This has been a lifelong dream of mine, and I can’t contain how thrilled I am to share it with all of you, especially those who have been following Rachel’s Nourishing Kitchen for the past six years.
I’m officially the Founder & CEO of my own business! 🙂
Here’s the story of how it all came to be!
I’m the daughter of two teachers turned entrepreneurs.
Growing up, I never saw my parents hate work. I assumed it was normal to enjoy what you did. I saw my mom succeed in the male-dominated field of finance. I saw my parents create their own reality and fall more in love as they got older, after nearly breaking up when I was a little girl.
I believed all of that was possible for me, too.
As a high schooler, I told my counselors I wanted to be a nutritionist, doctor, singer, psychologist and writer. I’ve found a way to combine elements of each of those professions into the work that I do as a speaker, writer and trainer. I’ve overcome my fear of speaking and singing in front of people and now incorporate both into my work.
I took my lifelong interest in health and wellbeing and created my role as Wellness Coordinator in 2007 at a benefits consulting firm. I built up our wellness initiative to be nationally recognized and award-winning and helped our organization and our clients earn recognition as Best Places to Work.
Through my journey, I had several health breakdowns and breakthroughs that led me to do the work I do today, empowering leaders to live and lead more intentionally, so they can thrive in all areas of their lives.
In 2019, I paid attention to the nudges telling me to spread my wings and launch my own business: UNMUTED.
Here’s why I did it and why I believe it’s important for ALL of us to stop silencing ourselves and to live an “unmuted life.”
Unmuting Our Lives
We put so much pressure on ourselves to act like we have it all together, even when we’re struggling underneath.
We live our lives on autopilot, going through the motions and living the life other people expect us to live instead of living on our own terms.
We don’t express what we really want or think or feel because we’re afraid people will think we’re being selfish, too much or not enough.
We silence ourselves, and we hide who we really are. We feel frustrated, unfulfilled and unworthy.
Do you ever feel like that?
I get it. I’ve been there.
For much of my life, I silenced myself, too.
I’ve always been an overachiever, the “good girl.” I only let people see the put-together version of who I was. When I needed help, I kept quiet instead of asking for it because I didn’t want anyone to think I was inadequate or incompetent. I didn’t share my fears or insecurities or pain with people and kept them bottled up inside, like so many of us do. I loved singing and writing but didn’t give myself permission to share them with people because it felt too exposing.
It’s like I was living my life on mute.
Many of us are.
We silence ourselves and struggle with self-doubt and relentless and brutal inner critics. We feel disconnected in our relationships at work and at home. We sacrifice our health and wellbeing in our quest to get ahead. We’ve gotten so used to living our lives based on other people’s expectations that we don’t even know what we want anymore.
We feel checked out and burned out, and we don’t know what to do about it.
Sometimes we have one of those “here’s your sign” moments, those nudges that wake us up and compel us to live differently.
For me, that moment came when I burned out and got mono at the age of 32.
But the sickness was a gift. It made me realize how exhausted, unhappy and unfulfilled I was in my life and how disconnected I was in my relationships.
It was the catalyst I needed to UNMUTE myself and to transform my life, health and relationships.
On the other side of my healing, I found my purpose.
I found a life of freedom, not fear.
A life that is lived by design, not by default.
A life that is full of hope and possibilities.
That’s what I’m here to help you find, too.
It’s time to UNMUTE your life.
Through compelling keynote speeches and inspiring, hands-on workshops, I release possibilities and bring out what’s best in people. I remind people that they are worthy of the full, connected life they want — at work and at home.
Here’s a look at one of my speaker reels 🙂
IMPORTANT: As of March 2019, I will not be posting any new content on this site. I will keep it active, as I know many of the recipes and articles on here are still accessed by and helpful to thousands of people each year!
To connect with me on my new platforms, visit my website, connect with me on LinkedIn, and connect with me on Instagram.
Each of us has experienced some form of social rejection, loneliness or the sense that we don’t belong or fit in. Some of us have to spend quite a bit of time reflecting to remember those moments, while others can recall them immediately. Regardless of what we recall, what we can each recognize is how painful those moments were – and might still be.
The desire to belong and be part of community is something I’ve written about both on here and on my blog for the past five years or so. The topics of community, connection and belonging hit home so deeply with me because of the struggles I’ve had feeling accepted, wanted, invited and included. I have journals going back to elementary school that chronicle the deep sense of sadness I felt as a result of moments of blatant rejection and feeling like I didn’t fit with my peers. This sense of not belonging is something I wrestled with into my early 30s.
When we believe we are uncool, unwanted, timid, uninvited, “too much” or “not enough”, unpopular, soft-spoken or invisible, it’s hard to shift our mindset to believe anything else. We internalize it and assume it’s just who and how we are.
We become what we think.
All of those “un” words and phrases describe how I’ve felt about myself for much of my life, beneath my seemingly confidant facade of accomplishment and achievement. I know I’m not alone. Each of us carries narratives throughout our lives that shape how we see ourselves and how we engage with the world around us. These narratives tell us what we are worthy of, what is possible, how the world sees us, and whether or not we belong.
Few of us stop to question whether the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are true. We don’t pause to consider whether they’re based in reality or simply the product of fear, anxiety or what someone else projected onto us at some point in our lives. We continue to believe them, often to our own detriment.
The belief that we don’t belong or aren’t wanted is more damaging than we might realize.
We are starving for community and craving authentic, meaningful connection. That’s why feeling like we belong is so powerful…and healing.
Though I’ve struggled to feel included and connected for much of my life, I’m grateful for the transformation I’ve experienced over the past two years. Sometimes we have to hit an inflection point before we change. Sometimes truth has to be reflected back to us before we can begin to see ourselves differently and rewrite our narratives, believing that we are worthy of what we want.
This happened for me on my 33rd birthday.
I’m sitting in the living room of a friend’s house. We’re going around the circle sharing stories, and I bring up a story of my infancy. I talk about feeling like I didn’t belong for most of my childhood and about the postpartum depression my mom had after I was born. I wouldn’t latch and ended up colicky and malnourished for several weeks as an infant. I tie that experience and others to the narrative I carry about being “too much” for people and about feeling like I don’t fit in or belong.
As I continue telling the story, I remember saying to my friends, “You know what’s funny? My parents have told me multiple times that they know the day I was conceived.”
One friend pauses, lets my comment sit for a moment, and then smiles and says to me, “Oh, Rachel, you were so wanted.”
In the minutes that follow, everything in me collapses. I start sobbing and crawl up into a ball as I let the weight of her comment pass over me and sink into me. For my whole life, I’ve believed one reality to be true about my place in the world – that I will always have to fight to belong and to prove my worth and value.
But her truth cut through the story I had believed for so long. It offered a new reality.
I was always wanted.
Before I was born, I was wanted.
Over the past two years, as a result of moments like those, I’ve experienced a profound shift in my sense of belonging and connection. Recovering from Epstein-Barr Virus was the catalyst for a great deal of soul-searching, truth-seeking, and internal transformation.
Instead of sitting back and waiting to be found, hoping that other people would invite me into their circles and their journeys, I’ve been putting myself out there, intentionally seeking out people, and believing I am worthy of belonging and connection.
I’ve been invited to speak, write, and think in community with my peers, as we seek to rehumanize work. I feel like my presence is wanted, and not because people feel sorry for me, but because they genuinely believe that who I am contributes something to the greater good.
I used to have pity parties on my birthday because no friends planned things for me. Now, I take ownership and think about what would bring me the most joy and then invite people into that experience with me. I want to be someone who makes other people feel like they belong and are included because I know how painful it is to feel the opposite.
As a result of internalizing some radical candor from a few brave friends, I’ve shifted my perception of what it means to be in relationship with other people. It’s not about simply waiting around for my needs to be met, hoping someone will read my mind and give me what I need. My needs matter, but the world doesn’t revolve around me. I have to get outside of myself and begin to see other people’s needs as equal to my own.
Whether we’re in line at the grocery store, waiting for a coffee at Starbucks, passing a coworker in the hallway at work, out on a date with a friend, or sitting next to a stranger on a plane, we have countless opportunities to connect with people who cross our paths, to make them feel like they belong.
We never know what someone is going through, what kind of day they’re having or whether they feel like they belong or feel invisible. That’s why it’s important for each of us to do what we can to foster connection and make others feel seen, to smile at people and say “hello”, to acknowledge another person’s presence.
To paraphrase the words of Colleen Reilly, connection is not a strategy; it’s a responsibility, one that we are all called to practice. This is not just another program or quick fix for the workplace. It’s a human imperative and something everyone can bring more of into the world.
To connect at all is to risk, but I’m learning more and more each day that the risk is worth taking because of how deeply all of us want to belong.
I was at a leadership retreat last week with a group of my peers from across the country, and we were talking about belonging, connection and connectedness. Given how this has been such a core component of my work, I was excited to explore it with others. We brainstormed different definitions of what it is, and I’ve consolidated that discussion with phrasing I’ve been using:
Connectedness is a universal human need and desire to belong, to feel like we are seen, heard, known and that we matter.
When we experience a sense of belonging and inclusion, we are living in a state of connectedness. We feel grounded, safe, and accepted. We are hardwired for connection and need it to survive and thrive.
It’s our very nature to be connected; it’s a fundamental element of who we are as human beings. We are born as a result of two people physically and emotionally connecting. We are transformed when we deeply connect with ourselves and healed through our connection with other people.
One of the key concepts that emerged from our time together was summarized in this way by Jason Lauritsen:
“Connectedness is the default. We have to remove barriers, not create conditions.”
In our increasingly distracted culture that is full of barriers, consistently and authentically connecting with other people has become a challenge. Even though it’s in our nature, it has become unfamiliar.
In a recent conversation with my dad, we were talking about the dynamic of connection and why it seems to be elusive to people. Many of us have become so accustomed to distance in relationship that when we experience closeness and connection, we run from it. We don’t trust it. As a result, we end up living in a polarizing state – one in which we deeply crave connection yet keep our distance from it for fear of being exposed for our true selves. On the flip side, when we experience prolonged closeness and connection, we feel out of sorts in the midst of distance. We can no longer keep people at arms’ length because we know how healing and fulfilling it is to be in close connection with them.
My church did a sermon series a few months ago, and one of the key concepts from one of the sermons was that community is a discipline. To be in connection with other people requires a certain level of thoughtfulness, intentionally and consistency. The discipline of community requires us to make time for other people when all we feel we have time for is ourselves. It requires us to show up consistently, even if we don’t feel like we are getting anything out of it. Maybe we are simply there in that particular moment to give, not just to get. It asks us to give others permission to be radically candid with us and to reflect back what they see that we might otherwise be blind to and miss. Being in community invites us to enter into and grow through conflict rather than run from it.
All of these actions and ways of connecting require discipline and intentionality.
Discipline is something we do even though we don’t want to in the moment, but eventually, it becomes a joy. When we practice day after day and are willing to risk rejection for the sake of authentic connection, we are transformed and healed and so are the people around us.
As you continue on with your day, see if you can keep these four phrases from the retreat in mind, allowing them to influence each interaction you have as a way to foster deeper connection.
As you consider your own journey with connectedness and belonging, I invite you to reflect on these questions:
What limiting narrative have you carried into adulthood about who you are and whether or not you belong that needs to be “brought to trial” and questioned? What would happen if you believed something else about yourself?
How do your beliefs about yourself interfere with your ability to connect with other people in an authentic way? What masks are you hiding behind to protect yourself that prevent you from connecting?
In what ways have you experienced a sense of belonging / feeling included? How did you contribute to that experience?
How could you become more intentional and disciplined about pouring into community and fostering connection with other people? How could you begin to let people in and take the risk to connect?
If you’re interested in learning more about my speaking and training topics, feel free to send me a message, check out my speaker reel, and connect with me on my blog.
If you liked this article, I invite you to read past articles I’ve written on this topic:
Two years ago, I sat across the desk from a speech language specialist at the Johns Hopkins Voice Center at GBMC. I scheduled an appointment to see him because I had lost my voice yet again and couldn’t figure out why my voice became strained so easily and so frequently. This issue has been ongoing for years – since college – but it happened inconsistently, so I couldn’t pinpoint how to fix it. It kept coming back.
Since I speak for a living, not having my full voice and not knowing whether it would hold up and be strong enough to give a presentation concerned me. To add to that, I had been diagnosed about a decade ago with vocal nodules – hard, rough growths on my vocal cords that prevented me from using my full voice. I feared I was heading down that path once again.
I went through a series of exercises to assess my voice, my breathing, and my tone. At the end of the session, the speech pathologist commented that I have a tendency to push my voice out with my breath, which creates strain and taxes my voice.
Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places, and what he said next was likely insignificant to him but profound to me:
Voice is released, not pushed.
When we’re speaking and singing like babies do, we’re literally releasing air from inside our diaphragm over our vocal cords. That process creates sound. It’s effortless and easy, something we are born doing instinctively, not something we do consciously.
On the other hand, when we push too much breath pressure and force air through the voice box, we can blow out the vocal cords. Pushing our voice is unnatural. It taxes our vocal cords and causes us to experience strain and even loss of voice.
But I knew there was a deeper meaning to his words and that they extended beyond my voice.
Releasing vs. Pushing
For much of my life, I’ve pushed myself, especially academically and professionally. I had natural talents for certain things like writing and creative thinking, but I never rested on my laurels and always did more than was necessary to ensure I’d ace every assignment. Failure wasn’t an option for me. It wasn’t long before I equated working hard and putting in extra effort with being successful.
If something was easy, I assumed it was incomplete. I thought it had to be hard in order to be worthwhile. I was that kid that typed up my notes in the form of a study guide for every test, starting in middle school and running through college. I took perfectly good notes during class but had decided that not overdoing it would result in the unthinkable – something less than perfection. I’ve done the same in my professional life as well, ovedoing it and overdelivering for fear someone would deem my work (or, even worse, me) to be inadequate in some way.
I pushed myself. I wanted to be in control. I made sure I did everything in my power to guarantee success.
As I sat across from the speech pathologist, his words took on new meaning.
I was called to release what was inside of me, not push or force it out.
I’ve since reflected on some of the most meaningful and memorable moments in my life, particularly the ones that I didn’t orchestrate but simply invited in by being open.
During a semester abroad in Spain my junior year of college, my heart had been broken by a guy I liked. I so badly wanted to date him, but he had other plans. When the spring semester started, I noticed a cute guy who was a freshman but wrote him off for being too young. One year later, as I was graduating, I wrote in my journal, “I’ve started hanging out with this guy, Bill Druckenmiller. He’s kind of immature and will probably go home this summer and start dating Autumn.”
Bill and I have been together nearly 13 years and married for almost eight.
On the final day of the DISH award application for WELCOA’s Top Health Promotion Professionals in the U.S., I applied. I was one of over 200 applicants and did it on a whim, not thinking anything would come of it.
After giving an acceptance speech at their conference that spring, I wrote on the last page of my journal, “I will speak at WELCOA’s Summit next year.” I stored the journal in my nightstand and didn’t think twice about what I’d written down.
In the months that followed, people started reaching out to me to do podcast interviews, and last year, some of my stories and words were quoted in three different books.
I’ve been invited on retreats with other thoughts leaders around the country, not because I asked to be but because I was in my lane, doing my thing authentically and passionately, and other people were drawn to me.
When I was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr Virus two years ago, I remember how hopeless I felt leaving the doctor’s office. Now what? How do I get better? I couldn’t force or will my body to recover. I had no answers and no direction.
Within two weeks, I received an email from my nutritionist that was sent out to her entire email list that read, “Still working on my PhD. My very final project is a literature review of Epstein-Barr Virus.”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I immediately reached out to her, hopeful and confident that she could help me heal. She did, and she has since published a book called The EBV Solution that includes my story of recovery.
When we are living in alignment with our calling and are on our path, we don’t have to force opportunities to happen. They will find us and be released into our care, sometimes falling right into our laps.
We have to continue doing the work and keep showing up for what we’re called to do, believing that what is meant for us will not pass by us.
It’s so easy to become distracted by what other people are doing, to become jealous of their opportunities or good fortune. When that happens, we can also feel resentful and bitter and get sucked into a vortex of comparison and feelings of inadequacy.
Why do they get to do that? Why not me? When will I get my shot?
That way of thinking steals our joy and perpetuates a scarcity mindset, something that has been a struggle for me. When we focus on forcing and pushing things, we end up feeling overworked, overextended, exhausted and inauthentic. The focus on what others are doing keeps us from doing our work and making our contribution.
I still get caught in the comparison trap, which is why I feel the need to remind myself, once again, that “voice is released, not pushed.”
A life of peace and purpose is one in which we are released and freed to be ourselves, not forced to push our way through to get what we want. What you release comes from the depths of who you are and is uniquely, inherently, authentically you.
If you’re interested in learning more about my speaking and training topics, feel free to send me a message, check out my speaker reel, and connect with me on my blog.
If you liked this article, I invite you to read past articles I’ve written:
But when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
I met Rosie Ward over a decade before when I was early in my career and intentionally seeking out people who were saying something different than everyone else.
I was drawn to her honesty and authenticity, her willingness to ask challenging questions, and to speak truth into the hard spots. It would be nearly eight years before we’d meet in person after exchanging emails and phone calls, but what really shifted our relationship was an invitation she gave me in the spring of 2017.
Rosie reached out to me because she was getting trained in something called “immunity to change”. Here’s the premise behind it: just like we have a physical immune system that activates to protect us when it is threatened, we also have a psychological immune system that jumps in to protect us when we feel psychologically threatened. We’re often unaware of this mechanism, but it holds us back and prevents us from moving forward in our lives, in our work, and in relationships.
As Rosie and I began working together, we identified an improvement goal or commitment that was meaningful to me at that time:
To trust in myself and confidently and intentionally put myself out there to share my message with the world.
I realized that, although I had much to say and felt compelled to share all that I had experienced, I was holding myself back. I wasn’t showing up fully, even though I was telling other people to do that. Trusting myself is and always has been hard because I’m so prone to being externally defined, allowing others’ judgments of me influence me more than what I think about myself. Though I often present myself as confident, I don’t always feel that way inside.
After identifying my goal of putting myself out there more, Rosie and I explored why it mattered to me. I have a strong desire to make a difference, to live a life that influences other people, and to invest myself in people and causes that will have a lasting impact. I’ve always felt that I’m meant to do something special with my life and know I’m meant to make more of an impact than I currently am. I’ve been given a message of hope and healing to share with people and know that my voice is a powerful force for good. I believe God has given me a unique set of gifts to transform others, and I don’t want to waste them.
We dug a bit deeper, and I had to get honest about what I was doing to move toward my goal or what I was not doing that was sabotaging my goal.
I wasn’t writing or blogging or speaking at conferences as much as I needed and wanted to; I wasn’t putting my message out there. When I did speak, I wasn’t charging what I was worth. I wasn’t seeking opportunities to connect with people who were doing things I wanted to do in order to build my relationships and exposure. I wasn’t seeking partnerships with those people because I feared they would steal my ideas and use them as their own or that they’d do what I wanted to do better than me.
I frequently discounted my value, what I was worth and should charge, and what I can contribute. I would think to myself:
“Who are YOU to speak or write about ‘x’? Others are already doing that. You’re being redundant. It’s already been said before in a similar way. You’re not unique enough.”
It made me uncomfortable to say all of those things aloud, to call out what I was doing to sabotage myself. But what came next was even more difficult, exposing, and vulnerable.
Rosie eased me into peeling back the next layer of the onion and explore the fears and worries I was wrestling with at the time.
What was I so afraid would happen if I stopped doing the things that were holding me back and started doing what I knew I needed to do? This is what I feared would happen if I trusted myself to confidently and intentionally put myself out there to share my message with the world:
I will look selfish. (Enough “Me! Me! Me!”, Rachel.)
I will be disloyal to my employer who’s been really good to me.
I will be irrelevant; someone else will outshine me, and I will be yesterday’s news. What if someone else comes along and I become obsolete? Isn’t someone else already talking about this or writing about this in a way that is more interesting or better than me?
I will fail. I will put myself out there, and no one will receive it or want what I create. No one will ask me to speak or read what I write.
I will be taken advantage of by people. They will steal my ideas and use them as their own or try to pay me less than I’m worth.
I will amount to nothing – I will BE nothing if I cannot create what I was called to create, write what I’m meant to write, say what I’m meant to say.
As difficult as it was to admit my fears, especially ones I deemed to be particularly ugly like the one about people “stealing” my ideas, I felt a sense of relief as I released some of their weight onto paper. It felt a bit less scary to know that I wasn’t alone in my fears but that Rosie was there to carry them with me.
Being honest about our deep fears and worries is an incredibly painful process, but it’s necessary if we want to grow and become more of who we are meant to be.
What followed was one of the most eye-opening aspects of the process. I had to take my fears and turn them into “competing commitments”. In other words, I had to identify what I was committing to doing to avoid experiencing those fears. I turned each fear into a commitment statement:
I am committed to never appearing selfish or egotistical.
I am committed to never appearing disloyal.
I am committed to never being seen as incompetent.
I am committed to never letting someone else shine.
I am committed to always being the best.
I am committed to never risking being rejected or failing.
I am committed to never having others be the “go-to” person, to never being irrelevant.
As I said each one aloud, I was embarrassed by the ridiculousness of those statements and said to Rosie: “I don’t want to commit to those things! That’s not who I want to be. That’s not what I want to be true of my life.”
I had kept those thoughts and fears and judgments spinning around in my head for years but hadn’t ever thought of them in quite that way before. The new perspective began to unlock something in me. I started to realize that how I was showing up wasn’t aligned with who I saw myself to be inside and who I knew I was meant to become.
I wanted to change, but I had a bit more work to do first.
What came next completely undid me and forced me to face a painful belief I had unconsciously carried with me since childhood. We dug deeper to get to the core of why I was holding myself back.
We identified my Big Assumption.
This was the hardest part of the process, to uncover the “big assumption” beneath my fears and behaviors. It took months to come to a conclusion that made my eyes well up with tears, my face burn red, and my lip quiver. It was painful to call out the internalized truths that were at the heart of my competing commitments:
“If I trust in myself and put myself out there, then people won’t accept me, I won’t be ‘enough’ by just being me, and I won’t be good enough to be loved.”
And there it was, staring me back in the face, beckoning me to acknowledge its presence.
I won’t be good enough to be loved.
Who I am is not enough.
For my whole life, I had unconsciously believed that my value and whether I’m worthy of being loved comes from what I do and accomplish, not from who I am. I didn’t believe that who I am was enough or that who I am was what people valued most about me.
My grabbiness and possessiveness came from the assumption that there was only room for one successful person who does what I do and that I have to be “the one” or I won’t have value. I had internalized the belief that, if I’m not the expert or the go-to person, then I’m nothing, no one.
And who would love a nobody?
I was overcome with sadness, as I sat with those thoughts and reflected on what those assumptions meant.
No wonder I had always made it such a priority to be a straight-A student, to win awards and ribbons and trophies, to be impressive.
No wonder I had driven myself to exhaustion and had completely burned out.
I believed that love was on the other side of achievement.
What a shallow and fleeting kind of “love” that is, yet it’s what fueled me.
Admiration and popularity are not the same as love. They’re cheap substitutes for the real thing, stand-ins that will give us temporary satisfaction but always leave us thirsting for more.
We must be more than what we do because if we stop doing, then who the heck are we?
Since then, I’ve been on a reflective journey to get to the truth of who I am regardless of what I do. I still struggle with many of the same fears, but I have moved closer to my goal.
Over the past year, in particular, I have put myself and my message out there on this blog, on LinkedIn, on podcasts, and across the country as I’ve been speaking at conferences reaching thousands of people.
I’m taking on a national role as Director of Wellbeing with our parent company in 2019.
I’ve invested in training to hone the craft of professional speaking.
I’ve befriended other people doing similar work as me, and we are now doing some events together, as collaborators, not competitors.
I’ve been putting myself and my message out there.
I’ve also invested in my relationships and spent more time with people who love me for who I am, not for what I do. I’ve put more time and energy into relationships because I’ve come to realize that they are even more important than anything I achieve.
We must be willing to acknowledge the false beliefs we’ve internalized as truth and how they are sabotaging our growth and forward motion. It is a messy, uncomfortable, vulnerable, and ugly process, but it is also incredibly freeing, transformational and healing.
We won’t arrive at a point in time in which we have no fears or worries (I certainly haven’t), but we can begin to be honest with ourselves about what drives us and what underlies why we do what we do.
We have to be aware of what we are doing to get in our own way before we can change it.
We must be willing to let go of what we think is true of ourselves in order to embrace what is actually true and step into the fullness of who we are called to be.
As you begin a new year, I invite you to experience this process yourself instead of making the traditional New Year’s Resolutions:
Identify an improvement goal that is important to you.
Dig deeper: How are you getting in your own way? What fears and worries are holding you back from reaching that goal?
What lies have you internalized that are underlying your stuckness?
This work isn’t easy, but the growth and transformation you can experience make it worthwhile. Believe that change is possible.
For much of my childhood and young adult years, that’s how I felt.
I’ve kept journals since elementary school, and I’ll never forget one entry from sixth grade around Christmastime: “I was pretty upset today in school because I was the only other girl besides Maureen that didn’t get a present from a classmate. I felt pretty low. I was pretty much unwanted.”
As an introverted kid who went through 12 years of Catholic schooling but wasn’t Catholic, I struggled to feel like I fit in with my peer groups. I was a studious kid who unequivocally followed the rules – like the time I raised my hand in fifth grade to remind the teacher about the quiz she had forgotten to give us that day.
I could feel my classmates’ eyes boring holes into the back of my head as the words stumbled out of my mouth. Kids who do stuff like that to (unintentionally) screw over their classmates don’t tend to be the most popular. People aren’t lining up to hang out with them.
The rejection continued when, in eighth grade, every kid in our class of 27 was invited to a party…except for me and one other unpopular girl.
I couldn’t help but think something was wrong with me.
As a result of experiences like these, the belief that people didn’t want to be my friend, that I didn’t belong, and that I wasn’t “cool” enough to be liked took root in my heart at a young age.
Instead of expressing myself, I chose to mute my needs, feelings and fears.I never let them see how deeply wounded I felt when they excluded me or rejected me.
I just went up to my bedroom and cried and journaled about it.
This is not how we are meant to live.
We are hardwired to connect, to belong, and to be in close community with other people, not to be isolated and alone.
We long to feel seen, heard, known and wanted.
If we are going to connect in meaningful, soul-filling ways, we must be willing to take some risks, to put ourselves and our needs out there, to accept that sometimes we will feel like a burden, and to open ourselves up and be vulnerable. But all of that was hard for me to do.
My fears and insecurities overwhelmed me and held me back from sharing my life with people: “What will they think if they know the real me? Will they like me? Will they want me? Will I be too much?”
I knew how to protect myself more than I knew how to connect.
Getting sick with Epstein-Barr Virus two years ago was the wake-up call I needed to shift my mindset around connection, friendship and community. I was in such a state of neediness and depletion that I had no choice but to reach out, to ask for help, to be vulnerable, to let people into my life. I chose to admit that whatever I was doing wasn’t working and began to reexamine my life, how I was living it, and what really mattered to me.
Little by little, as I took risks and let people in to my life and invested more in their lives, I began to change. As a result of the transformational gift of friendship I have received over the past two years, particularly in the past 12 months, I have become more whole and happier.
I have been surrounded by community in a way I never had been before.
I was finally willing to let my guard down and let people in.
People checked in on me, prayed for me and my health for months, sent me inspirational and encouraging messages and cards, and gave me a few gut-punching doses of radical love. They spoke truth I needed to hear but would have previously rejected or responded to with defensiveness and denial.
I wasn’t doing anything to earn or deserve their attention or affection.
They wanted to love me through a difficult time because that’s what good friends do, and instead of pushing them away, I let them in.
In the book, Bread and Wine, Shauna Niequist speaks to this kind of intentional community:
“We don’t learn to love each other well in the easy moments. Anyone is good company at a cocktail party. But love is born when we misunderstand one another and make it right, when we cry in the kitchen, when we show up uninvited with magazines and granola bars, in an effort to say, I love you.”
There weren’t many “easy moments” last year or this past year, yet my friends did what true friends do – they kept showing up no matter what.
True community doesn’t just rally behind you in tough times; it comes alongside you to celebrate the joyful times, to share in moments that matter.
I’ll never forget how a group of over a dozen friends and a few dozen strangers joined me at Movement Lab in Baltimore to celebrate my 33rd birthday. I decided I wouldn’t feel sorry for myself and wait for people to invite me to something that year; instead, I would invite them to join me for a morning of music, dancing and brunch.
As the celebratory dance class began, my friend, Lola, the instructor, smiled and asked the group, “Does everyone know why we’re here today??”
My friend, Suzie, shouted out, “To celebrate Rachel’s birthday!”
And the dance party began.
We danced our way through 90s pop and hip-hop songs, laughing and smiling and sweating and moving our bodies freely and joyfully.
As the class came to a close, Lola had everyone form a circle and put me in the middle. When the final song played, I drew in friends from the perimeter to join me in the circle. After a few minutes, everyone was dancing around the room; a deep sense of connection, joy and community was palpable.
At the end of class, Lola put me back in the middle and had everyone form a tight circle around me, as they sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
As I stood there looking around the room and into the faces of my friends and strangers who were there to celebrate my life, my eyes welled up with tears of gratitude.
In that moment, I could feel a transformation taking place within me, as the lie that I wasn’t wanted or didn’t fit in loosened its grip and released my heart to receive the gift of love and friendship.
I felt like I belonged.
Being in community does something to our soul; it helps us heal.
In the months and year that followed that special day, my friendships have continued to deepen and grow stronger. I have intentionally invited friends into my life in ways I never had before. As a result, so much has changed, and I have been transformed as a result.
I have opened my eyes to realize that many of them were there all along, but I was so protected and guarded that I didn’t let them in.
Now, I let them into my mess, my fears, my insecurities, my quirks, and my struggles, baring my soul in ways I never had before.
I sit with their often-piercing words of wisdom and truth.
I wrestle with their tough, soul-searching questions.
I reach out to them to schedule phone dates, double dates or girls’ nights.
I ask about their lives.
I pray for and celebrated them.
I show up more consistently and more fully.
I have experienced the transformational power of friendship. I have begun to believe I am worthy of the love and kindness they pour out on me, instead of rejecting it for fear that I am unworthy.
The ways my friends have shown me love over the past year, in particular, have softened my heart and filled me with immense gratitude for how well they know me. Each of us desires to feel like someone knows us, deeply.
My friends know my likes and dislikes and that I cherish handwritten notes.
They know that Bill and I are somewhat obsessed with Escape Rooms and find one in every new city we visit.
That herbal tea is my drink of choice no matter what time of day it is or where we are. (In other words, I’m a permanent DD!)
That I love to dance and that 90s hip-hop and pop music is my jam.
That I will rarely order directly off the menu due to my dietary restrictions and will likely throw a bit of a wrinkle into most homemade dinner plans.
That butterflies and peacocks are my spirit animals.
That I’m a big dreamer but often hold myself back more than anyone else does.
That I wish my relationships with my siblings were stronger.
That I struggle with having a scarcity mindset and can get grabby and possessive about people and ideas and question my unique value.
That I leave very little room for margin and am not always the most responsive to their text messages.
That my head is often in the future imagining what could be, so I need their reminders to come back to the present and justbe.
That I think I have to impress people and accomplish things to be worthy of love.
That I rarely feel like I am enough.
None of this is terribly easy to admit, but when we invest in community and show up consistently, we can more readily drop the shame we feel and be met with grace, compassion and acceptance.
I’ve come to believe I am worthy of being invited, included and known. I realize I have to take initiative, let my guard down and let people in to receive the love people have wanted to give me. I have deeper and more honest friendships now than I ever have before. I’ve gone from feeling lonely and left out to feeling like I belong and that people want me in their lives.
I feel seen, known and like I matter.
The other night, a group of my friends came together to share a meal, laugh about everything from bodily functions to birth stories, and exchange and make Christmas ornaments to commemorate our friendship and all we’ve been through together in the past year.
I felt filled up as I left, and when I got home, I texted them this:
“You ladies have been the best gift of the year for me! I read Shauna Niequist’s book, Bread and Wine, earlier this year. In it, she wrote about a group of friends that she’s known for years and has regular dinners with. She wrote about how much they have been through together and how deeply they know each other. As I read that book, I remember thinking, ‘It would be so neat to have something like that’, and now I feel like I do.”
What a healing gift it is to experience community, to be loved in spite of ourselves, to feel like we belong, and to be challenged to become all that we are meant to be by people who truly know us.
My hope for you is that you believe you, too, are worthy of love, belonging and friendship and that you will experience the joy of community in the year to come.
You are worthy of being known, worthy of being seen, worthy of belonging, and worthy of being loved.
Now, I want to offer you the gift of reflection. Think about friendships in your life (either past friends or current ones):
What friendships are you grateful for this year? Have you let them know how much they mean to you?
How have you shown up for the friends in your life and how they shown up for you?
In what ways have you let fears of unworthiness or rejection dictate your behavior and unwillingness to put yourself out there? What can you do to free yourself from those fears and begin to let people in?
What is one step you can take to be an even better, more intentional friend in the new year?
If you’re interested in reading more posts on the topic of friendship and the power of community, here you go:
For much of my life, I’ve found it easier to be alone and independent than to be in community, rely on people, or be vulnerable about what I need.
I’ve been burned in friendships multiple times, so I’ve put up walls to protect myself, ensuring that I wouldn’t be hurt, excluded or rejected again. Even when I was devastated by social rejection, I kept my pain between myself and the pages of my journals. I didn’t let other people in, and, as a result, I often felt alone.
When you act like you have it all together, you tend to experience distance in relationships and end up in a vicious cycle of rejection and isolation. If people think you’re “fine” all the time, they’re unlikely to check in on you to see how you’re doing, which further isolates you.
That was my reality for years.
Then, I got sick.
Last year, I completely burned out and was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr Virus, an acute form of mono. My immune system was wiped out, and I didn’t know when I would feel better or get my energy back.
I had to be honest about how I had gotten to that point. I had to own the fact that I had let my ambition and career supersede all other aspects of my life, especially my relationships. Relationships with coworkers were rocky. I missed important events with family and friends. I felt deeply disconnected and like I was in a downward spiral, while trying to maintain the perception that I could handle all of it by myself.
A few friends began to see past my facade and gradually broke through, prompting a transformation in me.
They offered me the gift of truth.
Warning: Unsolicited Observation Coming
One day, about a month after my diagnosis, I received a sweet text message from my friend, Cara:
“Thinking of you, Rachel.”
I replied back thanking her and telling her how it had been a rough year. I told her how the virus kept knocking me out but said I was beginning to learn lessons I was too busy to notice or appreciate before.
With a great deal of courage, she replied to me with this:
“I can imagine that’s been rough, especially because you strive to take very good care of your body. I’m sorry it’s been recurring, but I’m glad to hear God is working through the circumstances. [Warning: unsolicited observation coming!]”
I’ve never been in a situation like that before, but I can’t exactly say I was excited to read what followed.
Her message continued:
“I’ve noticed so many of your posts on your blog and LinkedIn and Facebook talk about slowing down and worrying less about achievement, etc., but I feel like you yourself actually rarely slow down. You definitely live life to every inch and every minute possible, always exploring new places and activities and people, but you rarely seem…content? Fulfilled? Pardon me saying so, but my prayer for you is to really truly believe the amazing and wonderful things you share with the rest of us. I have learned so much from you, Rachel!”
I reread her message.
My gut reaction was to get defensive (“I know, I know! I’m working on it!!”).
I had never had someone expose me quite like that before, and it felt uncomfortable, but I did what I knew I had to do in that moment.
I thanked her.
When you’re already knocked down and are brought to a place of humility, it’s somehow easier to hear and receive tough truths.
What courage it took for her to send me those words. How loving it was for her to offer me that truth, a truth I would not have voluntarily sought out but that I desperately needed to face.
Sometimes the truth hurts, but we need to be willing to hear it if we are going to grow.
Since then, I’ve been able to be more honest about how I’m really doing and stepping back to consider what really makes me happy. I had focused so much on achieving and getting ahead – two things I still care about – at the expense of experiences that brought me back to the present like spending time with those I love most. I recognized that work was getting the best of me and everyone else was getting what was left, and I wasn’t content or fulfilled as a result of my priorities.
I’m grateful to have people in my life like Cara who care about me enough to be honest and to speak the truth in love. I’m grateful for her friendship and how much we enjoy just being with each other, sharing our stories, going on walks and laughing together. I’m grateful to have had more moments that matter with people who matter most since that conversation.
Think about It:When we hear truth that hurts, can we be humble and gracious enough to receive it instead of reject it? Can we lower our defenses and be open to growth, even if it’s hard? What is a challenging truth someone has shared with you that you rejected but could see as helpful or supportive of your growth?
Removing Blind Spots
Nearly a year after Cara’s message, I had a conversation with another friend, whom I’ve known for five years. What started as a relaxed, evening catch-up, while our husbands played video games, turned into two hours of the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had.
She challenged me to to face lies I’ve been holding onto about not being loved, wanted or desired. She asked me where those beliefs originated and was puzzled as to why I have believed them for so long, considering how many people around me love me and support me.
What came next rocked me to my core:
“I just don’t know where that comes from. It’s almost like your problems and what you’re going through are a big deal, but other people have stuff going on, too. You’re often so focused on what you’re dealing with that you don’t see it. I don’t want you to hear me say you’re a bad friend because you’re not.
People would do anything for you, Rachel, me included, not because we expect anything in return but because we’re your friends and we love you.
But I bet most people don’t feel the same way about you. It’s like there’s this wall up, ‘I’m really busy. I’ve got a lot going on,’ so people don’t ask you or think you’d be able to help them in their time of need. Their time isn’t any less important than yours. Sometimes it seems like you are very focused on yourself and your own life and what you’re doing that other people may be missed. I don’t want you to hear me say that you’re selfish, but it’s very clear to those around you that you can’t be bothered. I don’t think it’s your fault, just that you’ve been blind to it.”
I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.
It hurt to hear that…badly.
I was a wreck.
I had never had anyone speak to me with such radical candor before, and having what I believed to be my darkness and ugliness exposed was excruciatingly painful. Each of us knows there are parts of ourselves that we hope never see the light of day, that no one ever notices, and that we can deny exist.
But how will we ever grow and change if we keep them in the dark?
Instead of rejecting her words or denying what she said, I stayed with her and listened to what she had to say, even though it pained me to do so. I could hear it because I knew she was speaking out of love…
And that she was right.
I had become so self-absorbed and self-focused that I was blind to my own behavior. More than anything, I needed someone who loved me and knew me to speak into that dark place in my life and expose it for what it was. I needed the truth reflected back to me from someone who knew me, so I could begin the process of changing and growing.
That friend had built up years of relational capital with me, and her bank was pretty full. She had earned the privilege of speaking the truth in love to me because she had demonstrated for years that she loved and cared about me as her friend.
At the end of our conversation, my friend offered me some hope:
“When you recognize there’s an area where you have a blind spot, it’s because it was put there. It’s not you. It can be removed. It will be removed. You’ve been barreling down the highway, not noticing what’s on the periphery. Imagine what will happen when you remove the blind spots.”
I had an emotional hangover the week that followed that conversation, but I could feel a shift begin, as a result of my heightened awareness. I started to be more responsive to friends’ text messages, intentionally planned more friend dates, and dropped off dinners to friends going through a challenging time.
Several months later, that same friend wrote me a note, calling out the heart change she’d witnessed in me since our conversation. Other friends have given me similar feedback. I’m still a work in progress, but I have begun to make changes, little by little.
I’m grateful for the power of tough truths to transform us and for the love and bravery of friends willing to convey them.
Now that I’ve begun transforming my friendships, I know the next step for me is to remove the blind spots I’ve had toward my family relationships, especially my siblings and their kids.
I know it will be a tough journey and that I won’t figure it out overnight, but I’m committed to doing the hard work. I’m committed to checking in and reaching out, anticipating needs without being asked, and being present and listening without trying to fix anyone.
Think about It:Has someone who cares about you ever shared a challenging observation with you about a potential blind spot? How did you respond? If you haven’t had such a conversation, who is one person you could reach out to seek that kind of feedback?
Try this as a conversation starter: “I want to grow and continue to become the best version of myself. Do you notice anything I do, think or say that gets in the way of my growth that I may not be aware of? I welcome your honest opinion because I know you care about me and want what’s best.”
The Healing Power of Truth
While people will encourage us, support us, and listen to us, they will also disappoint us, let us down, and hurt us, and we will do the same to them. Relationships are messy, and people are unpredictable, but all of us need them to thrive and live our best lives
Being in community and in relationship with people means being together as who we really are – sad, broken, joyful and excited.
Being in radical, authentic, transformational relationships requires that we be willing to speak the truth in love for the betterment of another person…and that we have the humility to receive truth when it is offered to us.
I love what visionary leader and author, Ray Dalio, has to say about the role of pain in our lives and think it connects with what I’ve shared today:
Pain + Reflection = Progress.
As hard as it is to sit with the pain and to let difficult truths sink in, when we are willing to receive them and take the time to reflect on them, progress, growth and transformation can follow.
I’d much rather jump on the achievement train and “fix” whatever the pain is, but I’m learning that sitting with it and letting myself feel what I feel, even when it hurts, is part of the process of healing.
Think about It: Are you willing to receive the truth? Who are the truth tellers in your life? If someone has been radically candid with you, how have you transformed as a result of their feedback? What steps do you need to take to continue on that path of growth?
As someone who’s wired to achieve, I’m usually focused on the outcome or impact of whatever I’m doing. I want it to matter. I want it to be significant.
Because of this, I can find myself wishing the process or journey would just hurry up already, so I could arrive at the goal and be rewarded for my efforts. Yet, even when I get there, I rarely do a good job of celebrating what I’ve accomplished. I up the ante and focus on whatever the next mountain is that I want to climb, quickly moving on. I’m often in a state of forward movement and rarely in a state of grateful reflection.
This tendency was challenged this weekend when my husband and I were hiking in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. To give you some context, Adirondack Park is the largest state park within the contiguous U.S., covering about six million acres of land. It’s larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and the Great Smokies National Parks combined. My mom spent her summers in Upstate New York as a child, and it has become my family’s slice of heaven on earth.
My husband and I spend at least a week there each year, and part of each trip includes a hike. This year we opted to climb the 13th highest peak, a 13.4-mile round trip. We always check the weather forecast a few days prior to deciding which day we will hike and try to pick the clearest day, so we can guarantee the best views at the summit.
Many of these hikes can be quite grueling, filled with open rock scrambles and relentlessly steep grades. We’ve climbed dozens of mountains in the region and about ten High Peaks, so we know what to expect. We pack plenty of water and snacks, and enjoy being surrounded by the smell of cedar and the beauty of ponds, evergreens, and views of other mountains along the way.
The ultimate prize is reaching the summit, where we typically eat our lunch, remove our boots and let our scrunched toes breathe, and take in the breath-taking views of the Adirondack Park. No matter how long or difficult the hike is, the summit views are always worth it and the promise of their respite motivates us to keep moving.
When you’re with someone for an entire day and disconnected from technology, as is the case during hikes like these, you end up with hours of time for conversation. As we hiked, my husband, Bill, and I brainstormed ideas for a couples’ communication series we want to bring to our community. We talked about our vision, our experiences, and what we want to teach as a result of what we’ve learned.
In the 12 years we’ve been together, we’ve learned a lot about how to create a psychologically safe space in our relationship for the other person to feel seen, heard, supported and validated. We’ve been taught skills and given tools to help us communicate and connect deeply, authentically and meaningfully. Each of us has been open to growing and becoming more fully ourselves in the process. We’ve chosen to invest in our marriage because we believe it is the bedrock of all good things to come in each of our lives. We believe we have more to offer the world as a unit than either of us ever could individually.
Distracted by our conversation, a couple of miles into the hike we noticed clouds rolling in, as a fog settled in around us on our ascent.
The forecast said partly cloudy and promised to be a pleasant day. What was happening?
As we continued to climb, we stopped at lookout points and glanced behind us, only to be met with more fog and clouds. When we were about a mile or so from the summit, we saw other hikers descending.
“I’m guessing the views at the top are everything I’m hoping they will be?!” I jokingly asked a fellow hiker.
He laughed and smiled, “Oh yeah, you can’t see a thing up there!”
We’d come all that way and were about six miles into the hike, only to find out that we’d been working toward nothing, no views at the top. No prize at the end of the race.
Each time we saw another group of hikers descending, they said the same thing: “No views today. You’re basically in a cloud at the summit.”
There was no turning back at this point. We had no choice but to keep going. Finally, we reached the top, where we had hoped to see beautiful views of the Great Range and find respite from nearly seven miles of hiking.
We found no such thing.
It was windy, chilly, and visibility was zero.
You literally couldn’t see beyond the trees at the top of the mountain down to the side below, much less the vast mountain range we were expecting. It seemed we were floating in the clouds, standing on the precipice of nothingness. We’d never experienced anything like it.
We met a couple from New Jersey at the summit, and all we could do was laugh about the situation. “Well, that was worth it!” we mused. Water droplets clung to our husbands’ facial hair. A faint, grocery-store-type mist filled the air, creating a dampness that none of us could escape. We couldn’t believe our luck in choosing a mountain that was supposed to have such a beautiful view on a day when it was literally sitting in a cloud. We hurried through eating our lunches, eager to descend before any rain came and to escape the windy mist.
Bill and I looked at each other and laughed as we began the four-hour descent down what were now slippery rocks. We were bummed we didn’t get to see the view we were expecting, but we will never forget that hike! We didn’t get the reward we were hoping for at the summit, but we left with a story and a feeling of connection with our fellow hikers, each of whom couldn’t help but laugh about the situation.
The last couple hours of our hike were pretty quiet. By that point, you’re covered in mud, your knees hurt, and your feet are pushed so far to the front of your boots that all you want to do is take them off and sit down.
I took this quiet time as an opportunity to reflect on the day and what we had experienced. I thought to myself:
“What’s the lesson in this?”
I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe everything we do is connected and that we can assign meaning to any situation in our lives. Living life this way is more rewarding than staying in a state of frustration when things don’t go as I planned.
When we finally reached flat ground and emerged from the woods, I could see a glimmer of sunshine breaking through the trees, as the fog began to lift.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
In that moment, I could have chosen to view the entire day as a disappointment. After all, it was the only hike we had planned for the long weekend, and we couldn’t see anything by the time we reached the summit. It was chilly, wet, damp, and we were covered in mud as we finished out the hike.
Because of my focus on outcomes and achievement, I was inclined to see the whole day as a wash.
But it wasn’t.
If I was only focusing on the goal of having views at the summit as a reason for hiking that day, I would have missed out on everything else. I would have overlooked the joy in the journey – one-on-one time with my husband, brainstorming about our vision for the future, laughing and connecting with all of the other hikers, the surreal feeling of sitting in the clouds, our bodies’ ability to hike for nearly eight hours and almost 14 miles, the fact that we climbed the 13th highest mountain in the Adirondack Park, the feeling of accomplishment and relief that awaited us when we finally got back to our car and removed our boots and socks.
The day was full of joy and special time with the person I love most.
If we’re honest, only small slivers of our lives are characterized by mountaintops and spectacular summit views. When we experience these magical moments, we feel alive and accomplished and proud. I’m grateful for all of the mountaintops and summits in my life.
But I’m also grateful for the muddy boots, switchbacks, and all that comes with the hike to the top. The reality is, we spend most of our days putting in the miles, dealing with unpredictable circumstances, connecting with other people over shared experiences, dreaming about what could be, laughing at the unexpected, persisting when we don’t feel motivated, and getting a bit muddy along the way. Life is the climb, full of twists and turns, steep ascents and slippery descents.
Life is made up of millions of moments, many that are seemingly insignificant.
If we only appreciate the summits, then we’ll miss out on the joy of the journey to get there.
Bill and I have hiked dozens of mountains together, but I know this one will stand out as one of the most memorable. We’ll look back on this and think, “Remember that day when we were standing in the clouds? What a weird hike!”
Although we didn’t experience the views at the summit that we were hoping for, we were given this beautiful gift as the clouds lifted and we emerged from the trail.
As hard as it is to pause and appreciate the journey en route to our destination, I encourage you to try it. It’s still hard for me to do, because I’m so future-focused, but I know this weekend was a lesson in finding joy in the process and being okay with an unexpected outcome.
Reflect on the progress you’ve made in any area of your life or work. What would happen if you focused more on the journey and less on the outcome? Think back to five years ago:
Where were you then (in your career, your relationships, your health)?
What has the journey from then until now taught you? How have you grown? What have you learned?
Who has been on the journey with you, encouraging you, laughing with you, supporting you?
What summits have you celebrated along the way?
How have difficult circumstances or unexpected bumps in the road ultimately led to at least one good thing in your life?
If we’re willing to ask ourselves what the lesson is in whatever we’re going through, life will be a lot less frustrating and a lot more rewarding.
Try to shift your mindset from focusing exclusively on outcomes and accomplishments. Instead, intentionally look for meaning in the mundane and joy in the journey.
For more stories like this one about taking a refreshing perspective on life and work, check out some of my previous stories:
Imagine if Whole Foods and just about every natural food store you know of had a trade show and you got to sample something from every vendor.
That’s pretty much what happens at the Natural Products Expo each year, and it’s like trick-or-treating for food nerds like me. Thousands of health practitioners, retailers, wholesalers, press, and bloggers come from all over North America and even beyond to get the scoop on the latest trends in the natural products industry. The show just so happens to be held in Baltimore, my hometown, so I have a 25 minute drive to get from my driveway to the expo.
As a blogger who writes about these products, I have the opportunity to attend each year, and it’s always one of the highlights of my fall. I share what I find with all of you and often sample and feature these products in the workshops and cooking demonstrations I teach at companies. As many of you know, I have a gluten-free, dairy-free focus in my food choices because of what I’ve found makes my body feel its best. Expo is a great place to go to find out what’s coming soon, so I can fill you in ASAP. I had fun hanging out with Elyza Dolby and Colleen Howell. Expo is even better when you go with friends!
Each year, I notice a few trends that tend to characterize the expo, and I bring them back to you to make your life easier, better and more delicious. I focus on dairy-free and gluten-free options as well as upgrades to on the go meal and snack foods and some supplements and herbal remedies worth considering!
*Friends, I want to offer this one caveat before I share my updates and trends with you. Regardless of what the trends are, I still focus my eating around my whole foods – mostly plant-based, full of colors, packed with nourishing fats, protein and fiber.To learn more about what matters most to me and what my personal food philosophy is, I’ve got you covered here.*
**If you want to know where these products are sold near you, go to the product’s website and look for the “Store Locator” or “Find Me Near You” page on their site and search by zip code.
RNK’s Top Expo East Trends & Finds
On-the-go nourishment is getting easier and more delicious.
I’ve written before about my top tips for eating healthy on the go, and I’m excited to see so many companies finding ways to prioritize both food quality and convenience. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner on the go, it’s easier than ever to eat well, even when you’re busy.
Some of my favorite newbies to the scene are Purely Elizabeth oatmeal cups(less than 5 grams of sugar per container, which is wayyyy less than most on the go oats),Sprout Living drinkable oats (try the spice or mocha flavors!), Wildscape frozen meals (which are made with totally real food ingredients – they have one gluten-free and one vegan option),Grainful meals, and Path of Life frozen sides.
I was also excited to see the team from Swapples, one of our on-the-go breakfast staples, at Expo for the first time! We love their grain-free frozen waffles. They also won Best of Show at Expo East by Veg World Magazine! Congrats, Rebecca and team! 🙂
New snack bars are aiming for lower sugar.
I aim for a single digit sugar content in the bars that I buy, and the new ones coming to market fit the bill (or are like 1 gram off!). I’ve written previously about my top real food snack bars in this post, including what I look for in a bar (protein + fiber + low sugar), but I’ll need to update it with some new options from this year. Because I travel so much, I don’t always have the opportunity for a full sit-down meal, so sometimes snacking on a bar is my best option. (Hummus and veggies and trail mixes definitely work, too!)
Whether it was in a zesty thai mushroom jerky or immune-boosting tinctures, teas, and hot chocolate mixes, mushrooms are in, and for good reason. I’ve written about the anti-cancer, immune-supportive properties of mushrooms in this GBOMBS post.
Whether it was a chickpea patty, hummus, chocolate-covered roasted chickpea or crunchy sriracha fava beans, beans showed up in droves this year. Beans have always been popular in the natural food community because of their high fiber and protein content, but it’s been fun to watch how the food industry has made them cool.
Here are some of my favorite bean-based products from Cedar’s Za’atar hummus, Enlightened roasted fava beans (soon to be rebranded as “Bada Bean”), Hempe chickpea tempeh patties, and Hodo ready-to-eat Moroccan-spiced tofu bites (good enough to convert any tofu hater).
Dairy-free cheeses have come a loooong way.
When I found out that dairy was a trigger for a range of health issues for me – from bloating and reflux to bronchitis and ear infections – I removed it from my diet and felt better within weeks. Since then, I’ve tried a variety of options for dairy-free yogurts, cheeses, chocolate, milks, ice cream, and other dairy-based products and have found some options that I really enjoy. For now, I’m just going to focus on the cheeses because, let’s be honest, they’re the hardest thing to change when going dairy-free.
A few cheese brands and products I love are Parmela Creamery (their nacho nutcheese is amaaaazing), Miyokos‘ Cheers to Cheddah (Wispride spreadable cheese fans, anyone?), and Treeline Cheese’s new Maple Walnut flavor coming out this fall.
Dairy-free milks and creamers are leveling up.
Next to cheese, I find that milk and coffee creamers are one of the things people really struggle to go without when eliminating dairy. Fortunately, there are so many options that will not make you feel the least bit deprived!
A few of my favorites are Oatly oat-based milk, Milkadamia macadamia nut-based milks and creamers, nutpods dairy-free coffee and tea creamers and Know Brainer‘s ketogenic (to learn more about keto, read this) creamers. Forager Project is rebranding their products with a green label, so be on the lookout for their yogurts and nut milks. Their full fat yogurts are also delicious!
Gut-friendly foods are everywhere.
From sauerkrauts and kombucha to apple cider vinegar drinks, gut-friendly foods continue to surge, which has been a trend for the past few years. More and more people are focusing on improving digestive health, and with good reason. I’ve written previously about my top ten tips for optimizing gut health in this blog post.
My favorite local purveyor of fermented foods is still Hex Ferments in Baltimore, but if you’re outside of this area, try one of the brands above.
Purity of ingredients is paramount.
When it comes to packaged foods, it’s often easier to sacrifice purity of ingredients in order to optimize flavor or preservation. That’s why I’m excited to see so many companies committed to ingredient quality and simplicity. The shorter the ingredient list and the more easily I’m able to pronounce the ingredients, the more likely I am to buy it.
A few of my favorite finds in this category were Primal Kitchen’s ketchup, Jilz gluten-free crackers (holy cow, these were amazing and would be delicious with the hummus or cheeses mentioned above), Cappello’s gluten-free sweet potato gnocchi (omg), and Wildscape and Grainful frozen meals.
Chocolate is getting even better.
You know that shellac that you usually see on chocolate-coated candies? You won’t find it on Hu Kitchen’s new chocolate-dipped cashews and goji berry bites. These were two of my favorite new products at the expo this year. The tartness of the goldenberries combined with the richness and bite of dark chocolate were a killer combo. They should be in stores by Q1 2019.
Some of my favorite chocolate treats were Eating Evolved chocolates, Theo turmeric spice chocolate bar, Hu chocolate-covered hunks, and Better Bites chocolate covered cookie dough bites (these are definitely a special treat!). For a full round-up of my favorite dairy-free chocolate bars, check out this post.
Monk fruit is the new stevia.
Artificial sweeteners often get a lot of flack because of their negative side effects. One of the benefits of the evolving natural products industry is that we are finding better options to things like equal and sweet and low. Monk fruit as a natural, zero-calorie sweetener with a glycemic index of 0, so it’s suitable for diabetics. It’s about 300 times sweeter than sugar. To learn more about monk fruit and other natural sweeteners that I recommend, read this post.
You can find monk fruit in evohemp and Primal Kitchen’s bars, Lakanto’s chocolate and a variety of other products. There were too many to name, but you will start noticing this sweetener shift in 2019!
Okay….and ONE MORE bonus one because I can’t help myself…
Supplements can be fun and not feel like a chore.
With gummies, sprays, and lozenge-style options, taking supplements doesn’t have to mean pill boxes full of tough-to-swallow horse pills. When I discovered I was clinically malnourished, I had to start supplementing to replenish what was lost. My body wasn’t able to properly break down nutrients because I’d been taking stomach acid blockers for a decade, so I turned to easy to digest supplements from the brand Nutrametrix.
While that may not be everyone’s situation, there are still some great options if you are looking for ways to make taking supplements more palatable. For those of you who are vegan, there is a high likelihood you will need to supplement with B-vitamins, especially B-12, so talk to your doctor about that. Many people are supplementing with turmeric these days because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Both B-12 and turmeric are now available in a fun and tasty gummy from Mega Food. Make sure your turmeric is combined with black pepper on the supplement label to optimize absorption.
If you are looking to boost your immune system, Beekeeper’s Naturals propolis throat spray is one of the top sellers on Amazon and a product I have used myself. They just introduced a NEW version for kids, so check them out on Amazon.
Here are a few other trends I spotted that I haven’t found to be relevant to me but were really popular at expo, so I wanted to share them with you:
CBD oil is in everything. From water and honey to gummies and supplements. So, What is CBD Oil? Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the chemical compounds found in the marijuana plant that is known to calm the nervous system, among other things. It showed up at every turn at this year’s expo and is legal to consume in Maryland and in other states. This meant that there were some more out there products on display, like hemp water, which looks to be a really good way to intake the beneficial chemicals and nutrients from cannabis and CBD without the hassle, to name just one. After all, there are loads of ways that people take CBD and there are loads of reasons to why people take it. For example, you could check out something like these cbd sleep drops, which are obviously there to help you sleep. It can be used to calm you down, soothe pain and has many other benefits to some people. If you would rather not take sleep drops then there are many other alternatives that you could take a look at, as the most important thing is finding the thing that works best for you. So this might mean that you buy cbd gummies or something completely different. It’s just up to you though.
Which is why it is becoming increasingly popular for people. To learn more about CBD oil’s benefits and uses, click here.
Natural sleep aids are on the rise. It’s no secret that many of us struggle to get a good night’s sleep, which is why natural sleep aids are popping up everywhere from Som Sleep drinks to supplements.
If you’re not already hanging out with me over on Instagram, check out my page here. I share all of the latest and greatest food finds, recipes, blog posts and inspiration on that platform, and I’d love to connect with you!
From pumpkin spice lattes and pumpkin bread to those cute little pumpkin-shaped mellocreme candies from Brachs, pumpkins seem to be popping up everywhere as we approach fall.
I love pumpkin because of how versatile it is. You can sweeten it in smoothies, breads, muffins, pies, cheesecakes, cupcakes, and even pancakes. You can also make it savory and roast it with fresh herbs or blend it into soul satisfying soups.
Aside from being able to morph into just about any kind of recipe you can imagine, pumpkin is also loaded with nutrients that support our immunity, digestion and beauty. Pumpkin is awesome because, it’s…
Loaded with vitamin C, an anti-inflammatory antioxidant that supports our immune health.
High in fill-you-up fiber, which keeps us “regular” (this is a good thing!) and keeps us feeling satisfied for hours. A one-cup serving of winter squash like pumpkin has about 1/4 of your daily recommended fiber intake. Considering fewer than 5% of Americans eat enough fiber, this is a big advantage!
Excellent source of beta-carotene – a potent antioxidant and cancer-fighter that also happens to be good for our eyes and skin health
Yet, we can get so caught up in our own lives that we miss opportunities to connect with other human beings in a meaningful, authentic way. All of us have things to do and hate to think we’ve wasted any of our precious time.
After speaking at a conference in Vegas earlier this year, I prepared for a long day of travel back to the East Coast. The first leg of my trip brought me to Denver for a brief layover before the final three hours back to Baltimore. On the full flight to Denver, I sat at a window seat, and a middle-aged man in glasses sat between me and the aisle passenger who was en route to Albany, New York, my mother’s hometown.
I noticed he didn’t have much regard for personal space and was a bit more in my bubble than I would’ve preferred, but I didn’t let it get to me. After he ordered two screwdrivers on an empty stomach for a 90-minute flight, I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect, but we ended up having a lovely conversation.
He told me about his concerns about his daughter going away to college next year to play soccer and shared his fears around her safety and wellbeing. She grew up in a protected and guarded environment and hasn’t learned how to cook or do her laundry, even though he and his wife love to cook and his wife used to own a cleaning company. But she’s a smart girl, a talented athlete, he assured me; she has a good head on her shoulders and strong values.
He talked about his wife and how he doesn’t deserve her. He told me how fantastic she is and how she takes care of their grandson, cleans and landscapes her son’s home, and shares his joy of food and cooking. He said he doesn’t know how his kids turned out as well as they did, despite how much he messed up as a dad. He said they are who they are in spite of him. He shared that his wife owned her own cleaning business and recently retired. He talked about his kids and his grandchildren. His 2-year-old grandson, Albert, that he couldn’t wait to see upon his arrival in Denver.
I could sense his discomfort with seriousness and authentic emotion, as he frequently made side remarks that seemed to be a cover for his discomfort with talking about deeper, personal topics.
I told him about my work, my family, nieces and nephews, journey with overdoing it. He asked me where my overachieving comes from. I told him I’m afraid of being worthless or being nothing and knew how ridiculous it sounded. “You are smart and communicate well. You’ll be fine.” He said I should have three kids and make it my mission to have a significant impact on their lives as my legacy. We’ll see about the three kiddos part, though the idea of having my legacy run through my family was one that resonated.
We landed in Denver and deplaned. I waited for him at the gate to shake his hand and say goodbye. He insisted on giving me a hug, and with that, we went our separate ways.
I had other things I could have been doing on that flight. I had emails to respond to, books I could have been reading, and conference summaries I could have been writing.
But the stranger next to me wanted to engage, to connect, and to be seen, and fortunately, for that 90-minute flight, I was willing to connect.
What would have happened if I hadn’t let myself be “bothered”?
Very likely, nothing significant would have changed in either of our lives as a result of not connecting, but why not take a moment to have a shared experience with another human being if it’s possible to do so?
I was grateful for my time with the stranger on the plane, and I’m glad I was able to get over some of my initial judgments of him and connect over conversation.
As I boarded my connecting flight to my final destination of Baltimore, I saw two empty seats near the front of the plane next to grey-haired woman with glasses wearing a red fleece jacket. I scooted by her to sit at the window seat, and we started talking almost immediately, hoping it would deter someone from sitting between us.
She was quite chatty and so full of life that I couldn’t help but engage with her. Her name was Valerie, and she was flying to Baltimore to visit her daughter and grandchildren in Fredericksburg. She told me she had always been “a religious person” but had a one-night stand that ended up in pregnancy. Not knowing what else to do, she married the father and ended up in an abusive relationship that she ultimately left. Out of it came a blessing – three children that she clearly adores.
She lost her fortune in the 2008 economic recession and has been living modestly ever since. She suffers from a great deal of pain due to numerous injuries and accidents throughout her life and spends 90 minutes moving each morning so she can feel good enough to engage in the day. She said her mind is still very active, but her body is a bit limited because of the amount of pain she experiences on a daily basis. Nevertheless, she has maintained an optimistic attitude:
“I can either sit around and wallow in my pain and do nothing, or I can go out and do things and hopefully forget about the pain!”
A retired graphic designer and associate professor, Valerie is nearly 70 years old. “I got my second Master’s degree when I was 50,” she told me proudly. As a young girl, she always loved coloring, but there was a boy in one of her classes who was so artistically talented that she didn’t feel like she measured up, so she dropped art and didn’t pick it up again until her mid-50s.
With a passion for learning, she took up painting – acrylic and digital – about 15 years ago. Painting is now a source of great joy for her. She paints scenery inspired by the vegetation, landscape, cafes, wine and coffee, and people of her hometown in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
I asked her if she had any pictures of her artwork, and she excitedly pulled out her phone to show me. One, in particular, was of a scene from her favorite cafe, Bakery by the Lake at Parkside.
She showed me pictures of digital artwork she created of horses and dogs and friends. One was a painting she created of her friend, who is nearly blind, that was a rendering of a photograph from a trip he took to Italy. She included his wife and seeing eye dog in the picture and when he saw the picture through whatever limited vision remains, he wept. She touches people with her paintings, bringing them to life on the canvas and giving them a sense of belonging.
Her blue eyes sparkled, as she continued sharing more of her story and life with me.
She told me about her best friend, Andy, who is nearly two decades her junior but whom she delights in and vice versa. He told her he thinks one of the reasons they met was for her to show him what it was like to be young.
She loves spending time with her friends at coffee shops where they are regular patrons, and being with her sweet little granddaughter, Alexandra.
“’Simplify and laugh every day,’ that’s my motto,” she told me as she smiled playfully.
Valerie asked me what I do and I told her I help rehumanize the workplace with compassion, gratitude, caring, and kindness. Her face lit up. “What a wonderful thing to do! Your work is so needed in our country right now. People are so unkind to each other.”
As our plane made its final descent, she thanked me for listening and for taking so much time to look at the pictures of her family, hometown and paintings. She apologized for being a bother and keeping me from other things I could be doing.
As I write this, it saddens me that we feel like we have to apologize for “wasting” people’s time when all we are trying to do is connect with another human being, to be seen, to be heard, to feel like we matter.
It’s like each of us is still five years old, hoping mom or dad will notice what we’ve created, built, drawn, or painted and tell us it’s beautiful and that we are important. We are hardwired to connect and we long to be seen.
So many people feel alone and like no one really cares about what they think or feel or have to say. So they don’t “bother” people to have conversations and instead keep their earbuds in, their heads down, and watch yet another movie on their phone.
Sometimes, our fear of rejection overrides our deep longing for connection.
Perhaps all of us could be a bit more selfless and not be so quick to try to protect ourselves from conversations with strangers. It has become entirely too common to outright ignore people in our increasingly digital age.
Even if the person seems to be a bit of a jerk, why not give them a chance? I’ve found that the most disgruntled and unkind people are the ones who need love and attention the most but are too stubborn or hurt to ask for it.
You might be the onlyperson who makes them feel heard all day.
You might be the only person who truly sees them.
You might be the only person who makes them feel like they matter.
The next time you’re on a plane, on the train, in line at the store or standing in an elevator and you have an opportunity to interact with another human being, let it happen.
Take your ear buds out and put your phone down. Notice the people around you. Initiate connection.
All of us deeply long to be seen, heard and valued. We want to feel like we belong, like we matter, like we are worth talking to and interacting with, like we have something worthwhile to say.
Think about what you can do to be more intentional in your interactions.
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