How do you emerge from dark places?

At one time or another, all people go through dark times, weighed down by negative thoughts, whether depressed, anxious, lonely, sorrowful, self-pitying, or judgmental. “Automatic negative thoughts” lodge in our brains and intensify. Destructive narratives swirl in our heads, insist they are true, keep us awake at night, refuse to go away. We know it’s unhealthy to get stuck in a downward spiral, but some days it feels almost impossible to spin out of it.

Surely you’ve been there. What wisdom have you learned through the years that helps you emerge from dark places and set your mind on a healthier path?

IMG_1859Here are some insights from the women I interviewed for Warm Cup of Wisdom:

  1. Pick one thing and do it. “It makes me depressed to not want to do anything, but when I don’t get anything done, it makes me more I try not to overwhelm myself with a list of fifty things to do, but pick one and just do it. At the end of the day, I feel better even if all I did was one thing.”
  2. Exercise. “I have to get physically moving. If I have a tricky situation, I just go out for a walk, and nine times out of ten I come home with an idea.”
  3. Make arrangements with friends. “I know I need to get out and walk, but I just don’t like exercise. I’ve arranged with a friend that I walk with three days a week. If I’ve made arrangements and I’ve made a commitment, then I’ll do it.”
  4. Play music. “Yesterday, I got out my old piano recital pieces and started to see if I could make my fingers come back. It’s just a balm.”
  5. Write. “During those difficult years, poetry and journal writing became a release. The sadness, the anxiousness, the frustration—it’s all there in my old journals. Writing it all out was extremely helpful in climbing out of the darkness.”
  6. Take control of the ongoing commentary in your head. “Everybody’s got more than one voice inside. I’ve got a worrier in there who frets and stews and who will remember mistakes and things I wish I hadn’t done. I say, ‘Stop! We aren’t going to go there.’ I acknowledge that these internal voices are different parts of me. After years of therapy, I’m in charge now, as the adult.”
  7. Gather perspective. “I tend to get judgmental about people inside my head. I try to understand why. My daughter will tell me when she thinks I’m way off track. When I see how she sees people, it helps me.”
  8. Seek inspiring people. “I do know that negativity does not resolve problems. What did I do with the awful news of macular degeneration in my eyes? A dear friend offered to take me to visit her artist friend Margaret, who is fully blind. Her paintings are displayed on the walls, and it gives her pleasure to ‘show’ her art to others. She manages to continue to paint because she knows where the colors are on her palette. She fixed tea for us, and the only thing she could not do was pour boiling water. She was inspirational. Attitude is everything.”

I realize there are far more than eight ways to banish thoughts that drag you down. What’s your secret method?

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Can Oprah teach us wisdom?

I had mixed feelings when I headed out last Friday night to attend Oprah Winfrey’s two-day event called “Live the Life You Want.” First, I respect Oprah for creating her own success and for using her TV talk show to empower women to read books, examine their spirituality, and give back. But I also wondered what I personally might gain from a weekend event at a sports/rockstar arena crammed with 17,000 people, surrounded by a tent city of corporate sponsors giving away free samples of anti-wrinkle cream.

Bottom line: I’m very glad I went. Many of her messages resonated with me, and – yes! – Oprah has much life wisdom to share. More important, as one of her own life’s goals, she is choosing to share with others what she has learned. She wants to “live her best life and help others to do so.”

Oprah 1

The arena was packed, floor to rafters, with enthusiastic people. By chatting with others, my girlfriend Rita and I found that women had flown to Seattle from San Diego, Kansas, and Canada to touch Oprah’s magic. More than 90 percent of the viewers were women, with a smattering of brave men. Most were white, but there were also a significant number of black women. Several women told me their 20-something daughters were not interested, but, in our 60s, we were on the older end of the spectrum. Most in the audience were in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. The high-decibel, heart-thumping rock music and the expectation that we stand and dance to it were clearly aimed at a younger demographic! Older Oprah fans probably prefer to watch her on TV in the quiet of their homes, without worrying about traffic or parking.

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Early in her opening talk on Friday night, Oprah said that, as a very little girl in Mississippi, she was told she would make a good preacher. And she does! The inspiring tones and the empowering message of generations of black preachers rang through. She told us that “spirituality/faith/beliefs” is the most important ingredient in the life she wants, and she talked a lot about “listening for the voice” and “finding your calling.” She tried to use the words “higher being” rather than “God,” but she did say, “There will come a time when you will be about your Father’s business.”

To me, the most inspiring part of the weekend was Oprah’s opening talk on Friday, when she examined her own life for lessons learned. Among them:

  1. No matter how humble your origins, you matter. As a girl, Oprah was taught that she was “a child of God” and she believed it.
  2. Speak up for yourself. When she entered kindergarten, she recited for the teacher the “big words” she knew. She was immediately promoted to first grade.
  3. Take charge of your life. At eight, she memorized the poem “Invictus,” including the famous lines, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
  4. Even if you’ve made mistakes, embrace a second chance. She messed up her life as a young teenager, but her mother sent her live with her father, who gave her a second chance.
  5. You are the co-creator of your life. After winning “Miss Fire Prevention,” she was offered a part-time job at a radio station at age sixteen. She took it.
  6. Recognize when it’s time to move on. She moved to Baltimore, and then Chicago, and more recently she ended her TV show and took on new challenges.
  7. Learn how to be yourself and stay true to who you really are. The Baltimore TV station sent her to New York for a makeover and a French stylist made a wreck of her hair. She switched to an Afro.
  8. Follow your own inner voice. After interviewing a skinhead for her TV show, she decided to change the emphasis of the show and interview only people she found inspiring. She stopped letting TV use her and began to use TV. “When you can’t decide, get still and silent till you do.”
  9. If you want something badly, work hard to achieve it, but there may come a time when you need to surrender and accept whatever happens. She badly wanted to act in the movie “The Color Purple” and was convinced she would not get the part; she told of how she made a decision to stop obsessing about it and accept the outcome. Of course, she got the part.
  10. When troubles are getting you down, be grateful for how fortunate you are. Headlines about “Oprah’s struggling network” had turned her thoughts negative; she turned her attitude around by focusing on how amazing it is that she has her own TV network.

By attending the event, I witnessed for myself what makes Oprah Winfrey successful: she has a charming, magnetic personality, with directness and honesty and humor and willingness to show vulnerability and share even the worst moments of her life. Despite all her money and power and celebrity, she makes us feel she understands us. Now that’s magic!

Much of her message was aimed at women who are dissatisfied with their life and need motivation and direction. But she did go beyond that, for those of us who are already leading the lives we want.

As you gain control of your life, Oprah said, find ways to serve others and give back. She supports a school for girls in South Africa, and she seems to have fashioned this eight-city tour not just to make money but to help even more American women improve their lives. Oprah also now hosts a weekly interview show called “Super Soul Sunday” – at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings – appealing to those many women who have given up on traditional religion but are look for a deeper spiritual life.

After 25 years with a wildly successful TV talk show, she has gone on to higher things – and truly intends to make a difference in as many lives as possible. Yep, I’d say that’s wisdom.

Oprah 3

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Ten Tips on Dealing with Anger

. . . from nine wise women interviewed for Warm Cup of Wisdom: Inspirational Insights on Relationships and Life

  1. I use an old badminton racquet, and I pound the heck out of a pillow. I do this at home, by myself, when no one is around. You would be surprised what you can unload.
  2. We need outlets for our anger. I find that physical exercise helps.
  3. Ideally, I would like to be able to say, “I really didn’t like what you did. What can we do about that?”
  4. I learned to use “I” language: I feel, I think, I believe, I want, I need. Instead of saying, “You need to stop doing that,” say, “I want you to stop doing that because when you do that I feel . . .”
  5. I’ve learned that anger may be a manifestation of depression. Sometimes sadness or anger at yourself gets turned outward.
  6. When I’m super angry, I try to disengage. I say, “I’m just not able to talk about this right now. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”
  7. The older I get, the more I realize there are situations that I need to look at and say, “No, I’m not going to get angry about that. I don’t have any spare emotional energy to spend on that.”
  8. In a meeting, if things are going badly, I will get quiet. If I have to talk, I will talk very quietly and slowly because I find that that calms things down and focuses on the right things.
  9. Change and conflict are givens. The question is not how to avoid conflict but how to handle it.
  10. Never leave a person until you can make him laugh.
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Happiness and meaningfulness

I found this article fascinating. It’s based on work by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, during his time in a Nazi concentration camp. He worked with suicidal people and came to a deeper understanding of why some people survived the horrific experience of the camps better than others.

His central thesis: Meaningfulness matters more than happiness. What gives us resilience is a sense that our life has meaning and direction, not how happy we are. Happiness is about taking, and meaningfulness is about giving.

A basic, clear premise that really got me thinking. I couldn’t sleep last night!  What do you think about this?

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Ten tips on dealing with difficult people

Okay, I’m not an expert at this. But for Chapter 10 of Warm Cup of Wisdom, I interviewed some people who are better at it than I am.  Here are the top 10 tips I culled from their insights.

  1. Realize: to this person, YOU are probably a difficult person. Examine why.
  2. Rather than avoiding conflict, find a non-threatening way to address the underlying issue. Tell the person “I need you to know how I felt when you…”
  3. Try to avoid controversial topics that bring up strong emotions. This does work for a short time but is super hard to do.
  4. Decide how much emotional energy you want to put into this relationship. If you don’t get a lot out of the friendship, perhaps you should end it. (Note: doesn’t work with relatives!)
  5. If someone criticizes you in a hurtful way, pretend you are surrounded by a clear plastic dome. You see the person and hear the comments, but they go “boing!” and bounce off. Don’t let them go into your heart.
  6. Find something you have in common and talk about that, instead of your differences. This will help you view him as a human being who just sees the world in a different way.
  7. Don’t get yourself entangled with controlling people. If you can’t get the person out of your mind, then he’s controlling you, even when you’re not speaking.
  8. Accept and care for yourself and realize what you need.
  9. Don’t go off by yourself and figure the whole thing out. Instead stay calm, adopt an attitude of curiosity, and ask the person what is making her feel the way she is – and try to really hear the answer.
  10. Focus on the person’s intentions. If you assume she has good intentions, you’ll be calmer in reacting to things that otherwise would annoy you.
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What are the secrets to a lasting marriage?

Here are some insights, straight from the mouths of women who have made marriages last—and a few who haven’t but wish they had:


Don’t start talking about a serious thing either right before dinnertime or right before bed. That’s the wrong time. If you can, the right time is after a good breakfast or lunch. Then you have the rest of the day to work it out.

If you really want to make a change, and you know that your spouse doesn’t particularly like that change, start talking about it a long time in advance. Plant the seeds, and pretty soon it becomes the other person’s decision.

Don’t expect the other person to complete you. You must be complete, your spouse must be complete, and then you create another entity that is your marriage.

The reason for success in marriage is caring—caring enough about the other person to rein yourself in occasionally.

A lot of it is expectation. In our generation, this was your husband for life. This wasn’t something that was just for a few years or that you tried out. This was something you worked at.

Sometimes, it strengthens the marriage if you spend some time apart.

I learned that I couldn’t expect him to be who I wanted him to be. I needed to find out who he is, let him know who I am, and help him to see that.

Realize it’s not your responsibility to make life perfect for the whole family.

Recognize that the two of you will grow at different rates. Rather than being threatened by this, it would be helpful for partners to acknowledge the reality and be interested in what the other is learning.

Life partners are usually worthy adversaries calling us to growth; that’s one reason why we chose them.

It’s a matter of adjusting to each stage and age.

The best way to preserve marriage is for married people to honor their spouses and their vows. Also important are what the Dalai Lama terms the three Rs: respect for self, respect for others, and responsibility for one’s own actions. I’d add another R—remembering what we loved about each other when we decided to get married.

When I look at how few marriages succeed now, I think finding your love is the most important thing you can do.  Don’t be distracted by the fun of sex too soon.

Who knew, in our twenties, that we would be able to stand each other for so long?

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Book launch: Warm Cup of Wisdom

I’m always nervous before speaking at a bookstore event. Will anyone show up? Will listeners be interested? Will many people want to buy the book? I’ve had mostly good experiences so far, but you never know.

Fortunately, lots of people showed up for the launch of Warm Cup of Wisdom at University Book Store, and all seats were taken. Friendly faces smiled at me as I spoke, making me feel less nervous.  And all the books sold out!  Partly because I mentioned that Warm Cup of Wisdom would make a great holiday gift. It would!

Here are a few photos of the happy event.

whole room



Joan and baby

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