On self-created cages and the delaying of dreams

cslewisdreamsI want to share with you a little story. Picture a five year old girl. She loves sewing and crafts new outfits for her dolls because she does not like them to repeat dresses at church on Sunday. She reads constantly and by age seven tackles the Anne of Green Gables series and Charles Dickens. She mispronounces words like al dente, chiffon and facade because she's seen them in print but not heard them spoken.

She knows she wants to be an expat by age eight. She designs and plants (but is not so good at weeding) a secret garden around age 10.

At 13 she wants to be a cheerleader but is not allowed to try out so she picks volleyball, soccer and track instead.

By 15 she is a straight A student on her way to mastering French and Latin, an athlete who is good because she works at it, and struggling with an eating disorder. She spends most of her money on food and clothing. She still loves clothes and hates to wear the same combination of items twice. She works two jobs in the summers and aches to travel the world.

For the next eight years she studies, exercises, competes, and works. Hard. But she doesn't go abroad. She reads travel books for fun and feels like she knows foreign places because she's read so much about them. She recovers from that eating disorder at 21, has two jobs that aren't quite right, does two short stints in New York City and at age 23 she finally sees her brand new passport receive its first stamp after she lands in Italy to live and work.

15 years of desire before a dream is fulfilled. 15 years of convincing herself that she doesn't have the money or time. 15 years of telling her journal that she would go One Day Soon. 15 years of reading books to transport herself because she so longs to be somewhere else (and someone else too).

For 15 years she escaped into distractions (food, exercise, perfectionism, shopping, friends, even her beloved books and magazines) so that she didn't have to admit that she was delaying a dream on purpose.

Delaying a dream on purpose. For fifteen years!?

Who does that?

Of course you must realize that I am that girl. I was (am) the delayer of dreams. And if I have done it, then I'm guessing other folks out there do it too.

It still boggles my mind that I did not leave the country (save a couple trips to Canada) until I was freaking 23 years old!?

You know the weird part about delaying dreams? We create a structure around us that actually prevents us from achieving those dreams we tell everyone we really want.

My anti-dream structure looked on the surface like the practicality of the Not Enough Money story, but the real truth was that I was earning plenty of money during the summers in high school (one summer I earned over $3000!). And I knew that I could travel to Europe on Rick Steve's backpacker's budget. I read his books over and over and over again, imagining each of the quaint old towns: his trip over the Alps into Italy, the small village in Switzerland he favored over Geneva or Zurich, his favorite gelato place in Rome.

My other fave structure was that I didn't have enough time. I was too busy swimming or rowing or coaching swimming or coaching rowing to go abroad.

And the money I earned from being too busy? I certainly didn't do very much productive with it, though I did have a new costume from Wet Seal for every fraternity/sorority theme party in college.

So, I contented myself with dreaming/reading of departures to foreign lands, bought some French perfume to calm my expat longings, and told myself I couldn't do it.

Until delaying the dream became more painful than maintaining the structures I had created.

At age 22 I lived with a couple of NYU students about to graduate. Both were plotting their escapes post-graduation to Spain and Cost Rica. But they had rich parents who would foot the bill so I still let myself tell the Not Enough Money story. Until I realized that I could work while abroad. (I had student loans to pay.)

So I hopped on the internet, posted a profile on an au pair site and within two weeks had a job paying 700 euros a month in Italy! It was happening. I took some of my student loan money, bought my European travel wardrobe (ballet flats, cotton full skirts, an orange trench, a tiny D&G bikini, and colorful polos with my monogram*), and filed for my passport.

In a few months I was opening my green shutters each morning to the olive, jasmine and lemon scents of the Tuscan countryside. It wasn't all European Grand Tour and indeed, I'll write a book about my mis-adventures, but it was utterly transformative just to get there.

Now, some seven years since I last set foot in Italy, I've just bought a ticket to Venice and found myself wondering, "Why haven't I been back?"

I have yearned for the smell of jasmine and the Italian artistry of daily life. I have comforted myself for years with Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun" so many times I've lost count. Her evocative prose simultaneously soothed and stoked the fire of my desire to go back.

Seven years. Seven years?!


What have I been doing? Sure I've traveled a ton (Africa, Hong Kong, cities in the US, Mexico, England and others), but once again, I've been delaying dreams.

I've spent gobs of money on business-building and marketing courses and sometimes bogus coaches. And I've continued to tell myself the story of Not Enough (time/money- you pick). I could have taken three consecutive world tours for a year at a time for all the money I've spent on "continuing education."

What gives?

I could get really mad at myself and get critical about my choices, but I think the lesson here is not to judge my own actions. The lesson is to get curious.

Why would I behave in a way that contradicts my own (perceived) values?

If I say that I value travel and experiences abroad then why do I continuously undermine them by putting my resources elsewhere?

What am I getting out of delaying the dream?

For myself a couple things are going on. I kept telling myself the story of Not Enough (time or money) and placing value on and resources behind this business and growing it. I also find that I more easily spend money on clothing and dining out than on plane tickets. It's a mind thing-  we all have those places where we don't realize how much it all adds up til we add it all up!

As for the structures? Well I really love clothing! And I sometimes let that preference override my desire to do other things (say, fly to Italy on a whim). And I'm really good at maintaining the unconscious behavior pattern of buying clothes whenever but hemming and hawing about travel plans. I also have the erroneous belief that travel is pricey. (It doesn't have to be.) Here are some questions to help you identify why you're delaying long-held dreams and what you can do about it:

First, write down right now the One Thing you have delayed doing or creating. What have you wanted to accomplish but you keep putting off?

Now, using that delayed dream (if you have more than one you can do these exercises with them later), answer these questions.

Ask yourself (and answer with all the bravery and heart you can muster) if you still want that dream.

Does the thought of achieving it still thrill you or is it perhaps an old dream?

If the dream doesn't fit any longer, is something else tugging at your mind and heart? Continue with this exercise using that newer dream.

If the original dream still fits, who will you be when you do bring that dream into reality? What do you believe will be different once you have achieved that dream?

What do you say is standing in the way of you and your dream? List the obstacles here.

What structures have you created to keep you from achieving your dream? (Structures could be routines, relationships, mild addictions, belief systems, health challenges.)

What good things are you getting out of keeping yourself from achieving your dreams? In other words, what is the payoff, what are the benefits of the structures you named above?

What would you need to change in order to prioritize your dream above those structures?

When are you willing to make one of those changes?

Extra Credit: Put your dream in a seat across from you and give it a body- maybe like a person or maybe something else. Talk to your dream. Ask it what it wants from you. Ask it what makes it happy and what makes it sad. Ask it what you need to know to bring your dream into reality.

I have to say that I have created structures of beliefs that I perceived as obstacles to my dreams. I continuously prioritized too expensive apartments, instant gratification (in all kinds of situations), and the "I have to invest in myself" continuing education justification over my love for travel.

And I was getting good things out of those structures: my homes gave me stability as well as a creative and aesthetic outlet. Instant gratification helped me feel important. And continuing education has been satisfying my need for both stability and the desire to grow and learn. But it also was its own form of Not Enough in that I had to keep learning, keep buying because I thought I didn't yet know enough about business or marketing or coaching.

In any case, now that I have identified my own structures (self-created cages people!) and the good things I get from them, I can have compassion for making those choices as opposed to harsh judgment.

And then? I get to dismantle those structures (cages) and make new structures (platforms!) that support my real dreams in a conscious way.

For me this means several things (as we're talking about a lifetime of dream-delaying):

First, I'm getting conscious about money. Money coach Carrie Birgbauer suggests the Money Minder app. I also like the "jars" method that T. Harv Ecker espouses.

I'd like to put my money where my values are: aesthetics yes (clothing! art! furniture!) as well as travel and retirement and taxes :)

Second, I'm noticing the structures I have created that keep me from doing what I say I want to do. For example, I could go to yoga at 12 noon during the work week and I say that I want to do that but continually schedule noon meetings on yoga days. That's a strong priority, especially for someone who creates her own schedule! I could easily just block my schedule and put meetings outside of yoga time.

It's a great example of a simple change that I can make to dismantle my cage.

Third, I'm focusing on completion and easy wins. I have lots of dreams, as no doubt you do too. We really help ourselves out when we rack up some easy wins at the beginning. When embarking on the realization of your dreams, why not go for the one that needs the least amount of re-structuring (read: work) to complete? It will give you a huge boost of momentum.

Whew, this was a long post, and my hope is that you come back to this process as you birth each and every one of your dreams. Where are you going to start?


* Clothing was/is still part of the fabric of my being. Pun intended.