Beware of Vampires

Now that Halloween is upon us, we delight in seeing images of ghosts and goblins, interspersed among the pumpkins, although what I love most is seeing is the little kids’ outfits.  Our kids both started out as a cow, then a duck, then a bear, and then branched out into superheroes and heroines.  One of my favorite recent Halloweens involved two little guys with capes who sat with me as I gave out candy even though I’m not their mom. (They were tired and wanted to rest their muscles.) Even though Halloween today is a secular neighborhood ritual, it is believed to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and dress in costumes, hoping to scare off roaming ghosts. After Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as All Saints Day, which honored all saints and martyrs, All Hallows Eve marked the night before, which later became Halloween.

Now that vampire literature is really hot, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of teen vampires showing off their fangs and pretending to suck others’ blood.  While I’ve never really liked vampire novels, I do understand the allure of those characters, since they are kind of exciting and sexy.  It never occurred to me, however, that vampires really existed, but if you Google “real vampires” you will find that there a number of people who believe that they really are vampires, in that they need to take other people’s energies consciously to feel good, as well as drink others’ blood if anyone is willing to offer some! It’s not really clear how they go about actively stealing someone’s energies.  But they are aware that it makes them feel better.

What is amazing is that lots of people who don’t identify as vampires unconsciously steal our energy all the time, and we don’t even notice it often until after they’ve left.  In Judith Orloff’s book, Positive Energy, the author coins the term “energy vampire” to describe people who, as a result of childhood trauma (whether abuse or neglect or illness), feed off other peoples’ positive energy to strengthen themselves.  Unlike like self-described “real vampires,” these people have no idea of the effect they have on others, but the negative impact is real nonetheless.  Orloff lists a number of types:  the sob sister (the victim/whiner), the blamer or criticizer, the drama queen (who feeds off crisis), the constant talker or joke teller, and the fixer upper who makes you her therapist.

Whether we realize it or not, some people makes us feel joyful and energized, while others drain us with their negativity, whether it’s the guy who insults you and then adds “just kidding” or the friend who calls you when you have a newborn to whine endlessly about her love life.  Then there’s the new book club member who talks non stop or the relative who criticizes endlessly.  I once had to sit next to a woman for four hours at a swim meet who bragged non-stop about her Olympic athlete, adding how “blessed” she was to have a child with so much talent and such good looks, compared to most of the slackers on the team.  I had to do a lot of breathing to handle her.

The first step to dealing with energy vampires is to recognize them, by noticing how other people make you feel.  Who drains you or makes you feel slimed?  If you do feel drained, ask yourself why?  What kind of person are you dealing with:  a blamer, a non-stop talker, a drama queen, a constant complainer or criticizer?  Is it the drama queen who needs to talk for hours even though you have an important interview the next day?  If so, maybe you start screening those calls.  Is it the gossip who assures you that your secret is safe with her, only to find it on social media being discussed among people you barely know?  It’s time to stop sharing with that person. Is it the know-it-all who corrects everything you say and insists that he’s always right?  Sometimes leaving the room can be effective to get him to stop. Or is it the control freak who always has to have everything on her terms or there’s hell to pay?  Having less contact in general is often a good idea.

While it may seem negative to list all the types of energy vampires that we encounter, it is in fact empowering to realize that you’re not imagining feeling sucked dry.  Whether people self-identify as vampires or not, they are out there and it’s our job to make sure we protect ourselves, through clear boundaries, and deep breathing, to name just a few ideas.  To find your world stage, watch out for people who drain you. The most important antidote to vampires is surrounding yourself with positive people who inspire and delight you, and creating a life you love filled with what empowers you, whether it’s nature or music or books or travel or sports or cooking.  This week, identity one vampire in your life and take steps to distance yourself just a bit from that person.  And in his or her place, spend more time with someone who makes you laugh and fills your spirit.

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This is my daughter on Halloween 10 years ago.

 

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Find Your Posse

When I was in college, I took a film class every Tuesday afternoon which was affectionally called, “Tuesday Afternoons at the Movies.”  We watched classic films like Casablanca and analyzed them.  We also seemed to watch a lot of westerns since our teacher really loved John Wayne.  Even though I’m from California and was more familiar with cowboys and western style riding than all the preppies in my class from the east coast, I always found those men with their posses, standing down the bad guy, a little ridiculous and definitely over the top.  But the idea of a classic posse, with guys standing by you with guns who have your back, has stayed with me as kind of a secret wish ever since then.  What if I had a pack of friends (not with guns but with attitude) who physically stood by me when trouble came around? That would have been amazing when I was 25 and working at a prestigious law firm in New York City and my associate boss told me that I should be in a wet t-shirt contest because I would absolutely win.  I reminded my boss that I was newly appointed to a sexual harassment committee and that he might want to consider not making statements like that in order to make partner. But what if my posse had burst through the door and pinned him up against the wall just to scare him a bit too? I would have loved that.  Or what about my daughter’s second grade teacher who intimidated the children in her class, pitting one child against the other, but happily getting away with it because she had tenure?  My posse would have marched her outside and made her sing nursery rhymes over and over until she willingly quit, since she had no business teaching children.

The reality is that we don’t have real posses who stand up with us in a time of crisis and threaten bad guys.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t create a different kind of posse, whether through online groups or book groups or friends who deliver casseroles in bulk when we’re sick.  We need that in our lives to remind us that we’re not alone.  But how many of us these days really have that? In the book Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam talks about the fact that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from one another.  We work more and are more socially mobile, so that the structures that used to be in place, from bowling leagues to civic associations, are increasingly fractured.  Church attendance and voting are way down.  (And given how toxic this American election year is, it might be helpful to consider changing that trend quickly.) The more connected we are with social media, the less connected we often feel in real life.  So sometimes we have to actively create our very own posse, beyond our families and close friends, to hold us accountable and cheer us on.  I was part of a group of three singers for a number of years, who helped each other prepare for auditions and pass on gigs.  It was really valuable to have a team all committed to the same goal, but without the competition and backstabbing that so often exists in the entertainment world.  I had the same thing in coaching school, and the support was invaluable.

To find your world stage, think about what your ideal posse would look like, and if you don’t have one, take the time to go out and create one.  Whether it’s you and one buddy, or you and a small group, life is always better when we know that someone has our back.

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The Present

Twenty-three years ago on October 16th, I walked down the aisle in the gorgeous Stanford Memorial Church, built by my ancestors, with the late afternoon light pouring in through the stained glass windows.  I remember the long, red carpeted aisle with a slope that I walked down, tugging my father– who was beaming proudly– to slow down and take it all in.  I remember the gold Byzantine mosaics and the frescoes on the wall, like the great cathedrals of Europe that this church used as a model.  I remember the beaming faces of my standing guests as we slowly passed by and the look of wonder on my husband-to-be’s face, seeing his bride for the first time. Even though earlier in the day it was pouring rain, and I hadn’t left enough time to pack for our honeymoon, and I was beyond nervous about the wedding going well, I somehow had the wisdom, once I was dressed and waiting at the back of the church, to let all that go and just be with the moment. So many of my friends had warned me that their own weddings were so stressful, that they got distracted and forgot everything.  I didn’t want that to happen.  I wanted to be present, to soak in each moment, so that someday I could look back on that day of important moments and not forget.

I used the lesson I learned that day to focus on the moment while I was parenting young children, reminding myself that there is only one moment when they say their first word (“Mama” for my daughter and “ball” for my son), or when they take their first steps, or when they start really talking or go off to kindergarten for the first time.  I knew how tired and distracted I was, so I reminded myself constantly to pay attention.  Now that my kids are 13 and 11, I’m grateful that I didn’t have a smart phone when they were little- it would have been too hard for me to just be present.  But even with older kids who themselves want to be distracted all the time by computers and phones, it’s such a gift to put everything down and just listen.

Now I know that not every second of life is worthy of paying attention.  Frankly, when I’m at the dentist or on hold for some repairman, I almost need to zone out for my sanity.  Not every moment in life is supposed to be gorgeous and perfect. Sometimes life can be boring or hard, and sometimes not being so present is actually easier, like when you’re in pain or had a really bad day. Distraction can be a gift too.

But one of the things I’ve done with my kids from day one is to write down the funny things they say, and record them singing songs and telling stories.  I also make a point of showing them clouds shifting in the sky or trees that are shimmering gold in the late autumn light.  We always notice wobbly babies who are newly walking and little tiny puppies.  In our sad, broken world, it’s easy to forget that there is still so much goodness,  and that we don’t have to be famous or cure cancer to lead worthy lives.

So as you think about what work is meaningful to you and how you will find your world stage, think about the ultimate gift which is to be present, for your own sake, but also for the sake of others.  In this noisy, chaotic world, we humans need more people who are kind and joyful, and who understand that the greatest present you can give anyone is to be in the moment.  So as we move into the holiday season, think about how your season can reflect not just the gift of generosity, but also the gift of your truly being present.  If you do that, everyone around you will notice and no one will forget.

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Stanford Memorial Church

 

Play Full Out

Woody Allen was once quoted as saying,”Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Given how important showing up is, however, it’s amazing how many people don’t even do that, whether it’s the student who cuts more classes than she attends, the dad who promises to throw a ball with his kid but always has some excuse, or the friend who keeps canceling lunch dates with you because it’s too much to commit.  When you don’t show up, it hurts you because you can’t be trusted and are viewed in a negative light.  How often do people say things like, “We should have lunch sometime,” but not really mean it and never once suggest a date?  One of the most important things I’ve taught my kids is that they need to be a person of their word. If they say that they are going to do something, they need to do it. Reliable people are becoming a rare breed unfortunately.

But what about the other 20% of success?  I think that is reserved for the people who choose to play full out, no matter what, and who go the extra mile.  When I was in coaching school, the number one rule for our class and for being a coach in general was to play full out.  This meant being open to everyone and everything, being willing to try new things and look silly, and being open to learning and being wrong and looking foolish.  It’s no wonder we all felt so alive during our training, because for the first time in our lives, everyone was 100% committed.  What would our lives and our businesses look like if we all played full out and gave more than was expected?  What kind of world would we have, where people spent less time complaining that they can’t get ahead and more time doing kind things for others, whether picking up trash along a river, or helping a homeless person feel less lonely?  Today, I noticed a woman was trying to load her large toddler into a shopping cart and the cart kept moving.  I just grabbed the cart to steady it and said, “Take your time.  I got this.” She seemed so relieved and it was so easy.  Another woman was parking illegally and didn’t know it, so I pulled down my window and warned her so that she wouldn’t get a ticket or get towed.  Other people have done the same for me.  When I was backpacking in Europe in my twenties, I was always lost since I have a bad sense of direction (and this was before GPS) and I was always running late for the train.  Strangers came out of nowhere to grab my bags and run with me to make the train and help me get where I needed to go.  I will always be grateful.

There is no greater business secret in my mind than providing such “wow” service that people can’t help but rave about you.  Places like Amazon and Nordstrom’s do that beautifully.  Because so many businesses don’t do that, however, it’s not that hard to compete if you always put the customer first.  As both my father and my grandfather, both successful businessmen, taught me, “The customer is always right.”  I also learned that it’s easier to keep a customer than to win a new one, so serving your customers makes bottom line sense.  What about beyond business?  As a parent, if you consistently spend time with your kids when they are little and if you keep your promises, they will want to spend time with you when they are older and don’t need you as much.  Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and they remember what you value– not in words but in action– throughout their childhood.  The same thing applies to friends.  Are you there for your friends in a real world way or do you just chat sometimes on Facebook?  They are not the same thing, and yet increasingly people seem to think that they are.

To find your world stage, it’s not about who wins.  It’s about being there for your family and friends and teammates and customers, trying your hardest, and knowing that no matter what, that you showed up and you played full out and you gave it your all. If you do that, you will be unforgettable.

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This is my daughter in a school x-country race.

 

Invisible

I will never forget a comment that an older person made to me once a few years ago:  “Just wait until you’re no longer young and pretty.  You’ll love becoming invisible.” I was horrified by her words, because she seemed to revel in the idea of becoming invisible as you get older.  She also seemed to think that being invisible is a good thing.  Now I know what my son would have said when he was 5.  He wore capes nonstop for all of preschool and wanted to save the world from “bad guys.” It was part of his dream to be invisible so he could sneak up and get the bad guys when they weren’t looking.  But he didn’t always want to be invisible; always invisible sounds kind of sad.  Frankly, when I’m really old someday, I will do everything I can to stand out and be heard.  Poet Jenny Joseph once wrote the famous poem called “When I Am Old” with the first lines stating: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn’t go, and that doesn’t suit me.”

We live in a society in which so many of us are made to feel invisible.  Victims of date rape on college campuses are shamed into silence, while rapists like the Stanford swimmer get out off with 3 months of prison time. Presidential candidates are allowed to body shame and demean women repeatedly, even during the debates, and the victims are criticized for speaking up. People on the margins, from the homeless, to the drug addicted, to the abused, are not valued because they broke the rules for how to behave, and therefore they have no voice.  Older women, who no longer turn heads, are made to feel invisible, as though their looks is all they have to offer the world.  And women like Hillary Clinton, who dare to run (and possibly win) for president are made to feel shame for campaigning rough and dirty like a man.  She is not just a pretty face– and in fact never was– but she is smart and she is tough and she is very threatening to a lot of people, because she is daring not to be invisible.  At all.

As a woman raising kids, I often feel invisible.  Somehow my kids’ doctors and nurses feel comfortable calling me “Mom.”  I have had to remind many nurses in many offices that the only people allowed to call me that are my kids, and to remember that I have a name, which is Melinda. It is demeaning not to call someone you regularly see by their name.  Before Civil Rights, white people felt entitled to call a black man “boy”, which is thankfully no longer acceptable.  For the years that I was pushing a double stroller with two young kids, I was invisible, because nobody wanted to deal with the hassle and the noise that two babies bring.  I was kicked out of the library multiple times for my baby crying, even though libraries are for kids.  So I wrote letters reminding the library staff that I paid taxes for access to children’s books that my kids wanted to read.  I refused to be invisible.

But on the small things, it’s so easy to remain invisible.  If someone says something that hurts us, how many of us actually speak up?  How many of us share with people that we are religious or passionate about art or care about politics or are struggling with something in our lives?  Or do we instead post happy pictures on Facebook and let everyone think that our lives are perfect?  That’s making yourself invisible by playing small.  To be honest, many of us are so scared about fitting in and being liked, even as adults, that we don’t really show who we are.  I have noticed over the years that since most people know me as a mother and a life and vocal coach, I haven’t talked a lot about my music, even though I have two albums out and I’ve been a professional musician since my late teens. (You can check out my music at http://www.melindastanford.com.) The fact is I got busy with raising kids and I was surrounded by busy people who didn’t have time to listen to my CD’s so I gradually stopped talking about it.  I became invisible.

Not anymore.  Now that my kids are older and I’m finally coming up for air, I’m making myself heard and known in a way that I haven’t been able and willing to before. The fact is, the greatest gift we can give our kids, other than our time, is the example of putting ourselves out in the world again and again, even if it means stumbling and falling over and over. What other choice do we have? Giving up should not be an option.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from Marianne Williamson, which I’ve written about before:  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” To claim your world stage, notice where you are invisible and take one step to change that.

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This is a giraffe hiding, but animals do it for the right reasons 🙂