ABOUT TODAY’S GUEST | DR. KELLY FLANAGAN
Q&A WITH DR. KELLY FLANAGAN
Q: Give us a little bit of your personal background to start.
- I grew up in a small town in Illinois called Dixon.It was Ronald Reagan’s boyhood hometown. I went off to the University of Illinois for undergrad. I did Psychology. I went on to Penn State for graduate school in Psychology. On my very first day at Penn State, I met this lovely woman called Kelly. She wrote home to her mom and said, hey, I just met this great guy, his name’s Kelly. It can never work out. It worked out. We got married in graduate school. We had our first son in graduate school in 2003. We went on to have two more kids. Our firstborn is now 19 years old, living off Chicago, and chasing his dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. A couple of years ago, we moved back to Dixon.
- I went through an incredible process starting in 2012. I was a practicing Clinical Psychologist. I asked myself what are the things that I’m passionate about doing that I have never done? Writing was one of them.I started to blog. My first blog post “Marriage Is For Losers” went viral. Then, I started writing letters to my daughter on my blog. One of them went so viral she and I ended up on the Today Show. I got connected with a great agent and wrote my first book titled Loveable. I wrote a second non-fiction book, True Companions, and then I published my first novel something I deep down wanted to do probably since I was a little boy.
Q: How did you get to write this book (after Loveable and True Companions)?
- True Companions was the first book of a two-book contract with my publisher. The contract said before this first book comes out you need to pitch your second book.
- I had this image of a bridge about this mid-life passage we go through where we go from doing the same old things and getting the same old results to sort of facing the fact that we’ve to make changes if we want new results. We have to cross this passage in mid-life, this bridge.
- I always wanted to write a book about the Beatitudes from the Bible. These eight great spiritual teachings. Maybe the Beatitudes could be the ideas that walk us across this mid-life bridge.
- I decided that I could choose a lost loved one from my past to represent each of those beatitudes. The book could become a dialogue between me and my loved ones. In the course of that dialogue could walk me across that mid-life bridge to a new way of living, new sets of values, and a new perspective on life.
- We pitched that as a non-fiction book to the publisher and they said wouldn’t it be better as a fictional book, which ironically is all I wanted to do. It terrified me and I thought let me pitch it again as non-fiction. I did it the second time and again they said, this would be better for fiction. Elijah started to arise from that initial concept and seven months later, we had a first draft.
Q: How much of it is based on your personal experience?
- 95% of it is entirely fabricated. The themes are real human themes I wrestle with, but the events themselves are completely fabricated. The setting of Bradford’s Ferry, in which he goes back to his hometown, is very much inspired by my little hometown of Dixon, Illinois. Dixon was originally called Dixon’s Ferry. The river that runs through Dixon is the Rock River, not the Sakenauk River, but there’s a lot of overlap there in the setting for sure.
Q: One of the recurring themes in the book is the idea that our past is behind us, but it is also within us. Can you unpack that a little bit?
- As a Clinical Psychologist, I’ve seen it in my clients for years. It is that urge to bypass our past on the way to something new. It manifests this belief that the past is behind us. What’s the point of dealing with the past?
- My answer to that is yes, the past is behind us, but if you pay closer attention, you notice it is also within us. One of the clearest examples of this I often give in my work with couples is that moment of interaction with your spouse where you start to feel yourself start to tighten up. I tell folks that’s actually your past pushing its way into the present.
- What’s happening is you’re thinking. Ooh, I don’t like what I am going to feel. This is going to hurt. This isn’t going to feel good.I don’t want to feel that. So I need to defend myself.
- When you trace the origins of that moment, we discover it always goes back to the past. So one of the things I commonly share with couples is that moment becomes the critical moment in the process of healing and increasing intimacy. If at that moment instead of defending ourselves or blaming our partner, we can tell a story about the thing I’m trying to prevent and how that’s connected to my past and my story, all of a sudden, we use that moment as a bridge to intimacy rather than that moment of conflict, defensiveness, and blame.
- I actually see the past as this powerful tool for connecting. Not something we want to skim over to get to some future that doesn’t take that into consideration
Q: Let’s talk about the main character in the book: Elijah Campbell. His friends call him Eli (pronounced like “Ellie”). Eli has a well-established habit of self-hiding. Tell us how this manifests in his life.
- Halfway through the book,you discover a traumatic moment Ellie went through and established the rule of hiding in his family, that loyalty is hiding, love is hiding. An implicit message is sent around that dynamic. He learned through his family that when you love somebody, what you do is hide all the unpleasant things. So you don’t risk a rift in the relationship.
- One of the things I wanted to demonstrate with Ellie, through his character was hiding isn’t this Machiavellian thing like, I’m going to scheme and connive to keep myself hidden. Oftentimes, it’s done with a very sincere heart. I don’t want to hurt you with what’s going on inside of me. I don’t want to damage the relationship based on what’s going on. I’m afraid of how you will respond if I share this and I don’t know how I’ll respond to you if you respond in that way.
- Ultimately, Ellie decided his purpose in life is to give to his wife everything she has ever wanted and he has to hide things to make that happen. The finances aren’t working out as well as he’s suggesting. He’s doing it with the best of intentions.
- One of the things I want readers to come away with is some grace for themselves and their own hiding. We all do this. And a lot of times, we’re doing it from a very good place. But it puts a ceiling on the level of connections, intimacy, closeness, and authenticity we can have in a relationship. We want to raise that ceiling now.
Q: There is a quote that I starred in the book that I think relates here that says, “our hurt begets hurt and our flaws beget flaws because no one has taken the time to talk to us about them. To look at them. To turn them over and study them. To become familiar enough with them that we might actually come to have a choice about them.” Can you expound upon that concept a little bit?
- It’s based on a quote attributed to Victor Frankl. The idea is that “between stimulus and response is just the smallest of spaces. In that space is our freedom to choose.”
- That tends to be the case in the world when we think stimulus and response are inevitable. They are back-to-back. No space in between.
- But what we discover is if we can bring awareness to those places where we’re triggered and our response to those triggers, we can wedge that space between stimulus and response just a little bit and if we get a little bit of daylight in there, now we have got a choice about how we want to respond.
- When I say our hurt begets hurt and flaws beget flaws, this might be an overgeneralization that most of our adulthood is our method of coping with our pain of childhood. When we slow down and connect with somebody around these things, we just get the freedom of that awareness and choice.
Q: This is one of those things that’s way easier said than done. What advice do you give to people that have a tendency to react to things rather than respond?
- Kelly relates a story here … A couple of winters ago, I was in my driveway on a winter afternoon. We’d just got more firewood delivered and were trying to get it stacked before it got dark. I asked my two boys to come and help me with it and they gladly did it. We got pretty close to wrapping up and they said, hey Dad, can we go inside now? I said, yeah sure thanks for your help I appreciate it.
- They go inside. I start to notice things over the next few minutes. I’m getting angry at them, but they went inside and I’m out here alone and it’s starting to get dark. The timeframe is getting tight. I told them to go in. so I can’t even justify the anger.
- A little bit of awareness starts to come in. This is all me. What’s going on? The use of the body can be powerful where are you noticing the feeling?? It’s right here in my chest.
- The first thing we do is try to resist that feeling. Instead of resisting the feeling, we want to approach it.
- What are the practical ways we can approach it? One is to begin to take small, deep breaths and when there’s a small rhythm going, actually seek to breathe into and around what feeling do I notice. In there with the anger is some sadness. I feel lonely out here right now. Does this lonely feeling equate to anything in your story? Was there a time when you maybe felt this?
- I had this memory. I remember there was this blizzard. I’m out in the driveway alone and the rest of my family is in the house. I’m feeling so lonely and hurt and taken advantage of and frustrated that I’m the only one out there at that moment. I discover it’s the loneliness that I’m upset about and it’s not at my boys at all.
- This is the past pushing its way into the present. What I need to do is to be present for that little boy in me that’s feeling lonely. Rather than go in and rail at my boys, I need to create that space for myself right now and say, hey dude, you’re not alone. You were that night, but I’m here with you and we’re going to finish with this wood and have a great night together.
- That started the practice. But turning the tide from resisting the feeling to approaching it is really the key to that. That’s what slows us down and gives us an opportunity for a new way of relating to it.
Q: There is a great lesson in the book about proxies for worth. Eli receives this lesson from his uncle Mark about chasing proxies for worth. Can you explain what you mean by that?
- All of us as human beings at a very young age, we essentially come into the world with a true self that knows it’s worthy of love and belonging. The reason kids cry, the reason why they’re demanding and grubby is I know even when I’m demanding and grubby I’m worthy of love and belonging. They just don’t even think anything of it.
- At some point though, we all get that message intentionally or unintentionally that you aren’t worthy of love and belonging the way you are. You’re going to have to change, adjust, and hide certain things about you in order for us to love you and for you to belong to us.
- What happens is we develop this belief that what is inside us isn’t worthy of belonging and what’s inside of me isn’t good enough. Then I’m going to have to go outside of myself to prove that I’m good enough. These are proxies for worth.
- A certain friendship group. A certain wardrobe, devices, cars, and spouses that become a never-ending, unsatisfying cycle because we cannot find our worth outside of us. That’s inside of us, forgotten and hidden.
Q: So Ellie is chasing these proxies for worth. He wanted to be successful in his career as a writer. He wanted to give Rebecca everything she wanted. But Rebecca didn’t want any of those things. She wanted Ellie’s truth. How should he have revealed more of that to her?
- In the last quarter of the book, you begin to find out more about what Ellie has hidden from Rebecca. There’s something autobiographical about what he starts to reveal.
- I remember a day when my wife had taken the kids ice cream to school the day before and the next day was my day to pick them up and they said, let’s go get ice cream. I thought ice cream two days in a row isn’t what our family is trying to do. But then I thought, she got to be the cool mom, I want to be the cool dad. I took them for ice cream. When we got home and everyone was done and I catch myself putting the ice cream containers in the trash can. The problem is I got these rats, they’re going to tell her that we went for ice cream and I’m going to get caught anyway.
- I think we can bring awareness to the small incidences of hiding that we do and we can ask ourselves, is this worth the disconnection that it is creating in our relationships? Is this worth the burden of authenticity and the loneliness that happens inside of hiding?
- Eli has all sorts of opportunities in the book. Over and over again and it’s not until the end of the book that he decides that it might be time to tell her what’s being going on with him.
Q: The metaphor in the story is a bridge. You say the bridge is those blessed passages from the life we want and the life we need. What’s on the bridge and what’s on the other side?
- As I wrote the story, I became more and more aware that the real metaphor of the story is the thing passing under the bridge. He has this dream where he’s crossing the bridge and the water always rises up and swallows him. There’s this fear about this happening so he can never get across the bridge and he wakes up too soon.
- I became more and more aware as I wrote that the real metaphor here is that water. This roiling, murky river. You don’t know what’s in it, but it’s going to sweep you away.
- I started to think of that water as our past, our pain. The thing we have to go through to get to the other side to be freer, we can either stay on this side of the river, this side of the bridge or we can continue to do the same thing and double down.
- Or we can walk across and traverse that pain to the other side where we start to want and value different things.
- The bridge is about the journey through that pain into a different vision of life. Walking across it can feel scary and treacherous at times and so most people continue doing what they’ve always done and getting what they’ve always got.
Q: You talk about traversing the pain of the past. I think there might be a tendency for some people listening to think I don’t have any of that. I’m fine. Father Lou gives Eli advice on that. It is in a moment in the past where Eli gives the valedictory speech at his high school graduation. Father Lou says everyone has the same grief at the bottom of their hearts. Perhaps by sharing yours, you’ll give them permission to feel theirs. How do we all have the same grief?
- In Father Lou’s case, he’s referring to the grief everyone is going through of graduating high school. It’s a huge death of sorts at that time in life when we get to depend on somebody and this era of our life. All these friendships are going away and everyone’s going to have to start new friendships.
- In general, the grief that is at the bottom of our hearts is the loss of our innocence. That’s when we start to transition from children to adults. We all start out attached to security. We want to feel safe like things aren’t going to hurt us. We want to feel protected, but if we discover through loss and grief that we don’t need things to be safe in order for us to live vibrant, safe, healthy lives. If we can live in spite of risk, in danger and loss, then what we are is resilient.
Q: There is a quote I attribute to one of my friends: John Wasserman. It comes from a book that he wrote. The idea was your transparency can aid others’ transformation. Your transparency about what’s going on in your life can help others transform through their challenges. John describes a period of his career where it wasn’t going well for him and being open and transparent about it is what helped him and has now helped many others to become successful and do well. Do you offer transparency into your own life as you’re guiding others through their challenges?
- I started blogging in early 2012 and I was an outpatient therapist at the time. My colleagues all thought I was crazy since I was trained as a psychologist. It’s all about your privacy. The other person’s supposed to be the one doing all the disclosing.
- The fact that I was writing publicly about my own personal life and telling my own personal stories, some of my colleagues thought was unethical, and most certainly thought I was a little nuts and probably not going to be helpful to my clients because I didn’t have that authority anymore.
- Then what I started to experience is my clients would come in and say, I wouldn’t have told you this, but I read in your blog post last week and you go through the same thing. That is such a relief, let me tell you about this.
- For me, that’s my decision to go all in, in writing and being transparent about my own journey and that really took off. Loveable is a book that talks more of my own journey than my clients’ journey. I think there’s something powerful about finding out other people go through the same things.
- One of the things that’s powerful about this novel is how we understand hiding to be a result of, okay, everybody goes through it. I’m not unusual or strange. I don’t need to be ashamed. Transparency is one of the ways I try to model that for folks. Hiding didn’t ever go well for me. I’m trying something new, this transparency thing and that does seem to benefit others as well.
Q: I found it interesting in the book to note the many expressions of love and grace that Eli was shown when he began unhiding. There’s a quote in the book, “Hurt can be a bridge connecting people … you can tell us anything and will meet you in it.” It was really cool to see that happen to Eli, and the people around him. Can you tell us a little bit about that idea?
- The thing that keeps us so hidden is the assumption that people will meet our authenticity with shock, horror, or judgment.
- The truth is some people will. I talk a lot about this idea of wise vulnerability. As you start to emerge and share more about yourself, be wise about whom you’re sharing with.
- Frankly, it’s really smart to begin unhiding with people you can trust to be graceful with you, who appreciate that you’re sharing more.
- I know one of the most powerful experiences is for somebody when they share something they’ve never shared before and the person they’re sharing it with looks back and says, I love you more right now than I’ve ever loved you! Your authenticity, your courage, and your bravery at this moment make me love you more than anything about what you’ve done or your past.
- That’s a powerful moment of grace and Eli gets to experience it because he’s unhiding himself with people who’ve been so essential. His best friend, a former teacher, and a pastor and priest give him that kind of grace to love him even more because he’s encouraged to show up.
Q: There’s this quote that I thought was really interesting. You said, “longing to understand someone may be the purest expression of love. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s hiding from someone else so that you can never be known and the completion of love is seeking to know someone in return.” Is that what real connection is?
- I can’t imagine anything that feels closer to what most of us would describe as love than just being in the center of somebody’s attention and curiosity and they just want to get to know you better.
- As I’m writing this book, I’m putting myself in Eli’s shoes and realizing he’s really deprived Rebecca of the opportunity to love him by hiding. He’s rebuffed her curiosity. He’s pushed her away.
- It seems like the most powerful thing we can do is unhiding so that others can truly know and love us.
Q: Dr. Kelly, you summarized the main lesson of the story with this: you can either spend your life making dreams come true or you can allow your dreams to become truer. What does that mean to allow our dreams to become truer?
- We can keep chasing happiness, security, control, power, and adoration. Those are the dreams most of us want to chase.
- But in engaging in the constant chasing of these dreams, we experience the constant failure to reach them. Because all of those things are impermanent things that will never be around forever.
- We can allow the very nature of our dreams to shift to more enduring things. We can experience, enjoy and enter into joy, resilience, presence, bravery, curiosity, and love regardless of how life’s going. These are the sorts of things that we can actually choose in any moment.
Q: One of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you about this … what I really wanted to do is unhide in this conversation with you is that I am Elijah Campbell. I feel there are so many things you write about him that resonated directly with me. I noted 5 things that came to mind.
- You said loneliness is our greatest wound and our most dependable defense. As a kid, I wasn’t one of the cool kids in grammar school and high school. I was never one of the in-crowds. I wasn’t a good athlete until a little bit later. I had a lonely childhood is a fair word to use. So it’s my wound, but it is also my defense.
- Another thing that resonated with me was my life has been organized around self-preservation. As a kid, my mom was a yeller. She yelled all the time and I would just disconnect from it because it was all I could do. And in life, I’ve always said, I value harmony as an important thing. I just don’t want to suffer.
- There’s a part of me that says I’m a private person. Not evasive, not scared, just private. A lot of people who know me well would describe me that way.
- There are not many problems in my life that I haven’t been able to out-smile, outsmart or outwork. I feel like self-reliance is my strength, but it’s also my challenge.
- Then there was this line shared with Eli by his grandfather. He says “I think you’ve been depending on your secrecy to maintain your security.” That was like a gut-punch moment in reading the book.
So I think those five lines give you an insight into my connection to Eli and I’m wondering from your perspective as a professional in this field, how is this mindset costing me in my life?
- I want to comment from a human angle rather than the professional one. As you’re reading those five themes, I realized how truly personal this book is and how much the things that happened to Ellie hit me too.
- What was costing Ellie do you think? It goes back to the idea of belonging and proxies for worth. There’s a sneaky and painful emptiness that happens when we achieve a pseudo-belonging by being what we think will get us accepted.
- Or is what we think will engender the least rejection or doing what we think will create the most acceptance because we know at some level we aren’t accepted.
- We don’t belong but this persona we created is what’s been accepted and what’s belonging.
- We talk about loneliness as our greatest wound and our greatest defense. It’s like you can outwardly look like you’ve achieved a lot of belonging and acceptance, but inwardly you’re still inside of that belonging, very, very lonely.
- The cost is trying to solve our loneliness in a way that just multiplies that. We cannot really become un-lonely until we become unhidden and see we belong and are accepted for the fullness of who we are, not just the convenient parts.
- The most painful part of true belonging is the grief of losing some of that belonging we hope we have, we thought we had, or tried to have by being hidden. When you share your connection with Eli, I think you’re putting your finger on what’s costing us to be hidden, costing us true belonging.
- True belong is when we know we’re received and accepted and celebrated in the fullness of who we are, not just the part we’ve decided to show.
Q: I feel like that gets harder over time. How do I do that now? Is there usually a catalyst for change that precedes all this?
- In the book it was Rebecca. Rebecca leaves and for him, that’s the catalyst. The general rule is that when your particular form of protecting yourself — whether it’s hiding or being aggressive or controlling — starts to create more suffering than it prevents, it is usually the point where things start to shift. We’ve to go through suffering in order to reverse our method of protection.
Q: What are the steps to take to change and evolve?
- First is awareness. Bring awareness to the various ways you’re hiding.
- We’ve pooled a lot of our experiences out of our awareness because we don’t think it’s worth love and belonging. The next step is to begin to cultivate a sense of compassion for the things we become aware of. Part of that compassion is to begin to connect it to our story.
- Third step is always vulnerability. Once we’ve been able to hold it in awareness and get to know it a little bit, choose people to tell about it. As soon as we tell someone about it, the shame about it begins to lift a little bit. Shame is fueled by hiding.
- I hope this conversation impacted you as profoundly as the book and talking with Kelly has impacted me. I think about the theme that our past is behind us and within us. The idea of paying attention to how you feel. Noticing the body.When you feel that tightness, that resistance to something. Oftentimes, it’s our past pushing into the present.
- It’s a moment of opportunity. It can be a bridge to greater connection, and intimacy, when we’re able to notice it and in that moment of noticing be able to move through it
- Elijah Campbell in the story hid the reality of his existence, and his life so that he wouldn’t upset others. His motivation was actually something not bad. But what caused him the reality of missed connections with some of the most important people in his life?
- I think of the idea of proxies for worth. How we all want to belong and we look around us as kids to see what’s been rewarded and what’s been recognized and loved and we start to seek those things and try to become those things so that we can also belong and in that process, we’re creating a false version of ourselves.
- The metaphor in the story is the bridge. Do we stay on this side where we experience things like happiness, security, control, and power? All these things are impermanent in real life. Or do we get to the other side where we learn to value and want different things that are more enduring? Joy, resilience, presence, bravery, curiosity, love. Just thought that was a great metaphor in the story. To get there, we’ve to no longer be attached to everything going our way, attached to what we’ve to develop.
- Kelly called it wise vulnerability. I love the example that authenticity becomes a filter in our lives. Who are the people that we truly want to have around and the deep connection when established, when someone really wants to know you and gets to know you through your revealing the truth.
- Visit Dr. Kelly at his website: drkellyflanagan.com
- Kelly’s viral blog that landed him and his daughter on the Today Show.
- Order The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell here. Get 10 or 20 copies and give them out!
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