Cheryl's Blog

Finding a gift in disguise

As part of an autumn series, this week I share the next journal entry from Waking Up in Winter (you can find last week’s entries, here).

As you read through this piece, I invite you to consider someone in your life who pushes your buttons and the ways in which his or her behavior might be offering you a gift. Is there a quality this person possesses that you need to claim as your own?  Does he or she demonstrate behaviors that you’d secretly like to adopt yourself?

It takes courage and maturity to look for what we might need to develop in ourselves from those who make us angry, frustrated, or upset.  These are the people we’re often quick to judge and yet I learned from my friend Debbie Ford that these people may, in fact, turn out to be our greatest teachers.

Here we go…

October 4th

I’ve arrived in London to begin a speaking tour, and it feels good to be unpacked and settled in our hotel room. I’m looking forward to seeing friends, visiting gardens, and people watching, in spite of having a crazy schedule while here. In the next ten days, I’m set to give talks in Hamburg, Salzburg, and London, and I hope the travel angels stay close. Michael is snoring softly in the next room, and for once the familiar sound makes me smile. I’ve missed having him with me on the road.

The rooms in this hotel are small but cozy, and I woke this morning inspired to create a little nest for myself so I could write. I have a cup of hot tea with honey on the coffee table next to me, and I’ve positioned the love seat to face the largest of the hotel windows that provides a panoramic view of the neighborhood. The late-season flowers spilling over their window boxes, weathered brick chimneys, and even the grinning stone gargoyles are perfect company.

I’m relieved to be back in the flow of writing again. This intimacy of journal keeping gives me energy, and I find myself excited to put pen to paper. If my sweet friend Debbie Ford were here, she’d congratulate me for taking a creative risk and following my heart. As I write, I can sense her staunch support from the other side. It has been eight months since she passed, and rarely a day goes by when I don’t feel the blunt ache of loss deep in my chest. It still catches me by surprise when I reach for the phone to call her, or look forward to the next time we’ll laugh together like schoolgirls in a hotel where we’re both scheduled to speak.


Grief is like the ocean with its never-ending waves. Since Debbie’s death I’ve been swimming in the pain of this loss, feeling steady one minute and unstable the next. As I’ve surrendered to the heartache, though, and allowed the sadness to flow through me, I’ve noticed that with each wave, a piece of sorrow gets washed away, leaving behind precious memories of our time together. These days I’m focusing less on the pain and more on the profound influence this woman had on my life.

Debbie was an extraordinary soul. We met fifteen years ago at the Boston Park Plaza hotel. I was sitting at a round table having breakfast with a group of fellow authors, when the event director brought Debbie over and introduced us. I’d heard of Debbie’s shadow work based on Jungian psychology, and, curious to learn more, I decided to attend her talk.

On the morning of Debbie’s workshop, I slipped into the back of the room and was instantly captivated. Slim, graceful, and completely at ease onstage, Debbie sauntered back and forth, her dark eyes sparkling, her presence filling the room with an electric energy. She spoke openly and with great compassion about subjects most people shy away from: the pain of childhood trauma and abuse; feelings of envy and jealousy; our human tendency to judge people harshly, especially ourselves; and the corrosive shame that limits our ability to fully express our deepest desires.

As I watched, Debbie skillfully challenged the audience to own both the good and the bad within themselves, the saint and the sinner, in order to realize their full potential. Embracing the light and the dark is the key to living a rich life, she promised. And when she finished her introductory comments, she asked us to sit back, close our eyes, and prepare to discover a priceless gift.

I thought about sneaking out of the room, something I’d typically do for fear of being vulnerable in public, especially given that I’d be speaking at this conference later in the day myself. But something told me to stay. As I sat quietly in the back of the hall, I closed my eyes and let myself be guided by her soothing voice. I felt like she was speaking directly to me. She asked me to breathe slowly into my heart for several minutes before inviting me to think about someone from my past whose behavior I found hurtful or upsetting. Immediately a business associate I’d been involved with a few years earlier came to mind, someone I came to dislike for being greedy.

Next, Debbie asked us to explore our experience of this person in detail. What exactly did he or she say? How did he or she behave? What did this person do that made him or her so unlikable? I didn’t need to look far for the answer: this man had taken up too much space in our conversations; he’d made his needs a priority in every meeting, and he’d expected people around him to meet those needs without resistance.

Debbie then invited me to find this person inside myself. I flashed back to a little girl grabbing an extra dinner roll from the dining room table and hiding it under her napkin. A wave of shame washed over me, and this memory led to another: I’d taken a blouse from my mother’s closet and hidden it in my bedroom. Just touching the blouse made me feel special, like a grown-up, and I wanted more of that feeling.

Lastly, Debbie encouraged us to consider how this seemingly unforgivable part of ourselves might actually be a gift in disguise— a quality that, when embraced, might serve us somehow in the present. That’s when the force of her work hit me, and I started to cry.

Until that point, my professional career had been centered on self-care strategies—the art of making one’s needs and desires a top priority. My books and workshops were based on these topics, and I was starting to feel like a hypocrite. A busy travel schedule and regular appearances on television were pushing the limits of my own ability to set boundaries, and I was feeling chronically exhausted and overwhelmed.

As I explored my emotional reaction to my greedy colleague, I suddenly understood—in a way that transcends knowing— that he did, in fact, have something profound to teach me. I needed to embrace my own greediness if I wanted to regain some balance and peace in my life. I had to stop denying the existence of that greedy girl, and welcome her instead. I needed her to step in and teach my adult woman a thing or two about speaking up, asking for what she wanted, and getting her needs met.

Those twenty minutes changed my life. Not only did I walk out of the room with the courage and confidence to set limits on my time and energy, I left knowing that I’d found a soul sister. Debbie and I shared lunch that afternoon, and sure enough, it launched a friendship that flourished over the next decade and a half.

No wonder Debbie has been on my mind. I’m doing it to myself again. I’ve been traveling nonstop, running my business from the road while trying to write, and I’m worn out. I thought I had this self-care thing figured out, but now I’m not so sure. It’s an ongoing process, this personal growth, and it’s never straightforward or linear. We spiral in and out of the shadowy places, doing our best to move toward the light, only to find ourselves back where we started. I need to reengage that greedy little girl again and let her help me create more balance in my life. I need more time with Michael, I need rest, and I need the comfort and care of my domestic daily routine. I want to feel alive instead of frustrated and exhausted most of the time. Otherwise what’s the point?

Which brings me back to my little nest here in London and the birth of this journal. I look forward to being home for a while once my end-of-year trips are over so I can embark on a new kind of journey. Autumn will soon give way to winter, the perfect time to hole up and explore the inner world. I need to take stock, to heed the messages that have been calling out for my attention, to get off this spinning wheel and reevaluate my life. I’m curious to discover what dwells deep down in the murky realms of myself. Perhaps once the sediment churned up by my busy life has settled I’ll see it more clearly.

For now, however, we’re off to Germany.



PS – You can purchase a copy of Waking Up in Winter from booksellers here.

PPS – Our October “Self Care by the Sea” is now sold out.  To put yourself on our waitlist please visit here.

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