Inner brat children and other creatures of habit

Courage 8"x8" Pastel and acrylic on canvas Copyright 2016 Louise Gallagher

Pastel and acrylic on canvas
Copyright 2016 Louise Gallagher

Have you ever made a commitment to yourself and not followed through?

Okay. So if you answered, “No. Never.” you definitely don’t need to read what I write next. Stop reading now.

But, if you are like 99.9% of humans here on earth, you have probably made many commitments to yourself that you just haven’t kept.

In fact, some of you may be professional “Commitment to Self Breakers”.

Commitments can be big, or small things.

Take my commitment to treat my body with care and attention. I might have broken it yesterday. Oh, and the day before too maybe. I just might have cheated a teensy,weensy bit on my commitment to eat healthily.

Okay, a lot on Sunday. Those Nachos with my friend KP were too tempting, too delicious. And we had just finished an hour walk which included hiking up hills in the mud with Beaumont the super pooch. I deserved the treat!

Like many of you, I can rationalize anything. And that includes breaking commitments with myself.

Like any habit, breaking commitments with myself is learned behaviour.

Which means, I can unlearn the behaviour too. It just takes practice, patience and persistence. Oh, and a whole lot of willingness to do things differently.

Which is sometimes the challenge. I like my ruts. I am comfortable in doing some things the same old way because doing them the same old way means I don’t have to change.

And while I recognize that ‘change is here to stay’, my pesky little inner brat-child likes to put her hands on her hips, stomp her foot and declare in defiance to any suggestion I create change, “Don’t tell me what to do! I don’t have to change if I don’t want to.”

That’s the problem with the inner brat-child. She likes to be in control and her auto-responses are always based on  decisions made in the there and then when she reigned supreme, long before my prefrontal cortex had even finished its development. My inner brat-child is older than my inner wise-child who didn’t finish growing up until her mid-20s.

Making commitments with myself and keeping them is a test of my capacity to wrest control from the inner brat-child’s desire to not change, to not give up control, to not grow up.

I’ve decided to trick her. To reframe how I look at ‘change’ and do something differently.

First off, I’m not telling myself “I have to change”.

What I’m saying is, “Here’s an opportunity for fun and games. To create a new way of doing things that could be like… a big surprise!”

See, it’s important to play into the inner brat child’s love of surprises. Inner brat children like shiny and new toys. They are easily distracted and kind of get all hyped up on the idea of making every day like Christmas.

I’m hoping that reframing ‘change’ into something shiny and new might just distract my inner brat child from recognizing what I’m up to long enough to give what I’m up to time to grow into something more comfortable and less intimidating to her fear of losing control.

And yes, I’m willing to play games to trick my inner brat child. She’s always playing tricks on me. Turning the tables is fair game.

Secondly, I’m writing a letter to my inner brat child describing this new way of doing things and, I’m going to mail my letter to her.

Inner brat children also like mail that comes in the post box with stamps and all that jazz. It’s that shiny and new thinking again. Inner brat children are so stuck in the past, they have not developed an understanding of mail = bills as so many adults have. Instead of dreading mail, inner brat children often get all excited about the cool surprise it might just hold in store. Inner brat children like opening surprises.

Now, in my letter to my inner brat child I am going to keep the language simple. Small words, no ‘big ideas’, just lots of fun, exciting descriptive verse of what this new way of doing things will mean to ‘us’.

It’s important to identify with the inner brat child so that she feels less afraid and alone. It’s important to let her know in language she will understand what excitement is in store as we journey this new way of keeping commitments to our self.

I know. I know.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to tell her to take a hike and get on with it?

If I do the same thing again and again, I’ll get the same result.

In this case, a broken commitment to myself. Again.

So, I’m changing it up. Shaking up the status quo and trying out a different tack. Perhaps in the process, I’ll forget all about the discomfort of change and fall into love with the excitement of shiny and new.

Who knows? Anything is possible, even with inner brat children. Anyway, I’m kind of getting tired of listening to my inner brat child’s tantrums.

Time to change it up so she can take a break and go back to sleep deep within my psyche.

Strike one for the inner wise child! I’m feeling empowered already. In fact, I can taste the first sweet bites of the intoxicating fruit of keeping commitments with myself in the here and now!

Take that you inner brat!


UEP. How to make a difference

United Way of Calgary and Area

Yesterday, the United Way of Calgary and Area announced the results of its 2015 Campaign.

Calgarians contributed $55,200 million to Calgary’s social services network. In spite of job losses, increased and on-going anxiety around job security, the continued collapse of oil prices pummelling the major industry of our city, Calgarians once again stepped up to show they care and to make a difference.

Last night, I presented at one of my favourite projects initiated by the United Way — Urban Exposure Project or UEP as everyone calls it.

I can’t remember if this is my 4th or 5th year of presenting to this group of ‘next generation’ Calgarians. I only remember how much I love being part of their desire to make a difference in our city and how grateful I am to be invited to be part of their endeavours.

The description for UEP on the United Way’s website reads:

The Urban Exposure Project (UEP) engages next generation Calgarians on social issues affecting our city and the impact of United Way through the lens of photography. Participants enhance their knowledge of social issues and photography, producing a final project to be shared with the community. UEP empowers young Calgarians to build leadership, awareness and community through their art.

The project runs from late January – April each year with weekly sessions focused on social issues, photography skills and the work of United Way and partner agencies in our city. UEP culminates with a gala-style event in May to showcase your work, stories and experiences with friends, family and community members.

The amazing and talented Jeremy Fokkens shares his photographic knowledge, tips and talents to inspire the photography skills of the group. My role in the project is to help the participants get comfortable with story-telling. To help shift their awareness from ‘fear’ — how on earth can I ask someone if I can take their photo? How do I find my story in the photo? How do I not mess up?… To a place of — Wow! What a great opportunity to connect, heart to heart, to other Calgarians and to learn more about our human connection and inspire others to learn more too.

The first time I presented at UEP there were maybe 15 – 18 participants. Last night, there were over 40 people crowded into the room — all of them coming from different walks of life, all of them eager to learn more about Calgary’s social services network.

I always begin my presentation with an invitation for participants to pair up and…. wait for it… “Draw the face of the person beside you. You have 1 minute. Start. Now!”

And the response is always the same.

Groans. Nervous laughter. Apologies for the lack of ability to create a masterpiece.

When the minute is up I ask, “How many of you immediately went to ‘I can’t do that!’ when I gave you the instructions?”

Inevitably, at least 50% of the group says yes and then, when I challenge everyone else, most of them sheepishly acknowledge they too felt an inner angst kick in the minute they found out what they had to do.

The point of the exercise beyond it being a great ice-breaker– we all have a natural push back when asked to do things we tell ourselves we can’t do. Few of us are immediately comfortable stepping outside our comfort zone. Few of us actually believe we can draw – or allow ourselves time to explore our creative abilities.

So what? I ask the group. Did you have fun? Did you laugh a lot and did you get a little more comfortable with the person beside you?

Last night, I had the privilege of working with a group of engaged, excited and inspiring people who are committed to learning and doing more to create a great city.

Yes, Calgary is facing tough times. Everyone in that room is nervous about their job security. Everyone is nervous about the uncertainty of the future. As one young woman I spoke with said, “I’ve never gone through this before.”

It’s okay.

Whether we’ve gone through a market downturn and downward slide of the economy once, or twice or more, it is always hard. Even without a crumbling economy, people experience hardship, tough times, uncertainty.

What’s important isn’t The Job or The Title or even the newness of label on our designer clothes.

What’s important is we turn up. We commit to making a difference and we give back.

Giving is Receiving.

Last night, as evidenced by the number of next generationers who were in the room to give back to community and the United Way, Calgary is in good hands.

Markets may tumble and stocks may fall, but our willingness to give back, to be there for one another, to support eachother will carry us through.

Thank you UEP, to everyone in that room last night, to the United Way of Calgary and Area, to the thousands of people working in hundreds of agencies across our city to support people in good and tough times.

You make a difference.

The past is not the only avenue to the future.

When asked, “What did you fear most when you were homeless,” Gladys* answered without hesitation. “Dying on the streets.”

Recently, I met with the board of a community association where the foundation I work for is considering building a 25 – 30 unit apartment building for formerly homeless Calgarians.

It wasn’t an easy meeting. It wasn’t all sun and roses and welcome to our community.

There was openness. Curiosity. Awareness and a desire to be inclusive and supportive.

There was also fear. Concern. Misunderstanding and misconceptions present.

And there was possibility.

It is the possibility I want to stay with. To expand. To stretch out across the room, the community, the city so that every Calgarian can understand, fear of dying on the streets is real for some people. It is a constant grinding away at their existence. A continuous eating away at their experience of life leaving them to believe, there is no other way, no other street to walk. There is only this existence that is killing them.

Gladys no longer worries about dying on the streets. She is living in an apartment now. In her new way of being she is supported by people who understand her fears, and who believe that with compassionate care, she can thrive in community.

Her thriving will not look like yours or mine. It will be different. But then, mine is different than yours and yours is different than someone else’s. It is our differences that create the vibrancy of our communities. It is our diversity that builds strength into the intersections of our lives.

There is possibility in our differences. There is connection.

When I left the meeting, I marveled at the similarities of our perspectives and experiences.

One man at the meeting, in an attempt to ‘do good’ in a community in another city, had bought a building that was in receivership. He renovated it and provided low rent housing for individuals living on the margins.

It was not easy. It was not a good experience, he shared with the group. I will oppose this project 1,000 percent, he said.

I can understand his fears.

Like Gladys (*which is not her real name), his fears are built on an experience that did not meet his expectations. He set out to ‘do good’ and felt bad with the outcome. He felt abused. Betrayed. Confused. Why would people treat his property so badly? Why couldn’t they see he was trying to help them? To make a contribution to society?

Like Gladys, this man is stuck in his experiences and fears, in his belief that no matter what he does, or anyone else does, it can never be another way. The past dictates the present and determines the future.

My experience is different. My experience has led me to this place where I believe the past does not make the present a repetition of what happened then, again and again. My belief is that when we use our experiences of the past with the intent to inform our actions for the better today, we can create better, we can make a difference.

There are people living on our streets today, and in our emergency shelters, who have given up on believing there is another way. They live with the constant fear that dying on the streets will become their future.

In the streets they walk everyday, they have lost sight of possibility. They have lost hope for a new way of being present in the world.

There are people living in our communities today, who have given up on believing there is another way. They live with the constant fear that without high fences, without holding onto to what they have, they will be unsafe in their homes and in their community.

In the streets they walk everyday, they have lost sight of possibility. They have lost hope for a new way of being present in the world.

For my world to change, I must change how I see my world.

When I look at it through eyes of fear, I know fear.

When I breathe into possibility, when I open myself up to allowing possibility for another way to arise, my world becomes a reflection of what I want to create more of in the world around me.

We all know fear. We have all been touched by change and its constant hammering away at the walls of our comfort zones demanding we learn to stretch, to find new moves that will take us away from where we are into that place where anything is possible if we let go of holding onto to what we know and tell ourselves we cannot let go of.

Just as Gladys is learning to let go of street life so that she can embrace a new way of being present in the world today, the possibility exists for each of us to create the kind of world we want to live in. The kind of world our children can live in too. To find a new way of being present in the world today, we must we let go of believing the past is the only avenue to the future.





Where nightmares end

It stormed last night. Thunder rumbled across the sky. Lightning bolts streaked through the night, searing the dark. The wind howled. The trees moaned and I lay in my bed, warm and dry, Ellie snoring on her mat at the foot of the bed and Marley curled up beside me.

I love storms. I love their fierce energy cascading from the sky, rippling across the earth. I love the wind and the rain and the trees bowing and the wind chime tinkling madly in the back yard. I love the sound of the rain pattering on the roof, the water splashing in puddles and dripping from the eaves.

And I love  listening to the storm from inside the safety and warmth of my home.

I am grateful for the roof over my head. I am grateful we live on higher ground, that our foundation is secure, our roof strong. I am grateful for the stove light that glimmers in the dark from the kitchen, the candles ready just in case, the flashlight strategically placed on my bedside table – just in case.

I am grateful I can take precautions, just in case.

I have the resources, the resilience and the necessary strength to take care of myself, just in case.

There was a time…

I was thinking of those times yesterday as I listened to a group of co-workers talk about ‘harm reduction’ — the art of maximizing safety even when someone is engaged in unsafe and risky behaviours.

It’s part of Housing First which forms the foundation of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. The first step in any housing first model is to get someone into housing, and provide them the prerequisite supports to enhance well-being.

The premise is, you can’t look at options, you can’t see possibilities, you can’t feel safe, when your life is one unstable step after another.

It’s true. You can’t.

Having worked in a shelter for almost six years, no matter how good the service, no matter how well-intentioned the supports, when homelessness sits heavily on your shoulders, believing in the possibility of change, knowing there’s hope for more is a constant battle of reality versus resignation. Life is just too hard, too heavy, too confusing to conceive of your capacity to change.

I know. When I was mired in the darkness of an abusive relationship, when my home was gone, my belongings stored precariously, my family ties shredded, I couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t believe there was anything I could do to make it different. It took everything I had to pretend everyday that I was coping with the uncertainty and trauma of what was happening in my life. How could I create change? How could I believe I had the capacity to change my path when I believed I was the one who had destroyed my life in the first place? How could I do anything differently when to do something different meant I was lost? How could I find courage in the fear driving me deeper and deeper into the dark?

I told myself I couldn’t. I told myself there was nothing else I could do. I told myself, this is all there is. This is where I belong. This is what I deserve. This fear, confusion, abuse. This constant uncertainty. This continuous instability would never change. It couldn’t. Because I didn’t deserve anything else. I was 100% responsible for what was happening in my life — and I was powerless to change it.

Homelessness begets helplessness. Losing everything leads to losing yourself. It opens the door to nothing but, more of the same. In the downward spiral of feeling helpless to stop the storm rumbling through your life, sweeping away everything you once held onto or believed would keep you safe, you stand exposed to the harsh and bitter winds of hopelessness. And in that place, even when the shelter provides a roof over your head, even when you know there are three meals to count on every day. Even when you have a bed to sleep in, a chair to sit on, a locker to store your meagre belongings in, others to talk to in a community of people with your shared experience, you never feel safe. you never feel at home, because in being given everything you need to survive, you still do not have the one thing that will lead you home — a place to call your own. A place where you can lock the door, make yourself a cup of tea, butter a slice of toast and dream.

When I was homeless and life stormed all around me, darkness was my companion. In the dark, I could pretend I couldn’t see what was happening. In the dark, I didn’t dream of the storm ending, because dreams always lead to awakening to the nightmare that was my life and I didn’t believe I’d ever awaken from the horror of what was happening. In my disbelief I held onto the dark where fear kept me still and held me fast in the hopelessness of its embrace.

It stormed last night and I awoke to thunder rumbling across the sky. In its passing I am left with the gift of today, the beauty of this place where I am grateful for the roof above my head. This place, where I know that to end homelessness we must first find a place to call home. A place where the nightmare of homelessness ends and dreams begin again.

Caring about others

There is something different in the world this morning outside my window. It snowed last night. Nothing I do or say or think will change the weather outside my window. The only changes I can effect are within me.

This consciously ‘making a difference’ everyday and writing about it takes concentration. It takes presence. It takes me being aware of my surroundings, my environment and my inner spaces.

As I am no longer employed and setting up my own consulting practice I am networking with people to let them know who I am, where I’m at and what I’m up to.

It is not my favourite thing to do. Networking. I like to believe it will just, happen. And while the Universe is working for me and with me for success to transpire, it requires my active participation to get engaged, be involved in creating more of what I want in the world. It takes me getting out there.

Yesterday, two such opportunities presented themselves — and all I had to do was turn up. Pay attention. Speak my truth and, the most challenging part, stay unattached to the outcome.

A lunch with a brilliant woman lead to an idea for something big, something creative and inspiring and all the things I want to see in the world. We’re building the framework for taking our idea to the next level. We’re creating the environment for change to happen. More on that later.

A coffee with a man I admire greatly lead to opportunities to make a difference. An invitation to participate in a community based initiative  transitioning people back into community after addictions treatment, an invitation to create opportunities for change in how the sector serves the community, all of these and more have appeared on my horizon. I am grateful and in my gratitude is the commitment to be an agent of change, to be a steward of creating more of what works, and less of what doesn’t in the world.

And as we sat at coffee, making a difference simplified into the singular act of caring for another human being. A woman at the table behind us stood up to leave. As she gathered her belongings I noticed the middle button of her blouse was undone. Her bra was plainly visible. As she passed our table I interrupted my friend’s conversation and gently called out to the woman. “Excuse me”. She stopped, surprised. She wasn’t sure I was speaking to her. Did she know me?

“I just wanted to let you know your button’s undone,” I told her.

She glanced down, saw the two sides of her green blouse gaping open. Quickly she juggled her purse and belongings to do up the button. “Thank you!” she said, a big smile warming her face. The button connected, she left to go out into the world free of unintentional exposure and my friend and I continued our conversation.

There are opportunities to make a difference everywhere, every moment. And each of them, no matter their grandeur requires one simple act, that I begin with caring about others.