March/April 2002 Living Now
An Interview with Debbie Ford

by Tom Park

Debbie Ford is the author of The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, and Spiritual Divorce. Her new book is The Secret of the Shadow --The Power of Owning Your Whole Story.

TP: Debbie, do you have a mission statement?

DF: My mission is to teach people that they can transform themselves again and again. No matter where you are in your life, or what's happened to you, you can use all of it to reach your dreams.

TP: You've come from a tough story. Tell us about it.

DF: I came out of my story about15 years ago. I grew up feeling very unwanted, not good enough, angry and depressed. When I was 13 my parents got divorced - a horrible incident for me. I turned to drugs. For 15 years I spent my life in alleys, living that kind of life. By 28, I was in so much pain, I knew I was either going to die or get better. That began my search: if I was going to live sober, without drugs, how could I love myself, be happy, feel great in this world?

TP: What state was your heart in?

DF: My heart was a minus 10! It was broken. I was disconnected, no relationship with Spirit. It was all about me: how could I make myself feel better… I ached! When I was young I wanted to be in the Peace Corps. My father was a great humanitarian and I wanted to be like that. Somewhere, I got disconnected from that truth of who I was. And so the only way I knew to make myself feel good was to do drugs. When I went into my fifth treatment center, I was heartbroken.

TP: A couple of concepts are fundamental to your work: “the shadow” and “our story.” Tell us how you use those.

DF: The shadow is anything we try to hide, deny or suppress. Anything that we do not integrate or accept in ourselves is our shadow. Find your shadow by looking at the world and seeing what you hate about other people. There, you will find your shadow.

TP: Is that reliable?

DF: It's never wrong. It's hard for some people, in the beginning. But know that the shadow comes bearing gifts! Carl Jung said “the gold is in the dark.” One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making that darkness conscious.

I can promise anybody if you're willing to explore your shadow and your shadow beliefs - “I'm not good enough,” “I'm unlovable,” “nobody wants me,” - and are willing to find their gifts and integrate them, they will release you from whatever pain you're in, and ultimately deliver your unique contribution to the world.

TP: Say that again?

DF: Understand there is no part of our humanity that isn't sacred and holy; nothing that isn't there to teach us, deliver us value. I believe my experiences drove me to become who I am today. In my book I talk about how each of us comes into this world with a divine recipe. To gather all the ingredients for your recipe you have to go out and experience things. It might be that your recipe is a father who abandoned you; a learning disability; a dose of selfishness. All of it teaches us, guides us. We can look at it as darkness, allow it to use us, to shut us down; or we can use it to help us grow, to empower and inspire us, and to understand those learning lessons are what we contribute.

TP: What's the threat? Why aren't we leaping to resolve ourselves of the pain?

DF: Because we're in a “feel-good” society! We think if we eat another brownie, buy something, go for that quick fix, it's all going to be alright. I have found people are scared of themselves. We're taught at a very young age not to be greedy, angry or selfish. The message we internalize is that it's not okay to “be me.” That becomes the fear: if you find out who I really am, you won't like me or love me; you'll leave me.

TP: Is it really that simple?

DF: It's really that simple. I spent five years and $50,000 traveling around this country, going to gurus, every kind of retreat, meditation, Buddhism. After five years, when I got quiet, I realized I still hated parts of myself. I thought God wouldn't make me so I hate myself! What's the deal?

I first understood this concept at a small leadership seminar. We had to stand up and say what we were committed to, in the world. I was telling everybody I wanted to bring self-esteem into the school system. This woman looked at me and said, “You're a bitch!” I was horrified: how does she know? I spent five years trying to create this new persona, so you couldn't find out I was a bitch. She said, “Tell me something that's good about being a bitch.” I couldn't tell her. I could only tell her all the people that I'd hurt, all the times that it stopped me from getting what I wanted. I was in retailing at the time. She asked, “Do you ever get damaged merchandise, and the manufacturer doesn't want to take it back? Does it help you to be a little bitchy?” All of a sudden, this light went off. I had spent time and money trying to get rid of some part of myself. But it wasn't about that! It was finding the gift of it. Once I could see the gift, my physiology changed. I lost the weight of shame.

TP: So, just to internalize the gift resolves the negativity?

DF: Yes, it moves it from your head and the shameful part of you to a place of compassion. I understood the worth of this part of me. Instead of pointing my finger in blame and making it wrong, (which is what we always do with our shadows: we beat ourselves up, and we're so beat up we can't go get what we want), to see that every part of us has value, is teaching us. It's like holding a beach ball underwater. It takes a lot of energy. That's what we do with our shadows. If you allow the beach ball to come to the surface and just be there, you get to use it, instead of it using you.

TP: How do the concepts of “your story” and “owning your whole story” work?

DF: Your story is what you say and believe about yourself. It's like living inside a clear capsule. Inside that capsule you know who you are. You know what you can and cannot do. You have your set of beliefs and self-imposed limitations. Your story is about what happened to you, in the past, and why you are the way you are. Your whole family can tell you your story. We have stories about our money, our bodies, our careers, our creativity. Stories limit us. The problem is, we don't think it's a story. We think it's who we are. It's me. The object is to identify as it not you. I give people exercises to distinguish their story. In the treatment center I heard everybody telling the same story: “My father left me;” “My boyfriend doesn't love me.” I wanted to scream, “Don't you get it? It's just a story! That's not who you are!”

The biggest shift people can make is to write it down. What's that story you've been telling yourself? We all have those days when we're outside our story -- when anything's possible: the Universe is ours. But, if your internal dialogue is saying: “you know that's never going to happen for you, you're not going to get what you want,” then you know you're inside your story.

TP: Catharsis. I'm thinking to myself, listening to what you're saying: I'm going to melt down, if I try and dance this dance! Is that true?

DF: Yeah! It’s great! Melt down! If you want to get sick to your stomach you know you've really distinguished your story.

TP: So, there's courage involved here?

DF: There's courage. It takes courage to live a life, to get what you want. What's scary to me is that people carry this pain around, a wound, a “victimness.” “Poor Me,” is always a theme of a story.

TP: Always?

DF: Always. There's always a little bit of “Poor Me” -- if this wouldn't have happened; if I had more ... “If only...” is a really good one: “If only I wasn't so angry, never married him, had more money.” It's always inside our story and has a little bit of that “Poor Me.” Some people have a big victim, some have a little victim. What's really scary is knowing that you have such a short time on this planet, with a unique gift unlike anybody else's, to give to this world. Do you want to go to the grave, without using it, and have the eulogy say: “she was a great girl, but so committed to her story that she never, ever reached her dreams?”

TP: Who can we be, if we’re not the story? We all believe we're the story so, who are we?

DF: That's a great question. One of the processes is being able to not know who you are. I say “hooray!” if you don't know who you are! The minute you know who you are, you set that capsule's limits around you. What if you woke up and decided: it's going to be safe for me to not know who I am, to let the universe be my guide and tell me who I'm going to be today. Today, I might be a best-selling author, and tomorrow, just a mother. The next day, I might be somebody who does volunteer work. If I had set my story to just being an author, I would've lost so much of what I've gotten. Because what I've gotten to be is a teacher, someone I never thought I would be!

TP: What's the issue in our hearts that has us threatened, afraid to go beyond? Is it a cathartic pain?

DF: I think a couple of things keep us in our story. We're always making somebody wrong in our story, always pointing our finger, blaming. It feels good to do that. Let's just admit it: We like to blame. It's part of the human condition. There's nothing wrong with it.

TP: Yes, its a part, but I don't respect it.

DF: You've got to love it. That's the process. Instead of pointing your finger and having judgment, having love and compassion for that wounded part of us that wants to say, “It's your fault.” Not making it wrong, but saying, “God, I really can understand that.” Understand, the person who wants to blame is always inside the story. The cost is: it robs us of our dreams. The benefit is: we get to blame somebody else. A big part of the process is about forgiveness, seeing what the gift is. You can't tell yourself to forgive. Forgiveness is a condition of the heart. You do a process to find out: what is the lesson this person was trying to deliver to me?

TP: You cannot induce forgiveness?

DF: No. It's in your heart. It's your heart that needs to heal, not your head. Intellectually, you know forgiveness is the right thing. But your heart needs to know why this happened.

TP: It sounds like a head question: “why this happened...”

DF: The heart needs to know if there's some value in it, “for me.” Is it going to make me a better person, or deliver something to my unique recipe that I needed to learn? I've been hurt by my family and my relationships. I decided: I'm going to use every pain, like my divorce, to grow. I say, “How am I going to use this to give me the life of my dreams?” rather than, “How am I going to use that to hold onto my resentment, and blame him, and make myself small?” If we start to shift our perception to, “I will look through these eyes and say this person is giving me a gift.” That's a big shift. When I get the gift, my heart will heal: Thank you very much. I don't need to do that again.

TP: Okay. Some of us may be doubting…a gift? Is MS a gift? I have a ferocious broken heart from an abusive parent…that's a gift? There's a definite incredulity here.

DF: I'll use myself as an example. I suffered from a broken heart, being in the darkness. I understand the pain, and understand that my parents had pain. They did what they were taught. Our parents weren't three years old when they said, “Well, I can't wait to have some kids and really abuse them.” That's not the human heart. They got abused, things happened to them, they became abusive. Understand that we need to have compassion for our humanity.

If your life was a book, what would it be? “How To Suffer Endlessly for 28 Years.” “How To Blame Others And Make Them Wrong.” What is it? “How To Be One Step Away From My Dreams All The Time.” Really look, and see, what your story would be called. Then, ask yourself, “If that story could teach me, and if I could teach something now that I couldn't teach, or know about, unless that incident happened to me, what would the name of that book be?” That's where you start to understand that life is a lesson. It's a school trying teach, to give us wisdom with each event. Drug addiction gave me wisdom, taught me how to struggle with darkness, how to “let go, and let God.” I learned many invaluable lessons. Even though it took me by the neck for 15 years, dragged me all over the world, I don't want to get rid of it. I would do it again, to get the wisdom that I have today. Because, I wouldn't be able to give it to you, if I hadn't given it to me.

TP: What's the minimum character quality for someone to embrace this work? Honesty?

DP: One is the desire to not go to your grave in your story. The desire to say: “You know what? I've lived this story, but I'm willing to look outside of it…” and then, to do the work. In a daylong workshop, somebody told me a story. She said when she grew up they had a dog, who they loved, that liked the chickens. So her father took a dead chicken and hung it around the dog's neck and left it there, until it rotted off the dog. The dog never went through the chickens again!” This story is what it's like, if you immerse yourself in your story. Wear your story, look at its shadow beliefs: what's the theme? How many times have I told it, or listened to that internal dialogue telling me I couldn't have what I wanted? How many years have I blamed other people? Really immerse yourself in your story for six hours. Like the dog with the chicken, you'll be ready to get out.

TP: It's a hunger to have your heart back, whole?

DF: To heal your heart. If you can't do it for yourself, do it for your kids, your family, your community. Honor somebody who died in 9 -11, by having an extraordinary life, because they don't have the opportunity to be on this planet. You don't have to do it for you, in the beginning. Do it because you hold a piece that's unlike anybody else's and for us to be a whole community, a whole world, we need your divine gift, your wisdom. All those life lessons have given you the exact wisdom you need to contribute, whether it's at the water cooler at work, or at your child's school. So, extract that wisdom and use it.

TP: Do you have a story about somebody, perhaps someone you've worked with, who seemed to have a really mediocre life, that really had a confining, petty story, and then broke out of it and became someone powerful and beautiful that we all “drop jaws” about?

DF: How about Oprah Winfrey? Listen to her story. She was molested. She was born out of wedlock. Look what she's done with her life. Helen Keller is a perfect person. She had the perfect recipe. She couldn't hear. She made a huge contribution to the world. Dave Peltzer, who wrote A Boy Called 'It', and won a Pulitzer Prize, was the worst-abused child in the state of California. He pulled himself up and now makes a huge contribution. We can look in history. Many of our greatest leaders have struggled, had pains. Instead of letting that pain bring them down, they used it to get them closer to the people, and to learn about being human.

TP: Did they have to go through this transition? There's no other way, but through?

DF: There's no other way, but through. That's what we're trying to do. We keep trying to fix the story, right? You've spent time, money and energy trying to get rid of some part of yourself, change your story or wish it away. You'll find out, you can't. You don't even want to. You need your story, but you want to be able to use your story, instead of it using you; to love and appreciate it: “Thank God I went through this and and I never have to go there, again. I've learned the lessons. I've healed my heart.”

TP: Tell the folks something you really want them to know.

DF: Hidden in the shadow of your story is a secret. This journey is to find that secret. Your secret is your light, your brightness, your gifts. All of us, when we were young, were in touch with those gifts. Somewhere, we created a persona. We have to. It is the human experience. That persona becomes hidden beneath our story. If you're willing to step outside your story -- what you'll be delivered is your gifts, your beauty. The Persian poet Rumi said it perfectly: “By God, when you see your beauty, you'll be the idol of yourself.” I invite everybody to become their idol. People tell me, “You know, I was told, “Don’t get too big for your britches!” and “you can't have it all!” Those are shadow beliefs, not truth. We're here to have it all, to shine bright, to teach everybody that comes in contact with us its okay for them, too.

TP: Thank you, Debbie Ford.

DF: Thank you for having me!

You can contact Debbie Ford at her website, www.debbieford.com, for excerpts from her book, her newsletter and program information.

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