Life & Style
Enough with Fight or Flight. We Need More Tending and Befriending
Author Elizabeth Lesser says a lesson she learned early on, from working with a wide variety of successful people, is that even successful people can be messed up. “You can be a relationship guru on your third marriage. You can be a spiritual guru and be really mean.” In other words, they are not some rare species. They are just another struggling human. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lesser )
Elizabeth Lesser is the author of Cassandra Speaks, which will be the focus of a book club offered by Rise Therapy and Wellness launching on Thursday, Jan. 21. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lesser )
Elizabeth Lesser is about as accomplished as they come.
She co-founded Omega Institute, a world-renowned educational retreat center located in Rhinebeck, New York in 1977, when she was 22 years old. She’s the author of several books, including a New York Times bestselling book that sold more than 300,000 copies and has been translated into 20 languages. She’s studied with respected spiritual teachers, healers, psychologists, and philosophers from a wide variety of traditions. She’s worked with Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle. She’s been a midwife, a birth educator, and is an avid walker, cook, gardener, friend, mother, grandmother, and wife.
Even with all that, there are times she’s certain she’s lacking in essential skills or talents, and that she will be revealed as a fraud, an imposter.
“I struggle too. I get depressed,” she says.
Her recently published book, Cassandra Speaks, is honest about both her victories and failures, at work and at home, in a way that she hopes will encourage others to be honest and vulnerable, so that they can become more courageous and creative.
And here’s one of her superpowers: She’s spent enough time around really successful, wildly successful, people to know that they are really just people, vulnerable and perfectly imperfect, just like her.
“One of the real blessings of having met the kind of people I’ve met over the years,” she says, “is that very early on, in my 20s, I began to see that even the experts can be really screwed up people. You can be a relationship guru on your third marriage. You can be a spiritual guru and be really mean. At first that can be disheartening, but then it just became the biggest gift, that being exposed to so many remarkable people. We are all works in progress, and if you think someone who wrote a book or started a school is some rare species and not just a regular person, struggling and working hard, you’d be wrong. They are just another struggling human.”
Connecting with Community
Lessor’s book, Cassandra Speaks, will be the first book featured this year in a book club series being offered by Rise Therapy and Wellness Center in Madison. This series starts Thursday, Jan. 21 from 6 to 7:20 p.m.
The book discusses, as part of its focus, how the many skills and talents typical of female leadership and nurturing, whether those skills and talents are exhibited by men or women, are often denigrated and ignored by society at large to its everlasting detriment.
Kate McGetrick, the owner of Rise Therapy and Wellness, says the group will discuss the book, while sharing the themes “as they show up in our lives.” The group, for women only, will meet four times, with the goal of meeting every other Tuesday. More information about that can be found at www.risetherapyandwellness.com.
McGetrick says the book discussion is one of her organization’s many efforts to connect with the community, particularly during these times. She says she’s a big believer in therapy and group therapy, and that informal group meet-ups like this also play a role that’s important when it comes to wellness.
“I’m such a believer in the power of group,” she says.
Her goal was to come up with a common thread so that the group could meet more than once, and that her hope is that the book will provide a kind of scaffolding for that experience.
“What I love about this book is that it urges us to do something I believe in so deeply, to look at your origin stories, you as an individual, but also the cultural and societal contexts, and take some time to evaluate that,” she says. “And doing that in a community or a group will be really cool. And, doing that in a way where we get really curious about where those ideas come from, and the toxicity around some of that. And, then, ultimately, figuring out how to step into an empowered place, and rewriting the story.”
That notion of reconsidering and rewriting our stories is an important one, says Lessor, because most of humankind’s origin stories have in fact been told by men, and that stories centered around women, including some of the most powerful (consider Eve and Pandora) cast women as “fickle, sinful, untrustworthy.”
Cassandra Speaks takes as its inspiration the Cassandra of ancient Greek myth who, according to various version of the tale, was given the gift of prophecy from Apollo. But, when she refused to have sex with him, he cursed her, saying she would continue to speak prophecies, but that no one would believe her.
Lesser says this is a book that, in some ways, she’s been writing her whole life. More than 20 years ago she started curating large conferences about women and power at Omega, the school she co-founded. She realized at the time that even putting the words “women” and “power” together sometimes made people uncomfortable. Sometimes it even made her uncomfortable.
“I would think, ‘I’m not powerful.’ But, obviously power is something that everyone wants in the sense that you want to fully express yourself, and fully do what you were meant to do,” she says
Whether it was 2,000 women in a ballroom in a major city or a smaller group back at Omega, Lesser realized there was a hunger in the audience for women to talk about this: We don’t just want to get our foot in the door, we want to do it differently.
“That was the seed for it,” she says. “I thought, ‘Someday I’ll turn this into a book.’”
Then she was watching the trial of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics coach. In one of the largest sex abuse scandals in history, hundreds of women told their story of being assaulted by him. For too long, they were not believed, and for too long, they realized that because they were not believed, it would continue to happen to other girls.
“As I sat watching, I said, ‘I’m going to write this book.’ These women were brave enough to tell their stories, and our culture never wanted to hear their stories.”
A Question We’ve Asked Our Whole Lives
Why are women who are truth tellers so often ignored, demeaned, or denigrated?
Lesser laughs lightly when I ask that question. We both know it’s a question we’ve asked ourselves our whole lives.
“Well, I wrote the whole book trying to answer that question,” she says. “Any question that is that big, and that has been puzzled upon for a millenia, doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. So I looked for hints along the way. I went as far back as the story as Adam and Eve.”
Whether it’s the story of Eve, or Pandora, or Cassandra, it’s important to remember the original tellers of the tale were men. Whether divinely inspired or prophecies, “these are stories told from one perspective. And there’s nothing wrong with the male perspective, but it leaves out some critical aspects,” she says.
The same is true of so many other stories.
“They go on a hero’s journey. The seek wisdom. Self identity. Power. They are trying to understand the world. They go on trials. They are tested,” she says. “And sometimes the only people who are punished for seeking this knowledge are women. Her curiosity is a sin. She’s not trustworthy. She has her period. She’s too emotional.”
Lesser then takes it down a few notches from the Bible and ancient Greek myth.
“Maybe it was just a meeting where you are not taken as seriously. So after a while you try to be kind and nice and babysit the egos. But then you lose your foothold because you’re too nice,” she says. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Kind, Decent, Powerful, Opinionated
Lesser knows it’s going to take some work to recast women as the dependable, smart, and powerful people that we are and, at the same time, not having those innate characteristics outweigh our femininity, our kindness, our decency.
“You can be a kind and decent women, and powerful and opinionated,” she says.
We both know that. We both know it needs to be said.
There is value to all of this, yes for women, but also for society at large. Lesser says this can help us understand a new kind of hero and helps us redefine what it means to be fully human.
“And I don’t want to call it a shero,” she says with a laugh. “I want to be a hero. Unless we start calling men sheros, too.”
But we also agree that we also fully value and cherish the differences between men and women.
“We’re discovering that diversity is a wonderful thing. We don’t have to be treated all the same to be treated equally,” she says.
In fact, the things that make us different are often what makes us the most powerful.
“Women do leadership differently,” she says.
Lesser mentions Dr. Shelly Taylor and her research team at UCLA, and their studies of how women react under stress, studies done years after earlier studies that showed typical responses to stress were fight or flight. But those earlier studies focused on men, and extrapolated that to everyone. Taylor’s studies showed that women instead, under stress, have the ability to opt for “tend and befriend.”
“When close relationships are threatened or one is socially isolated, a rise in plasma oxytocin occurs, a biological marker that may signal a need for affiliation: Oxytocin prompts affiliative behavior in response to stress, in conjunction with the opioid system,” Taylor writes. “Together with positive social contacts, oxytocin attenuates biological stress responses that would otherwise arise in response to social threats. These social responses to stress and their biological underpinnings appear to be more characteristic of women than men. The model helps to unravel puzzles not only in the research literature but also with respect to health and may shed light on why women live longer than men.”
In other words, women may be biologically more capable of caring for people and creating social networks when they are under stress. That sounds so much more effective and appealing than just having the option of fighting or running away. And who doesn’t want to live longer?
“Whether it’s Republican women or Democratic women, coming from the statehouse or federal positions, we’re much more easily able to check our egos at the door and work across the aisle,” she says. “We’ve done it. We want to work together. We know how. We’re used to it from being mothers. From being caretakers. It’s a stretch. It’s a skill. It’s a superpower. It’s a superpower the world needs now. We don’t need Wonder Woman kicking butt in a bustier. We need love and kindness. With some muscle”
Be strong. And soft. Powerful. And vulnerable. Set your boundaries. Open your heart.
And, do all that, while taking care of yourself, too. Lesser has us covered there, too, in her new book. She offers a Toolbox for Inner Strength that offers some meditations, including one that she calls “do no harm, but take no …”
Well, that’s a word, while apt in this case, we don’t usually use in this newspaper. So you’re just going to have to get the book to check that out.