“It is not always sunshine that splits the seed cleaving the armor, releasing the shoot. Darkness makes the heart’s case fragile. Pain breaks it open. Courage teases out the leaves and life unfurls and expands, thrusting upwards into light.”
-Heidi Thomas, Call the Midwife
“My purpose is to create a world in which all people love their lives!”
Judy Ryan, CEO LifeWork Systems
When I was a little girl, I spent the first five years of my life in awe and wonder. I lived with my parents and five siblings on the edge of a huge park and as was common in the 60s, we were allowed to run and play and explore without a lot of supervision. I felt one with nature and life was free and beautiful for me. I had a safe, loving childhood in which my parents were affectionate, did not physically or sexually abuse us children nor did we go hungry. They invested much in us. They were leaders in their church and politics; demonstrating we all have responsibility to help one another. This was good for me and I loved life with great enthusiasm.
What they did not do well is recognize children have inner wisdom and unique callings, nor did they know how to relax or model their own emotional expression. Both of my parents had suffered significant childhood traumas but did not share with vulnerability how they had been hurt nor could they connect with us during emotional experiences without trying to fix, convert, heal or change us. As a highly intuitive child, I could feel many undercurrents of fear and sadness in my parents and siblings, but the face they presented was confidence and polite certainty and righteousness that began to confuse and bewilder me.
At the age of five, I went to kindergarten and I could not have been happier. My experience there was marked with sunshine, story-time, naptime, playtime and my greatest memory is holding hands with other children out on the playground singing a song together, dancing in a circle. I felt blissful. I was full of excitement, joy and was the kind of child that expressed them unbridled with words and energy. I was always in motion and had a strong zest for life and joy. I also explicitly remember asking God, “please don’t let me forget you and my connection to you no matter what.” I think I knew that the love of God and the love of self were at risk even at that very young age.
Then a lot began to change for me. I was put into what felt like a stark, confining private school that had many rules and practices that frightened me. Boys and girls ate and played separately, a teacher could wrap people on the knuckles and scold, but most of all, a dark seriousness about the safety of our souls was a central theme and was directly related to our ability to be compliant with the rules of God and man. A particular memory for me was the Gestapo-like manner in which all students had to show their lunch plates to one of the teachers each day when leaving the lunchroom to ensure we had finished all of our food. This was just one conscious trauma for me that I expressed with stomach aches, fear and my mom coming to my school to take me home all-too-often.
The other thing I began to experience at home was a prevalent intent on the part of my parents to introduce strong dogmatic religious and political views of life and the world at large. My parents were what I now know as relatively extreme thinkers. For example, they held John Birch Society meetings in our home and were deeply involved in causes like pro-life and the notion that Catholics were the one true religion and the only valid way to heaven. Everyone else would be lost to Hell. I remember fearing for my non-Catholic neighbors and friends and being urged to fear and separate from them. This did not make sense to my joyful and loving heart.
To give you one example of how their practices affected me, I was expected to picket abortion clinics and hand out pictures of dead aborted fetuses to those entering abortion clinics that began when I was around 9 years old. This was alarming, frightening and felt intrinsically wrong to me, but I knew I was expected to do this without complaint or doubts or I would be ashamed and less than a good person if I did not stop the ‘murdering of babies.’ In this and much more, when I had questions, opinions and ideas, I was politely and relentlessly provided all the historical, moralistic and other reasons I was wrong and must change my perspective; my ideas were deemed dangerous and naive. I didn’t have the right to question codes, nor were my ideas and concerns sought or entertained as valid or wanted.
These are only a few examples of my parent’s certainty in how I should think and feel in order to be a good person. They were like many others then and today. I don’t single them out as particularly exceptional in any of this. What I know is that this is when a fear and confusion developed in me about my own self-experience and self-trust, which then began to multiply and accumulate. Coupled with regular attempts to stem my open-hearted expressions of authenticity, joy, exhilaration and curiosity not only about the inner workings of everything, but of my own specific internal world, I felt a strange sense of isolation and separation. It felt scary and confusing to me.
Here was my dilemma; I had this amazing sense of safety on one hand, all while coming to feel that if I wanted my parents to love and approve of me and reassure me I was forever safe, I had better mind their priorities for how I should think, act and feel. While I continued to ask questions and could not fully contain my fear and dismay, I thought my very survival required I be complicit in fearing and doubting my own intuition, emotions and thoughts, my personal power and my ability to be a good person without adopting everything they offered. Control, while unintentional, was delivered with a highly intellectual, velvet glove that caused me a personal source of loneliness and fear.
This began a cycle of anxiety and depression in me that confused and disconcerted me and I could find no relief from my parents as they were both the loving and terrifying parts of my experience. Looking back, it is no surprise that by nineteen, I had married a man who was similarly unable to express emotions and was similarly dogmatic in his thoughts with little ability to be curious about me or to validate me as a separate person with my own opinions, feelings and desires. In fact, I later came to realize the dynamics in my marriage mimicked the unhelpful and unhealthy practices and deficits I experienced as a child. This is also when I began to feel guilty that I was so unhappy. I remember trying to share my excruciating experiences and my start with a therapist with an older brother who sternly told me, “You need to get over this! You’re fine and we couldn’t have had a better childhood.” Again, I was alone and out of step, afraid there was something wrong with me.
As the next decade unfolded, my anxiety became so extreme, I became agoraphobic for many months and I had strong fight and flight panic around others as their energy and ways of being directly contradicted the rules of life I had accepted. Eventually I sought therapy that provided me with my first real experiences of an intelligent, caring and safe person who also sought to understand MY experiences, thoughts and feelings and helped me to a large degree by validating that while my parents were well-intended and loved me, they deeply neglected important aspects of me and even feared my very essence when it did not align with their own world views. This helped me feel understood. It also helped alleviate some of my guilt for feeling so unbalanced when I formerly believed I had no justifiable reason to be so. This was the first powerful puzzle in an unfolding picture of my true essence. He also explained to me a recurrent dream I had at that time. Even though I no longer lived there, I dreamed often of being in my childhood home, walking around with no one home. This was eerie and inaccurate as we had eight family members in a 3-bedroom home. He explained that this dream reflected my sense of isolation both intellectually and emotionally. It was true! It was then I began to feel sadness for the sweet, vibrant little child who started out wandering the world with joy, curiosity and wonder.
By the time I was 26 years old, as a good Catholic wife, I already had four children. I now think I desperately wanted to birth and nurture children in ways I had wanted to be nurtured yet I hadn’t known how. I wanted to provide them with the many good things I experienced as a child – physical safety, affection and kindness but I also wanted to give them more, even though I still did not know how to conceptualize what more meant. This is when I began my own search for ways to better understand developing children and how to support the beautiful inner child within each of my babies that ultimately taught me how to support the one within me.
By the time my oldest was four years old, I was seeking information and guidance. That’s when what I believe is a miracle happened to me. I stumbled upon a parenting model using a little-known psychology model based on the work of psychologist Alfred Adler. I delved not only into the amazing, beautiful and essential individuality of all people, and came to learn about the deep longing of all people to experience belonging and significance within specific conditions and communications that I recognized had been missing in my own childhood. This work was the second piece of my personal puzzle and began for me the journey to reclaiming and lovingly guiding my life. Not only did this new way of understanding myself and others give me tremendous hope and clarity, I began to further let go of blaming myself for my anxiety, depression and inability to live and love as I deeply desired. I started to see I made sense and deserved compassion and to heal my childhood even though my neglect and abuse were relatively sublime to the general meaning of these words. I got busy exploring fully what would eventually restore my unique purpose, and my birthright to recognize joy, clarity and possibilities I had been longing for.
Unbeknownst to me, as I learned to parent my children in radically new ways so they were supported to feel empowered, lovable, connected and contributing, I was re-parenting myself too. I learned that helping others feel lovable was not the same as loving them; my parents had demonstrated generosity of giving me love. Helping people feel lovable means witnessing them with deep receptivity; considering their unique beliefs and feelings with curiosity and respect, recognizing its uniqueness and value, and without an agenda to fix, heal, convert or change them. It meant having curiosity for the wisdom innate in all of us and to support greater understanding for how to honor one another.
This distinction has led to my life’s work. Even though I had not yet articulated it, I wanted to rebuild and foster ways to support the empowerment and sense of joyful connection I recalled from my earliest childhood that I now knew could be restored not only to me and my family, but to the larger family within the world. I longed to give and receive the gifts of being witnessed and encouraged so that together with many others, we would become proactive in service to growth and fulfillment and ultimately co-create solutions that honor people and our planet. I was afire!
My story is not intended to be about parenting per se; it is written to illustrate that the vast majority of people have learned, through our very conditioning into community as early as infancy, and for which we continue to propagate it, to learn fear and compliance through the use of coercion and codes that do not always or even often serve the healthy development of people and community. My contribution in my life is about creating conditions in which people all come to understand the deepest needs of all people. In this, each helps to mine the value and wisdom within every person. Each celebrates and supports people with faith in their goodness and by dismantling and replacing specific concepts, processes and tools needed to support the ownership of one’s personal power and ability to use it in service to love and every great purpose.
What happened on a practical level for me is that I began to remove from my parenting as many behaviors as I could identify that had made me and were making my children feel disempowered, unlovable, disconnected and blind to their contributions and the need for them. I now knew to dismantle and replace anything in the way of developing their leadership, identifying their role and encouraging them to engage in enterprises right for them in their own lives and in community. At the same time as I helped them know and express themselves, I helped them see their role in causing effects to others so they could be helpful not only to themselves but to the world at large.
On a practical level this looked like introducing unconventional practices. I taught my family to communicate effectively, to practice emotionally intelligent group dynamics, to transfer responsibility to my children with mentoring and support rather than through domination and control. I recognized and capitalized on learning opportunities and helped them do the same. One example was our weekly family meetings in which we rotated the leadership by all family members from age four and older. Not only did each of us rotate leadership of the meetings, everyone experienced getting strong in both leading and following well in the context of family. I was able to give my children the gift of helping them to explore who they were and to value what they could and wanted to contribute. I learned that an encouraging way of parenting reduced a lot of the negative behavior that occurs in most homes and schools and everywhere else, grounded in inferiority feelings that come about in conventionally upheld group dynamics we collectively largely still hold. I learned that when faced with poor behavior, it is possible to understand and help people of all ages and circumstances, shift out of it without using harsh, punitive, bribing, shaming, coercive, or guilt and fear tactics.
I can’t tell you how alive my heart became! I remember putting unbreakable dishes in a low cabinet, and milk in a small plastic pitcher so my three-year old could set the table and pour milk for everyone. She knew herself as empowered, connected and contributing. I trained my children to be adept at problem-solving rather than giving them answers, for doing the family shopping as a team (after training them in how), managing hundreds of dollars without parents tagging along, so they could experience their power, connection and contributions without enabling, over-protecting or over-influencing their initiative. Most of all, I helped them feel lovable because I learned how to empathize with them and hear their ways of thinking without imposing my own will and ideas on them. This was not easy but I thrilled in helping not only my kids but now adults I began working with, to celebrate their power, unique gifts and creative use of their autonomy.
From this, I had a vision of doing this work for many communities, in churches, schools, businesses or any other group. The power of my own internal recovery of my essence and joy fueled my desire to support the same in others. I began doing this full time in 1998. In 2002, I founded my company Expanding Human Potential, later renamed to LifeWork Systems because I recognized that a system is needed to honor people is what makes life work! I had a real and implementable vision for how personal and professional life could be and determined the gift I would bring in my work was to introduce this to others in sustainable, fully scalable ways.
As soon as I made this decision, strong guidance materialized in me in unexplainable ways and I realized my commitment fueled this clear guidance for my work and its expression. I came to recognize that steps I was inspired to take now and then honored my unique, specific gifts and talents.
I began to take what I had been teaching primarily to parents in the 80s and 90s and package and sell it to leaders in many settings. I remember creating visions such as working with parents, teachers, administrators and students simultaneously so they could experience a common mindset, understanding of common, emotionally intelligent concepts and tools so they would be a macrocosm of my family, learning to work in unity to heal separation, build good citizenship (in adults and children alike) and alleviate negative or disengaged behaviors in powerful, positive and consistent ways.
So as a result, my company did a lot of work in education in the beginning, including two massive, multi-year, multi-school reform projects that impacted the lives of hundreds of men, women and children often functioning within some of the worst conditions a person could face; with at risk families living in neighborhoods of poverty, crime, and deep inequity. For this work, not only did we garner the largest endowment to a for-profit company due to our innovative approaches, we won a Vanguard award for Innovation in service delivery to our city.
I then went on to not only work in every type of corporate, non-profit, education and government setting, I started to envision how to use technology to capture the necessary understanding, implementation and sustainability of what came to be my responsibility-based, values-based culture model and framework. Not only did I want people to understand this model, I had learned and applied so successfully, I wanted them to understand the power of a systems approach that a multitude of disciplines working together and including systems integration so these organizations could become self-reliant in the model I was transferring to them. And it was not just for the senior and midlevel leaders but rather for everyone in the organization; from CEO to front-line staff. This morphed into a digital platform and set of processes that are fully scalable, distributive and sustainable. Finally, my dream to help people create psychologically safe, emotionally intelligent, and operationally thriving businesses and other communities was built and tested.
The outcomes have brought forth a tremendous contrast to what is still unfortunately all too typically happening. For example, the turnover rates and disengagement rates in the many businesses in which my company have worked, have drastically been reduced from over 70% to 20% or less. The academic achievement and graduation rates of students went off the charts even in the direst school and community conditions. Rates of repeat reincarceration in prisons radically drop from 65% rate to 4%. Most importantly, my children know how to live and love their own lives and callings. They are contributing members of the community and continue to carry on the traditions of their childhood experience. They influence their schools and businesses as a result. They are a ripple effect I am proud I was part of supporting. My heart continues to be on fire. Mainly it’s because I see the massive suffering of many people and know in my heart of hearts that it is possible to resolve it. Now the question became, how do I further bring this forth in the world?
Today, my vision is to promote this model to as many people as possible and in partnership with key visionary and influential leaders and change agents. I felt for decades I have been called to keep moving forward not only in the model I love but to build the necessary systems for a time in which they are needed. For me, now is that time. Not only do I personally experience and witness its benefits, my type of culture model is being described in trending articles and books. I have built and tested it and see it is one described by major industry giants as the kind needed to meet the challenges of rapid change, digital transformations, globalization, diversity and inclusion, psychological safety, corporate social responsibility, business and software agility, and many other scenarios in which human behavior must be confident, engaged, collaborative and creative. I also have always known that there is a rising of feminine qualities within the world today and it is reflected in the model I am bringing forward. This article is predominately for women and therefore, I encourage you to take heart in this and look for your place in it.
My experience is that we all deserve the joy and wonder of life. We all need to work to want it, to find it, to choose it and to promote it. That’s why I invite all I meet to join me. This is why I do all I can to live my mission, to create a world in which all people love their lives. You are important to this process. Writing this article has pushed me to claim the importance of my work in all I have done and will continue to do. I have been a faithful servant and contributor to this path in service to honoring individuality and collective community LOVE. I’m proud to share this with you here and hope it inspires you to realize you matter very much! I end this article with the words of Mr. (Fred) Rogers,
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
I implore you to recover all parts of the person you are here to be, so you gain all the hope and joy and awe in people and in the preservation of life, so you together we create the best life possible for all people to live and love!
Why People Hire LifeWork Systems
Business owners, community leaders, and educators hire Lifework Systems because they want the advantages of an extraordinary workplace and recognize a systems approach ensures consistency and sustainability in the transformation process. They know that conscientious employees grow your business and improve your reputation, giving you competitive advantages. We help organizations instill into every person a common language and toolset for how to participate in a responsibility-based Teal workplace. Visit our website at www.lifeworksystems.com, and click the link at the bottom to complete a culture assessment and schedule your first consult to review a report on your feedback, all at no cost. You can also contact Judy Ryan at 314.239.4727 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article will be published in The Women’s Journal in May 2020.