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Face-to-face, Debbie Ford is a surprise. I had expected the author of the supreme bestseller The Dark Side of the Light Chasers and its recent sequel The Secret of the Shadow to be either a saffron-and-Birkenstock-wearing New Age poster child, or looking as perpetually perky as she appears on the cover of her most recent book. In truth, neither is remotely close.
When she breezes into the restaurant where we're meeting -- publicist in tow -- there's nothing she looks like more than a rock star. From her blazingly white smile, perfectly highlighted hair and dramatic clothes and accessories, Ford looks more like a fashion goddess than the author of three bestselling self-help books and a faculty member at The Chopra (as in Deepak) Center for Well Being.
Though the fact that Ford is a former fashion retailer accounts for some of that fashion sense -- and a hat trick of bestselling books can't hurt, either -- in talking with her, the pieces come together. Though Ford is, in many ways, a product of the self-help movement, she is also pointedly down-to-earth and determined that her books and her teachings be accessible to the widest swath of people possible.
The founder of The Ford Institute for Integrative Coaching, the 46-year-old author has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, the WNBC Morning Show and just about all other media outlets that New York Times bestselling self-help authors consider de rigueur.
Ford's message is highly palatable and in her direct, plain English style, highly understandable: don't try to change the stuff inside you that you loathe. Instead, embrace those things and begin to see how to make them work for you. In this way, the incredible popularity of her books is understandable. Like the miracle diet that promises you will lose weight if you eat everything you want, especially chocolate cake, Ford counsels us not to change anything except, really, the way we treat ourselves.
Ford describes herself as a former drug addict for whom the first inklings of her now wildly popular theories came to during group therapy sessions. She would be "listening to people's stories and observing people talk about themselves in such a limiting way when I just saw their greatness," says Ford. "I just saw: Wow! This woman is so great, or she's so powerful or she's so exciting but she couldn't see that. Only I could see that. Today I think that's one of my gifts: I see the bigness of people."
Ford feels she is on a mission to empower people. "Most people take what's happened to them or the parts of themselves they don't like and use them as an excuse for why they don't have what they want. And my work is the exact opposite: it's to use it as an excuse to getting everything you want."
Linda Richards: The Secret of the Shadow is almost like a sequel to Dark Side of the Light Chasers.
Debbie Ford: Yes. In The Dark Side of the Light Chasers we looked at the shadow qualities: you know, the parts of ourselves that we deny, hide or suppress. But particularly we were just focused on the qualities that you don't like in yourself or somebody else. In The Secret of the Shadow we look at the shadow beliefs which are those unconscious beliefs that drive our behavior.
Your philosophies are based on Jungian and yoga foundations.
I think so. I think that my work is a blend of a lot of different kinds of work. It's very Jungian and any kind of really spiritually-based wisdom. This process that I teach -- because that's really what I am. I'm a teacher and workshop leader who writes books. And it's really the process that healed me: that changed my life dramatically after studying with hundreds of teachers and reading so many books and listening to tapes and going to seminars. And there was a couple of things that literally transformed my whole being. And so I try to take those and make them very simple, because I was like: Why didn't someone just tell me this? Why did I have to go through five years and $50,000? [Laughs] And that's really what I teach.
On reading The Secret of the Shadow, it felt as if it was all born with you sitting in group therapy situations.
Well, definitely [in] listening to people's stories and observing people talk about themselves in such a limiting way, when I just saw their greatness. I just saw: Wow! This woman is so great, or she's so powerful or she's so exciting but she couldn't see that. Only I could see that. Today I think that's one of my gifts: I see the bigness of people. And just seeing how we define ourselves inside this story: this drama, this persona that we create. If we step outside of that the whole world is ours. And how limiting it is and how we just keep creating the same situations over and over again to prove our drama to be true.
Between Light Chasers and this book you wrote another that I think also did quite well.
Spiritual Divorce. It's doing well right now: it's just come out in paperback. And the subtitle [of] that book -- which I think is really the basis of all my work -- is: Divorce as the Catalyst for an Extraordinary Life. My work is ultimately about -- whether it's your anger, your depression, or your mother who left you -- whatever has happened to you can be the catalyst for you having the life of your dreams. Most people take what's happened to them or the parts of themselves they don't like and use them as an excuse for why they don't have what they want. And my work is the exact opposite: it's to use it as an excuse to getting everything you want.
I always say that either you're going to use it or it's going to use you. And that, as human beings, that's where we have choice and free will. We don't always have free choice about what's going to happen to us, but we have the choice of: Are we going to use it to become better, more alive, more fulfilled? Or are we going to use it to be discontent and angry and resentful?
Although, in following the Debbie Ford philosophy, there's a Divine Plan as well. You write that there are things that are meant to happen.
Yes. Things happen. And I think there are things in our karma: they're in our life. They're going to happen. And, again, if we understand the divineness, we know that there is some wisdom or some experience that we can extract from that event that will actually give us what we need to deliver our unique contribution to the world: not take away from that gift.
I think the misconception that most people have is that: If this hadn't happened -- if my mother hadn't left or I hadn't been raped or I didn't have this learning disability -- I would be OK. Instead of saying: Well, there's no accident that happened. You needed that to happen. There's something in there for you. There's some lesson that you need. How else do we gain wisdom? There's a big difference between knowledge and wisdom, which I think people need to understand. Knowledge doesn't necessarily get you anywhere. Especially in America. We know what to eat, [yet] we're the unhealthiest country in the world. So knowing is not the gateway. Wisdom includes our heart. It includes our soul: that deeper part of ourselves. And when we really know: Like, wow, if I do this, this is really going to make me blossom and grow -- we can choose from that place.
They say that shadow work is a process from the head to the heart. My work and what I teach people is that you must go inside. You must go inside and get the answers because that will move it from your head to your heart.
What is the objective for shadow work?
The objective is to integrate everything that you can't be with. Anything that you don't like. Anything that you resist, regret, that you wish away. To integrate it and to make it a healthy part of you. Where you feel good about it. I was a drug addict for 15 years. I suffered from depression and anger and discontent. I use that today to write books and to help other people. So that's really what shadow work is about. The great Swiss psychologist [Carl] Jung said: The gold is in the dark. And one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious.
The darkness has so much power. Just as we see anger has the power to kill, it also has the power to give you back all your passion to get what you want and set healthy boundaries.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
My hope is that people can embrace their story. That they can understand the feelings and the beliefs and the behaviors that live inside their stories well enough that they can choose the life outside of it. That they'll go for their greatness. Knowing that there's only a choice: you can either go to your grave with your story and with your shadow beliefs that you're not going to get everything you want: you can't have it all. Or you can try stepping out into a different level of consciousness. Because they both exist at the same time: our story and the world of possibility. And at any time you can jump realities.
What brought you to this place of enlightenment in your own life?
Pain. [Laughs] Pain was the catalyst. I thank God I had so much pain that I had to do a lot of work to get out of it. But after getting off of drugs and saying: If I'm going to be sober, how am I going to be happy in this world? How am I going to find some peace and contentment? There were a couple of things that dramatically changed my life. One was understanding that we're each a microcosm of the macrocosm: that we're each a small piece of the whole and that there's nothing that you possess that I don't possess: good and bad. That understanding was like: wow! Because I had these bad qualities, you didn't have those, but I did. And also that you had great gifts that I didn't have. And really getting to understand that we all have that potential and that possibility for everything dark and light. So that was one big piece for me.
The other piece was -- there's a story in Dark Side of the Light Chasers -- after spending this five years and $50,000 -- I went to another workshop, but it was leadership intensive. It was for business people. There were like 20 people there. And I was standing at the the front of the room -- you had to stand up and say what you're committed to in the world -- and, at the time, I was committed to bringing self-esteem into the school system. And from the back of this room, as I'm giving this lecture, this woman screams out: You're a bitch. And I thought: Well, I know that, how did she know? Because I had spent all that time and all that money trying to get rid of that part of myself and really creating a new persona and becoming overly nice trying to compensate for it.
To make a long story short, she started asking me: Well, tell me something good about being a bitch. And I thought: Oh, there's nothing good about it. Then she said: Let me ask you a couple of questions. If you were remodeling a house and you were $20,000 over budget and five weeks late, do you think it might help to be a little bitchy? And she knew I had just done that and it was true: When I'd really gone into the contractor's face, he got my house done and he stopped spending money. And I was a retailer at the time and she said: Do you ever get damaged merchandise? And I said: All the time. And she said: Does the manufacturer ever not want to take it back? I said: Absolutely. She said: Does it help you to be a little bitchy? And this light went off and I said: Wow! This part of me that made me feel so small and so ashamed actually came bearing some gifts.
Either you're going to use it or it's going to use you and anything you don't embrace about yourself gets to use you. I describe it in my work: It's like a beach ball. all these parts of ourselves that we don't like, we try to suppress, we try to hide, we try to overcompensate. So if we don't want to be a bitch, we become overly nice. We try to always show people this fake side of ourselves. Or if your mother told you: Don't be so selfish, maybe you'll try to show how selfless and serving you are. We try to suppress that other part. Most people suppress it with drugs or alcohol or cigarettes or shopping: we each have our own way. And what happens with the shadow is that it pops up and hits you in the face.
So that realization that there was good in that bad was so life changing for me. My whole life changed that day because I stopped trying to get rid of parts of myself, which is what I think a lot of the New Age movement is about. People are trying to get rid of their ego or get rid of some part of themselves. But it was about embracing it. It wasn't about accepting it, because I'd accepted those things. Acceptance just made me feel bad about myself.
Because you're accepting them with a negative?
Yeah. But it's about finding the jewel in it. Finding the gold. Seeing the gift. Today I describe it as the integration process. In most people it's just amazing. They'll say: OK. I could get that I'm angry or I could get that I'm insensitive. Everybody has got their words that they don't want to be. They've got their qualities and generally it's what was made wrong in your home. If somebody says: You're lazy and lazy is not OK. Or if you're a liar that's not OK. If you're greedy that's not OK. Those couple things you were really shamed about. So you have no choice because sometimes it's OK to be a bitch. Sometimes you need to be bitchy to say: You know what? That's not OK. You can't do that to me. Most people don't have access to that. And we need to have access to all these parts. If you were a Jew in Nazi Germany, you'd better be able to lie. Lying becomes a good thing.
But is there is anything that is truly a bad quality? Or are they all useable?
I think that most of us won't have to use all of our qualities at this time, but listen: killing is evil, right? But if you have terrorists with bombs, you'd better go hunt Bin Laden down, right? In a sense, we have to have that same evilness to be able to take a human life and kill them, right? So it's how you use it. It's not necessarily that it's so inherently bad, but will there ever be a time and a place?
See you've got to break it down, because you can't say "murderer." Because "murderer" isn't a quality; it's something that happens when you have a certain amount of qualities. What kind of person would be a murderer? That's what we need to embrace inside of ourselves because then we have choice whether we're going to do something. We're the shadow of the terrorists. We're that shadow. We are freedom. We are abundant. We are over consumers, right? And they are our shadow, in a sense.
So you're not saying: Go be bitchy. You're saying: Embrace the bitchy part of yourself.
Yeah. But I'm saying, if you're in an abusive relationship, you might finally have to be a bitch to get out. You might have to say: You know what, I won't tolerate that. I can't take that. You're not going to treat me like that. Which some people would see as bitchy.
Actually, when you embrace it, you then have the choice. Well, if I need to take care of myself I can in that way. Just like anger -- a healthy anger -- everyone needs. Because healthy anger is what allows us to set healthy boundaries. But most people are either angry and put it out on other people and hurt other people, which just makes it worse. Or they can't be with their anger, so their anger turns into cancer or some disease and doesn't allow them to make boundaries. I'm saying: We all have all of these qualities and ultimately we need to get to this place of compassion. Because when you get to compassion you see somebody do something and no longer can they take your power away. If you look at somebody and they're a slob and you can't be with sloppy, all of a sudden they own you, because you're like: Look at them! They're sloppy. Or you can't be with rude and they're rude. They all of a sudden have part of you. Instead of saying: Wow, that poor person. Like, really feeling in your heart: Thank God I'm not acting that quality of myself our right now. I think, ultimately, that's the only way we're going to heal our hearts and heal humanity is by having compassion for each other.
I understand you do work with Deepak Chopra at the Chopra Institute. How did that come about?
Actually I got hired by an associate of his to train some of his staff to lead seminars. And they came back the next day after doing a day-long training with me like totally different people. He called me up and said: What did you do? And I told him that: Actually I did something that I really learned -- the essence of it -- from you. Because he was really the one that brought out that we are all microcosm of the macrocosm. And I found out what people hated about themselves and I taught them how to embrace it and to love that part of themselves and have compassion.
As soon as they took that part back, they transformed because the process is: Whatever I can't be with will drive me to try to be something else. And so, I don't know what's authentic for me. My authentic beauty can't shine through because I'm trying to show you something else, you know? If I can't be with mean, I'm going to be overly sweet. Well, if you have someone leading a seminar who is overly sweet it comes off as inauthentic.
How many people have you worked with?
Well I do two things. I lead the shadow process which is a three day event for people to do their own transformational work and I've probably led 10,000 people through that process. And I lead a seven month long coaching program where I train people to deliver this work: this one-on-one coaching with people. And last year we trained about 120 coaches from all over the world: South Africa, Germany, the Bahamas. It's mostly done by teleclasses. And we're going to train about 200 more this year. Because that's really my goal: to train teachers. It's a very simple process. My goal is to leave people grounded, where they just feel connected. It's not about really giving anybody any answers, because we make everybody close their eyes and go inside and get their own answers.
There are many successful teachers who don't go on to start an international movement. How did that connection happen? Or did it happen through the books? Because the books brought you to a lot more people than you personally could have gotten to.
I wrote my first book because I was newly divorced...
Which book was that?
The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. But, really, out of desperation. I'd already been teaching this work at the Chopra Center and my sister came to me and said: All you have to do is write the book.
I wanted to be able to stay at home with my son. I had a young son at the time, he was a year old. And so I saw it as a way of doing that. So I just dug inside and got a lot of people to support me and wrote that book.
Then, [with] Spiritual Divorce I knew when I was going through my divorce -- when I kept meditating: Why is this happening? Why is this happening? -- I really got that I was going to write a book called Spiritual Divorce which at the time horrified me because I wanted to kill my husband. [Laughs] But my parents had had a bad divorce and it really affected me in a traumatic way.
Knowing I was going to write a book called Spiritual Divorce really had me rearrange myself, in a way. Because I knew [his] spirit, so I couldn't count on him to change: I would need to totally transform myself so that none of what I saw as his negative qualities could plug me in any more and I could stand shoulder to shoulder and love him at all times. So that drove me to create that relationship and then to write Spiritual Divorce.
Then [The Secret of the Shadow] was really out of my training programs. I felt people had done all this shadow work, they had embraced their negative traits but yet they were addicted to their story. They would get out of it, but they'd keep going [back] in because they didn't have the distinction: Oh, I'm in my story. They just thought: Life is happening and I'm stuck back in. Instead of saying: No you're not. You're just living in a different consciousness level right now. You're living in your story. At every moment we can go in and out of it, but if you don't know you're living in one then it's very difficult to get out.
We live in a crazy world. We make so much wrong. And really what I try to teach people is what is it to be a human being. And to be a human being you're going to have light qualities and you're going to have dark qualities, you're going to have judgment. I love these people who teach non-judgment. It's not a reality. You need to have judgment to know: Should I walk into that water right now? Should I take this job? Should I hang out with her as my friend? Should I go down that dark alley? Should I be able to spend money? That thought -- that that's wrong -- is what makes it a shadow. | May 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.