Cheryl Strayed gets real about being a broke bestselling author, comparing herself to other moms, practicing self-compassion – and then struggling all over again when the pandemic threw her off her game. Claire offers a weekly practice for how to have more authentic interactions with the people in your life.
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Resources from the show
- Listen to Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Podcast, “The Confessional”: https://nadiabolzweber.com/podcast/
- Check out Brené Brown’s Book: “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” – https://www.amazon.com/Daring-Greatly-Courage-Vulnerable-Transforms/dp/1592408419
- Try The Self Love Workbook for Women: https://www.amazon.com/Self-Love-Workbook-Women-Self-Doubt-Self-Compassion/dp/1647397294
- Read Hope Edelman’s incredible book Motherless Daughters: https://hopeedelman.com
Learn more about today’s guest:
- Read more about Cheryl’s life and career here
- Listen to Cheryl’s Podcast “Dear Sugars” on Apple
- Read Cheryl’s first memoir: “Wild” that was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
- Read Cheryl’s self-help book: “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar”
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Cheryl Strayed & Claire Bidwell Smith
Hi, I’m Claire Bidwell Smith. Welcome to NEW DAY. This is our very first episode, I say our because this podcast is about you and me. It’s about all the ways we’re struggling right now. And all the ways we’re gonna figure out how to move through it, feel better, and find things that help us look forward to getting up in the morning. Because I don’t know about you, but shit feels really overwhelming right now. We’re recording this in early August, my kids are having their first real back to school season since the pandemic. Meanwhile, COVID variants are terrifying. The news out of Afghanistan is horrifying. And it’s really easy to get lost on my phone scrolling through scary headlines, and also photos of people who seem to be somehow living their best life. Of all people, I feel like I’m supposed to know how to weather all this insane stuff. I’m a therapist and the author of three books about grief and loss. But I’m also just a person trying to figure out how to exist in the midst of all this madness. I tell my daughters all the time. It’s not easy to be human. And it’s not.
It’s spectacular sometimes, and really, really hard a lot of the time. I know that’s from the work I do. But I also know this from the life I’ve lived. I was 14 when both of my parents got cancer at the same time. I was an only child and suddenly my whole life didn’t feel like it was supposed to. While my friends were worrying about acne and obsessing on crushes, all I could think about was whether my parents would love to see me graduate. Turns out they did. But a few months later, my mom died during my freshman semester of college. Her death destroyed me. I mean, somehow, I just didn’t see it coming. we’d spent so many years dealing with her cancer, but I never thought she would actually die. Because mothers don’t die. Bad things don’t actually happen. And then my father died seven years later when I was 25. It was during this time when all of my friends were living there post college lives, living in apartments and trying on careers and relationships. And I was just trying to figure out how to survive and wondering what the fuck life is about. anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, toxic relationships, I struggled with all of them.
I hit rock bottom before I started climbing back up, and climbing back up look like so many things for me. therapy, yoga, meditation, self-compassion, forgiveness, support in the form of friends and teachers and spirituality. Trust me, I know most of this stuff sounds really eye rolling. But over the last two decades, I found that these are the things that actually work. So we’re going to dive into them here on NEW DAY with all kinds of different guests who figured out how to manage their shit in all different kinds of ways.
And we’ll end every episode with a weekly practice that you can take into your own life to try to make things more manageable. These aren’t cure all fixes. But in my experience, it’s this small, consistent actions that add up to real change. That’s the goal, right? I mean, at this point, personally, I think I just want to feel satisfied. Do I want to feel peaceful? Happy? Sure. But mostly, I just want to like my life. But how do I get there? Losing my parents so young left me with a million questions, most of which I haven’t answered. But what I did figure out is when you think about death all the time, it’s impossible not to think about life too. You can’t help but ask yourself, What the hell is my life about? What is the meaning of all this? Is changed possible? Is forgiveness possible? When I get to the end and look back, what will I see?
We’re starting today with someone who also started thinking about these things at a young age. Cheryl Strayed is an author and speaker most known for her memoir Wild where she took her 700-mile hike after her mother’s death. Wild was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s book club 2.0. And it was also made into a movie that became an Oscar nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon. I chose Cheryl’s my first guest, because well, she’s my friend. And I think she’s amazing. But also a lot has happened over the last decade since Wild came out. Even though I’ve known her for a long time, she opened up about mental health in a way I’ve never heard her talk about before. We get real about the struggles of this past year. And we talked about finding balance as a mom and practicing self-compassion. A theme I come back to over and over in my own life, it’s hard not to compare yourself to others, especially when it feels like you’re in survival mode while everyone else is thriving. Over the last decade, Cheryl has written more books, she hosts the popular Dear Sugar Advice podcast with the New York Times. And she continues to serve as an inspiration for self-discovery and success. But we’re going to talk about what that looks like behind the scenes. What does someone like Cheryl Strayed look like when she struggles? I’m really excited to share this conversation with you.
Cheryl Strayed 06:15
Hi, Cheryl. It’s been so long since we’ve talked in person, I’m so excited to see you.
I know. It’s nice to see you too. And I mean, at least we can keep track of each other on social media. So I feel like I have seen you, I see all kinds of beautiful pictures.
Yeah. Likewise, I feel like I have a sense of what’s going on with you. But do we ever on social media really know what’s going on with somebody? I feel like I’m not ever quite sure.
Yeah, that’s true, I think kind of quieter on social media over this past year or so. Yeah. So I definitely, there’s way more going on than anything that I put on my social media.
I can imagine. I’m so excited to have you as my very first guest on this show. And there was a lot of reasons I reached out to you to do this. And I couldn’t think of anyone better, who kind of exemplifies all the things that I want to explore on the show, which are self-compassion, forgiveness, ways we struggle and ways we overcome all these kind of big themes about how we move forward in life and how we get out of bed every morning. And I thought what was really interesting, too, about the two of us is our books Wild and my first book, The Rules of Inheritance came out within a month of each other. I don’t know if you remember this, I was, you know, I was 30 years old. My first book was coming out, I was so nervous, I didn’t really know that much about the literary world. And I sent you a copy of it. And I sent you this really humble letter asking if you would blurb my book, and you wrote me back the sweetest email. But one thing you said that I still remember to this day is you said I’m sorry about your mom, Claire. And there was something about the way you used my name in saying that. I told you about my parents in that letter and just that you use my name made it feel so real, like you were really actually paying attention or thinking about it for a moment. And that meant a lot to me.
Cheryl Strayed 08:13
Oh, wow. That’s beautiful. Thank you for saying that I think so much of life is that those little things that we don’t even know, we’re doing. We don’t even know the impact they’ll have on others. But that’s beautiful. I’m so glad to know that landed Well, on your heart, Claire.
Yeah. So I kind of want to just start with, you know, what if these last 10 years been like for you, I know some of the big pieces that have happened. And my last 10 years, it’s been like three kids, three books, a million moves, two marriages, a lot. You’ve had so much incredible success, but I imagine really meaningful experiences too. And I have seen some of your personal side where you’ve had incredible adventures with your family. And just watching you raise your children as well. How do you begin to even talk about these last 10 years since Wild came out?
I mean, we could just get in a car right now and drive across the country. And I could spend many days telling you about the last 10 years of my life and you could tell me about the last 10 years of yours. It’s a lot and what happened for me I always say it felt like wild was like a hurricane blew through my life. But you know, it’s kind of a hurricane plus a tsunami plus a tornado plus a flood. You know, it’s like all the weather, all the weather came into my life. And it part of that is this collision that I’ve had of my writing career coming to fruition at the very time that I became a mother. So my first book Torch was published when I was pregnant with my first child. And by the time it was published, I had two kids under the age of two. And so I wrote Wild they were basically toddlers and preschoolers, but and when it was published, they were five and seven, some really little. And so, you know, I had to step into this incredibly big career, at the same time that I was very much in the thick of, you know, raising little kids.
Cheryl Strayed 10:19
But you know, so a lot of the last 10 years has been for me, trying to do my best, while maintaining both a happy and strong family, and also to try to feed myself and my creative life and my creative work. You know, since Wild was published, I’ve published a couple other books, tiny beautiful things came out just a few months after Wild and then Brave enough came out a couple years after that, there was a film made of Wild starring Reese Witherspoon, I was really involved in that there was a play made of Tiny, Beautiful Things, starring near her Dallas, she adapted it, I’ve become an accidental public speaker, I have a whole career of public speaker. So, you know, it’s almost impossible to say at all? Well, it is impossible to say it all in one breath. But with the power and beauty of the success that I’ve had, has really asked me to do is it’s challenged me to finally face some of the biggest, hardest, issues of my life, how to how to say no, how to take care of myself how to find that balance between being the good fill in the blank and being good to myself. And I can’t say I’ve come to the end. I don’t have the answer to that, necessarily. But what I can say is, it’s been a journey. It’s been a long decade process of trying to figure that out. And I’m still on that journey. What about you, I want to hear, you know, I mean, I know a lot has happened in your life, too. But is anything I’m saying resonating with you?
100% everything. I’ve had a really similar path, I was pregnant with my first daughter, when I wrote The Rules of Inheritance. I was pregnant with my second daughter, when rules came out. I wrote a second book after that, when I had two toddlers and preschool and kindergarten, and went through a divorce during that time as well was building a private practice as a grief therapist, was starting to speak and do those kinds of things. And then wrote a third book while I was had a random accidental pregnancy at 40, three books, three babies. I don’t think I’m gonna have any more babies, but I am going to write more books. But you’re right. It’s been this. For me, it’s been this incredibly huge challenge of motherhood and this work that I really care about deeply, writing, but also the grief therapy that I do.
And it’s been really hard to balance it. It’s been really hard. And I have also been called on to figure out how to take care of myself while I do it, and really using my kids as the reason I strive to do that. I remember having a conversation with Maria Shriver about this and I offhandedly asked her, like, how do you do all this with kids and motherhood and work and she, she said that she had dragged her kids all over the place and introduced them to some of the most notable figures, but all they ever really wanted was time with her. And that stayed with me. And so that’s something I’m always trying to balance and really show up and be present with my children and not ever get lost in this work. And all the things that it demands of me.
Yeah, I mean, there’s so many parts of it that, that I’ve, you know, as a mother, like tried to figure out, like how to how to do those right things. You know, my kids at this point, they’re teenagers. And I wouldn’t say that what they want, most of all, […], it’s what I want with them, but you know, they’re like in a different phase of their lives now. But when I think about the way that I struck a balance over the last 10 years with my kids, as a mom, is, you know, I really embraced the idea that, that we just have a kind of different life, that I was never the mom who had to be at the office every day from 8 to 5 or, 9 to 5, or you know, 8 to 6, or whatever it is that a lot of my contemporaries do in different professions. They always had the kind of mom who would be maybe gone for a week out on book tour or giving talks, but then would be home for a week and wouldn’t be you know, I would still be doing work of course when they were at school or whatnot, but really there for them.
Cheryl Strayed 14:36
And like travel is a huge part of our family life. And so we might be apart a lot for a month, but then I would say well, we’re gonna go now on a month trip. And I think about that a lot when I think about balance as a parent, really trying to shock off that guilt that is placed especially on mothers, where it’s like, Are you there every day, you know that the mom should be there making dinner every night? And I was like, yeah, you know, that’s not the mom you got, the mom you got though, doesn’t have to go to the office every day most days. And so there are some upsides to that. And so I tried to really embrace balance, and redefine what balance looked like for us not what balance looks like for others or some projected idea I have of the ideal.
I like that, it’s hard sometimes to step away from those ideas. You know, those projections though, about what motherhood looks like and how present we’re supposed to be. And I sometimes forget to be creative or to give myself permission to find my own sense of balance, I do get caught up in what it’s supposed to look like in an exterior sense. What brings you back to that? How do you find that that moment of like personal balance? Or remind yourself that you can do it your way?
Well, you know, I think that you have to come back to that place. Unless you want to live a life of shame, right? I mean, if you’re constantly going to be using somebody else’s values or somebody else’s system or somebody else’s way of life as a measuring stick, you’re ultimately going to fail. You know, that question I think that a lot of us ask each other, like, how do you achieve balance? How do you do it? Everyone has a very different answer, right? Its I think it’s really important for us to say, I will set the measuring stick for my own life, like I will decide, you know, what our days look like, what is considered good or bad, what is considered enough or not enough. And when you apply that kind of way of thinking, and all the different roles, and also in the relationships we have with ourselves, like, recently, I’ve gone back to working out at this little gym that I used to go to before the pandemic and now I find myself again, going through this process where I’m in this, you know, I’m outside working out with 10 other people. And do I measure my success, my achievement, in that hour, against myself or do I look at the person on the mat next to me and how awesome she is and how fast she can run and how high she can jump and what weight she can lift, you know, that’s a losing prospect. And, you know, we’re really running our own races all the time, and almost everything.
That’s an amazing way to put it. I agree. You know, I don’t think we can stop comparing ourselves to other people without some measure of self-compassion. A lot of my work as a therapist, and I was thinking about this with your advice column Dear Sugar and how you are responding and interacting with people who are writing to you about some of the most shameful deepest, darkest hardest things going on in their lives. And, and I’m doing the same thing, you know, one on one in my therapy office or my Zoom office these days. And it changed everything about how I see the world It made me when I go to an exercise class and look over at the mat next to me at the perfect woman that I would love to look like realize, I bet her life is not perfect at all. And she’s got some something that she feels deeply ashamed of, or remorseful ever that she struggles with. And I no longer saw the world through this kind of comparison of other people being perfect when I wasn’t and it’s just humbled me and made me love all of humanity for all of its mess and flaws and beauty. Has Dear Sugar done something similar for you?
Cheryl Strayed 18:27
Of course, yeah, no, I mean, I know you get to do that a lot as a therapist is, it’s such a beautiful humbling reminder that, that everyone is human that everyone struggles, you know, I’m on the other side of these letters of people telling me their problems. You’re constantly interacting with people who say, this is what hurts and this is what’s hard. And you know, it makes me feel so much gentleness towards both myself and other people, you know, even people who I might find irritating or annoying, or I find myself thinking, well, they have it easy, or they don’t even know how hard it is to do this or that or the other thing. If I can take a breath and remember that we’re all struggling there’s that, you know, there’s that really just that humbling reminder that the facade is not the truth that the what’s behind that facade, and I don’t mean facade in any kind of, I don’t think any of us have facades necessarily in order to deceive others, but it’s rather we do have to concoct a kind of public face to show the world and what’s behind it is the real person, whether the person is rich or poor, or beautiful or not, or you know, meets some kind of ideal that we have crafted or absorbed. The real human inside is way more complicated than we can ever imagine, at first glance.
This goes to vulnerability, don’t you think? Making ourselves vulnerable, available, showing something underneath that facade, I feel like when I put out my memoir, it was this huge vulnerable moment where I was like, here, everybody, I’ll go first, I’ll tell you everything. And the response was amazing people opened up to me, they still do, you know, people still come up to me and tell me they feel like they know me and want to share some piece of their story that resonated. And all the hardest worst things I wrote about myself in that book are the pieces that people bring up the most. They’re like, I’m so glad you wrote that. I’ve never told anybody that I felt that way or that I did something like that. But it took kind of that first, like, I’ll go first. What was that like for you?
Cheryl Strayed 20:39
Oh, absolutely. I mean, that’s it. That’s all the stuff that I thought, okay, I can’t write this, this is too much like I would write it and think I’ll take that out in the edits. Every time. In every book I’ve written in every essay or story, everything I’ve ever written. The sentence that’s, that feels like too much is the sentence that always people say thank you. They say, I saw myself in you. And I think that that is the power of, of art. And certainly the power of vulnerability, is that you are really building a bridge between you and another person, by telling the truth about who you are and what you feel, and what you fear, and what you love. And, you know, I want to say about this, too, you know, a lot of people say thank you. A lot of people say you made my life better because you told the truth about that. Or you made me see myself with more compassion or love. But for some people that really is also too much. There can be obviously a small percentage of people who you know they don’t want you to be vulnerable and tell the truth, there is a backlash to it as well. And so most of it is love and some of it is, you hit a nerve with somebody. And that is what’s so scary about vulnerability is we have to be able to stand in our truth knowing that some people will condemn us for it.
I feel like you’ve always been really good at being authentic and real. I remember the month that Wild came out, I saw you I think it was a party for you at author Sandra Tsing Loh’s house. Remember that old ranch house she had outside of LA? And I remember talking to you in the lawn and I was just, you know, I was younger. And it’s my first book and I was really in awe of everything that was happening for you. And I remember saying is it amazing? How is it all going? And you were like, dude, I can’t pay rent.
Cheryl Strayed 24:30
No, I was broke. I was broke still. I mean, that’s what was so funny is there was this really, you know, several months of like my life, my life not catching up with my success yet. I mean, that’s what was so funny. About the month that I became a New York Times bestselling author. Our rent check bounced because we didn’t have enough money in our checking account. I mean, it’s crazy, but true. And we could have a whole show on money. I mean, there’s, we project that about other people too. I mean, very, very often we actually have no idea, you know, who has what money but somehow when somebody has a hit book, you know, there’s a lot of people make a lot of assumptions about that. For me, it was like, I really was still struggling financially, that first year that Wild was out, and I had to learn how to just be honest, like, I’m glad to hear I was so honest with you, because money is such a taboo subject. But I remember a few times being out with friends, and it’d be like, well, Cheryl’s picking up the tab. She’s like, a New York Times. I’m like, yeah, like, I don’t have any money yet. I still have student loan debt. You know, I mean, it’s just a funny kind of thing. Because we are so quiet about money and secretive in some ways about money, that what we have to go on our projections and assumptions. And we’re not always right.
Totally. In my therapy, office, sex and money are the two most difficult, complicated, interesting topics that I get into with clients, you know, because there’s so much stuff around them. And there’s so much potential shame, or secrecy or weird messages that we receive about those things that people just internalize and never talk about.
Cheryl Strayed 26:09
So, you know, I think that I try. In my I mean, part of my work, I think, as a human and a writer, and I’m curious if you also feel this way, I think of you as a kindred spirit, and this kind of this mission of like, telling the truth as much as possible about as many things as possible. And so from the very beginning, you know, I have always tried to be honest about money, like, you know, in my conversations with peers, in my conversations with my kids, and just because I think that it’s really unnecessary. It’s kind of like that thing we were talking about, the projections, the ideas that are placed on us as parents, and then we’re always failing against that idea. I think the same is true when it comes to finances and money and all that kind of stuff.
Yeah, I like to try to always be very transparent and upfront about everything about myself, too, because I think so many people do project their own illusions, or are afraid to talk about their own things. And it is, we are kind of in roles where we it’s helpful. It’s important for us to go first. On that note, you’ve always been a writer, right? Since you were a kid?
Well, yeah, I mean, I love to write and love to read when I was a kid. And then by the time I went to college, I knew I’d love to write, I didn’t know that somebody like me could be a writer. Because I grew up poor. And I wasn’t I just didn’t know the way any of that worked. And I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t, you know, I wasn’t at all steeped in that kind of slice of like, that wasn’t my universe. But when I went to college, and I met professors who had actually published books, and I was like, okay, that’s what I want to do. So yeah, since like, really young age.
Yeah, same, since I could write, I started writing. You know, stories about like, ladybugs, getting married. And then middle schools like girls who ran away to California, which is where I live now. Then really, really angsty poetry. I just, I was obsessed with Anne Sexton. And then when my mother died, I, I didn’t write for like a year, everything left me for about a year. And then I couldn’t stop writing after that. And I had never considered writing memoir. But that was all I knew how to write at that time.
Cheryl Strayed 28:34
Well, I think, you know, it’s interesting that I mean, the impact that loss and grief has on our creative process. You know, I couldn’t I guess like, in some ways, I’m like you after my mom died. I think I couldn’t really write very well, because I was just so consumed with my really heartbreak and sorrow. But I wrote a lot and I couldn’t write about anything but my mom’s death, and my grave. And you know, so that ended up being work that that did become something, you know, that work actually ended up in, you know, sort of contributing toward my first book Torch. And so even I think that even though I wasn’t, I wasn’t writing well, I was writing and I think that there’s something really powerful about the ways that loss has contributed to my creative life like in I can’t deny that in some ways. It’s been a mighty source of maybe the primary source of a lot of my work.
Yeah, I feel the same. I felt so grateful to already have writing when my parents got sick when I was a teenager because it was just the thing that I’ve fell into that, that was the only outlet I had, and the only catharsis and the only way of understanding that and it’s now a tool that I use with all of my clients, whether it’s they’re writing letters to loved ones they’ve lost or they’re writing letters to younger versions of themselves, or they’re doing daily morning journaling, just having that kind of outlet is I think so vital.
Cheryl Strayed 30:03
It is, I mean, writing it, whatever your ultimate goals are, whether you want to plan to publish or just want to write to yourself, I think writing might be really the single most cathartic act in processing grief of processing anger, processing anxiety, I find myself and of course, I’m biased when I say it’s the single most, you know, cathartic act, but it has been in my life, because there is something about that it’s essentially a conversation with the self on paper, right? I’m 52. So I used to journal you know, and I look back at those journals, and I think my goodness, that was my best friend in those first years after my mom died, because I could pour everything onto those pages. And they had somewhere to be, it was like, it wasn’t just in my mind, it was like, I could put them into the world via that beautiful privacy on the page is like, weird, because it’s like, it’s just like, a little more public than your brain, you know, even if nobody else is gonna read it. And so it was powerful medicine. And I always encourage people to turn to the page or the screen when, when they when they don’t know what to do, or they’re sad, or they’re afraid.
I wanted to ask you about a little bit more about self-compassion. Because I think that that is one of the things that I see, my clients struggle with more than anything, just people, humanity, you know, we’re so hard on ourselves. And we’re so hard on ourselves about hard stuff, what it means to have a hard time to struggle. And you know, in this last year, so many of us have struggled with so many things, health, you know, our marriages, jobs that just actually losing people, and then we get hard on ourselves for having a hard time going through it. Did you have self-compassion for yourself right away when your mother died? Or did that take time? I think I know the answer. But I’m curious what the process was for you?
Well, I think it’s a constant. Like it’s an ever-evolving process. And it’s not something we do once. I think self-compassion is a lot like, really all the other most complicated things. Forgiveness, acceptance, self-compassion, like those are all things where it’s like, we want to think that we figured this thing out one time, and then we’re like, okay, I’m golden, I’m doing it. What it turns out, is that this is a daily practice. This is a constant internal conversation with the self. And the first thing that comes to mind, like one of the early I guess, revelations I had about self-compassion is it had to do with really, acceptance, accepting that, that this is how I feel this is where I am. And to simply I mean, the last line of Wild is how wild it was to let it be. And that, to me, is deeply about self-compassion to say, my life didn’t go the way that I, if I got to be that if I got to write the script of my life, it went off script, it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. But the most powerfully generous and loving thing I can do for myself, is to accept it, to accept the things even that are painful to accept to say, I don’t want my mom to be dead.
Cheryl Strayed 33:27
But she’s dead, and I have the power and capacity to carry her with grace. And I want this for myself, right now, oh, I’m going to have to maybe wait for it. I want to look like that person, or I want to live in that house, or I want to not have this health condition or, you know, fill in the blank, whatever our desires are, whatever our losses are, whatever our wounds are, whatever our expectations are, as much as we can, I think, come to peace with this idea of accepting things as they are. Now, this gets complicated, right? Because the minute I say that I’m even arguing with myself, you know, isn’t that such a passive way to live a life? Like, aren’t we supposed to be like, no, no, I can affect change. And of course, you can, of course, you know, absolutely. It’s always up to us to put one foot in front of the other to forge a path to follow it, to see it through. Right. Like, we have control in that way. Absolutely. We are and you know, we are the captains of our lives, right. And yet also, I think part of being the best kind of captain is to say, and what this game is going to include is a whole bunch of stuff that we wish were otherwise.
So just starting with that base idea of like, this is what it is and working.
You know, I’m curious. You know, you’re the expert, Claire. You know, if we’re going to just talk about grief. I’m curious what you think of my theory of, you know, that, you know, obviously in the first went in when you first lost the loved one, I mean, I just think you need to just be sad and do what you need to do. But when for me when it came time to really say like, how do I really start to heal this wound, the realization was like to truly accept it. Because I think, and I think that that happened actually on the Pacific Crest Trail because if I’m honest, like I know this doesn’t make sense, but there’s this little part of me that was thinking, no, no, I want my mother back. And if I ruin my life, maybe I’ll get her back. Like, it’s not logical, right?
If I refuse to accept her death, if I refuse to thrive, because she’s dead, there will be some way in which her death won’t be true. And when I finally just said, I surrender, she’s dead. And I’m going to have to live the rest of my life without her. And I’m going to have to find a way to be okay with that. When I did that, that is that that was for me the first step in being able to, to start to be okay. And so, you know, to me that, that was that that is like, that’s deep self-compassion to simply accept that what is true, is true. What do you think of that?
I had a similar experience that I and I see a lot of people go through that too. I also fought it in some ways for a long time. And initially, it was, how destructive can I be? Will she come back and Save me if I’m really teetering on the edge? Or will it even matter if I’m teetering on the edge? And then from there, I somehow moved into this place of how much can I accomplish? Will she show up if I do this thing. I remember, my first job out of out of college was at Vanity Fair, which had been one of her favorite magazines, and I couldn’t believe I’d gotten this job. And I got home from signing the final paperwork in HR, and I just burst into tears because she wasn’t there. Like I thought, Oh, my God, I had worked so hard to get to this thing. And surely she would come back. If I was, if I could achieve this and she wasn’t. So then from there, it did turn towards a place of surrender, you know, I kept hitting walls that she didn’t show up for. And so it finally kind of meant just really looking at it and surrendering. And somewhere in there, I found yoga, and I would go in Santa Monica, there was nothing left for me to do at this point, a lot of ways, but I would just go and cry and cry on my mat. Because I was just trying to actually sit with where I was, not where I wanted to be. Not where I could be, not where I was at another time. And so it was very much surrender.
Yeah. That breaks my heart for you. I mean, I know the thing is, it breaks my heart for you. And for me, and for all the all the people out there you and I know so well, how many people relate to what we’re saying, there’s so much of this, this kind of suffering in the world. And so much of it is silent and we walk around looking like we’re okay. But inside we’re you know; we’re quietly crying on the yoga mat.
Yeah, that’s why I keep saying this stuff out loud too, because people feel so alone. Like they’re the only person feeling this way or going through something. And I think saying it out loud, just helps people feel like they’re going to be okay.
You know, the next thing I think about self-compassion for me was like acceptance but also finding other voices finding people like you finding people like Hope Adelman finding all the beautiful, beautiful books and writers that offered me consolation over the years that simply gave me that little bit of breath that day to say, like, I’m not alone, there are other people out there who have experienced loss, and thrived in the face of it. And also, there are other people out there who have just said, like, this is really hard, and I don’t think I can go on. But I will. And self-compassion is like it seems like such a big thing. It’s, I guess what I would say about it is it’s like, it’s all these little things that you string together. Like one of them, it’s like a little string of be like one beat is acceptance and surrender. And one is, you know, finding others who will offer you even a glimmer of comfort, whether it be in what they say or what they write, or how they live, you know.
Cheryl Strayed 40:48
And then and then also finding, in some ways, finding a way to be as generous with yourself, as you are with others, which I think is, you know, again, this is an everyday thing, there are so many times that I stop and say to myself, like what I, what would I say if I were a friend of mine? What would I counsel me to do? And I don’t know why it’s so hard for many of us to take that kind of counsel. But you know, what that’s about is having some perspective on your own life. A friend has perspective and says no, Claire, you’re doing too much, it’s okay to say no, and disappoint people or, you know, do whatever, you know. And so that’s, that’s about having perspective, like just taking that little shift outside your own head and looking at yourself from the outside. That’s a key practice I think, too.
I keep hearing this word practice from both of us. And I think it’s something to note, because I think sometimes people feel overwhelmed at trying to make changes in their lives or trying to heal or just trying to get out of bed the next day. And it’s not one big thing. And it’s not going to happen all at once. And it is a practice, it’s little things every day, it’s maybe lots of different things. And it’s days where we screw up and we don’t do our practice, you know, and then the next day, maybe we find two awesome things that help us feel better, but kind of returning to that and having some forgiveness for ourselves for being human as we go through it.
Cheryl Strayed 42:10
Yes, for sure. The reason I keep using the word practice is this idea that I keep returning to is like so much of this stuff we’re talking about, it doesn’t happen once. It’s actually a constant engagement, vulnerability too, you know, it’s like every day saying, am I going to be as transparent and vulnerable as possible? And what will that cost me? And what will I gain from it, and you know, some days are better than others, you know, some days, you can do that with a more open heart. And it’s not a failure to have a day where you can’t, you know, onward to the next day.
And I think some days, we can do it for others, you know, some days, we are the ones that are able to get out of bed, and we can help others figure out how to do it. And that became part of my journey. And my work too, which was, which was helpful. It made me feel meaningful, and made me feel like I had something to offer the world in times when I didn’t think I did.
What about, you know, you went through a divorce really, in the midst of, you know, very much stepping into, I guess, a more public role with both your practice and with your therapy practice and your writing career, what was it like for you to go through what I’m going to assume, or some really difficult and hard times, while you were sort of a figure to others as like somebody who knew or had wisdom or knew the way?
It’s a great question. That was one of the hardest times of my life. You know, I talk a lot about my parents deaths publicly, but going through my divorce, I was 36 when that happened. And I had two little daughters and I had a private practice and a second book coming out. And that was one of the hardest times in my life. I cried every morning for about a year. And, and I got out of bed every morning for a year and I made lunches and I, you know, did my things. And I sat and worked on my book and I tried to be open about it because that was where I found others who would hold my hand. You know, if I had acted like everything was fine. I think people would have assumed it was on some level or they would have been afraid to approach in any way. But I was pretty open about how hard it was and how messy things were and how much help I needed. I remember a best friend of mine who was going through something similar. We met because I had said it I was like I’m going through a divorce right now. And she was like, Oh my god, me too. And we became each other’s Lifeline and we would talk on the phone every night and one night she was like Claire all the light bulbs in my house had burned out. And I started laughing because I was down to one in mine. And just feeling like okay, I’m not alone and sharing this stuff is what has helped me get through anything and everything hard in my life. Yeah. What about you like these days How are you doing in general? Are you like, how are you actually doing?
Cheryl Strayed 45:05
Well, this past year has been, I would say, the second hardest in my life, or only after the death of the year in which my mom died. And I found myself feeling like, I didn’t know what to do. I found myself very often, you know, really just, you know, like you just said, You woke up for a year crying. Every morning, I haven’t cried as much really, I’ve cried more in this past year than I have, since you know, my mom died. And so it’s been a hard unfun year. And I was always aware that I was never the keeper of all wisdom. So it wasn’t like I was like, oh, my goodness, my situation is so at odds with who I actually am. But what I felt like is my situation feels at odd sometimes with what people have projected on to me, you know, as sugar. And really, you know, it’s like I was I spent a lot of the year kind of in the sort of metaphorical basement, you know, crawling around thinking, like, how do I find my way up this ladder to the light and find happiness again, in my family. So it was a lot.
What were the rungs on the ladder?
Well, you know, a lot of the stuff we’ve really talked about the rungs, we’re saying, Okay, first of all, just acceptance, like letting go of expectation about this, you know, the idea of like, the way my kids would be, you know, I mean, and I don’t want to, like go too far into like, what would happened, but like, you know, that they’re wonderful, happy, thriving, great, strong kids, but just to have to help them through these struggles, made me feel like, okay, it was, you know, I just had an idea of like, what there 9th and 10th grade in high school would look like, you know, and it was activities and sports and involvement, and, and not like sitting at home arguing about whether somebody had it in their online geometry, you know? And so to work with them on that, you know, took me back to the, I guess, those old days where I had to climb out of the hole, I felt I was in my grave. Like I had to say, this is about letting go of the story of how you wish it were and accepting the story for what it is, and making the best of what, what it is.
Yeah, I think this is exactly why we all trust you, though, because you are real. And you would do go through your own hard stuff. And I wouldn’t want to take advice from someone who didn’t, you know, from someone who even just pretended to live a perfect life. It’s because you’ve been through so much of your own hard stuff, and you continue to it never ends. For any of us, there’s always just, we’d like to think that there’s going to be a spot at some point where we’re good. But there’s always going to be stuff that we’re moving through. And we’re always going to have to be falling back on these practices and these tools. And I think when we’re leading children through that, we were called to do it even more, because we have to take care of ourselves while we take care of them. And it’s so challenging. And I’m sure that you know, neither you nor myself right out of it yet. We’re still coming through this time as everyone.
Cheryl Strayed 48:14
The hard times come and hard times will come again. But good times we’ll come to and so that I keep faith with that, perhaps above all else.
Ah, Cheryl, I could talk to you about all these things for hours. And maybe we Well, maybe we should take a road trip. Like you said at the beginning, maybe we’ll get in a car.
Okay, so I could have talked to Cheryl for hours. I’ve always loved how real she is, how truthful she is, even when she’s talking about things most of us are afraid to admit. It was a reminder to me that none of us have it all together. Or that maybe having it all together means being flawed, being human, failing and succeeding at the same time. After this conversation with Cheryl, I started thinking about this idea of practice. Practice isn’t just for learning an instrument or picking up a new skill. It’s really just a way to pay more attention to something that’s important to you. And it’s something you can come back to over and over again. So each episode, I’m going to offer a weekly practice, something to try out as we work towards that goal of feeling more satisfied with our lives. For this week’s practice, how about you try taking the risk of answering honestly, the next time someone asks you how you’re doing? Like, instead of answering fine, try telling them that your morning was a shit show, or how the news is totally freaking you out today.
You may have to start a step before this though in case you’re not even used to acknowledging how you’re feeling in the first place. Try to check in each morning with yourself. Ask yourself how you’re feeling. Are you anxious, excited, bummed out? Where are you holding these things in your body? Get familiar with how you really feel. And lastly, if you get a fine response from someone else. Try probing deeper, ask them how are they really, I think this is going to add some surprising depth to your week and your interactions not just with the people around you, but yourself. And here are some recommendations for things I think will help you with this week’s practice in case you want to go deeper, and all of this will be in our show notes. I love Nadia Bolz-Weber’s The Confessional podcast where people get really vulnerable. She’s also going to be an upcoming guest on the show. Obviously, Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, or like any of her books, because they’re all about being vulnerable. There’s also this book called The Self-Love Workbook for Women that I think is really great. It’s like an actual workbook you can use daily to help learn how to love yourself. Anyway, check out all these resources work on your weekly practice and let me know how it goes. You can call them leave a message at 8334-LEMONADA. That’s 833-453-6662, or send me an email at NewDay@lemonadamedia.com, I can’t wait to hear from you. Really.
NEW DAY is a Lemonada Original. Jackie Danziger is our supervising producer, our associate producers Erianna Jiles, […] our engineer, music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer, Lily Cornell Silver and Claire Bidwell Smith. NEW DAY is produced in partnership with the wellbeing trust the Jed Foundation, and Education Development Center. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at Lemonada Media across all social platforms or find me at ClaireBidwellSmith.com Join our Facebook group to connect with me and fellow NEW DAY listeners. Hear advice on how to live with more purpose and satisfaction and suggest tools that have helped you. You can join at facebook.com/groups/newdaypod. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada premium. You can subscribe right now and the apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo and then the subscribe button. Alright, that’s it for us. Thanks for listening. See you next week.