I was talking with my Ma the other day about my relationships. She was a little sad, worried even, that I was single yet again, having recently broken up with Michael (my ex-cub, nineteen years my junior). It was the yet again part that got to me—as in, I’ve blown it yet again, as in I’ve wasted time yet again, as in I’ll be whining and sobbing about being single and alone yet again. Not that my Ma said any of this. It’s just that I beat myself up when things don’t go the way I think they should—which is, if I’m being honest, all the time.
Then I had this other thought. While often lonely and frustrating, the periods between relationships have often been the most productive times in my life. There’s something about the magnetic pull of a man that just throws me off course—sometimes for years (I know, I’m so weak.) Next thing you know, I’ve lost all track of myself.
I was blathering on about this to Austin Vickers, a good friend of a good friend of mine whom I finally got a chance to have lunch with. I’d heard about Austin’s work as a writer and speaker, about his transformation from corporate attorney to leadership expert, about the documentary film he was creating, and I thought, now there’s a productive guy. And, will you look at that—he’s not in a relationship. How does he do it?
“Austin,” I said breathing a loud sigh. “How do I stay out of a relationship and stay focused on me?” Austin has a reassuring, I can help you demeanor and he’s direct too—I knew he wouldn’t let me wiggle away from a topic with excuses or ahem, B.S.
“Well,” he said calmly. “I’d start by asking that question the other way around: How can you stay in a relationship and stay focused on you? Then, I’d want to know what is it about a relationship that serves you? What do you get out of it?
There’s a reason you want one. The secret is learning to identify what relationship brings you and then finding ways to bring that same thing to yourself.”
I chewed on my mushroom and leek tart and thought hard. “Sex,” I said sounding superficial. “And, I guess, attention, and it makes me feel young and alive.”
“Okay, that’s good,” said Austin. “But now, can you express that in terms of values, with a value being a higher principle, not a benefit—in other words, something that drives behavior, not the action itself. So, for instance, sex might satisfy a value around love and connection.”
“I’d have to say freedom, passion, and truth,” I said slowly, not being one to ponder values. “Younger guys seem so much more excited about life and less likely to judge me, which I find freeing.”
“Do you need a partner to feel those things?” Austin asked.
“It seems a lot easier,” I said not sure where he was going.
“Is it really?” he challenged. “You told me earlier, and the evidence would suggest, that you find being in a relationship challenging.”
“You caught me in my own logic, you, attorney, you!” This guy had a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter.
“Look at it this way,” Austin said taking another tact. “When I need physical intimacy, I get a massage. Sure it’s nonsexual but it’s still human touch. When I need emotional intimacy, I call a friend. The more I fulfill those underlying values that I’ve identified as coming from a relationship, guess what it does to my need to be with someone in an exclusive relationship? It takes that need away. And guess what else, now I’m in love. But instead of being in love with some other person I can’t really control or rely upon, I’m in love with who I am, with my life, with the moment, and the things I love to do. That’s magnetic. When you have that, well, who’s not going to be attracted to you?”
I learned back and looked at him closely. It seemed so simple yet I’d never focused on my values before.
Austin went on to describe how this approach of shifting from a behavioral identification to a values identification also works for problems such as depression, anger, or even addictions. I asked him to apply it to depression since it’s so common in women over forty.
“Most of us believe depression is bad,” said Austin. “We want to take a pill and make the behavior of depression go away. I want to know, how is it good? What are the underlying values of depression? And what is it trying to tell you?”
I looked at him perplexed. “How can depression ever be a good thing?” I said.
Austin took a few minutes to take a bite of his enchilada. All the talking had kept him from even tasting his food. “Think of depression as a messenger that comes from deep inside yourself,” he explained. “It knocks at your door because it has a message for you. And it’s persistent—the more you ignore it, deny it, or try to silence it with drugs, the louder it knocks.”
“Who wants to hear that message?” I said. “You know it’s bad—something that will make you uncomfortable or bring up feelings you don’t like.”
“But what if the banging to get your attention is the worst part?” said Austin. “And what if listening to the message could save your life, help you grow in vital way, and stop the banging. Would you still want to run from it?”
I nodded slowly and looked at him intensely. Austin continued.
“I’ll give you an example from my life because I used to suffer from bad depression when I was an attorney working in a left brain world. There were weeks where I’d suffer, often curled up in a fetal position dreading any social interaction and feeling terrible. Then, I had this thought—what if depression is trying to tell me something important? So I sat with my depression trying to find an underlying value that it was trying to bring me. That’s when I realized for the first time that I was often very creative when I was depressed. Rather than socializing I would stay home depressed and write. Ninety percent of my book was written when I didn’t feel like going out with friends and just sat at home writing.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “Because I can’t get out of bed when I’m depressed—let alone write anything.”
“Maybe it’s because you’re still fighting the depression and not listening to it,” offered Austin. “I would actually accelerate my depressions. I’d listen to sad music, insulate myself, and get my pen and paper out to give myself to the message of depression. As I began to view my depression as bringing me the gift of creativity, I welcomed it rather than repressed it. And I more actively began to consciously bring creativity into my life as a daily habit, so that depression didn’t need to show up to lead me in a creative direction. Once I gave depression a new meaning and made space for it in my life, guess what happened to the depression? It released its message and went away.”
I thought of myself and some of my friends, women in their forties and fifties who were depressed over all the loss in their lives—loss of their youthful selves, marriages, and even careers in these tough times. What values did those things represent and could you really satisfy them in other ways?
“The problem isn’t that we experience depression, or anger, or any other normal human emotion,” Austin said as though reading my mind. “It’s that, because we don’t like the feelings they produce, we dismiss them without taking the time to look more deeply into them to find the underlying values, which are always the most important starting point.”
“You’re a hot, eligible, forty-something guy,” I said abruptly changing tact . “What do you think about this whole cougar thing? Or put another way, what do you think of older women who value guys in their twenties?” I cleared my throat and looked at him expectantly.
Austin smiled. “Well if it’s a hot cougar turning me down for a younger boy, I don’t like it,” he kidded. “Otherwise, I think people are too judgmental about things like that. I think that the cougar is really looking to create certain values in her life that come from that guy who is in his twenties. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to create values like spontaneity, enthusiasm and hope that he probably brings to her.”
I was into my second cup of coffee by this point in the conversation, relieved to hear that change wasn’t so complicated—more a matter of perspective, really. We finished off our lunch by talking about the importance of listening to your inner voice. I knew doing just that had taken my life into a completely different direction. Clearly, it had done the same for Austin. He was busy shooting his upcoming documentary, People v. The State of Illusion. He’d recently made it possible to experience his coaching process online while also contributing to a charitable cause.