

Does anything shift when you ask yourself that question?

Are you being too hard on yourself?

I’ve been thinking today about why it’s so easy to be hard on yourself.

I hear it from women I talk to all the time, and I catch myself doing it too: getting tired, getting overwhelmed and suddenly finding myself caught in a frenzy of self-criticism.

In fact, on Friday AS I WAS COMPOSING THIS POST ABOUT BEING TOO HARD ON YOURSELF, I got sucked into a vortex of being too hard on myself.

Here’s the short version of what happened — see if you can relate: I was writing in MS word. At 2:00, after about an hour of writing, I was 99% finished, so I closed my laptop to head home, thinking I’d finish there and post it before driving to pick up my son from daycare.

But when I got home and opened my laptop — the document had disappeared.

Word hadn’t crashed, I hadn’t saved it somewhere weird — it was gone, as if I hadn’t written it. This was baffling. I started questioning my sanity — had I written it? And then my inner critics showed up in force.

They started saying things like, Oh god, this ALWAYS happens, you ran out of time again. You should have kept it simple instead of making it too big to pull off LIKE YOU ALWAYS DO. Why can’t you get one thing done like a normal person?

I used the exercise I talk about in my new workbook to identify and give a name to one of the critical voices in my mind. He’s Randolph the pencil sharpener shark and he’s constantly barking at me to be stronger, smarter, faster, better.

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Randolph was upset. And after doing some dialoguing with him over the weekend, it’s clear to me now what he is scared of: being left behind, being unprepared, being eaten by bigger sharks, being swallowed up by the world.

This morning, after looking back on the wreckage I abandoned on Friday, I started over.

And ironically, by giving up Friday afternoon and admitting things were a jumbled mess and I couldn’t fix them, and by letting myself go through the process of being hard on myself and then pulling myself out of it — I achieved what Randolph the pencil shark wants. I now am feeling more clarity about why I am too hard on myself, and when it happens, and how to get out of it (I’ll write more on that later!).

Anyway — that’s what’s going on in my world. If you are being too hard on yourself too — know that you are not alone.

With love from me, Randolph and my inner champion, Wild Coach Helma — here’s to growing and stretching and learning to go easy on ourselves.

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Historical Alter Ego

I’ve got a new video up, as part of my Quick Ideas for Creative Action series.

This one is all about how to step into a historical alter ego, by picking someone in history who you’ve got a girl crush on (like Margaret Mead, in my case) and copying what you love about them.

Here’s the video:

If you want the shorthand version, are the steps to creating an alter ego based on a historical figure you love:

  1. Pick a historical figure you love
  2. Jot down the traits you admire
  3. Draw their picture (or cheat and find one via google)
  4. Imitate the picture: move, act, dress and talk like them
  5. Adopt one of their habits for a week

Fantastic! Let me know how it goes! (And as always, if you want to take it further, sign up for a navigation session to explore coaching with me)

SXSW recap: stories and tacos and dirty dancing, oh my!

Whoooooo boy. I got back to Portland a week ago, after almost a week in glorious Austin, Texas for the huge, sprawling cascade of ideas that is SXSW Interactive.

I’m still trying to figure out what the hell happened, and I thought it would be a good idea to do this publicly.

First of all, this happened:

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I led my crazy workshop, Creative Living in an Alternate World! It happened! People attended! We created alter egos and dream projects, we bragged about what we suck at, and we danced badly!

I can’t tell you how nervous I felt 30 minutes before. But here is the power of an alter ego: I put on that electric blue jumpsuit and headband and stepped into the room totally confident in my ridiculous abilities.

Confidence, as I’ve written before, is a moving target — but that doesn’t mean you can’t get better at channeling it when you need to.

So I feel pretty great about the workshop. It was not perfect, and there are things I’d do better next time — I’d do less exercises and take more time with them, and I would go ahead and embrace power point instead of dragging my easel and laminated Stevie Wonder poster around with me.

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But all in all, I prepared as much as I could, and the things I learned, I could only learn by jumping in and doing it.

And when I talk about embracing failure, that’s what I mean. I don’t mean that you don’t prepare or that you toss off something you care about. I mean, you train as best you can, but when it’s game time, you step in and play the game, ready or not. Because you love it, and you’d rather play and lose than not play.

Is this metaphor working? Maybe this one is better: you run every day, and on the day of the race, you run the marathon. And you come in last. The next day, you get up and keep running.

I like sports metaphors because they have a built in high drama structure. Life isn’t always so clear cut — you can’t always tell when you’re winning and losing or where the finish line is.

And in this case, to be honest with you, I’m not sure if doing my workshop at SXSW Interactive was the best fit. The workshop itself went great, but navigating the rest of the festival was exhausting. Kind of an introvert’s nightmare, and my attempts to live it up and party (in the McDonalds Lounge) proved fruitless.

There were amazing moments of insight though, like Brene Brown’s talk about vulnerability and applying the Shitty First Draft concept to our thoughts (which helped me reign in my social anxiety and question it lovingly and turn it around.)

Kate Hayward and Natalie Currie led a fantastic session on reframing networking as storytelling and listening, complete with this visual note-taker:

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And I went to a beautiful workshop led by filmmaker Amy Hardie around the themes in her documentary, Seven Songs for a Long Life (which I didn’t get to see, but hopefully will soon!) She had us pair up and ask each other four questions:

  1. What counts as a good day?
  2. What qualities would you like to be remembered for?
  3. What actions do you take that express those qualities?
  4. If you were given a life-limiting diagnosis today, would you change those actions?

Simple questions but INTENSE, man! Maybe it’s because I was on day 5 away from my family, but I ended up crying with the person I partnered up with (who it turned out was the music director for the film), then cried again when we all sang a song from the film together.

I was also surprised to realize that my answer to question #4 was: I wouldn’t change much. I have made some big changes in my life over the last two years, and for the most part (give or take some money anxiety here and some sleep frustration there) I am doing exactly what I want to be doing on a daily basis.

Speaking of which, my big fear — that leaving my son with my husband for SIX DAYS would be a nightmare and they’d be traumatized upon my return — proved to be entirely unfounded. They did fine. I did fine. My fears, as they so often are, were entirely in my imagination.

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that’s me and my boy

And you know what? For all my questions and mixed feelings, here is what I know: when I submitted my proposal to SXSW Interactive nine months ago, the failure I thought I was risking was how to make a big proposal and get rejected. Then when they accepted my proposal, I thought the failure would be having no one show up, or having it totally bomb.

But it turns out, none of those things happened. By risking failure, I stepped up my game and did something I did not think I was ready for: I flew by myself to a huge conference and got a roomful of strangers to put down their phones and dance wildly to Dueling Banjos.

Someone else wrote about their experience of my workshop over on The Verge:

We were told to envision the perfect world for our alter ego to exist in, and to imagine being very happy there. Then we were told to “breathe that vision out into the world; drop it; don’t make it happen.” We came up with projects we would never do, character flaws we would never try to correct, and people we didn’t feel like apologizing to.

And:

My favorite thing about Faith was that she yelled “DOES ANYONE WANT TO DO THE DIRTY DANCING LIFT WITH ME?”

Even though no one did the lift with me, something about this makes me proud of myself for standing confidently in the power of my weird ideas.

What would my alter ego do?

One of the things I love about acting is being able to step into and out of an alter ego.

I learned a long time ago that one way for me to be confident was to “play” someone confident onstage.

It took me a lot longer to figure out that I could use the same principle in my life offstage: that if I went into a situation with the right outfit / mantra / alter ego / attitude, I could fake my way into confidence.

I only learned this once life (in my case, having a baby) forced me to build a life outside the theater – and learning it is what propelled me to channel my theatre training into coaching. 

I tested this idea in my own life over the last month, as I performed my manifesto in the persona of a character who is basically me in a spectacular jumpsuit.

The outfit took on a life of its own, and to live up to the image it projected, I became another version of myself: someone who is sharper, bolder, more confident in her weirdness.

You can try this too, and you don’t have to go onstage to do it.

You can create an alter ego that is another version of yourself: stronger, clearer, more spaced out, softer, meaner, louder, grungier. It’s not about being better. It’s about what you learn about yourself when you step into another character. (Those of you who have children, or who remember your own childhoods, have probably seen this with your own eyes: when we’re little, we figure out who we are by pretending to be something else).

You can use this alter ego to test out what you want, what you think, what you fear, what you hate, what you think you’re capable of. You might be surprised by what you find out. (For example, I was very surprised to find out in the course of making my show that I love new age woo woo stuff once you take out the element of control, domination, betterment and perfection).

To create your own alter ego, here’s a good way to start:

  1. NAME
  2. OUTFIT
  3. MANTRA

I’ll walk you through it:

1. PICK A NAME

  • Look around until a random object catches your eye (here are some examples from where I’m sitting right now: stool, skeleton, iron, rainboots).
  • Pick a nickname you or someone you knew had in childhood (examples from people I know: Face, Boo, Kaa, Jaja).
  • Put the two names together (examples: Stool Face, Skeleton Boo, Kaa Iron, Jaja Rainboots). Voila! You’ve got an alter ego.

2. DRAW A TWO MINUTE SELF PORTRAIT OF YOUR ALTER EGO  

  • Set the timer for two minutes
  • Write the name on a piece of paper
  • Draw a picture of that character
  • Color it in with crayons or markers or a weird red pen

3. FREEWRITE FOR TWO MINUTES

  • Set the timer for two minutes again
  • Write what you see in the picture you drew
  • You could also answer these questions: Who is this person? What are their superpowers? What is their kryptonite? Where do they come from? What are they wearing? Who are they protecting? Who are they fighting? What car do they drive?
  • Look back over what you wrote, and circle 5-6 words that stand out to you.
  • Write those words in a list, then mess around with them until they become something like a mantra. It doesn’t have to make sense, but it needs to speak to you.

When I did this at our workshop last week, here’s what I came up with:

DURA-FLAME WAITHY

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Looking into the distance, wearing a cape of flame

So now what? What do you do with this alter ego?

I’ll tell you what: you practice stepping into those shoes. You channel it at boring parties or endless meetings or conversations at the grocery store. When you need to speak up, you think, what would my alter ego say? When you aren’t sure what to do, you ask, what would my alter ego do? And when you’re at a thrift store, you ask, what would my alter ego wear? And if you’re brave, you buy that piece of clothing and you wear it out in public and see what happens.

That’s enough to get you started! Let me know what you find out.

(And if you want to go deeper with this, come to the next Creative Living workshop or sign up for my 6-week coaxing program)

Try this: Invent your own superhero

This past Sunday, we had a lovely workshop on the theme of alternate worlds / alternate lives. There were only two of us (it’s hard to compete with a warm sunny day in Portland), but we inhabited our alter-egos (Lightbulb Helmet and Craesie Fleur) with aplomb.

If you’d like to do some world shaking on your own time, I invite you to try one of the exercises we did in the workshop: invent your own superhero.

Step 1: Get some paper and a pen, sit down and close your eyes. Let the image of a superhero float into your mind.

Step 2: Jot down answers to these questions (don’t think about them — write the first things that come to mind):

  • What is their superpower?
  • Where did they come from — what is their origin story?
  • What is their fatal flaw or weakness?
  • What kind of outfit do they wear?
  • What vehicle do they drive?
  • Who are their helpers?
  • Who are their enemies — who are they fighting?
  • What are they fighting for?
  • Who are they protecting?

Step 3: Draw a picture of your superhero based on what you wrote down.

Step 4: What is your superhero’s name? Do they have a catchphrase?

Splendid! Now if you want to, share your superhero with us on facebook! I would love to meet them.

Here’s mine:

JET DIAMOND

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Jet Diamond was born in a coal mine. Her mother was 9 months pregnant and working in the mine when it collapsed. They thought everyone was dead, but when the rubble cleared, Old Man Winters walked out with a canary on one arm and a newborn baby in the other. He adopted the baby girl and named her Jet Diamond. Right away he noticed that she had laser sharp eyesight, and as she grew, her ability to see through dust and hypocrisy grew stronger.

She wears all black glittering with diamonds, and is accompanied always by her canary, Blink.

She is extremely sensitive to coaldust and can only spend a little time in dusty, murky environments before the air gets to be too much for her lungs.

She rides in on her jet black motorcycle, sees through the shams and shoddy deals constructed by rich men, and helps the workers see what they can’t see and stand up for their rights.

Then she rides out of town so fast a thunderstorm can’t keep up with her.

Bonus step: If this superhero were to show up at your door for an emergency meeting, what would they need to tell you? Would they need your help? Would they have some advice for you? Would they alert you to danger?

I imagine Jet Diamond riding up after she’s had a long, tough battle. She’s worn out, and afraid she isn’t up for the challenge anymore. I make her a cup of tea and have her tell me the whole story. Then I tell her she needs to take a break and go easy, and she insists there isn’t time for that and she needs to save the world, but then she falls asleep on the couch and I take off her boots and lay a nice cozy blanket over her.

Aside from the fact that this scene that plays out in probably every movie ever made about a superhero (and I am casting myself in the faithful butler role), what does this tell me about my own life? Maybe I’m taking myself a little too seriously. Maybe the best thing to do is take a nap. Maybe I get a little carried away with the desire to save people and be the hero. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to do things just because you feel like doing them. It’s okay to let other take care of me sometimes. Or even better, to take care of myself.

But who knows, maybe next week I’ll see a whole different message.

Extra bonus round: using the exact same prompts in step 2, invent a supervillain.


Hey there! Is this right up your alley? If you’re in Portland, you can come to one of my free Sunday morning workshops and experience it firsthand! Or if you want to go deep, you can join a Creative Workout Group, or work with me one-on-one