Can a legacy of shame be a source of healing for others?

Jennifer Blaines Grandpa

I always knew the story. I had heard it a fair amount. It was one of those things I heard as a fact, sometimes as the backdrop for why my father’s family suffered misfortune, other times just as a peg in the chronology of my father’s childhood. 

My paternal grandfather accepted a job on the Brooklyn docks as a guard of sorts. It was the time of the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce. This was a great job — a boon. And he blew it. Because on his very first day my grandfather accepted a bribe to look the other way while some guys smuggled in some goods, which may have been black market items, but regardless not paying the tax was illegal, so my grandfather lost this coveted job. The fallout was intense. He could not find a job for weeks, or was it months? The main image I carry from this period is that my father, who was an adolescent at the time, sat in the basement sewing burlap sacks and bringing them to the local store and getting a nickel a bag. That nickel meant a lot. It paid for the family’s food at times. They never starved but they were all hungry. Hungry to eject themselves past this horrible stain, which my grandfather never forgave himself for doing.

This story weaved its way through me. I marinated on this story. I focused on the image of my father sewing burlap sacks. In my story he sewed them by candlelight, having lost the electricity to illuminate the house. I added this as an embellishment to accentuate the pain of the whole scenario. Otherwise, I buried this story until it surfaced in a rather unexpected way.

I was going through a period of commuting to libraries to perform an original kids show in somewhat remote suburbs of Philadelphia. This was before GPS and I would print out my MapQuest directions of the destination, estimate how long it might take me, head out, and proceed to get lost. You may think it’s not possible to get lost if you have directions, and it’s the middle of the day and there’s enough light to read the paper. But I was great at this. Time would get closer and closer to show time. I would panic, then I’d make more mistakes. Oh no, oh no! I am lost. I don’t have the number for the venue. Oh no, oh no! In my family on time is 10 minutes early, so being late was sacrilegious for me. 

After a particularly bad incident of a super late arrival for one of these performances, I made my way back home, without even looking at the directions, then sat in my coaching office and cried and faced into the awful feelings in my gut. I realized I was sabotaging myself. The show was adorable, sweet, fabulous. The only way I could mess up was being late, so I kept being late. Why would I keep doing that to myself?! I sat and breathed and listened. I really wanted to know. And what came up was that I had to mess up like my grandfather did. I was trying to replicate his shame. I was successful in replicating his shame. I was able to imagine his shame, because by doing this I had my own. I kept welcoming the waves of sadness and despair and loss. I cried for my grandfather and the forgiveness he withheld from himself his whole life. He became a lawyer but never let himself practice law. His shame was so deep he couldn’t let himself be really seen. He needed to hide. I imagined him next to me, us holding hands. My gruffest grandfather, I recalled how his blue eyes softened when we’d hold hands his last year of life when he headed into his 92nd year. I cried and told him how sorry I was that he had never forgiven himself, but it was time to accept the shame and move through it. I told him I needed to feel it now so I could move through it. I told him I was sorry he had not had the chance to do it, but I would do it now, for both of us. I felt a weight lift from my whole being. 

I forget that this story can be useful to others. It was so monumental for me. It was completely transformational for me. I was never late to a gig again. I ended that pattern. I shared this story with a client recently, indicating that sometimes a pattern which restricts us may originate in our families before we even existed. The following session the client fixed his eyes on me, and he said, “I feel so differently about you ever since you shared that story. I think you can hear my shame. I trust you to help me through it now.” He is indeed moving through it, even laughing about some old patterns which caused him to lose his ideal job a decade ago. But he is now letting himself move forward again. As we all must.

Success Story

Success Story by Jennifer Blaine

I’ve been coaching a woman in her twenties for a couple of years. When we began together the main issue was that her family and she were majorly entrenched about who was right about how she should live her life. They could not stop fighting. She had fled to a country in the Middle East to get as far away as possible from them and was working at a job that covered her bills but just barely. As a successful college grad, her parents were deeply disappointed. “We know she can do so much better,” they appealed to me. “Can’t you help her get a better job?” We met as a group over Skype. Historically there had been some dynamics in the family where she did not feel she was being honored and treated well by her parents. We addressed those and her parents pledged to do better by her.

Things started to improve and eventually she decided to move back to the United States, and even live with her parents so they could have more time together. But then what she encountered was that she could not get a job easily. Despite having worked in Washington DC and then abroad, somehow, she could not get any traction this side of the Atlantic. She despaired. We only saw each other a couple of times during that year in her life. Over email I advised her to keep applying to jobs. She must have sent her resume out 100 times. Day after day, month after month, she could not find work. Conflicts with her parents got heated. Her self-esteem took a hit. But she did not give up and she eventually landed a job in Boston. The job paid about $60,000. It was enough to afford her to have her own small apartment in the United States for the first time in her adult life. She applied herself completely and within a couple of months had proven herself as an exceptional worker.

But as she worked and worked, she noticed that people around her were compensated at a much higher rate compared to her. She could not understand it. The corporation was structured in such a way that she could only be bumped into a very small percentage of her salary from year to year. “At this rate how will I ever get what I actually deserve?” she asked me. And this, my dear reader is the point of the story. The point I really need you to listen and understand is how we create what we want even when we are at a disadvantage.

I told her “I know that this is unfair. And I also hear that the ways for you to advance seem very narrow and limited. But what I want you to do is commit to receiving what you actually deserve.” She told me what she deserved was closer to $80,000 but that that was impossible. I asked her but what do you deserve? And she said “Actually I would love to get $100,000 but I’m never going to get it at this job. “

So, I told her to be willing to get a different job at a different company at that rate. I told her maybe it is possible you could get that at this job in some capacity, but the most important thing is to commit to getting it somewhere. And to make friends with that process. She agreed.

In the coming weeks she got an unfair and unjustified review at work. Again, she was so upset. I told her “Commit to a job where you are well-treated.” She bitterly withstood watching others be green lit for bonuses and salary increases, some receiving $5,000. I told her she had to hold on to knowing she deserved great treatment and more money.

Then she was finally transferred to a department where her boss appreciated her. She stopped having to overwork. She received a great review just a month ago and therefore was approved for a modest raise.  She embraced all these things with gratitude. But she confided in me that it still was not what she really believed she deserved. I concurred. So again, we forged a commitment that she would step into a new job within the next 3 to 6 months where she was being paid at a much higher rate whether at this company or another. Then last night she called me for her session. “I have the greatest news,” she told me “You have to be sitting down.”

“I got a new job in the same company at a different department. I’ll be doing similar work but at a whole other level of compensation. I will be receiving a $26,000 pay increase!”

It was good I was sitting down, but it was on my bouncy ball, so I bounced up and down a while. I told her I completely believed in her and she deserved it. We spent the rest of the session going through what her new responsibilities would be and how she would handle an upcoming business trip abroad. Someone else would be paying for her to see the world.

When we started together three years ago, she was paid about $20,000 a year. She is now going to be making almost five times that. How much money we make at a job is not the only thing that’s important in life. Probably what’s even more important is how good my client feels about herself. How she is self-sufficient and has an inner knowing of her greatness that’s rooted in her now that is unshakable. To have that great feeling along with her ideal salary is the culmination of her blending her positive self-regard with allowing the universe to support her in all ways.

I am now in my 23rd year of coaching. I have coached hundreds of people all around the world. And all of them have achieved amazing things. I can’t always predict whether it will be solely on an emotional, financial, or spiritual level, but when you commit to ongoing coaching with me you expand your greatness, contribute to the world, and great things happen for you that are often beyond what you can imagine.

Walt Witcover: A Bathtub

Walt Witcover story by Jennifer Blaine

I was an actress studying in NYC. I did research to see with whom I should study. Many folks I knew studied with whomever was most popular and whose students went on to star on tv shows. I chose Walt Witcover, whose students ranged from Jane Alexander to John Leguizamo. No one outside of the theatre world has ever known who I am talking about when I drop his name in Philadelphia, but Walt was the real deal. He studied with Lee Strasberg, won three Obie’s for directing and he was so adorable. There were only 5 students in his class. He was about 70 when I studied with him. He’d bring his teacup into class. He’d wax poetic about what it takes to be an artist, what it was like to teach Ernest Borgnine, Jerry Stiller or Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior on the Sopranos, with whom I actually worked years later.)

But here’s the thing I want to tell you that I learned from Walt. For class we gathered in the studio. Each week we were working on something: sense memory, the vocal quality of our character, a costume piece.

One day, I performed a monologue. I looked up at him, waiting to hear his pronouncement. Walt stirred his tea.

“Is it the first drop of water or the last drop of water that makes the bathtub overflow?” I leaned towards saying it was the last, but I knew better than to make a hasty reply and I waited to hear what Walt would say.

After several moments he put his spoon down. “All of them! It takes all of them!” He enthused.

Sometimes I am searching for the right thing to say or do. I want things to work artistically or just in my life and I think of Walt and how he trained me to be an artist that fills a whole bathtub. We don’t always know why we are filling it, or when it will be full, but knowing that all these moments and pieces add up has given me the impetus to keep going, especially in uncertain times.

Thank you so much Walt!

Walt Witcover (August 24, 1924/November 15, 2013)

Meg Zocco

Meg Zocco a story about a friend from Jennifer Blaine

I was just a freshman at Wesleyan University, but I wanted out. It made no sense. I loved WESLEYAN. I had been looking forward to being there for so long. Back at Stuyvesant HS my friend Danny Grant, who was a year ahead of me, returned from his visit there exclaiming that he knew that not only he but I would someday attend Wes. Fast forward to my early decision acceptance. Everything was set.

In my first semester I took physics, directed experiences in acting, Spanish Literature, and intro to sociology. I also signed up to be one of the student representatives on the EPC, the Educational Planning Council, which was comprised of tenured faculty, lifetime administrators and two student reps. There was one student rep. and I was the other. I was in over my head. I was expected to weigh in on policy at the EPC, and then in classes I was a guinea pig (actor) for scenes from classic American plays directed by juniors and seniors, read Latin American literature in Spanish, and was expected to understand physics on the college level. My head swirled. I chose all these things. They genuinely interested me. The only trouble was I could not find myself anywhere in there. I had been an A+ student at Stuy. But here at Wesleyan I was expected to engage because of my own genuine interest. The trouble was I had none.

Enter Meg Zocco. Meg Zocco was the Dean for the incoming Freshman class. I knew her from letters sent before I ever reached campus. But then face to face with her during summer orientation I learned she was there to assist me to get acclimated. She brought the singer songwriter Christine Lavin — whom I loved!— to perform for us at the Center for the Arts. She guided us into a circle and then had us sit down and feel the support of the person behind us. Meg and I would wave as we passed each other on High Street. I pretended I didn’t need her.

Trouble is I liked her. I was always curious about her. She was insightful and beautiful and a little edgy. She seemed to be deeply self respecting while also getting her job done. How did she do that?

And so one day, as I struggled to comprehend Isabel Allende’s Casa de Los Espiritus, I found myself waiting outside Dean Zocco’s door to grab what I thought would just be a few minutes of Meg’s time. But once she ushered me into her office, to sit in the heavy brown wooden furniture, I sunk into a deeper truth.

“I don’t want to be here anymore.” I blinked, shocked at my own admission. What was I saying? I loved WESLEYAN. I was passionate. I loved all my classes. I was directed by Dar Williams in a scene from ENDGAME by Samuel Beckett. I was in love with the people. I made lifelong friends with Andrew Boorstyn, Nikki Hubbard and my other housemates at Greenhouse the first day! My parents and I were captured in a picture on the cover of the guide for parents’ weekend. I was literally the cover girl for WESLEYAN.

“What is hard about being here?” Meg leaned in with zero shame or judgement.

“I love WESLEYAN, but I don’t know why I’m here. It makes no sense to me. I worked so hard to get here.”

“Maybe it’s not the right moment,” Meg offered. “Do you think you need something else?” Again, Meg left so much space. She waited.

“I can’t go home because my parents won’t let me just drop out. I need to have a plan. I need something. I don’t know what to do.”

And then, Meg Zocco gave me a life lesson. It is a life lesson that I have used with hundreds of coaching clients over the years since then. She said, “make a list of the reasons to leave and the reasons to stay. List all the pros and cons.” I did. “Now Jennifer, try the totality of each scenario on. Which is the one that feels right?”

And I sat there facing the two choices and I didn’t want to drop out of WESLEYAN, but I could see clearly for the first time I could not stay. I was 18 and had made my first life choice as a semi-adult.

“Sometimes it’s not clear which is the best choice to make, but we do the best we can to make the choice that we can live with,” Meg offered.

I felt relieved and terrified. Meg assured me I had actually figured out what to do.

“But my parents won’t approve of this,” I told her. “They will kill me.” I told her. “Not necessarily!” She winked.” Let me talk to them.” I don’t know what she said to reassure my parents that I was not completely irresponsible and to permit me to live another day. And I don’t know why in my memory they somehow instantaneously materialized on campus. I can picture them there, in Dean Zocco’s office, unhappily accepting my decision. Yes, they were disappointed. You can’t always have everything!

I proceeded to devise a plan. I found a job through the career planning center as an aide at Perkins School for the Blind (where Helen Keller studied) where I worked with deaf blind retarded children. I secured a job, housing, income, and time to better listen to who I was and what I needed. I saved my money and when I completed my internship, I headed to Aberdeen Scotland to be in the Leaveners theatre company and participate in an international theatre festival. Then I traipsed through Spain by myself to get closer to Unamuno and Lorca and all the other writers I had only studied in books. Come August I was ready to return to Wesleyan. I studied theatre, Spanish, and became a women’s studies major because I now could hear my true self and I really wanted to hear and tell women’s stories of how they changed their own and others’ lives. And I completed my degree in 3.5 years, so I somehow got my education discounted so at least I managed to get that bonus for my parents.

Meg Zocco. Does she know how much she changed my life? Does she know how much she helps every person she touches in the Wesleyan community? And how do we in turn touch countless other lives? She has moved through a variety of positions at Wes over the years, but 33 years later she is still there. Now in parent relations, working with parents of students, some who were once Wes students themselves. Is it even possible to measure the impact of all she has brought to these relationships? I am just one student out of a class of 700 in one of those years. She personally supported, counseled, and mentored me. She changed my life so I was able connect with and honor myself. And I know she’s done that for countless others.

Spilling The Milk

Spilling Milk by Jennifer Blaine
In June I was out in Detroit to give a presentation about how to resolve any conflict using the Karpman triangle. (You may think you don’t know what I am referring to, but you probably do. It’s when we recognize we are either playing the villain, rescuer, or victim in a conflict and with that awareness we free ourselves from being stuck in these roles.) Once I finished the power point, I had 3 hours before my flight home, so I secreted myself away to the Detroit Institute of Arts. I started with the Diego Rivera murals of the auto industry, caught some contemporary sculptures of the city skyline made from baseball bats, and made my way through the impressionists. While in the contemporary section I turned a corner and spied a Marina Abramovic video entitled “Spilling the Milk.” Here’s what a cool art publication had to say about it:

“In the Abramovic video, included in her widely acclaimed 2010 MoMA, New York, retrospective, the artist continues her earlier themes but places them within the tradition of seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. A luminous window lights a glowing kitchen as Abramovic attempts to hold a brim-filled bowl of shimmering milk without spilling it. The video’s scene recalls the visual impression of works such as Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1657) with its use of everyday subject matter to portray the intersection of sensuality and spirituality at the root of human experience. Yet the concentration and strength necessary to translate this moving image into the ideal, suspended stillness of a Vermeer painting tests the limits of the artist’s fortitude and the audience’s expectations.” — From Artweek.LA

As I studied her, people gathered on the bench opposite, and to either side of the screen. More kept pooling around the piece, illumined by the projection. It was literally a crowd favorite, the growing audience gathering to witness this milk carrying/spilling event. A mother and three children peered on. “Is she actually moving? Or is it freeze framed?” the girl asked.” I think she’s going to drop it!” one of the boys predicted. “It’s just like that, isn’t it?” the mother confided to me. “Mothering. It takes everything not to drop it all.” Abramovic, the artist, peered into the milk in her bowl, willing herself to hold still, despite the demands of gravity. “Funny you should bring up mothering,” I leaned over and whispered to the woman. “She actually had a very difficult relationship with her mother. She wanted her mother’s attention, and rarely got it.”

We turned back to the video. What made it so compelling? We hoped she wouldn’t drop the bowl. We also wanted to see her drop the bowl! We hoped she would shatter the quietly oppressive domestic scene. This tiny drama pulled us all in for almost 13 minutes. It ended with extra sloshing from the bowl and then faded out to black. No clear climax or finality. “Is that it?” someone said walking away.

I stayed, watched the piece again, and took this picture. The crowd dispersed and a new cycle of questioning eyes gazed at the screen. Marina Abramovic never won her mother’s approval and attention the way she wanted it as a girl, but she had won the world’s.


The Hendricks InstituteI really enjoyed reading a new book by Gay Hendricks over the winter break. (I got my coaching certification from The Hendricks Institute which he created with his luminous wife Kathlyn Hendricks.) In “The Joy of Genius” Gay talks about the value and importance of recognizing there are many things we don’t have control over and some things we do. Yes, you may also recognize this as the serenity prayer, and I wrote about the concept in an earlier blog post as one of the main teachings of the philosopher and once-slave Epictetus. I’ve encountered some people that say we don’t have control and it’s best to let go regarding just about everything. I find that very hard and sometimes a very boring attitude to have about life. I like trying to go for things, even if they seem unlikely. Where does that leave me?

What’s left is influence. Once we let go of the things we can’t control (our thoughts, the past, the future, controlling other people, worrying about what people think of us) we can appreciate and better see what we want to create now. I like to envision that power to influence a situation as if I were engaging an Alexander Calder mobile. It’s huge, like the world. I may not transform it or radically dismantle it, but my influence can utterly shift its orientation. Although it’s mammoth, I can influence it. The winds can change how they go around it. I also may enjoy the process of moving its awesomeness. My perception of myself changes too.

I also find that from that spirit of influence some things come to me easier. I am not attached. I stop trying to get things right and make offers, sometimes even grand visions. Just today I was writing to the head of a college department about all the benefits of what I bring as a performer and speaker and how someone I apprenticed from my college 7 years ago, has gone on to become a screenwriter in LA, living their dream. I can’t take full credit for this achievement, but I know I influenced her to go for her dream. Influence is a delicious and inviting way to engage people to play and dream big. The professor actually wrote me back with enthusiasm. Will I get to perform for and mentor her students? I don’t know, but I am playing with the mobile and dancing in the prospect of making it happen.

Are there ways you want to play with moving out of trying to control and into influence? Let me know how it feels for you to tap the mobile.