Episode 15: Creativity and Authenticity

Chris Wells & Emma Nicholson with guest Melissa Bernstein

Release date: June 5, 2022

In Episode 15, Chris and Emma were joined by Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of Melissa & Doug Toys and author of LifeLines. We learned about Melissa’s inspirational journey to self-acceptance and living authentically after spending decades of her life suffering from existential depression and angst.

Melissa discovered Dąbrowski’s theory in her late 40s and described the relief she felt from learning about overexcitabilities as a framework for understanding her lifelong intensity and sensitivities. She described reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and learning the word “existential” for the first time, and feeling that it was like being hit by a lightning bolt.

Melissa talked about her path, which started out traditionally with therapy and grew to include autopsychotherapy and deep exploration into philosophical and spiritual works. We discuss strategies she has developed to challenge negativity and nihilism, and combat perfectionism, such as channeling darkness into light through her creative work. We also explore how sharing our creative outputs with others can help us find meaning and purpose, and the importance of taking time out to look after ourselves.

Bio: As Co-Founder of the tremendously successful toy company Melissa & Doug, Melissa has spent the last 30 years helping children discover themselves, their passions, and their purpose through open-ended play. Now, after her own personal journey of self-discovery and acceptance, Melissa founded Lifelines to help adults discover their purpose and unlock their full potential.

Resources mentioned in this episode

LifeLines website

Melissa’s book LifeLines on Amazon

The LifeLines workshop videos Chris mentioned watching in spring 2021.

LifeLines Community Facebook group

The Melissa & Doug website

Listen to Melissa’s episode on The Good Life Project Podcast

Emma’s blog on Self Care

Click here for the playlist of videos from the 2022 Dabrowski Congress in Denver.

**Thank you to Bee Mayhew for editing this transcript!** 


Emma: Welcome to the Positive Disintegration podcast. This is Episode 15, Creativity and Authenticity.

G'day wonderful people. Welcome back to Positive Disintegration, Framework for Becoming Your Authentic Self. I'm your host Emma Nicholson and with me is co-host Dr. Chris Wells. Hi Chris, how are you going today?

Chris: Hey, Emma. I'm well, thanks, how are you?

Emma: Good. I'm very excited about today's guest.

Chris: Me, too. This is going to be a good one.

Emma: It's always good to have someone on the podcast who's enthusiastic about what they want to talk about. And I think that sums up Melissa.

Chris: Agreed.

Emma: Our guest today is Melissa Bernstein. As co-founder of the tremendously successful toy company Melissa & Doug, Melissa has spent the last 30 years helping children discover themselves, their passions and their purpose through open-ended play. Now after [their] own personal journey of self-discovery and acceptance, Melissa founded Lifelines to help adults discover their purpose and unlock their full potential. Welcome, Melissa.

Melissa: Hi. Being a listener, I am so excited to be here!

Emma: And thanks for listening too, we appreciate it.

Melissa: It's incredible actually. I have thoroughly enjoyed every single episode.

Chris: That's so nice to hear, thank you. Well, Melissa, I think it was around this time last year that I was first introduced to your book, Lifelines. It came out and people in the Dabrowski community right away were excited and enthusiastic about it because you talk about the importance of discovering overexcitability in your life. When I read your book, I saw so clearly so many connections with the theory. I'm so, so pleased that you're here with us today to talk about it and to talk about yourself and your journey. I guess the thing that I wonder, which of course, as you know as a listener, I ask everybody this: How did you discover overexcitability and Dabrowski's theory?

Melissa It's a great question. And I discovered it much too late because I discovered it in my late 40s. And I'm talking, I am very well read. Like I love, I'm so passionate about reading. And I never came across this!? It was really just by accident, which makes it even more, I'd say, critical that we share Dabrowski's theory with the world. And it came, wow, it's a pretty circuitous route, but it started from a podcast that I listened to by a guy, Jonathan Fields, called The Good Life Project.

So I was born, you know, highly overexcitable with an existential meaning crisis, which we can get into later. But basically, because the world didn't want to see this dark, despairing person, and I could never really show who I was—my entire life I adopted a façade. The façade was basically this shiny self that said everything's great, everything's fine, and really hid the reality of who I was entirely from the world.

But as I began to get older, I think it was the cry of my soul to be seen authentically… got louder and louder and louder.  I was listening to this podcast where people were sharing their deep, dark sort of life stories. And I believe I was doing this to try to get the courage to do it myself because I was terrified of showing who I was. The host of the podcast talked extensively about his favorite book, which was ‘Man's Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl. Although I had this slim volume on my bookshelf, I hadn't read it in like two decades. When I had read it sort of in my 20s, it hadn't really spoken to me. But I decided to just read it again, and I could read it in an hour. It's a really short book.

There was a phrase in that book at the end. It was logo therapy, a form of existential analysis. And I had never heard the word existential either. So I looked it up. And when I read what existential angst, existential despair, existential analysis were, it was like I had been struck by a lightning bolt because it described this dis-ease, this unsettledness that I had experienced my entire life. And the more I read about those who experience existential angst, existential depression, I believe it was James T. Webb who made the connection and talked about those who tend to experience and are able to ponder higher realities also tend to have over excitable personalities. And that was the very first time I heard the word “overexcitable.” And I began to read about Dabrowski.

And as many say, it was this idea of these qualities that I had so despised in myself and wanted to expunge being seen as something potentially positive. That was the thing that blew my mind.

Chris: I think that we can both relate to that discovery of overexcitability and realizing that we had seen these aspects of ourselves so negatively. One thing that I want to ask you is, do you have any advice for people out there who are like, “oh my gosh, I'm doing that. I'm not being my authentic self in the world” What would you say to that, to these people?

Melissa: Wow. I mean, for me, that journey inward to self-acceptance took five years. And it took three, it took three paths. So I think it's going to be one of a few paths. The first one was the therapeutic path. And, you know, part of my issue was I was a perfectionist, and I had an expectation of how I should be. And I did not meet that expectation at all, because physically it was nothing like I look. Socially, it was nothing like I am. Performance-wise, it was perfect all the time, which unfortunately I wasn't. And I always fell short. And I truly despised myself for not being the image of what I wanted to be. So the first path I had to take was admitting I needed help, right, to start to accept myself. So that took the form of a therapist like you and admitting that I needed help.

That took basically a very traditional CBT path, whereby it turned out because I had this existential nihilism, this pessimism in me that I think a lot of us who don't accept ourselves, we have a high level of neuroticism, and we tend to ruminate, we tend to feel a lot of guilt. We tend to feel a lot of worry, and we tend to judge ourselves constantly. We're very self-critical.

So, for me, it really wasn't a process of admitting all these negative feelings I feel about myself, every single one of them. And I literally made a list. In fact, in my book, I include like 20 of them. You know, a lot of them were just negative things about myself. Others were just negative statements about the world, like the world will never be my friend. I will always be alone, right? I will never achieve the things I want to achieve. And then one by one, learning to reframe them. Really looking at each one, one at a time, and saying, is this true? Why do I believe it? What are the events in my life that led me to develop this very negative view of myself and the world? And how do I practice believing a different truth?

The truth is, if you've been telling yourself these things, you know, for as long as I have, which is nearly a half century, like, it's not going to change overnight. I can't just say the new truth one time and expect it to just like, “oh, okay, now I'm great!” What I realize is, I might have to tell myself this new truth and stop myself every time I start to say that same thing. It's going to take, you know, thousands of reframes for my neural pathways to change direction. So I think it's about acknowledging the things we're saying and just it's… it's painstaking. Unfortunately, it's no quick fix. It's one by one.

And I can tell you five years later, I still, the first thing I think, is always still the negative. But then I stop myself, right? If I say, what an idiot, Melissa, like you shouldn't have done that, which I do. I know I'm like, you're doing it. You know, the inner therapist, and then it's and then I go through what I call the journey to inner space, which is my own journey.

I stop and it's a five letter thing I go through to basically stop myself and correct my misperception.

Chris: That's exactly what so many of our listeners need to hear. I'm sure of it. I deal with this a lot with people who say their minds are really like the enemy, and that was me too.

Melissa: Totally, me too. Totally. I was so I was the abyss of pessimism. And literally when you're a nihilist, you believe there's no meaning to existence and we as individuals have no ability to make meaning in a meaningless existence. And so I truly felt that I was a victim of darkness and every thought in my head was a victim mentality. It was so negative and this… I call it this demon in my head—he told me basically just end it because there will never be meaning to existence or your life.

I realize now that that can ‘do you in’ and my life mission became, when I was young, this demon in my head was telling me all these horrible things. I would just cry to myself in my bed at night. I would say I just want space. I just want space. And what I realized was that I felt like my brain and my heart were intertwined. And all I wanted was my heart to be free and engage in creative liberation.

I knew that if I could somehow extricate my head from my heart, I would just be free to create whatever I wanted because my imagination was boundless. But that brain! That rigid demonic critical brain wanted to take me down. So thank goodness I'm still here and I was able to gain that little tiny bit of distance, you know, and separate my heart enough that I could begin to see my brain as just a bunch of punishing lies and mistruths.

Emma: Well, so I want to ask you, you said about the discovery of overexcitability. And we've talked about this before and using the analogy of the ugly duckling and realizing that you're not a defective duck. You're in fact something else entirely together and more the point. You're not alone. Did realizing that there are other people out there like you also help you with that journey of forgiving yourself?

Melissa: It helped me so very much because once I learned about existential angst, which I am afflicted with, and overexcitability is, I realized, oh my gosh, I have all five and all five to the highest degree. My life changed.

In fact, I literally sobbed for an entire week, because I had realized that, yes, I wasn't like [defective, alone]. I'm the antithesis of labels and being put in boxes, and I despise process and form but, in this case, a label was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. When I knew that I have OE’s and I have existential depression. It was like, I'm not alone. And in fact, like some of the people I'm hanging out with are pretty awesome. And then the best thing to come of it was, I saw a connection between creativity and these overexcitabilities. Here I had thought like my whole life, I've created from the boundless expanse of white space, and I see things in my head. And I, I just thought, whatever. That's what everybody does.

I never thought about it as anything, even remotely special. In fact, I wanted to rip that out of my head because I couldn't stand it because they never stopped. Like, if I allow it, it’s just one thing after another. And I despised it. I hated myself for that. I just wanted to be carefree! and play and go out and laugh and be, you know, easy! and have this really sociable disposition and instead I was muttering to myself all the time and like having to write things down because they were in my head.

Anyway, you know, this idea that these overexcitabilities were the source of my creativity!? It was mind-blowing, unfathomable. I saw that I wasn't alone. And then the other thing I saw with this kind of epiphany, I guess you'd say.

For the first time, I thought that I had somehow taken this nihilism that really came this close to, you know, ending my life. And I had somehow by some miracle transformed it into light through making these toys. And that that was an existential choice. I saw it without even realizing it.

So this is the second path. The first path I took was traditional, you know, therapy to heal. And it was amazing because it was reframing right? All my pessimism, all my negativity into positivity. But the second and third path were my own paths, because I am a rabid, you know, learner (as you are) and love nothing more than connecting dots. So the second path was philosophical/ spiritual. And I had never read philosophy in my entire life. Once I started to read Viktor Frankl, and he referred to Friedrich Nietzsche, who says, “he who has a why can bear through any how”.

I started to read these philosophers rabidly, and of course reading Dabrowski, he loved philosophy and studied Plato, as you know, on up. So I started reading these philosophers, and I realized they had been in the same boat that I had been. They were all nihilists. And then they had struggled as I and so many others, and had found the path to existentialism, which is finally getting out of that horrible victim mindset. Taking responsibility for making meaning in our lives, by channeling that darkness into light… I had essentially done that without even knowing it. That like I had this will to meaning, and this will to live that was potentially that third factor.

(16:46) Chris: You are a beautiful example of the theory in action. People ask me all the time, “what is the theory about?’ and they want it in this in a little nutshell, of course, right? And so what's the theory in a nutshell? It's a theory of inner transformation. That's exactly what we see in your story, that you were able to transform, like you said, this darkness into light.

Melissa: I even have a metaphor for it. Because, you know, I live in my imagination. So everything has to be very concretized in order for me to understand it. But, you know, I think about it for the first 25 years of my life… basically, it all started with darkness, it started with, I think about it as like a writhing bunch of snakes that were just in me insidiously, running through my body, and I basically couldn't control them.

And if I think about creativity as a water faucet, one side is dark and one side is light. The light side was turned off from birth. This angst was being channeled only into more darkness, and it was continually running. But because I was only creating darkness from darkness, it never saw light. It was so despairing and so dark that I never shared anything I created with anyone until my first toy.

And I was about, you know, 23, 24 years old, and I had thousands of verses, I had tons of music I'd written, but I was too terrified to share it and because I never shared it, it never brought me meaning, right? I had a meaning crisis, and I was channeling all this creative stuff, but it never saw the light, so it never brought meaning. When I realized that I could make toys just by accident, I took that very same horrible despair, but instead of just being a victim of it and it just channeling into darkness it was for the first time I said, “no, going to turn off that dark faucet”. And actually there's a light faucet, I'm going to turn that on, and I'm going to channel the very same material into light. And that was the first sense of empowerment, I felt my entire life, or for the first time I was like, “wait a second! This might have a purpose? This horrible anxiety and depression?”. And it ended up becoming my salvation for over 30 years.

Emma: Melissa, when you're talking about the creative stuff, that resonates with me and with a lot of things that I kind of see on Facebook about people having imposter syndrome, and this drive towards perfectionism. So I'm one of those people who drew and painted for many years, and they never saw the light of day. They all went into a box, and no one saw them except for me because I was like, they're not good enough to go online. I write poetry, but never put them online. But after discovering Dabrowski and getting the courage up to share this with people I started posting photos of my drawings on Instagram and stuff. Can you speak to people out there who might similarly be very creative, very imaginative but have this sort of drive to perfectionism or maybe this darkness that’s telling them not to do it?

Melissa: Yeah, I mean, so my life mantra is “step on out of the head and move into the heart, free to channel all dread into jubilant art.” So, we have to purely stay in the heart when we create because the perfectionism, the critique is all in the head.

If you go in your head, you're not creative… you can't be creative in your head because it's too rigid, right? Creativity, pure creativity is boundless. So, my advice to them is, first off, don't even think about the result, right? Because the result is the nounis the rigidity. The verb is where you want to live, you want to live in your heart. Create it purely, don't even think about the result. The act of creativity in its own right is the most healing thing of all.

Then what I would say is after it's birthed, after you're holding it in your hand. Start small, you don't have to, you don't have to give it to the entire world, but promise yourself, I'm going to share it with one person today. Make it someone, start with someone who's going to no matter what, they're going to be like this is amazing! Whether that's your mom or your best friendstart small. And I would say, just start putting them out there in a way where you can share them because know that when they just come outyes, they are a form of play right? They'll give you joy just in the act of doing it, but purpose only comes when the something in you serves humanity.

So, it'll stay play, but it will not move over to purpose until it can touch others in some way. So, what ended up happening for me is my will to meaning was so great that I had to bear through the fear of bombing, which I did, by the way, I had to bear through my fear of bombing because my desire to get these products in the hands of children and potentially unleash their imagination was so great.

I think it's, which is greater? At some point, your need for meaning becomes greater than your fear of failing. And for me, it finally switched, because I knew that fear of failing was doing nothing except imprisoning me in this tiny little box that I couldn't get out of. One of the most incredible things about being a product designer for like 34 years is that I was a perfectionist, and when I say a perfectionist, I mean, like, the most perfectionistic person ever and it almost killed me. That's how I came this close to taking my life. I tried to take my life. When I got an incomplete on an assignment in college that's how rigid I was about being perfect.

And the true irony of my life is that I would end up creating products. Because the truth is, you can never know the success of a product ahead of time. And you can never, even though people will try to tell you they can ask consumers what they want? They can't ask consumers what they want! In fact, Henry Ford, one of his best quotes is, “if I asked customers what they want, they would have said ‘faster horses’”. They really don't know until they see it. So, unfortunately, I’ve had to put my products out there again and again and again and fail continually in order to get the successes.

The funny story is… well into Melissa & Doug, about six years ago we ended up hiring a very erudite consultant from Harvard and McKinsey. Who decided, (this wasn't what he was supposed to do but… He decided that he wanted to quantify how often I succeeded at making products, and his contention was, if he could get me to succeed more, Melissa & Doug would be more successful.

So, he studied the last, like five years of introductions at Melissa & Doug, and he came up with this horrific stat that I was only successful, less than 40% of the time. Which meant that I failed two thirds of the time. I was like a baseball player. Right? I was like batting about 350. He was horrified. He decided that I needed to take fewer bigger bets and gain many more consumer insights and market data and do more focus groups to ensure success.

I was appalled and devastated that he wanted to really change our company because the way I create is completely different. I'm a believer in planting as many seeds as you humanly can, like literally an entire meadow full of seeds; watering them, giving them sunlight, fertilizer, and then waiting. The truth is you never know which are going to grow that pumpkin. So anyway, this was the antithesis of, of how I create.

Chris: Wow, that's so interesting to hear. I have to tell you, I can't help but think of the joy that you brought to our lives. Anybody who has a kid knows about Melissa & Doug, I would say, right? We still love your toys because, you know, I remember some of the first ones that he had, like wooden puzzles and stuff. And so the idea that you need to do more focus groups and stuff? I mean, what you do is wonderful and no increased consumer insights are going to help. I don't think so. Good for you.

Melissa: Well, you know, as I started to read more I would, I really became fascinated by creativity and people who've created. What I learned through reading some incredible books, I've read some amazing books on creativity… once you reach a certain level of mastery? When they talk about musicians way back in the Bach, Beethoven, Mozart era?  They said that really that entire peer group had roughly the same level of skill. But the reason those three you hear about more than the hundreds of others who were really quite accomplished, was simply because they were much more prolific in the number of creations they spawned.

When I read that I was just overjoyed because I believe the same thing! I believe that once you hit that level right of, you know, caliber, it's all about the number of swings you take. The more swings, the more potential hits and you can never ever know ahead of time.

Emma: I'm thinking if you had gone down this statistic data driven methodology, it probably would have sucked all the joy out of it for you, and then how creative would you have been if it's no longer fun?

Melissa: Well, and the point is, if you use the data on what is already successful what are you going to create? You're going to create more of the same. So, you know, when I create, it's pure intuition. Like there's nothing else. It's my own method of data aggregation so don't get me wrong, I'm not just sitting there and like putting my arms up and ideas are popping into my head.

I'm learning about every single thing. When we created wooden toys. I went to this museum in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Children's Museum? For two months, I researched wooden toys from the beginning of time, literally from like the wheel. I wanted to know everything that had ever been created in wood and it was the most… I was like, intoxicated. It was the best thing I had ever done because I learned about play patterns. I was shocked to see that a lot of these play patterns were formed thousands of years ago and what kids enjoyed back then are very similar to what they enjoy today.

So, it was really not inventing new play patterns, it was really more about reimagining them to make them fun and fresh to kids today. So, you know, it's all about rabid research and rabid studying of kids. It's just very different than how someone who's been sort of formulaically trained and schooled in it would go about it. It's more organic.

Chris: One thing I wonder about is you have six children of your own like how did that work? Did you test things with your own kids? It must be so interesting to have a parent, like to have parents who do this! How cool is it to have your parents be toy makers?

Melissa: You know, it ended up being incredible actually. So, Doug and I started Melissa & Doug when we were just dating. So, we didn't have kids. We definitely started before kids but once we had them, it was amazing because they were literally my laboratory and I got to study the things they liked and the things they didn't like.

And over time I started to tell them that I needed them to be very critical of these toys I brought home to test. Oh my gosh they became so critical, that if they ever liked something, I knew it was going to be a hit. I'll give you a couple examples of how they changed toys in such profound ways because their insights are so pure and the way they look at toys is so different than adults.

So, we created this frog game that came with like six stuffed frogs. It was literally the night before we were going to go into production, they gave me a production sample and I decided to bring it home and play with my kids. We were playing it, and we were throwing the frogs and then my daughter threw one and she went to pick it up and she picked up the frog… so the way kids look at stuffed animals is very different than adults. If I were going to look at a stuffed animal, I'd kind of look at it from the side but she took this stuffed animal and she actually took the frog and put it face to face with her and looked it in the eyes.

She kind of gave a little scream when she looked at it and she threw the frog down and I was like, “what's wrong?” She said, “I don't want to play with that frog anymore, he's mad!” And I said, “what?!” “Mom, I'm not picking him up again, he's a mad frog”. And I was like, what are you talking about? I went to pick the frog up and for the first time ever instead of looking at it (from the side), if you looked at the frog from the side, his little mouth was going up in the corner. But if you looked at it from the front, wow, that frog looked really like, demonically mad. And I said, oh my gosh, we cannot go to market with this like the frogs are all really scary looking. So the next day of course I came into work, and I said to one of my folks I was like, we're going to have to make changes in the frogs and they're like you're kidding right this is going into production I'm like no, it's going to be delayed. The frogs need to have different smiles. So things like that, that were, you know, you might think little things, but when it comes to a child playing with a toy and connecting with it, that's a big thing.

Chris: It is a big thing. There are three things that are really on my mind that I want to talk with you about in this episode, so I feel like I need to jump to at least one of them right now. So when it comes to Dabrowki’s theory, one of the things that we don't have a lot of is case examples. We have some. Michael especially has done case studies and Dabrowski talked about cases in his work. But the place that I've wondered about the most I think since I first started studying the theory is the unilevel/multilevel shift. I've thought about it a lot in terms of my own story, how that looked for me. I know personally, even though I had the nuclei of multilevelness when I was young, when I was a child even, or as a teenager you could see some of the kind of precursor dynamisms, even as a child I felt guilt, I felt shame, right? I still struggled with unilevel stuff deep into my 20s. I wasn't able to break out of self-sabotage for instance, and I really struggled with ambivalence. Was I going to stop using drugs? Was I going to live? Was I going to kill myself? These are unilevel dilemmas. And then I know personally in my story, you know, I made the shift.

But in your book, I love that your last chapter is called liberation. Love it, because that's exactly it. When you are able to make that shift and [start]reaching a true multilevel perception of reality and experience of reality it is liberating. And I consider Dabrowski’s theory, a theory of liberation. There's just, there's a few pages in this chapter on liberation where it's so obvious to me that what I'm reading in your story is this shift, and you're going from worrying about what other people think about you and being a perfectionist and just in suffering, right? To finally realize “this is who I am” and creating the meaning in your life. But also beyond that, you make the realization that it's bigger than you, and that now you have to help lead other people out of darkness, is I think how you put it right? And so I just want to talk with you about that shift to being your authentic self, however you'd like to talk about it.

Melissa: I love that. So, it was two steps. The first step was Melissa & Doug. When I realized that I could control my creativity, right? I didn't have to channel darkness into darkness. So for 30 years, my salvation was taking this darkness transforming it into light and touching children’s [lives], and that became a calling, that became something greater than myself. To have the capacity to potentially unleash imagination and a sense of wonder in all children, like that is for me, that was enough. But it wasn't enough. Because, as the years started ticking, what I realized… I gave this metaphor [earlier] of turning off the dark faucet and turning on the light. I realized that actually the very toys I was creating were almost the same facade I had lived my whole life.

I was channeling all this darkness into this light in the shiny packages on a shelf in a bright box with a Melissa & Doug logo, but I was still hiding the darkness that spawned them. So I was in essence still hiding a large part of who I was. And that all of a sudden, where it had felt so authentic, all of a sudden, felt completely inauthentic. One morning I woke up and I was like, I'm living a lie. This isn't who I am. And I knew I was a full spectrum [person]. I knew I was everything from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. I knew I was capable of feeling those high highs because I did feel beauty and joy as well as despair and pain.

So that became when this drumbeat of “I've gotta show my true self” became louder and louder and louder. And what ultimately happened, which created the multilevel [awareness/development] was I ended up going on a podcast that I had listened to for years. And it was the most un-Melissa act ever. First of all, I didn't talk [a lot], I create through my hands. I'm an introvert. I mutter to myself. I like to be in dark shadows just creating a way. Like, I don't like to speak. One of my mantras is “actions speak louder than words.” I don't like people who talk too much. I like people who who show up and do stuff. So the idea that I wrote this guy out of the blue and said I want to come on your really popular podcast and share my story that I have existential despair and overexcitabilities was like, unheard of. But I just did it. In one rash moment, I just wrote him the letter and I sent it and then I was like, what did you do?! (chuckles)

And I ended up going on that podcast and not even believing I did it, I hadn't even told my family I had these things. And here I was like going on, you know, sort of this national podcast well, international podcast and sharing this truth. Then what happened was I started to get letters. It aired about five months after we recorded it. It was like that popular [of a podcast]. He had to do it that far in advance and it was even a new year. I recorded it in October. It aired in March, and I didn't even remember. I was so incredulous that I would have done such a thing that I forgot I even did it. I put it out of my head. I only then realized I had done it for real.

I only remembered it aired because I started getting letters. I'm talking like hundreds and hundreds of letters. The minute I read maybe 20 of those letters, everything changed for me because the letters said the thing I had longed to hear my whole life, which is basically you gave voice to what I have been experiencing my entire life. I knew, that was the first time, I really knew that I'm not alone.

But then I decided I wanted to talk with every single person who wrote me like it was that I needed to talk with these people who were like me because I'd never met anyone like me. I made appointments. I basically contacted every one of them and said, I'd love to talk to you by phone. A lot of them didn't want to. They were like, who is this wow, I didn't think she was going to write back to me. But I did. And when I spoke with them, the same thing started to come up, which was, okay, we all share these deep feelings. We're all, you know, potentially over excitable and have some existential angst in us. But the difference is, Melissa, you figure out figured out how to channel your darkness into light and have found your purpose. I am still wallowing in darkness and cannot get out.

That became my greater mission. And suddenly I knew, oh my gosh, that's what I need to do. I need to show others that they too can channel their darkness into light and make meaning. And because so many of these folks had no idea what their seed of self-expression was, they just thought they had nothing to offer the world. I realized that I can help them unearth that special spark in them. And that really became Lifelines. So that's when I said, okay, making toys has been amazing, right? I don't think I'd be alive if I didn't find a way to channel that darkness into something that was light.

But I have something greater I want to do because making a toy has never really saved a life. And potentially this, if I can help someone who was where I was when I carried around a bottle of pills, you know, in my pocket for a year and had them in my mouth many times, maybe I could save a life. And that would truly make my life purposeful.

Chris: That is a good segue into the next thing that I wanted to bring up actually. Listeners, I want you to know that Melissa has this beautiful book, Lifelines, you can read her story. It's more than your story even. You share these verses. There's so much to all of this. So, there's the book. But also beyond that, Lifelines has a beautiful website too. And beyond the website, you also have (well, I'm part of) your Lifelines community on Facebook. There's a group. Last spring, I watched a couple of your Zoom sessions. And I thought to myself, like, how does Melissa have the—this is because of me, I'm an introvert too, right? I'm watching you do this stuff. And I'm like, “how does Melissa have the emotional energy and bandwidth to do this?”

Have you had to really up your self-care game? How are you doing so much with people and giving so much of yourself without it burning you out?

Melissa: Oh, that's an amazing question. Yes. And yes. So first of all, for whatever reason, I love it! Because I've never connected myself with other people, right? For 34 years, I connected through a product. So I channeled me into every product. I always say, “every product has a heartbeat and a pulse” and, you know, blood running through it. But like, no one saw me.

And I was lonely. Like inside, I was deeply lonely because I had all these people around me, but I didn't even know who I was, and they didn't really know who I was. So for me to now show up as I am and basically say, this is who I am, take it or leave it is a big deal. And it feels so good. And I really love doing it, more than anything. After I do these things, I'm like, I'm like, it's like I took a drug. I mean, it's an adrenaline rush, like nothing else… especially when people share.

I feel like we've developed this communion that's like beyond, right? Beyond just one of us. And we're bound, inextricably. But yes, last year when I started my book tour, I did a segment on CBS Sunday morning. I had said that I would respond personally to anybody who ever reached out to me. Because again, when you're someone who felt so isolated and you felt that no one would ever see you, if someone writes me and takes the time to write me?  I have to show them they’re seen or I can't live with myself, literally.

Well, I received over 10,000 letters in two days. And it sounds funny almost, but it was horrible because I knew that I had to respond to every one of them. And by the way, not with a form letter, because that doesn't make someone feel seen, right? I want to use their name. I want to answer their question. I want to show them that I really see them. So I started to do this, and I can become manic very easily because I'm OCD. And it started to take over me. And I started to only be sleeping two hours a day. And I started to say I have to respond to 200 an hour or I will… I had it all worked out in my head. It was going to take me like two months. Anyway, it almost put me under.

I developed such, I guess you'd call it empathy fatigue. And so many of the letters were really, really dark. Because people, I think, I realized that people are in a really dark place. This was in the middle of COVID. And people were, a lot of people were in deep, deep despair. So I had to have an emergency session, literally, with my therapist because I was going down. I also felt like I couldn't fix everyone. That was even a bigger issue. And I had to, this is part of Lifelines. I had to develop a practice. What I said to her is: I now accept myself in entirety, right? In my entirety. I now know that I'm a full spectrum. I'm no longer a “hey, great, fine, perfect, everything's great” [type of person]. Now I can say, for the very first time in my life, I'm having a tough day. I never could say that until I was literally 50 years old.

But the problem was I knew I was at risk because I had nothing to tether me to here. I could either fly off into the boundless expanse of white space and get lost in creativity and never come back. Or in this case, I was falling down. Like I was going into the bowels of despair, I'll never help anyone (in this state). I don't even have the energy to write back to these people. They're all gonna, I'm not gonna be able to live my… the thing I promised, ‘I'm going to respond to everyone’. And it was that disappointment in myself. She said: you need a framework. And I'm like, a framework? What? Are you kidding? I'm boundless white space. I don't need a framework. I hate frameworks!

“Without a framework, honey, you are not going to be able to be here”. So that's what I did. I call it a flexible flight framework because it ebbs and flows with me. But I had to heal myself and treat myself kindly and fill my own well, so that I didn't develop empathy fatigue and not be able to do anything for anyone.

Emma: Yeah, when we're talking about positive disintegration and Dabrowski’s framework, we know that this sort of thing is cyclic and you're gonna go through phases. You don't just one day wake up and you're authentic “hey, and everything's rosy”. What I'm hearing from that story is that those drives for perfectionism just found another manifestation in your life and [you’re] going, “I'm gonna to reply to everybody now.” And that's a continual learning journey of okay, how is this going to re-crop up in my life and how do I continue to manage it?

Melissa: Exactly. And everyone on my team was like, “you need a form letter, you just need a form letter”. And I couldn't do it. I literally, that that thing in me, I was like… [adamantly] no, I will not. And I became very dogmatic, which I tend to do. I will not do a form letter to these people because it was me, every one of them is me. I was like, I can't do it. And I didn't do it. I ended up responding to all of them. But it nearly, I mean…. I mean, it's nothing to be proud of. I nearly went down with the ship.

But yeah, it really took me to another dark place, probably one of the darker places I've been in decades. So it was another, I would say, another disintegration. Sort of realizing that I can't do this without nurturing myself.  I don't know if you've both felt that but for me, like self-care, was always indulgent. I despise myself, why would I ever be kind to myself? I wanted to punish myself and deny myself pleasure, [and] certainly not be nice to myself. So this is a whole new way of being.

Emma: It's funny you mentioned self-care, because I wrote about that on my blog recently, you know, I had to come to terms with the fact that my self-care isn't going to be that perfect thing that you see on Instagram… people meditating in their bedroom where I'm looking all perfect about it. It's going to be tear soaked, and it's going to be ugly. But it's necessary because I live in a little bipedal meat sack that runs around the planet and has limitations. And particularly if you are looking for a way toward authenticity, you know, you're going to be a better person. And you're going through these disintegrations, if you don't take that time out afterwards to go: my body and my mind need a moment, then you're just going to collapse.

Melissa: Yes, and part of my curse. So this is the whole my perfectionism meant I could never show any human weakness. I could never be tired. I could never show anyone. I would never sit down in front of people. Because I thought they're going to think I'm lazy, no one could think I'm lazy. So my perfectionism was so punishing that it disallowed me to do anything that was seen as kind.

Emma: And you were saying before, these are habits that take time to break. So every time they crop up in another guise, you've got to deal with you again.

Melissa: Exactly. And that's what I have to [remember]. People forget that this whole idea of changing your neural pathways takes about a minimum of, they say, two weeks to 60 days; I believe it's closer to 60 days to even begin to not think about it. So the reason none of these habits work and we try things, and then we say I never worked. I always say to my kids: how long did you try it for? Three days. That's why it didn't work, you know, and I think it's hard, right? Because our bodies don't like change, they crave homeostasis, so trying to get your body to do something differently?! You have to really want it very, very badly.

This idea of being nice to myself it's hard. My whole life that demon in my head was like, dude, you’re bad. You can't be nice to yourself. So yeah, one of the ways I do it, to be honest, is because I don't want to do it for myselfI say, if I'm going to be a role model for my children, right? I mean, I have four daughters. Do I want them to punish themselves??! Oh gosh, no, that would be the saddest day of my life, if they did [to themselves] what I did to myself. So, I have to be an example for how I want other young women to treat themselves. If I can't do it for myself, I'm going to do it for them. And that's what I do. I can't do it for myself. I have got to show them. I gotta sit here and I gotta say I'm relaxing. I gotta have my cup of tea even if I don't want to do it, I'm doing it for society. (chuckles)

Chris: So my study group, we talked about your book over the summer, I think it was in August. And it was interesting because we came to it from different places. Some of us read the print version, and a couple people listened to the audio version. Your verses, you know, for people who don't know, there's poetry throughout your book. And it's interesting because one of the women in my study group said that what was cool for her, listening to the audio version that you're reading them. And sometimes you give a little bit of context about what you were thinking when you wrote it. I thought that that was so cool.

Melissa: Thank you. That was maybe one of the greatest gifts of my life. A few of them I got really emotional… these were not meant to be shared with the world, like these verses are my prayers to keep me alive, honestly. And basically, they were the things I said to myself to want to continue to live. They were the questions that I pondered that no one could answer. Some of them were a lot wiser than I was because they gave me answers that I realized decades later: wow, this was giving me the answer I needed. But they really weren't meant to be shared with the world.

The fact that I was actually reading them potentially for other people to hear was like, they're the deepest expression of who I am. I'm getting emotional even saying it now. So, they're really important to me.

Chris: I thought that was so cool, too. It made me wish that I had listened to it, honestly. I guess it's not too late, I could get the audio version.

Yeah, but it's the thing about your verses, too, that really struck me. As somebody who's a journal writer or a diarist, I too have produced this enormous amount of writing for myself. That's just mine. And it's been a lifeline for me and something that has kept me alive at times. So, I really get that. You know, sometimes we have these powerful ways of expressing ourselves that are so personal. And when we do get a chance to share them with the world, it's…it's just really special. So thank you for sharing yourself.

Melissa: Oh, you're welcome. And I think for those of us that are really isolated and lonely, like these became… I also had two imaginary friends that were literally my only friends for like 10 years.  I recently read something that made me, I don't know if it made me sad, or maybe it made me understand it. It said that folks that have imaginary friends are usually some of the loneliest people. And because our biological need is to connect with other people, that is our body's way of making connections when we don't have any. I think of the verses, and I think of your writing as the same thing. Like, to me, they were alive, you know, all these things I create, have, as I said, they have heartbeats. To me, they are like my spiritual group that's trying to protect me against the ills of the world and the demons trying to destroy me. So I think of it as that. They’re our people.

Emma: The one thing that I find interesting, Melissa, you said you go back and read it and you get new insights. And I know, Chris, you do that a lot with your journaling. You go back and you read it and go, holy cow, there's stuff in there I didn't realize I was writing at the time. And for me, it was creative writing as well. I tried it and went into this massive catharsis. And I actually go back and read the original story that I didn't write for anyone either, just quietly. But even like a year or two later, I read it. And it gives you insights because I think in some ways you're digging so deep into those places, like not even you, understand the full meaning of what it is. And sometimes you have to go through a bit of life and then reread it and go: oh, now it all makes sense.

Melissa: Yes. And I think part of my journey in those creations is… I started with them not seeing light, right? Just doing it as a form of channeling. Then I became obsessed with them seeing light and became very tethered to the result, right? Then it was about how many get out there because that ‘meaning’ was sort of determined by how many got out there. I would be very, very ruthless and rabid about looking and making sure that they were successful.

Now I think it's maybe another form of, kind of the disintegrating, is [that] I truly believe that as I've aged and as I'm hanging less on to the achievements and the gold stars and the validation that I've really hollowed out my channel. I think about myself, my metaphor for myself as a tree, and if I think about my trunk as having been very dense, very heavy, and that's why  I couldn't gain the space between my head and my heart because it was just all this… it was all just a lot of junk in there.

The creativity kind of eked out through one little branch in my arm. As I've sort of disintegrated, right, that inside of the tree has almost been hollowed out to the point where now, when you think about those things, I can write something and I don't need to immediately have people see it and get it out to the world. Because now I realize that I'm really just doing it just for me. And I'm doing it for the joy of creating something from nothing and channeling that chaos into form, that in and of itself is a worthy act and something that just brings me a lot of peace and joy.

I think it's nice to have the things touch the world, no doubt. But I think when we can do it just for the act of doing it, that in itself becomes very meaningful.

Emma: Arguably, when you do it on that basis, it's more authentic. And when it's more authentic, and you do share it, then it's more likely to help people because it's the purest version of what it's supposed to be.

Melissa: true, that is exactly true.

Chris: I think the final point that I have on my mind for today is that we're going to be at the Dabrowski Congress together this summer. I'm doing my first keynote, Melissa is going to be there doing a keynote. And if anybody is interested, I mean, come join us in person in Denver or join us virtually, but we are going to be sharing our messages and I'm really excited to meet you in person in July! I'm just so psyched for that event at this point.

Melissa: I am too. When I got invited to that conference, it was like the crowning moment of my life because, you know, Kazimierz Dabrowski kind of saved my life. The thought that I would be able to speak about how he's done that with a whole bunch of people who care?! That's just unbelievable! And I can't wait to meet you and just have a chance to give you a hug for all you're doing to bring his teachings to the world.

Chris: Oh! Well, thank you! I know I'm so excited for hugs at the Congress. It's going to be really great. It really is. And for those of you who can only attend virtually that's gonna be fun, too. And we'll be sending virtual hugs.

Melissa: Virtual hugs, yes.

Emma: Sometimes we talk about “eating the hot dog.” The scariness of being authentic. So you know, the hot dog is filled with rubbish, you know, bits of hooves and miscellaneous meats and filler and pigeon and whatever else falls in the machine… But you talked about the purpose and having that greater need of doing it. So, sometimes you know the hot dog’s full of rubbish, but you eat it anyway because you see a higher hunger.

So, what would you say to anyone who's afraid of unveiling their authenticity or afraid of stepping forward and being themselves?

Melissa: It's a great question. I think that when the time is right, you have no choice. What I would say, honestly, is you're probably not quite ready yet. (Because I can tell you that when I finally…) I think about it as like a surrender, right? The exhaustion of hiding who I was became so great, right? When you're trying to be someone else and denying who you are, it is exhausting. And everybody who writes me those 10,000 letters, probably 9,000 of them use the word exhausted, exhausting. “This is exhausting. I can't do this anymore.” It's true. That's exact.

I looked at how many times in my book the word exhausting, exhausted appeared. It was a lot. It was like 10 times because that's the word. So I think at some point, the need to come out authentically exceeds the fear of what people will say. And it's only then, that it's right to do it. Because then you're going to throw caution to the wind and you're just going to do it.

By the time I did it, sure, I was middle age, which bummed me out a lot. But I never looked back. And I've never thought twice about doing it. People said to me… because I mean, in theory, I have a lot to risk. I mean, I live in this community, people see me as perfect, right? I have everything. I, a lot of people said, like, give me a break. You have everything. You? You don't have any reason to be depressed. My kids theoretically could take a lot of flack for their mom coming out with this big dark secret. But you know what? None of it mattered. I didn't pay two shakes to any of it because I had no choice.  I had to do this so that I didn't die saying I didn't live a life true to myself. So I would say sit with it, right? They know they want to do it. They know they're hungering to do it. And the more they sit with it, the more they listen to stories… I'd say listen to stories, which is what I did for years, of others doing it. And when you're ready, I do believe it'll be effortless.

Chris: One thing that I've wondered about, it's just what you said, you know, people have [the way] they perceive you, because of your success, wealth… how hard is it to be your authentic self when people have expectations of you? I'm trying to think of how to even phrase it, but I'm sure that they have a vision of you that is just created by their own expectations of how you must be. Because you have these things and it seems to me like that must be kind of isolating in a way, or difficult in a way that people maybe don't realize.

Melissa: Absolutely. And I think that's part of my mission now. And I love this mission. I love being able to say, I've had every material success you could ever want and even non-material. I have led an incredible life, right? I've had every material thing you could ever want, you name it. I've had it. I've had an amazing relationship. I mean, I met my husband when I was 19. We have a great partnership. We started our company together and are now starting a second one together. It's been incredible. I have six children. {incredulous sounding vocal intonation}

I want to say to them: but guess what? If you have an inner void and you don't accept yourself, none of those achievements will fill it. So for me, I was in a futile race, right? It was more, more, more external. And no matter what I had, it was never enough. There was always a bigger house to get, a shinier car. You name it, right? Another toy to make. You could go on forever. And I finally realized, I mean, one of the chapters of my book is called the ‘Futile Race’. That was what I was in my entire life.

The faster I raced on the treadmill, the more exhausted I got, and nothing changed inside. So really my third lesson, that came after “you are not alone;” we all have the capacity to channel our darkness into light and make meaning. The third [lesson] was: until we stop looking externally for our validation and chasing the shiny gold stars and stop to take a deep breath and have the courage to go inward and finally accept ourselves in totality. Give ourselves the love and empathy we've been seeking. We won't ever find fulfillment [until then]. So I actually think that my experience makes me really well equipped to show all these people who believe that the pursuit of happiness is the goal of life to say to them, you know what? You don't have to worry about that. You don't have to worry about that, actually, you could waste a lot of time and energy on that and get there and be like, I don't get it. This was supposed to be it. So save your breath on that. And please stop looking extrinsically. Go intrinsically because that's where the wealth really is.

Chris: I love that. And it reminds me of something that I've seen in Michael's work. You know, he's talked about the fact that there's such a, at least in the gifted community, there's so much emphasis on achievement at the expense of helping children develop their personal growth. But if we help children develop their personal growth, that the achievement is going to come naturally. All of the kids who are underachievers, one way to help them develop properly, in the sense of becoming their own authentic selves, they’ll achieve if that's what they're meant to do.

That'll happen naturally if we help them learn to have self-compassion and not be perfectionists and do these things that you're saying.

Melissa: [softly groaning with empathy] If we help them to live more, you know, in the verb and the doing, not the noun and the goal. If I can end with a verse because it's probably the verse that most defines my life and where, or at least now where I want to be. Could I do that?

Chris: Please do.

Melissa: It's about living in the verb and not the noun

It's the learning, not the grade

It's the crafting, not what's made

It's crusading, not the war

It's competing, not the score

It's the acting, not the part

It's the painting, not the art

It's the journey, not the goal

For the process, fuels the soul.

Chris: That's beautiful. Thank you so much. That's what I'm telling people all the time, when I work with them, that it's the process. This is a process. It doesn't happen overnight. It took you all these years to get to this point where you're dealing with this, it's going to take time to get to the other side of it. And so thank you so much, Melissa. Your story is amazing, and we're blessed to have you here with us today.

Melissa: Thank you. Well, what you're doing is so, this is really cool. You're gonna bring these principles to the world and so many can benefit from them.

Emma: Yeah. Thanks for sharing your story with us and being vulnerable with us and being authentic.

Melissa: Same with you!

Emma: And thanks to you, Chris, as well, for joining me. I think this is a fantastic episode and I think our listeners are going to get a lot from it.

Chris: I agree. Thank you so much.

Emma: And listeners, thank you for joining us. We always appreciate you coming and being with us on the podcast.

If you're listening to us on Apple or Spotify, please don't forget to hit those little stars and give us a rating. And if you've got any questions, feedback, please reach out to us. You can do so via email at positivedisintegration.pod@gmail.com or via Twitter or Instagram. Until next time, keep walking that path to your authentic self.