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Yesterday I was listening to Oprah interview Paulo Coelho on her Super Soul Conversations podcast.
If you haven’t heard of him, Paulo Coelho is the author of the mega-bestselling allegorical novel The Alchemist, which was published 31 years ago and still hits the New York Times bestseller list regularly. (If you haven’t read it, you really should. It’s one of those rare books that contain within it almost everything you’ll ever need to know about life. Kristen and I did a book club episode about it last year!)
Anyway, what struck me about Oprah and Paulo’s conversation was what happened to him when he was 17.
He said that his parents really wanted him to be an engineer, like his father. His parents had experienced a lot of instability in Brazil, so they wanted something safe, secure, and socially esteemed for their son.
But Paulo always wanted to be a writer, and he was adamant about it.
His parents were so distraught by his insistence on being a writer that they genuinely believed something was wrong with him … and so they committed him to a mental institution three times.
He spent his years between the ages of 17 and 20 being committed to institutions and then escaping every time before they finally gave up!
(Of course, the ultimate irony is that he ended up becoming a world-renowned author and making ten times more money than anyone in his family.)
Fifty years later, we read a story like that and think his parents were the crazy ones. There’s nothing wrong with someone just because he wants to be a writer, for god’s sake!
But this isn’t a thing of the past. In fact, his story echoes something one of my clients shared with me a few hours ago.
SOME STUPID HOBBY
My client, Sasha, has an entrepreneurial spirit.
She’s spent the past 5 years in a very sprawling, rigid corporate environment, and she’s done well. She’s made good money, and she’s climbed the ladder, but that doesn’t change the fact that she feels like she’s suffocating.
Right now, her plan is to give the corporate job one more year while she goes back to school in the evenings and builds her business on the side.
When Sasha first told her mom about her plans, her mom responded better than she predicted.
But then Sasha made the decision to move out of her one-bedroom apartment and find a roommate so that she could save money on rent and build her “quitting fund” … and all hell broke loose.
Sasha told me, “I realized that the only reason my mom was tentatively supportive at first was because she didn’t believe me. When she saw I was serious, all of her real thoughts came bubbling to the surface.”
Her mom said things like:
- “You make good money and have good benefits. Why isn’t that enough?”
- “You don’t have to work 14 hours a day, like me. Why can’t you be happy with that?”
- “You don’t have a crazy boss. I do. You don’t know how lucky you have it.”
- “You sound like one of those would-be actresses who moves to LA to try to ‘make it,’ even though there’s a one-in-a-million chance you ever will.”
- “Your business idea is just a trend. It will fade, and then where will you be?”
Sasha was understandably pretty heartbroken by her mom’s response. It hurts when one of the closest people in your life has no desire to encourage your dreams, doesn’t believe in you, and refuses to show any support.
She told me, “My whole life, my parents told me that I could do anything I set my mind to. The worst part about this is realizing that they didn’t really mean it. The secret caveat was, ‘You can do anything, so long as it fits with what we think is right.’”
To Sasha, it felt like a betrayal. This person who was supposed to love her more than anyone in the world would choose for Sasha to keep doing something that feels like soul-death rather than pursue something that makes her feel alive.
WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?
Ideally, we’d all be blessed with parents and loved ones who, even if they don’t completely understand your dreams, can still accept you and cheer you on.
But that’s sadly not true for everyone. So Sasha’s next question was understandable:
“How do I move on from this? How do I not let this affect me, when her naysaying is all I hear when I sit down to work on my business?”
Here’s what I shared with her:
First, understand that this comes from a good place. However misguided, most parents just want to protect their kids and keep them safe. For some parents, it’s hard to let their children take risks because it feels threatening to the child’s very survival. So to do their duty as a parent, they’ve got to naysay your dreams so that you don’t get hurt or end up starving and homeless.
Second, know that it’s not really about you. It feels deeply personal when a loved one insinuates that there’s next-to-no chance you’ll be successful. It sounds like they’re saying, “You are not good enough to succeed.” But that’s usually not the case.
What people say, even if you are the subject of conversation, is way more reflective of their belief system. In Sasha’s case, it’s not really that her mom thinks she’s not smart or talented enough; it’s that her mom just doesn’t believe entrepreneurship is viable, period. Sasha’s actions are triggering deep, old (and inaccurate) beliefs her mom has about what it means to live a stable, secure life. And that fear is getting projected all over Sasha. But it’s not really about Sasha, as a person.
Third, drown out the naysaying voice. If the loudest voice rattling around in your mind is also the most critical and doubtful, it’s naturally going to be hard to make any progress. So in Sasha’s case, I told her to turn up the volume on supportive, encouraging voices. She needs to lean on her boyfriend and friends, all of whom are very encouraging and uplifting.
But even more importantly, she needs to find a person (or group) who’s actually going through the same thing as her. Her friends and boyfriend are great, but they can’t totally relate with her experience. So part of her homework became posting in certain online groups and finding people to meet up with IRL who she can bond with over their shared entrepreneurial experience.
When you’re all alone in your experience, you don’t realize that it’s not unique to you. When you bond with other people, you realize that your fears and doubts are universal, which makes them a lot easier to overcome.
BUT IT’S OK TO BE SAD
The last thing I told Sasha was that it’s OK to grieve.
Maybe one day she’ll be off-the-charts successful and get to prove her mom wrong. But it’s more likely that even when Sasha is successful, her mom’s beliefs won’t change. For some people, there’s not enough evidence in the world to make them relinquish their position.
It’s OK to be sad about the prospect of someone never really supporting you. But it’s also OK to forgive them for it. Sometimes the most gracious thing you can do is live your life, allow someone to misunderstand you, and love each other anyway.
What about you? Who in your life hasn’t understood or supported your dreams? Share with me, in the comments below!
Rachel (& Kristen)