Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#070: Sharing My Personal Transformation

In episode 070 of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz, I share my personal “origin story” of challenges and transformation in the hopes of providing an example of how embracing uncertainty opens us to possibility.

Listen to learn…

  • …how listening to our transformational impulses can bring us closer to the life we’re meant to live
  • …why “safe” patterns of behavior turn into the “treadmill of life.”
  • …the importance of facing our fears and insecurities
  • …how risk leads to confidence and self-esteem

How have you transformed? Let me know in the comments!

Want to watch this episode?

Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #070

Hello everybody and welcome to today’s episode.

It’s going to be a very different experience today at least for me and I assume for you as well. Very often in therapy sessions or when I’m giving talks, I’ll share a personal narrative. Not for the purpose of talking about myself (well maybe there’s a little bit of that) but more importantly creating some insight as to how I dealt with certain life circumstances as learning opportunities for everybody. That’s why I’m going to devote today’s episode towards sharing challenges struggles and successes in my own personal life story, a sharing of the key points of my own life or some significant key points pertinent to today’s episode; that’s my purpose.

So let’s begin at the beginning. I grew up in Queens in the 1950s. Queens at that time was not so urban, a wonderful heterogeneous place to live and grow up; have a younger brother Gary and I had two wonderful parents, Ruth and Sydney. My childhood was more or less ideal, at least my vision of it was, and there are some points in time over life where I’ve reconsidered, but I had great parents.

One of the things that impacted me was that my mother uh just before my fifth birthday my grandmother, my mother’s mother, died very suddenly, and it was a very traumatic event for my mother. As a result she developed a codependence with me. I’m the older son and she got too close with me; there was always this sense of fear on her part if I were too distant, so I didn’t have sleepovers at other friends houses; they would come to my house. This codependence, as you’ll see as I continue, had a profound effect upon me.

My dad was an unusual man for that time. He had a business um in the garment industry, it was a clothing manufacturer, but he was an emotionally intelligent and emotionally sensitive person, a counterpart to my mom. He had that feminine energy and yet he was a guy’s guy.

So my childhood seemed wonderful to me. I was however a very average student, not particularly intellectually curious. The message I got from my parents usually was “do your best,” they didn’t really set up a discipline or expectations, so my grades were quite average, and to my surprise I ultimately got into the college of my first choice… but I’ll get back to that in just a moment.

My senior year of high school I had my first girlfriend, met her, believed I was in love with her, whatever love means at that age. We were going steady. Today kids refer to that as dating; in those years she was my girlfriend; we were going steady.

She was a year behind me in school. I will never forget my father sitting out in front of the house with us, with her and myself, and he said to both of us, “Mel’s going off to college; you know you don’t want to ruin each other’s lives here; you need to be free, both of you, to have new experiences.” Of course he was speaking in my benefit, but we did not listen to his wisdom. My freshman year away at college, while all of my friends were going to parties and joining fraternities, I was true blue. I was bored, I was lonely, I was homesick, particularly homesick not just the first year homesick or the first month of school. I didn’t transition. I attribute that to my attachment to my girlfriend; her being my security blanket, coming of course from my attachment to my mom and our codependence. This challenge, the insecurity and the impact this has had on my life in those first half of my life, will be a theme that I will come back to.

So I transferred colleges to go to the school she was going to. This is a school that I had no interest in, it was beneath my level academically, notwithstanding that I was an average student. Well, second week into the semester she came over to me, my girlfriend Barbara, and said “We need to talk.” I asked, “What is it?”

She said, “I’ve decided I want to go out with other guys.”

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? She was my safety net. I believed I was in love with her; my dependence my security came from our relationship. I did not want to be at this school, I didn’t know a soul there, and what other important thing at this point in my life I was shy. I was not outgoing and I couldn’t imagine how I’d meet other people.

So in a moment I was panicked, anxious, and I went for a walk. The first thought I had was I’ll transfer back to my former school so I can be with my friends, but then I had one of those defining moments that life offers us: a new thought emerged which was, no I’m going to stay and I’m going to break out of my feeling like an introvert and shy.

Well, fast forward the number of years. This is during the Vietnam war. I became a very very active vocal anti-war activist leading demonstrations of my university in Washington DC, so by the time I graduated I was arguably one of the most well-known people on campus. Yes, I used anti-war activism as a tool to break out of my shyness. Now, those years were very informative for me, they were inspirational, motivational, exciting. I also began to do drugs, as people of that era typically did, and we thought of them as normal, and you know what, I’m going to say in college at that period of time they were not really out of the norm.

The problem for me was after I graduated college I continued with that drug dependency. Now what happened when I graduated, first I had such a great time in school it was so much fun it was so passionate there was so much meaning and purpose, I didn’t want to leave, so I applied to law school at the same school. Now I had never really gone to class much as an undergraduate, I had more important things to do and more fun things, but I got by. About one month into law school they called me in for a meeting and they said, “You haven’t been attending classes,” and I said, “Well I got all the books; I’m doing all of the reading.”

They said, “Nope, that’s not going to cut it, you have to commit to being in class for every class or you going to have to leave.”

Well, I came to my truth: either I didn’t have the discipline to go to class or the law wasn’t really my call. So I decided to leave, but what was I going to do?

You know in those years we weren’t all as focused on careers and jobs as we are today. I defaulted to one option: my father’s business. He said, “Mel come into the business,” so I did. It was a shocking transition moving into a studio apartment in Manhattan with no friends, no stirring of activism, no meaning and no purpose, and going into my dad’s business learning how to manufacture, design and manufacture, clothing. Can you imagine the shock to me. I was depressed. I don’t know if I knew it at the time, and my drug dependence continued, it did not go away.

Well the good news is as the years passed I became competent at what I was doing. I started my own business; began to succeed. I didn’t have meaning and passion or purpose but I started to shift my life’s expectations toward what will bring happiness and what will bring fulfillment, or so I thought at that time. So as I approached 30 I asked my former girlfriend, with whom I had resumed the relationship, to get married and she said yes.

Now why was I choosing a marriage? Embarrassingly, I thought it was the time of my life. I had recently stopped drugs and had become straight, responsible, I thought it was time to move to the next stage, and we did, and I did, and my business began to succeed; I prospered.,I wasn’t wealthy, I wasn’t Wall Street money, but I was doing well.

We had two children. We lived in the city at the time. We moved up to Westchester to the town of Chappaqua; we built a house, and everything was going just the way I thought it should: lots of friends, success in business, lots of fun.

One day driving home from Manhattan, as I’m driving I’m just musing, thoughts are coming up, and some truth burst through, and that truth was is this it? Is this all there is? I felt like I was on a conveyor belt of life. I had made a few decisions and this is how I was going to live out my life… but I became keenly aware of the fact that I was missing meaning and purpose and passion. I thought, “Do I want to spend the rest of my life just making clothing?”

I needed more. By the time I got home I had convinced myself there needed to be a new path. When I reached the house and walked in I said to my wife at that time, but soon to be my former wife, “I’ve decided I’m going to close the business.”

She was alarmed. She said, “What are you going to do?”

I said, “I have no idea, but I know I need to make a change.”

I went to sleep that night and I recalled that somebody had asked me many years before what I enjoyed doing. my answer was I love to help people think differently, to get insights, and I started to ask myself what could that look like, and what occurred to me is that if I went to graduate school to become a therapist I could write books, I could give talks.

Now I didn’t really know anything about the field of therapy at the time but I felt this intuitive call, this calling, it might be for me. I spent only a day or two debating this. Now I was making good money but we had no real savings, I had no resources behind me, and I began to think, “Is this responsible? How am I going to support my family my children, what will the impact be on them?”

I did what we typically do, I started to struggle with fears of uncertainty, insecurity, that’s what we ordinarily do in life, but then a new thought emerged. That new thought was, “What are the consequences of not making this change?” See, we focus on the consequences of our actions but we don’t think about the consequences of our inactions. I thought if I don’t do this going to become depressed. I’m never going to feel fulfilled. I was choosing not to resist the uncertainty of the future but to embrace it. This is going to become a key point in my thinking and in my work and in my books and podcasts: if we don’t resist uncertainty but embrace it it frees us up for new possibilities. In my book The Possibility Principle I write uncertainty equals new possibilities.

So I applied to graduate school. I thought, “I’ll get the quickest degree I can because I’m 40. I don’t have years to spend and let’s move forward.” I applied to Colombia and thankfully I was accepted. Now this began over the next year or two to initiate the realization that my former wife and I were ill-suited for each other.

Why did I marry her? I had another moment’s revelation: I thought she has not changed at all since the time I met her, let alone the time I asked her to marry me, so I have no reason, no justification for being upset or angry with her, she’s the same person I thought I was in love with.

I asked myself a pivotal question: Who was I that I thought I was in love with her and wanted to marry her? Well, I had been a socially insecure person and she was what we call my other half. You know that expression with couples: “my other half.” I was completing myself with my other half. You see she was outgoing extroverted, actually she didn’t have a reasonable amount of self-awareness, so at times she could be embarrassing, but she was the other half. Now I was starting to grow and emerge. I was extroverted, I was more secure, the codependence from my mom from my earlier years had vanished, so I began to see her differently.

What an insight this was for me. No blame, no fault, she didn’t change, but if two people come together to complete themselves because they’re only a half, if one of them grows and changes we’re going to have a problem. This led me to write my first book, The Art of Intimacy, the Pleasure of Passion; it was about this awakening of relationship and the dramas we go through. The relationship with each other is really about my relationship with myself, my mother’s relationship with me, it’s much more complex, so it led to a lot of insights and it led to my divorce.

Regrettably and unfortunately that was a time of tempest and ultimately my children, who was still quite young, came to live with me full-time. So now I had this new challenge: raising my sons and trying to find a way to create a substantial enough living in a thriving practice to make this all work well.

Just going to shift for a moment. When I was in school or shortly after graduate school people asked me where was I trained and my answer kind of like as a wise ass was I wasn’t trained why would I want to be trained I’m not an act in a circus. What they taught me at Columbia I thought was old school old thinking. My intellectual curiosity now began to percolate and emerge. I was excited. I was excited by new ways of thinking. The new ways of thinking were informed by philosophy, by my reading the new sciences, quantum physics, and when I say quantum physics… I’m a terrible student in science… I’m talking about the principles and looking at those principles like uncertainty and inseparability and thinking they are wondrous. They can heal so much, how do I integrate them into my approach as a therapist?

So I was invited to come to Yale to give a talk, something called a headmaster’s home. I had no idea what it was. I’m recently graduated just starting a practice not much of a practice yet and I’m invited to give a talk based upon my new book The Art of Intimacy. Didn’t give it much thought but I was excited. Well I drive up to Yale and I go to the designated location, a headmaster’s home, had no idea what was coming. I walk into a very significant crowd of people there are news reporters from the Yale Daily News the Yale chaplin; the Headmaster greets me and he brings me up to this chair which looked like royalty, some red velvet chair as I recall, and I sat there as the audience started to get ready for my talk.

My private thoughts with myself were “This is so freaking cool I’m a couple of years out of the garment industry and I’m giving a talk to this crowd of people at Yale University!” I was changing. Why was I changing? I was no longer the average student the guy who is intellectually limited and not curious the regular guy. Who was I becoming?

After the talk my mother comes over to me. She came to hear the talk; my dad at that point was not well; and my mother kind of with tears in her eyes says to me “When did you become this person? I don’t know who you are,” and that was just such a calling for me about ability to change to evolve and to grow.

So I started to reflect on what has changed here. I understood my codependency and my insecurity which has led me to I’m not going to say the wrong marriage because I needed that experience and I needed to go through it, but I began to have an accountability for those relationships and the limitations of identity, you know who we think we are, who am I. I wrote an article years ago, many many years ago, called “Who am I,” and I’ve noticed it has a million reads — not because it’s a great article but people Google who am I and they come to it — and in this article I say who am I requires a fixed inert answer.

My life experience was, “We shouldn’t ask who am I, we should ask how would I like to experience my life,” and myself that’s flowing and evolving and I think the theme to this sharing with you today is about how life can flow and evolve, how you can flow and evolve.

Now my passion and my fascination is with developing this new way of thinking and a new method and new approach to practicing therapy: the principles of quantum physics: inseparability and uncertainty and lastly potentiality.

Now here’s what I mean by potentiality. In physics we learn that reality is in a state of always being ready to present itself, it isn’t fixed or inert like “who am I.” So I thought in the nanosecond between my old thought and my next thought I exist the state of pure potential and pure possibility… but I won’t be able to access it if I keep having the same old thought.

So I developed a method and an approach to teach people how to see their thought and not become their thought, how to embrace uncertainty and access possibility, and it just lifted off for me. I began to teach this process of thinking, which I called emergent thinking. Emergent because it’s like a bubbling up, there’s a creativity, you get unstuck.

And so I taught this process, emergent thinking, in Westport, Connecticut for years. I had groups of people that I taught and I wrote my new book The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think Love and Relate, but practice began to prosper my books and articles began to take off. I had to recognize that I was living in an entirely new life. My children did fine; I managed to raise them while starting to practice; I met a woman and fell in love with her 20 years ago; everything started to emerge and coalesce for me.

Now I’m not suggesting that I didn’t and don’t experience trials and tribulations throughout, but that new attitude, the attitude of “why can’t I” instead of “why I can’t,” you see that’s the different that’s the thought. Look at the power of the thought. If you have going back to when I was leaving my marriage or taking the best, starting a new business, if I had surrendered to “why I can’t” I wouldn’t be having this conversation today and sharing it with you.

I strained myself to say “why can’t,” but a peoples happen. Shockingly I learned about six seven years ago that my dear father who I adored and loved was not my biological father. Wow, how traumatic that was. I met my half-brother that I didn’t know existed and to this day I’m still trying to make sense of all of that. So crisis creates opportunity, it creates opportunity for me to reframe things and look at them differently.

My purpose in this personal sharing today is to share with you how I came to see my limitations, my insecurities and my challenges, and fundamentally learned to transcend them. I don’t use the word overcome because overcome is what you want to do if you’re feeling ill. “I just want to overcome them,” because they were there for a purpose. I wanted to transcend them. I chose to experience life as in flow not fixed without myself being fixed. I did this and I wanted to share these narratives with you because you can do it as well.

There’s nothing as powerful in the universe as a new way of thinking, so hopefully your takeaway for today might be “why can’t I,” and once you free yourself from old thought which creates a stranglehold, all thought defends its territory, so whatever that old thought is that holds you back, look at it hold it up see the old thought.

Now, to dig in more deeply to these motivational words I would suggest you read “The Possibility Principle” or any of my podcasts speaking to transitions, transcending old thoughts, old beliefs, new thinking… all very powerful.

By the way if you’d like to hear the story of how I dealt with and experienced learning that my dad was not my biological father I have a podcast on it you can check it out at melschwartz.com. Click on podcast and you’ll find it. It’s called “The Moment that Changed My Life.”

If you have any questions about anything I have shared today please feel welcome to get in touch. Send me an email at mel at melschwartz.com and if you’d like to share any aspects of your story please get in touch as well. Maybe we’ll have you on as a guest in future episodes.

Until next time, be well, be happy, and thanks for listening.

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