Category Archives: Self Improvement

48 Things I Know for Sure

Posted on August 2, 2013 in Fulfillment, Gratitude, Relationships, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

You can learn something from everyone who crosses your path. Some people provide those what-not-to do lessons, and others will offer you little gems of wisdom. I love soaking up thought-provoking insights and bits of wisdom from other people. Not too long ago, I was at the art studio of painter Jonas Gerard who told me you have to silence your inner critic to create. Too much thought will mess up what you are creating, he said. So true for artists and non-artists alike! Back in college, my favorite journalism professor and National Geographic photographer, Yva Momatiuk, taught me never to regret painful experiences because it means you are truly alive. She said it’s where I will find my best writing. She also believed travel is where your real education occurs. I couldn’t agree more.

I guess you could say I am a pearl of wisdom collector. There are some books that offer great life lessons in small bites: What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self and another book titled Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self, that has lots of letters from famous people … What a great concept to think of what we would tell our 16 year-old selves now … as adults. The late movie critic Gene Siskel used to ask celebrities: What do you know for sure? in interviews. Oprah loved the idea and started her own list of what she knows for sure.

I put together my list of 48 things. Some I learned from the school of hard knocks, some I collected from wise souls, others are quotes I memorized because they resonated with me. If we all shared our life lessons we could use wisdom to zoom through the tough parts of life a little easier and a little faster and arrive where all the joy happens sooner. Not everything has to be learned by getting beat up in the arena. If you are open to it, you can learn from others. Here’s my list of 48 things I know for sure . . .

1. Fix yourself first.

2. Wisely choose who you spend your time with because they will influence you.

3. When people show you who they are, believe them.

4. If the person you are in a relationship with is really into you, it won’t be a mystery.

5. There’s a difference between feeling better and getting better.

6. Always be reading a book you don’t want to put down.

7. Continually work to reduce the things that irritate you. Scale down that irritation list.

8. If you have a job you dread, find another job and quit the one you dread. You should wake up with joy, not a knot in your stomach.

9. Every decision you make shapes how you feel about yourself.

10. Don’t do tension. Just don’t do it.

11. Life only stays the same if you do.

12. Live with the awareness that a single decision can change everything.

13. Your strengths are your guideposts to your purpose.

14. If you were taught that life is difficult and has to be endured, reject the notion.

15. Don’t date someone you also want to fix.

16. Don’t get in a relationship with someone who doesn’t show signs of empathy.

17. Ask yourself if you are in denial about anything. Then do what most won’t do: Run toward it. Expose it to light. Fix it.

18. Decide what kind of life you want and then construct your life according to that vision.

19. Learn from the success of others so you don’t waste time.

20. If you are in the right relationship, life improves.

21. Be more interested in what other people have to say than what you have to say.

22. Marry your best friend.

23. Face the darkness, stare it down and own it.

24. You can learn something from everyone.

25. Don’t be a victim.

26. Design your own day and fill it with tiny things that make you happy.

27. Set boundaries with the people in your life.

28. Shatter your external mirrors. Don’t let other people determine how you should feel about you.

29. Don’t neglect your needs for the sake of other people.

30. Share your imperfections, it connects us to each other on a real level.

31. Don’t try and fix your parents for what they did or didn’t do. Just claim responsibility for fixing yourself.

32. You teach people how to treat you.

33. Do at least one thing every day you love.

34. Always be honest, it lightens your load.

35. If you are broken, you will choose someone who is broken.

36. Never emotionally react to something right after it happens. Think first.

37. Leave something unsaid every day.

38. What people say and do has a lot more to do with them than it does you.

39. If it has to be a secret, don’t do it.

40. You are stronger than you think you are.

41. Smile and say Hello to strangers.

42. Never hold your fork with a fist. Proper manners tell a lot about you.

43. Learn how to comfort yourself.

44. Lots of problems could be solved if people just talked openly about things.

45. Anticipation is a big part of happiness. Plan things you can look forward to that will make you happy.

46. Living with gratitude is the pathway to joy.

47. Nothing works until you do.

48. You already know the answer.

So … what would you tell your 16-year-old self? What gems of wisdom have you collected from others? And what do you know for sure?

Making My Case: Why Personal Development is Cool

Posted on June 13, 2013 in Entrepreneurs, Fulfillment, Gratitude, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

“The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for.” Oscar Wilde

My husband and I own lots of personal development books. If you scanned our bookshelves, you’d find lots of titles about goals, fulfilling your potential, happiness and success. We get teased for our collection. People call it “self-help” with disdain. Others joke that our books make them feel like underachievers.

I get it. People like to make fun of personal development (PD) or self-help. It conjures up images of gurus leading people to run across fire or chop wood blocks in half to achieve personal empowerment. Some picture PD as people repeating positive affirmations to mirrors or weeping in the self-help aisle of Barnes and Noble. There’s some woo woo in PD that can give it a bad rap.

It never surprises me when people say they don’t like self-help and they won’t be voraciously reading the books anytime soon. What kills me is that good PD (and there’s a ton of it!) covers fundamental principles that are life-changing. It kills me that people would rather proudly declare that they don’t need those books and wear that sentiment as a badge of honor, than be open to information that could take their lives to a whole new level of happiness and fulfillment. Information like …

Fix yourself first. If you don’t work, nothing else will. I venture to say that more people ignore their issues than tackle them head on. Many people get stuck in their lives at the same point with the same problem, instead of taking a hard look at the underlying internal issue causing the problems. The foundation of PD is to fix YOU first. Get unstuck. People think they have a food problem, a job problem, a relationship problem, but it’s really just a YOU problem—we are all at the source of our problems. We are the common denominator. When you change, everything externally about your life changes too.

Figure out the kind of life you want to have first, then build your life around it. Instead of searching for a job and letting it dictate where you live … Instead of starting life where you end up after high school or college … first decide what kind of life you want to live. What kind of lifestyle do you want? I love the sun and wanted to live in places where it’s sunny most of the time—that’s why I’ve spent most of my adult years in Texas and now North Carolina. Sun makes me happy. I also love to be around people and hustle and bustle, so I live in walking distance to restaurants, shops and a movie theater. I have a sister who is the opposite, the quieter and the more rural, the better for her. It sounds like such a basic tip, but I’ve met lots of people who complain about where they live and can easily list what they don’t like about it, but they act like they can’t move. Life can change with just one decision.

Learn from the success of others so you don’t waste time. I love this principle. Most likely, what you want to do with your life someone has already achieved. Find out how they did it so you can learn their tips and strategies. Learn where they made mistakes so you don’t waste time making the same ones. What sounds like copying is more about being smart with your time. You don’t have to stumble where others have stumbled if you take the time to study them. Personal development legend Jim Rohn once said it would be great if failures gave seminars because then you would know exactly what not to do. Same goes for people who are successful, you can figure out what to do by studying them. As Jim Rohn said, “If you want to make money, study the acquisition of wealth. If you want to be happy, study people who are happy. Only by continuous learning do you open the doors of success.”

Choose to live positively. I know people right now who hate their jobs. HATE. They’d quit if they could. They get out of bed with that sinking feeling in their stomachs. They say things like, “It’s a job, right? I’m not supposed to like it.” And I’ve met people who hate a different aspect of their lives and they live with it, justifying it with sentences like: “Life is supposed to be hard,” or “Life is to be endured” as if suffering is noble. You can sell yourself on negative beliefs, or you can wake up and ask yourself what your life would look like if it was amazing—and then get busy making it so.

PD can be gained from the real stories in your life, not from mirrors and mantras. You can get your PD in all sorts of ways. If you still can’t stomach the self-help aisle of the bookstore, read biographies or find mentors who are more successful than you. Take a course, interview a grandparent, start a deep conversation with a friend or write in a journal. Or when you encounter adversity, ask yourself what you can learn from it. When you are especially happy, notice it, and ask yourself how you can get more of those moments. When you actively work to increase your self-awareness, you will be flooded with moments of clarity and ideas. You just may start listening to that quiet voice inside your head that knows what you need to do.

Being against personal development is like being against growth. Having an interest in it doesn’t mean your life is in tatters. Applying personal development is about living fearlessly—facing problems internally so you can watch everything improve externally. Sometimes immersing yourself in PD just means you want to take your already kick-ass-self up a notch—and do it expediently—so you can get busy loving (your kick-ass) life.

“When you are through learning, you are through.” Paul J. Meyer

Cool as a Cucumber: How to Develop Coping Skills

Posted on December 20, 2012 in Fulfillment, Gratitude, Happiness, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

“Sometimes life knocks you on your ass—get up, get up, get up! Happiness is not the absence of problems; it’s the ability to deal with them.” – Steve Maraboli

I was reading an article in a parenting magazine that said there are two types of parents—frenzied/stressed or calm. I immediately thought, “That can’t be true. People are complex and don’t fall into such concrete categories.” (I also thought that statement might infuriate a lot of moms … particularly of the stressed out variety.) So I quickly thought about a handful of moms I know, and was surprised to discover I could immediately categorize them into one of the two camps—frazzled or serene. And then it made sense to me, whether you are a stress monster or the queen of tranquility is really a matter of choice. It’s a choice for everyone—regardless of whether you have kids.

When I was in my early twenties, I was in the stressed category, but I wanted out. I was an expert at creating drama in my life. I was depressed. If you named an aspect of my life—money, love, work, health, family, friendships—I could tell you what was wrong with it. When you are in depression’s grip, each aspect of your life has a tendency to spiral downward. Toss in a little denial and you don’t connect the dots that you are the common denominator of your problems. Fortunately, I knew I needed help. Talk therapy with a blunt (and funny) psychologist helped me transition to a more peaceful state of existence. He said I needed to learn some coping skills. (I didn’t even know the term … coping skills.) Some of the fundamentals he taught me, I still rely on today. Here are a few …

Set boundaries. This was a big one. Setting boundaries is about curing the disease to please. It’s about standing up for yourself, letting people know your limits and teaching people how to treat you. It’s about saying No or telling people when they have crossed a line.

I realized through counseling, that every time you cross a boundary, blur a boundary or fail to set any, life goes downhill—fast. I entered therapy not even being able to recognize boundaries, and came out seeing where they were needed left and right. Setting boundaries is about expressing your needs, preventing others from exploiting you, protecting your time and energy, and honoring how you really feel by being genuine.

Recognizing boundaries is about paying attention to those times and events that give you a sinking feeling because it’s a sign that your self-respect or personal power is being compromised. Your boundaries define and draw an invisible line around what’s acceptable to you and what’s not.

Best-selling author and personal development expert Cheryl Richardson has a great quote on boundaries … “Too often women neglect to stand up for themselves by avoiding confrontation and end up weakening their internal shield, making it harder to set boundaries at all. So, if someone offends you, it may be necessary to let them know in order to protect and strengthen your internal boundaries.”

Shatter your mirrors. Stop looking to other people to determine how you should feel about yourself. Shattering your mirrors means you go internal to determine your self-worth instead of letting it be determined or shaped by other people and experiences. Other ways to shatter your mirrors …

See yourself through your own eyes, not someone else’s.

Own your own thoughts and trust your perceptions.

Make decisions for yourself and not to simply please others so they will like you.

Realize you have as many answers as anyone else.

Know you are resilient. Effectively coping with life’s ups and downs is at the heart of resilience. Living with gratitude fosters resilience because you stay focused on the positives even through adversity. Resilience is about how you respond to situations. You don’t define your existence by fleeting experiences or temporary emotions. Resilience begins by telling yourself you are strong and reminding yourself of it when you need to hear it.

Resilience is so important because it builds a barrier from anxiety and depression because you have built up your internal and external resources to cope and you walk around with that strength.

Internally resilience is built by taking care of your needs and not neglecting them for the sake of others. It’s about facing experiences head on instead of burying your head in the sand. When you choose hope over helplessness or have faith in yourself to handle all situations you are being resilient.

Externally, being able to reach out to others for support or help when you need it is actually a form of resilience.

Discover the art of comforting yourself. When it comes to managing stress, being able to comfort yourself is crucial. Comforting yourself is actually a skill you can practice. Be on your own side. Show compassion to yourself when you make mistakes. Realize no one is perfect. Build up your internal support system with a stream of positive internal thoughts. Sounds cliché, but comforting yourself is really about treating yourself just as you would treat a best friend.

I share some of these coping essentials because they changed my life. Implementing them can slowly shift your life from chaos to fulfillment. While a certain amount of stress is a normal occurrence in life and can’t be avoided, being a living embodiment of stress is not healthy. With the right coping skills, you can choose to live in a state of calmness, instead of in a state of continual stress.

Speak Up

Posted on December 7, 2012 in Fulfillment, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.” –Sigmund Freud

I was about 20 when the movie Pump Up the Volume came out. I loved it. At the time, the hotness factor of Christian Slater was a big draw … but it was really the message of the movie I loved the most—talk hard, steal the air.

If you haven’t watched the movie, Christian Slater plays a loner high school student by day who starts an FM pirate radio station to broadcast his anger/ angst at night, from the basement of his parents’ house.

The movie was about teenage rebellion, but the bigger, underlying message was about speaking out. And I love that! I think people, many people, would have far fewer problems, and vastly better lives, if they just decided to give voice to what’s going on with them internally. Yet so many people don’t.

I don’t mean walking up to a random stranger on the street and dishing about your personal problems. When you are on the receiving end of that, it’s just plain weird. I am talking about taking the courageous step to talk to someone—a friend, a family member, a professional, a spouse—about whatever issue is weighing you down.

People appear to have an easier time medicating, drinking, eating or stuffing their problems instead of giving their problems voice. If I could start a crusade, I think making people talk would be my mission. Since I try my best to keep appropriate boundaries and not meddle in other people’s lives uninvited, I obviously can’t make people talk. I can, however, write this blog encouraging people to do so, even if it helps just one person.

I realize not everyone is a talker like I am. Growing up I talked to journals. I have more journals than years I’ve been alive. In my early twenties I talked to a psychologist weekly to overcome depression from a less than functional growing up experience. I credit the time spent in talk therapy for changing my life.

I get disheartened to hear about how many people are on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications because I believe so strongly that so many problems can be solved with talking. I understand some people desperately need these medications or their lives might be in jeopardy, but I am always perplexed when I hear of people only taking medicine—and they aren’t talking to someone professionally. Medications alone act as Band-Aids covering up underlying issues that need to be resolved.

Things get better when you talk about them. It’s not a sign of mental health to pretend you have it all together or to make it look like you do. It’s not a sign of mental health to let medications do all the work for you.

Not talking can lead to isolation and depression. It can cause you to expend a great deal of energy pretending you feel one way when you really feel a different way. It’s exhausting. Suppressing your emotions isn’t being real. Not giving voice to whatever is dragging you down negatively impacts the relationships you have with others, but ends up hurting you the most. Unresolved issues can negatively impact the relationship you have with yourself, and can compromise your health and quality of life. As the saying goes, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

Talking is powerful and it can be life-changing. Healing your past emotional experience creates a joyful present experience. Talk instead. I think the world is filled with empathic ears. I always connect easier with friends and family who can authentically talk about it all—the good, the bad, the ugly. Talking brings people together. It connects us. We all relate.

To send it back to Christian Slater from the movie:

“No more hiding. Listen, we’re all worried, we’re all in pain. That just comes with having eyes and with having ears … I gotta believe, with everything in me, the whole world is longing for healing. Even the trees, the Earth itself are crying out for it. You can hear it everywhere. Same kinda healing I desperately needed, and I finally feel has begun, with you.”

There’s nothing in your way but you. Just start talking.

Put Worry Less on Your To Do List

Posted on August 6, 2012 in Fulfillment, Happiness, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

I interviewed Wayne Dyer a few years ago and he said something that stuck with me. “Worry is the most useless of emotions.” I jotted it down in my notebook and made a mental note to think about it later. Worry? Useless? So we should aspire to get rid of worry?

Worry was one of those things I just thought we do as humans, kind of like breathing. We worry about the majors—when the life of anyone we love is at stake, but there are 1,000 minor ways we all drum up worry too. What if I get sick on vacation? Do I have enough time to meet my deadline? What if I eat this bowl of ice cream and gain weight? What if my Facebook post isn’t as funny as I think it is and I am defriended in droves? You know … regular every day worry!

Then I realized Dr. Dyer was right. Worry is useless. It only makes you feel negative emotions—fear, anxiety, brooding, panic or stress. Worry never gets you to a better place. Worry doesn’t change outcomes.

I think many of us may mistakenly believe worry is a prayer in reverse. If we brood and worry and put ourselves in a negative space, maybe those bad outcomes won’t happen. The reality is, whether we worry or not, the outcome will be the same. Worry only lengthens the time we spend simmering in negative soup.

So, I made up my mind. I’d start worrying less. Fast forward to today, and I think everyone should put Worry Less on their To Do lists because there are so many benefits.

Worry takes over your mind. I heard once that worrisome thoughts produce faster than rabbits. You get a headache and you think it is brain cancer. Bored one day you read the little packet of info that comes with your box of tampons, and immediately you think you have toxic shock syndrome. Worry can multiply in your mind. But you can stop it. Just say, “That’s ridiculous” and move your mind along to a positive place.

Worry can make little things seem big. Take this very moment as an example. As I write this, I’m stuck in the Boston airport with a flight delay that will make me miss my connection home. I made a decision not to worry about it. I can’t change it. I can, however, decide not to let it impact me negatively. I say, “Oh well” and I tell my brain something positive like: Now you have more time to write your blog. It’s so much more relaxing than having an emotional reaction to something I have zero control over.

Worry keeps you stuck. You can worry that you won’t meet Mr. Right, like I used to, but that can keep you with Mr. Wrong too long. You can worry about making the wrong decision and that can prevent you from making any decisions at all. Worry can keep you stuck, but it won’t keep you safe.

Worry doesn’t change anything. Do you ever notice that when you worry about certain things or situations, you later realize the worrying part was worse than the actual thing you were worried about? It’s easy to let worry spiral until it gets you into a state of angst. That’s why it’s important to remember it’s a useless emotion. It doesn’t improve your life.

Worry gets you tangled up in what people think of you. I used to be afflicted with the disease to please. I came out of my childhood naively thinking I could have a life where everyone would like me. Soon I cared more about what other people thought of me than my own opinion of myself. It was like I was an empty bucket and I kept approaching everyone for a cup of water. When I stopped worrying about what other people thought of me, I became more likeable … to others and to me. It’s also empowering because you no longer need anyone’s approval. How liberating is that? Worrying about what other people think is living an imprisoned life. Decide your opinion about your life is the only one that matters.

Reducing worry in your life is a work in process. I keep my own version of the serenity prayer in my head to tackle worry. First, I ask myself if I can do anything about it. If I can do something, then I take action. Action always helps mitigate worry. If I can’t do anything about a potential source of worry, I accept it and let go.

Ironically, it’s calming to let go of outcomes you can’t do anything about. Using your energy to try and control things you can’t control is exhausting—and futile. Plus, you free up your energy to focus on all of those things you can control.

Don’t make the mistake of believing your worrying state is helping you direct your life. It isn’t. If you make a resolution to give up on worry you will actually have more control of your life than you have ever had before. No longer will you be devoting your mental space to negative emotions and energy of what might happen. Instead, you will be busy making your life happen.

There are so many better places to let your mind live than in the land of worry. As author Dan Zadra says, “Worry is a misuse of imagination.”

Sentences I Hate to Hear

Posted on July 10, 2012 in Fulfillment, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

I consider myself quite chill. I smile a lot. I roll with things. You will never find me screaming at a gate agent in an airport … or screaming at anyone for that matter. My husband takes longer to order at a restaurant than I do. I know what my opinions are, but I don’t expect the rest of the world to share them. See? I’m rather chill. Chill except for when I hear certain sentences that really get under my skin. Certain words put together annoy me to such an extent I am dedicating this blog to sentences I hate to hear.

You are newlyweds.
When my husband and I talk about how we like to jog together, shop together or plan our weeks together, we often hear, “Well, you are newlyweds.” Grrrrr. Oh, so that means the quality of our marriage is due to its newness? Should we just pack it in because our relationship is bound to plummet the longer we are married? I realize time will have to back me up on this one to convince the cynics, but I know the quality of our relationship is due to the quality of our communication and not its short duration. Check back with us in 10 years. I know we will be the same way. It’s who we are. We talk about things. We discuss the kind of relationship we want to have. We are open about what irritates us and how we can fix those things, as well as what we love about each other. We don’t avoid any topics. We both want a happy, fun and tension-free home and relationship, so that’s what we create. In fact, as I was writing this blog, my husband popped into my home office and handed me an article on how successful relationships have a lot to do with the level of empathy on both sides, and then he told me he’s so grateful he found me. The quality of our relationship has zero to do with its newness and everything to do with the effort we put toward it.

You don’t have kids.
People actually say this to my husband and me as some sort of (weird) explanation as to why we are happy. It’s such a bizarre thing to say. (First, my husband does have kids, they just happen to be grown.) Second, I thought people have kids to enhance their families and happiness?

When we talk to people about how we love the flexibility of our entrepreneurial lifestyle, taking trips, and scheduling fun events on weekends, the response is often, “Well, you don’t have kids.” How do they expect me to respond? “Oh yes, you are right. If we had kids we probably wouldn’t have a life at all.” I get that life changes dramatically with children, but life doesn’t have to suspend. If we had kids together I guarantee we’d still pull out our calendars and plan our fun. We’d sync up our schedules so we could coordinate some future trips. I guarantee we wouldn’t use our kids as some excuse for why our lives are on hold. I know plenty of parents of young kids who have totally rich, fulfilling lives. (Isn’t that the kind of example you’d want to set for your kids anyway?) Plus, there are plenty of people without kids who let their lives unfold on a couch in front of a TV. The type of life you live is due to your mindset and your daily choices, not the number of heartbeats inside your home.

You are lucky.
Whether it’s the joyful story of how I found and reunited with my birth family, how I work for myself, or my bubbly happiness, many people have told me I’m lucky. I cringe when I hear it. Telling someone they are lucky is the equivalent of telling someone they aren’t responsible for their circumstances. I can’t recall a time when I have ever told anyone they are lucky because it’s not giving credit where credit is due. The blessings in my life aren’t the result of magic universe fairy dust, but hard work. During the years I procrastinated on my search for my birth mom, nothing happened. When I got frustrated with my inaction and got serious, it took months of phone calls, letters and research to find my amazing birth family. I promise you luck had nothing to do with it.

I even worked hard for my happiness, putting myself in therapy at a young age so I could learn the tools to dig myself out of depression. Telling me I am lucky discounts the effort I put into making my life the way it is today. While I don’t expect people to know my past, I do expect people not to make ridiculous assumptions by telling me I’m lucky.

I think the undercurrent of these annoying sentences is a victim mentality. Many people believe life happens to them and they often blame external circumstances for what they lack. I learned firsthand how much you can change your life by managing and directing your thoughts and actions. Fulfilling lives aren’t reserved for newlyweds, couples without kids or the lucky—they happen when you get clear on what a fulfilling life looks like to you, and then you chase it down and make it happen.

Embracing Imperfection

Posted on July 1, 2012 in Fulfillment, Happiness, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

“Will you make the choices to enhance your spirit or those that drain your power?” –Caroline Myss

I was never cut out to be a perfectionist. I leave rejected outfits on my closet floor in my frustration to figure out what to wear. I make a mess when I cook. I trip over my own feet more than the average person. l put my Starbucks coffee on the roof of my car and I almost drive off. My husband wonders how I sometimes get laundry detergent on the wall when I am washing our clothes. I catch him smiling and shaking his head at me. He’s one of those perfectionist types, detailed, patient and precise.

Back in my early twenties when my self-image was in the dumpster, I’d use my clumsy or air-headed moments as proof that I should feel like crap about myself. Look at that dumb thing you just said or the clumsy thing you just did, I’d think. You just looked like a fool, I’d tell myself. I thought only perfect people deserve love. I was on a search and destroy mission of me. I looked for proof that I wasn’t cool or perfectly together, and I used the evidence to chip away even more at my self-esteem.

Talk therapy helped me stop the assault on myself. I learned that people are supposed to have flaws and bad parts. We all look silly or foolish sometimes. We make mistakes or have moments where we say or do the wrong thing. Chalk it up to the being human thing. I realized my worth isn’t defined by how perfect I appear to other people. I discovered striving for perfection is a pointless pursuit because no one ever arrives.

Turns out, I am totally loveable flawed. It wasn’t an overnight epiphany, but a slow evolution into loving who I am, just the way I am. But once I got to total self-acceptance, life had a sense of freedom it never had before.

I let go of what people think of me.

I used to hand the power of my life over to other people. If someone said something positive to me, I felt positive. Negative? I felt negative. If I was criticized, I viewed it as a verdict instead of an opinion. If I was dating someone who didn’t want to date me anymore (even if I didn’t want to date him either) I viewed the rejection as a declaration of my unworthiness. If I ever had a conflict with a friend or if someone acted weird to me, I’d wonder what I did.

Slowly, I stopped giving other people the power to determine how I should feel about me. I started setting boundaries left and right. If I felt mistreated by someone, I ended the friendship or the relationship. I started being authentic with my feelings, instead of trying to appease everyone in some misguided attempt to get the whole world to like me. I got my answers internally and I started to feel increasingly empowered.

No longer can anyone else control my mood, determine my value, or impact my outlook. I don’t look to other people for their approval. I must confess that I still love compliments and accolades, but I don’t need them anymore to feel a sense of worth. If someone treats me in a way that isn’t positive now, I immediately wonder what their issue is, and I often assume it has nothing to do with me. As the saying goes, “What you think of me is none of my business.”

I stop letting my blunders define me.

Today I completely embrace my little mishaps or mistakes. I laugh when I trip. I crack myself up when I walk into a room and forget why I am there. I’m okay with my temporary messiness. I don’t even work on correcting my little idiosyncrasies that make me imperfect, because it’s who I am. And it’s so dang liberating.

Don’t get me wrong, I still work on me. I work on getting fit. I work on becoming a better writer. I read personal development books all the time. I work on being a better person. I just don’t think I need to work on being perfect. People can love you (madly!) flawed.

Sharing our imperfections connects us to each other on a real level. We can cut through the superficial crap, drop the pretense and be real. Perfect is an illusion. If someone makes you think you need to be perfect to be loved, you don’t need that person. When you let go of the pursuit of perfection, you can turn your mind from a place that torments you—to the best place in the world to live.

What School Didn’t Teach You

Posted on June 16, 2012 in Fulfillment, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

I have more than 30 journals piled into an old trunk. I’ve been writing in journals since I was 10. I started with tiny diaries with a lock and key, and moved on to hardbound journals. The words never stopped flowing. If a teacher said we were going to have an essay test, I was one of the few in class excited about it. I took college English in high school. Teachers said I had a talent for writing. Combine that with my penchant for analyzing and questioning everything—especially people—and I knew in my teens that I wanted to be a writer and journalist.

But I didn’t feel smart. My grades were all over the map. I needed a tutor to get through high school math. I despised math and didn’t understand its purpose. Friends would ask what level of calculus I took, and I’d laugh. Calculus? Are you kidding me? I never took a class.

Yet no one ever told me, “That’s okay.” No one ever said, “You don’t have to be smart or have strengths in everything.” My struggle in math and the parent/teacher expectation that I get straight A’s left me feeling dumb and inadequate. While I have the ability to come up with ideas to write about all day, every day, off the cuff, no one said, “Explore the strength of your creativity.”

It was well into adulthood before I learned being well-rounded is a bunch of crap. While being aware of your weaknesses is good, focusing on your weaknesses is a waste of time. Sure, you may have to put a little extra effort into decent grades in subjects you don’t like when you are young, but your power and happiness is found in your strengths.

Your strengths are your guideposts to your purpose. Channel your energy to hone your strengths (instead of trying to improve your weaknesses), so you can maximize your potential. Think of your strengths, abilities, interests and passion as your compass. They point you in the right direction. Weaknesses don’t mean you are flawed or not smart; they are only friendly indicators of what you shouldn’t be doing. (Turns out, I will never be a math professor.)

I believe we are all born with unique gifts that reveal who we are supposed to be. Kids show signs of who they are meant to be through their interests. There’s a famous chef who loved preparing food with his mom when he was a child, and an Olympic champion who never left the pool as a kid. There is the young girl who feels alive when she is pretending to be other characters and knows she is supposed to be an actress. Purpose reveals itself early and could expand if more people focused on it, instead of zeroing in on fixing those weaknesses.

I cringe when I hear stories of parents trying to redirect a child’s interests because, (for example) they don’t think music is a lucrative or solid profession. How do you know you don’t have the next Mozart in your midst?

When I wrote for SUCCESS, a national magazine with a lot of content devoted to living your passion, we’d get letters from readers who didn’t know what they were passionate about and they wanted help figuring it out.

We’d tell them what we learned from the experts: Your purpose can be found in your strengths—what you love doing. Here are some questions to help you find your strengths …

What did you love doing as a child?

What topics do you gravitate toward reading for enjoyment?

What activities make you feel strong?

What activity absorbs you to such an extent that you lose track of time?

What would you do even if you didn’t get paid for it?

Marcus Buckingham, author of Go Put Your Strengths to Work and Find Your Strongest Life says, “It is important to discover your strengths because the luckiest people are the ones who get to say to themselves every day: ‘Today I had the opportunity to do what I am most invigorated by and what I do best.’”

People who find their strengths and live their purpose aren’t lucky he says. “They made the effort to figure out what strengthens them.” He suggests catching the moments that invigorate you and concentrating on them. Follow where they lead and ask yourself: “How can I get more of that?”

Discover and focus on your strengths. It’s your path to unleash your potential and purpose–and who you were meant to be.

Talk About It

Posted on May 24, 2012 in Fulfillment, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

“There is a safe place to fall. Connect, embrace, love somebody, just one person and then spread that to two, and to as many as you can and you’ll see the difference it makes.” -Oprah

You know that person who sits down next to you on a plane and before you’ve reached a comfortable cruising altitude you’ve heard his/her entire life story … including the sordid details? Okay, that person is weird. Rolling out intimate details to a random stranger is a little awkward and inappropriate—especially if the conversation is only flowing in one direction.

But you know what else is a little strange? People who are surrounded by family and friends and don’t talk at all—about the most important stuff. Maybe I had one too many stiff dinners growing up where the entire conversation was focused on the food we were eating, but I’ve never understood why people are so bottled and buttoned up.

Life could be better if we all talked about what matters.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep your thoughts, secrets, pain, fears and challenges to yourself. It can isolate you. It may give you the false belief that you are the only one who is thinking, feeling or experiencing _______________ (fill in the blank), but it’s not true.

Not to get all Debbie Downer, but when I hear of tragic suicides on the news, someone will invariably say: I just wish __________ would have talked to me. Or, I wish I would have known.

If people talk, even when it’s hard or painful, stories and solutions can be shared. Maybe we can have more connection and community, and less disconnection and depression. We just might discover there is compassion in the world, and we can focus more on being real and less on maintaining appearances.

Talking can unlock a more fulfilling life. Give it a try. Share your internal struggle with your external circle—even if it’s painful.

Or embarrassing.
Or makes you admit to a less than perfect life.
Or you feel flawed and exposed.
Or it hurts.

Just start talking about it and watch how your life changes … for the better.

Before you dismissively say, “No, thanks” or “Not for me,” consider that not talking is a happiness and energy vampire—it will suck both away. Once you begin talking, you will find …

You are not alone.
Solutions exist all around you.
Other people could be carrying your answers.
You can liberate yourself from pain.
You will free up mental space and energy to live a richer life.
You may help others who can relate.
You can process, let go and heal.

Pain thrives in silence. Talking is your escape hatch. Take it.

Ditch Tension in Your Life

Posted on April 26, 2012 in Fulfillment, Happiness, Self Improvement by Sandra Bienkowski

I don’t do tension. I had enough for a lifetime when it wasn’t my choice. When you are an adult, it’s your choice.

When I first lived on my own, I realized the coolest thing was my ability to control the energy in my space. I pictured a Keep Out sign on tension. It’s so peaceful to know you never have to be subjected to negative energy in your space if that’s what you choose. You set the mood and create the ambiance for your surroundings. You decide who to let into your space.

When you aren’t alone, it isn’t as easy to guard your space from tension. I had a boss who’d come in one day smiling ear to ear, giving out flowers she picked from her garden, and the next day she was wearing a scowl, barking directives and making dramatic exits from the room. Her tension permeated the office and could shift the collective mood in seconds. It’s hard to not let tension suck you in. Along with a coworker/friend, we’d smile, whisper and say, “I’m inside a waterfall,” as mental imagery to remind us that she can’t get to us and to let her negativity wash off of us. Plus, it made us laugh. You can make a choice to not let tension ruin your day.

My decision not to have tension in my life is a work in progress. Progress over perfection is the goal. When you make mistakes, you just learn new ways to eradicate tension from your life.

Choose healthy relationships. Long ago, I created tension when I chose to date a guy who monitored my every move and turned life into a tension-filled walk on eggshells. Unhealthy relationships—of all types—are ripe with tension. Opt for a healthy relationship with lots of communication and tension dissipates.

Live authentically without secrets. I created tension when I kept secrets—like not telling my parents about finding my birth parents because I felt guilty. As the saying goes, “You are only as sick as your secrets.” Living with honesty can significantly reduce tension in your life, even when it’s difficult to be honest.

Maintain healthy boundaries. I drummed up tension when I couldn’t rise above biting attacks from a (short-lived) coworker because my petty desire to fight back won out. Maintaining healthy boundaries minimizes tension. If you stoop to the level of tension, you only help make it bigger. Setting and maintaining boundaries (your personal rules, guidelines and limits)can significantly reduce tension in your life.

Tension is constricting and confining. It’s like a dark cloud. And it’s a real happiness killer. Fortunately, you can significantly reduce your tension with your choices.

I choose to live somewhere cheerful, bustling with people and upbeat.

I choose joyful relationships.

I choose not to be around people who yell. Yelling is a tension-filled space where I don’t want to live. It’s a boundary I set because there are more intelligent and evolved ways to communicate.

I try not to create tension for other people.

I choose to protect my environment from tension.

Oprah learned one of her favorite quotes from Stroke of Insight author, Jill Bolte Taylor, “You are responsible for the energy you bring into my space.” And it’s so true. Wouldn’t it be a better place to live if people took responsibility for the energy they bring into a room? But until you can find a way to control other people (kidding!), shouldn’t you at least control your space?