There comes a time in all of our lives when we come up against a circumstance that forces us to look at the old patterns, habits, and beliefs that no longer serve the heart and soul of who we are. This circumstance is a gift although it is often seen as an unfortunate curse. Without it we wouldn’t change, and I think that graceful change is one of our most important life lessons.
Serious illness is one of these times when we can be forced to look at ourselves. To be faced squarely with oneself, with one’s ways of being stubborn and stuck, sightless and closed, is to begin the journey on a path toward wisdom. I believe that illness is an unexpected and mostly unwelcome gift, but one worth accepting. The path can be invigorating and inspiring, offering freedom and a better view of life.
I have another story. This one is about Sheri, a stunning woman who turned heads wherever she went. Complete with smarts and enough money to live a comfortable life with frequent trips to exotic places, Sheri was someone we would think “had it all.” She had a loving husband and they enjoyed their life together. During an annual exam when she was 39, Sheri’s doctor felt a lump in her breast and referred her to a specialist to have further testing. A short time later, she had a lumpectomy for Stage 2 breast cancer. She came to me in despair over its potential impact on her dreams of having a baby, and then her ability to be there for the baby until it was grown.
I began working with her on transforming the fears. It is not unheard of for a woman in her 40s to have a family and live a normal, healthy life even after a cancer diagnosis, so I didn’t think we would need to do much to clear the fears. But as we worked through some of the issues, what emerged from under the fear was Sheri’s obsessive dedication to appearing perfect. She told me that she cleaned her house daily and kept it spotless. She didn’t hire someone because she felt she could do it better. She resisted her husband’s desire to have animals because of the hair and possible smell. The way she lived brought to mind the Stepford Wives—clones of beautiful perfect women doing everything without flaw.
Sheri’s goals reflected a desire for perfection. She had high expectations of her husband to earn more money and gain a prestigious position in his company. She wanted to live in a particular gated neighborhood because of its thoroughly groomed landscape and pristine homes. Her nails were perfectly manicured, hair in place, make-up applied with care, gold and pearl jewelry. I felt it all masked a much deeper issue. This was not just, “I like to take care of myself and look good.” This was, “My life depends on this maintenance.” As we looked a little deeper, we found that Sheri had tremendous fear about her ability to maintain this façade. She believed the only reason anyone had for loving her was that she looked good and could keep things in order around her.
I soon realized the reason Sheri had come to me. This was a painful way to live and she was desperate to heal, but she didn’t know what to do. To shift this old pattern and move toward an authentic way of living, we did a process of retrieving the young child within Sheri, the “inner child” who first began believing that her worth came through being perfect. We discovered that Sheri controlled her environment to feel safe. The loss of her father at age five left her feeling insecure within herself. When she was able to feel in command of her surroundings, she got attention, felt better, and experienced what she interpreted as love. The pattern became so extreme that by the time she came to me she was attempting to live the idealized version of the perfect American life: luxury cars, high salaries, spotlessly cleaned home with all the accoutrements, great neighborhood with perfectly groomed yard, and to top it off, physical beauty, youth, and nice white teeth. This is not to say all people who live this way have issues. It was an issue for Sheri, and her life might have depended on resolving her obsessive need to have this particular lifestyle.
The day we cracked her façade was the beginning of deep healing for her. Sheri began to blossom into an authentic expression of herself. One of the first changes I remember noticing was her hair color. It changed from very light blond to its natural brown. She seemed approachable, friendlier, more relaxed.
When Sheri came to the office I would ask her how she had been since her last visit. She told me she stopped mopping the kitchen floor several times a week. She had even agreed to let her husband have a dog in the house. She journaled to explore what type of home she would truly like, discovering her heart was drawn to life in the country, to a “fixer” farmhouse that she said she wanted to work on herself. Although working on the house could be seen as an extension of the control and perfectionism pattern, things were beginning to shift. What I looked for was confirmation that her health was improving. In a little over a year Sheri’s doctor told her she could try to become pregnant. By that time, she was so in love with the animals they had acquired, her interest in trying for a baby in her 40s had waned. She expressed an authentic contentment and relief to live a simple life in a country setting.
I like Sheri’s story because it demonstrates how caught up in a pattern or belief we can be without realizing that it is out of harmony with our true nature. It is not that we are wrong, or need to change and become “better.” It is about allowing the authentic self to emerge more fully.