Welcome to It’s Not About The Chair. I’m Lyena Strelkoff, a storyteller, performer, speaker, and coach. I believe our stories — the ones we’ve lived, that we can’t believe we made it through, or can’t stop laughing about, or just can’t stop thinking about —  are the greatest source of healing we have, for ourselves and especially, for each other. I started telling my own stories after I was paralyzed in a fall. My hope is that this blog will be a place to laugh, learn, heal and grow together. Because, ultimately, it’s not about the chair, or any other obstacle we might face. It’s about the choices we make, the spirit we bring, and helping each other thrive. I’m so glad you’re here.

Dodging bullets in my head

I went into the bedroom the other morning, feeling pretty happy. Dean was taking Aidan to school, the house was quiet, and I was thinking about a blog post I wanted to write. I tossed my clothes onto the bed, hauled my body after them, and started wrangling my legs into pants. It was a fine day, and life felt all right.

Five minutes later, wheeling out of the bedroom, I felt like crap.

I stopped dead just before the door and thought, wait a minute, what the hell just happened?

Because nothing had happened. No one came in or out. Nothing happened outside. Dressing was routine. So why, all of a sudden, was I feeling so miserable?

And then I noticed how incredibly familiar that feeling was. I’d felt it countless times before, every day in fact, sometimes multiple times a day. It felt like a giant stone across my upper back, slumping my shoulders and pushing me down. I felt nervous and tense. Irritable.

I sat frozen for a moment, feeling the yuck, scanning, scanning, scanning… And then….

What were you just thinking? I asked myself. Because whatever had happened, it happened inside me.

And I realized I was imagining criticism.

Entering the bedroom, I’d been thinking about the post I wanted to write, and sometime between getting on the bed and getting off it, I’d started imagining the heat I might take. A specific person had come to mind and, within seconds, I’d plunged deep into a fantasy of confrontation where I was criticized, called out, and humiliated for what I’d (as yet not) written.

Well that certainly explained feeling beaten like a dog by a bullying master. No wonder happy had hightailed it under the bed.

But what really got me was the realization that I do this – imagine criticism – all the time.

I’ve been paying close attention lately, and nearly every time I have a work related impulse, someone comes to mind and starts telling me why it’s stupid, wrong, short-sighted, misguided, harmful, useless, self-centered, whatever… inside my head.

Now, I’m pretty sure that 30 years ago, I used to imagine such things even more often, across many more aspects of my life. So even though I’m doing it all the time and the effect is pretty fierce, it’s still an improvement. There’s been a lot of healing in the last 30 years.

Still, subjecting myself to invented criticism multiple times a day is just NOT acceptable. I mean, honestly, it’s a miracle I produce anything!

Talking to my friend, Beckie, about it the other day, she asked the obvious and same question I’ve been asked by multiple friends and therapists over the years: Whose voice is that? It seems natural to presume the inner critic is an internalized version of an identifiable outer critic.

But the question has always stumped me.

The fact is, I didn’t grow up with a parent or sibling who routinely criticized me. I wasn’t told I sucked or that I was worthless. I wasn’t habitually called out or humiliated. I’m not saying my family was some pinnacle of perfect support, but it’s definitely not as simple as, oh yeah, my grandmother was always lobbing grenades and now she lives inside me.

So what is living inside me?

One thing I find really interesting is that my imagined critic is rarely the same person twice. Every now and again, an antagonist makes a repeat appearance, but the person could be almost anyone: an acquaintance, friend, colleague, family member. It’s not like I have one, or even a small circle, of inner bullies. The roster is extremely diverse.

And rarely is it someone to whom I’ve given much power. So it’s NOT a beloved teacher, or my husband, or my mom, or a dear friend, or a mentor. I mean sometimes it’s one of those people, but often it’s a person in my life whose criticism, if it were actually coming my way, wouldn’t necessarily mean very much.

And that’s another interesting bit: in real life, I rarely get criticized.

For the last 13 years especially, I’ve led a VERY public life. And if folks disagree with me, or have been offended by something I’ve said, they’ve generally kept their mouths shut. Almost entirely. In fact, the very few people I can think of who have taken issue with me have done so extremely politely. Even lovingly. Those people sound exactly NOTHING like the voices in my head.

So, what’s the story?

Beckie is one of my dearests and we live 3,000 miles apart so, from time to time, we have these marathon conversations (pure heaven!). Last weekend, we spent a fair amount of time exploring my troublesome pattern. And when she asked what I knew about the origins of said pattern – the “whose voice is that” question – I started taking about what I did grow up with.

My mom is a child of war. She was born a refugee in Yugoslavia, poor as dirt, and by age nine was living in the midst of three simultaneous wars. She and my grandmother ended up at Mauthaussen, a concentration camp for prisoners of war (among other groups). She survived the atrocities and deprivation (they both did) only to languish for years in displaced persons camps in Europe. When she and her parents were finally sponsored by a family in the US in the 1950s, not only were they exploited, but my mom quickly contracted tuberculosis which very nearly killed her. So it is for good reason that her motto was and probably still is, “Look for danger first.”

I don’t remember expressly being taught the same, but I do remember having my ideas and desires met with immediate concern that often sounded like criticism. Just to give a concrete example, when I was 10, I told my mother I wanted to be a child psychologist. I wasn’t actually super attached to the idea but my friend, Danielle, had said she wanted to be one and it sounded noble and smart, so I adopted the idea. But when I shared it with my mom, her face stretched into a horrified grimace as she exclaimed, “You want to spend all day listening to the sad stories of suffering children?? How depressing!” So much for noble and smart.

When I think back on that story, and underneath the implied criticism, I see extreme protectiveness… Love, actually. However inelegant the package, I think my mom was delivering her best, proven strategy for self-preservation in no small part because she is bone-achingly devoted to my survival. What had saved her could save me, even if it clobbered me first.

And she was doing exactly what life had proven required: beware the downside… and by all means, avoid it. It wasn’t unusual, before being captured by the Nazis, for my mother to greet soldiers at the door demanding to know my family’s allegiance. And my mother would frantically scan the uniform for clues of affiliation so that she could provide the “correct” answer, thereby securing her family’s survival for one more day. Hers was a literally dangerous world. One always had to wonder from where the bullets would come.

My father was nothing like my mother in this regard. But ironically, he reinforced the lesson. Because my dad was often the one firing bullets.

I spent the majority of my days with my mother, but I saw my father one weekend a month for most of my childhood and while I have really treasured memories from that time, I was often extremely confused.

I remember unloading groceries from the car when I was 11 or 12. My dad had taken some bags inside and I was out by the car picking up more. I grabbed a heavy one and started walking toward the house when I realized the bag was too much for me. I didn’t want to spill the stuff and the bag seemed about to tear so I called out, “Papa, help!”

My dad came racing out of the house and around the side to where I stood, but when he saw me wrestling with nothing but groceries, he was livid. He scolded me for calling out like I was in real danger, made it seem like I should know better, shamed me for not.

My brainwaves went flat. He lived in a not stupendous part of San Francisco but I never felt insecure there, and never in a million years, when I called out for help, did I suspect he would fear I was being attacked. I thought he’d trot outside and rescue me from the uncooperative bag with a playful, “Aaack.” Instead he fired round after round of verbal bullets as I stood there, frozen and dumbstruck, unable to compute.

Another time, I was a bit older, he asked me to do the dishes. I expressed some mild teenage annoyance, a grumble or complaint, thinking he’d react the way my mother did: mildly if at all, knowing I would, in fact, do as asked. Instead he got mad and fired off shots about my intolerable behavior.

I remember so clearly, from both these occasions, my utter shock. Even as I write about it, I can feel the flat-lining, the… disconnect… inside my body. And I have a slew of memories just like these, times when I felt… just blindsided, by a reaction or response. I never saw those bullets coming.

Sharing these stories with Beckie, I started to realize my habit of imagining criticism isn’t so much about replaying old tapes as it is about dodging potential bullets.

When a critic surfaces in my mind, that person is the answer to the unconscious question, “From where could bullets come?” I’m looking for danger and trying to avoid it. If I know from where they might come, and what type they are, I’m better equipped to dodge any bullets.

I was just about to type, “The problem with all this…” but “the problem” is a ludicrous understatement. There are SO MANY problems with all this! And they are stupendously destructive.

First of all, the imagined criticism FREQUENTLY stops me in my tracks. There’s a lot of conceived work product that never comes into form. And that which does manage to manifest often requires excessive time and energy to birth because I’ve got to battle the effects of the criticism.

Secondly, way too much happy is getting eclipsed by crappy.

And finally, there is the problem behind the problem (by far, the most perverse): It is so ingrained to pose the question “from where might the bullets come” that I do not EVER notice I’m asking it. I ask it every time, without fail, in a whole host of circumstances… And I do not EVER notice I’ve done it.

That, my friends, is really bad news.

It is simply my instinct, my default to ask. And the whole question has been reduced to a switch that gets flipped or a button that’s pushed. It is unconscious and automatic, and that makes it very hard to change.

But… not impossible. :)

The good news is the problem behind the problem is the key to the whole thing. And I know what the problem behind the problem is. That means, I’m empowered. Clumsy… but empowered.

So, the work in front of me is to begin to notice.

At first, it will probably look a lot like it did that day in my bedroom. I’ll notice the crappy; it’ll feel familiar; I’ll remember what generally causes that feeling; I’ll become aware of the specific criticism and critic that surfaced moments before; and like that, bit by bit, I’ll trace my way back to the switch. I won’t be able to see the switch, but I’ll know it’s there.

Then, I’ll start catching it before the crappy, while I’m still imagining the bullets. I’ll become aware of the specific criticism and the critic. I’ll look for the switch.

And little by little, as I practice, the mechanism will lose its power. The switch will still flip and the criticism will still be imagined, but it won’t slow me so much. It won’t be so hard to defeat.

There might even come a time when I’ll become aware just as the critic is emerging, before s/he has a chance to say anything, and I’ll be able to choose if I want to hear what might be said. Mostly, I’ll choose yes because I’ll still be too afraid of bullets to choose no. But eventually, I won’t care anymore what the critic might say, and I’ll turn away.

Then maybe, just maybe, if I’m really lucky and I keep at it, one day I’ll notice that critics hardly ever show up anymore. That I no longer imagine criticism…. And I haven’t for a loooong time.

So that’s my plan. And it’s good to have a plan. Because no matter the origins of this unfortunate pattern, it’s my ballgame now. I am 100% responsible for every pitch and at bat. (That’s how we Sheroes roll, right?) Plus, even if I’m spot on in my analysis of my parents, I’m certain they never intended to shackle me. And no matter it all, I don’t live in a war zone and there aren’t bullets flying. It’s time I stop acting like there are.

Besides, if I’m going to invent how people respond to me, why not invent something wonderful? I mean, seriously, why not?

As I’ve been writing, I’ve noticed at least twice the rise of a critic (though I’m certain it’s happened more often), and both times, it caused me to edit myself. The real tragedy, though, is that the criticism and the editing happened almost simultaneously. It would be sad enough if I chose to contort myself in response to inner critique, but there was no choosing. It just happened.

Still, I noticed. A bit after the fact, yes, but I noticed. And my dearest hope is that, as I notice more often, the distance between bullet and dodge will grow, so much so I’ll have a chance to decide if dodging is even warranted.

And that, my friends, would be excellent. Because from the Shero point of view, having a choice is almost more important than eliminating the bullets.

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The Quickening

I went outside this morning with Reba-girl and discovered the most beautiful, spring day. Sunny and warm, with that kind of freshness that only hangs around in spring.

It’s a bit early, of course. I’m pretty sure our trees are going to be very confused. But that’s nothing new around here.

It’s interesting timing for me, pesonally. Today is Brigit, one of eight holy days in my spiritual tradition. It’s the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The Quickening, we call it.

In winter (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), the earth is fallow. The soil rests and replenishes itself. If there are seeds in the ground, they lie dormant.

But then something happens. Something stirs inside them. A quiet, lightless spark ignites, so subtle it can hardly be perceived but with the power of a locomotive, for from barren stillness will grow a plant that feeds or a mighty tree.

That something is the Quickening.

And we begin to perceive, finally, the growing length of days (though, in truth, they have been lengthening since the winter solstice).

In my tradition, this natural phenomenon is seen as a metaphor for the cycles and seasons of humans. By the earth, we are called to settle in and dream during the winter cold, to lean into our communities, to rest and replenish (SO profoundly not the stress, shopping, and sleeplessness of the typical holiday season!). There in the literal dark, when hours of daylight are naturally scarce, our dreams are at leisure to emerge and evolve. They play off each other, expand, contract… like an eternal blossom ever unfolding.

And then, the Quickening.

Our dreams begin to coalesce into clear visions. The most fervent of those visions rise to the forefront of our consciousness and their brilliance, so luminous in the darkness, inspires our dedication. They become our priorities, our goals for the coming seasons.  We begin to invest our hearts more and more deeply in those few visions. And that love, that commitment and attention, acts like that same sacred something that awakens the sleeping seeds. Our dreams, like the seeds deep in the earth, germinate.

In accordance with the natural world, those dreams won’t take physical form until spring when, just like the tender sprouts of seeds breaking through the thawed crust of ready soil, they’ll become tangible and real in the world, infantile but poised for growth.

At least, that’s the idea.

So I find myself wondering, what are the dreams that are floating to the forefront, gathering momentum, condensing into potent seeds. Where will I place my devotion? To what will I dedicate myself?

There are two coming to mind in this moment. One is my memoir… My poor, suffering, neglected memoir. The other is a non-profit organization to house my work with women on a shero’s journey. (The campaign to raise funds for my work with Cheri is definitely inspiring me.) And actually, there’s also a third, though it’s vibrating considerably more slowly, and that’s an updated blog/website that reflects the evolution of my work and mission. (Ooooooo, that’s vibrating more swiftly now just for naming it!)

It’s too soon to say where precisely I’ll land. In my perfect world, I’d know this today, but I absolutely do not live in my perfect world! So, I’ll be comfortable with what I do know right now, and watching in the coming days as things evolve. Having asked the question, it’s usually my experience the answer begins to appear.

And you? What dreams are coming forward for you? To what will you dedicate yourself when the light fully returns and all around the natural world, there is birth, growth, and fruition?

(Click here for an update on Cheri’s Shero Fund to Beat Cancer.)

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Come on, angels!

I am not an angel gal. I was never moved by the angel craze– (Sorry, “craze” sounds disrespectful. Thing? Fad? Fashion? Ugh… I need another word… Affinity? Ok…) Nope, never had an affinity for angels. Never felt inspired by paintings of cherubs. Never resonated with having a guardian angel. Never felt any impulse to commune with, or ask the intervention of, angels. Until I met Cheri.

Cheri is an angel gal. Not sure she surrounds herself with cherubs exactly, but she is in deep relationship with the angels. She talks to them, they talk back. She sees them in her mind; they tell her their names. While we were on Shero’s Retreat last year, the angels played a huge role, even sending me direct signs and signals. In fact, their presence was so profound (or the presence of something that we are calling angels), angel wings became the symbol of our work that week. And I became somewhat of a convert.

Last week, you know we launched Cheri’s Shero Fund to beat cancer. I already told you how the cavalry came in, raising 25% of our goal in just 1 day. Well, there was more work to be done, more money to raise, so I got busy. We reached out to various groups of friends via Facebook last week, and this week, I started reaching out directly to individuals.

Just as a side note, that was a real boot-tempting activity. It’s quite the challenge to your self-worth to write a personal note to an acquaintance or someone you’ve not been in close touch with, and directly ask them to give money to support you and a total stranger. But, apparently, boot-tempting is what I’m into these days!

Anyway, the first day of individual appeals, I reached out to 15 people and a few dollars trickled in. Cheri and I firmly believe that every dollar counts, but this wasn’t going to meet our goal anytime soon. Still I wasn’t discouraged; we’d raised almost 50% of our goal the first week (!) and it was only the first day of individual appeals. I had a commitment to personally contact 70 people over the course of the week. So the next day, Wednesday, I carried on with the intention and reached out to 20 more.

But that day, something was totally different.

I felt it right away, like a surge of energy. I was looking at a huge list of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances, when certain names would just… vibrate a little  when I got to them. I noticed it especially because when I read the other names, they’d feel… flat. Just names on a piece of paper, even though I loved a lot of those people, have wonderful relationships with them. Usually their names invoke something in me. But this time, only a very specific few, some of whom I never would have guessed, lept out at me.

So I started contacting those few. And BOOM! Immediate response, more than 2x the average donation. Then again, immediate response, same big number. It slowed a bit after that but still, the donations kept coming in, more than $300 altogether, pushing us over the $3,000 threshold. It was incredible.

Later that night, I wanted to check in with Cheri. She had what we hope is her last round of chemo last Friday and it’s been really wiping her out. I picked up my phone to text her and there was a text from her. Here’s what she said:

“Exhausted with this last treatment but before I went to bed last night, I asked the angels to show their support, for there to be at least $3,000 by today. I just went on [the GoFundMe page] and I’m blown away. The angels are with us!”

I guess that woosh! of energy was angel wings. :)

Today’s the last day for awhile that I’m focusing on fundraising. Next week, Cheri and I begin our intensive work, and I simply can’t do both.

But we’re hoping to raise just a little bit more before then. We’d love to reach $3,500 (63% of our total goal) before we lay it down for a bit and as of this moment, we’re only $165 short! So I’ve got just one thing to say….

Come on, angels!!!

(If you’d like to help the Angels out, please consider a $10 donation and some words of encouragement for Cheri here. Thank you, for all you do.)


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Participating in triumph: Cheri — a shero rising

The time has come.

Yesterday, I launched a campaign to raise money for a shero named Cheri. She’s fighting for her literal life and I’m in a position to help her but I need a lot of support.

So I gathered her story and, together, we put ourselves out there. She took a chance on being worthy of support (though she often doesn’t feel it). And I took a chance, well, on the same.

You know what happened?

The cavalry came, or the angels, or sheros, or circling wagons…. You can pick your metaphor. Just 24 hours into the effort, we’ve raised almost 25% of our goal.

That’s an extraordinary show of support. Thrilling…. and humbling.

You know what didn’t happen?

The boot.

And no old story of worthlessness stole Cheri’s day.

In fact, it’s been especially thrilling to witness Cheri taking in all the love and support. Six months ago, it would have been so out of alignment with her self-image, it would have flattened her.

So, now it’s time for me to ask for your help.

If you remember Cheri’s story and want to jump right to the campaign, click here.

Otherwise, allow me to share the nutshell:

After finding out that her marriage of 20 years was full of fraud, my client Cheri scraped herself off the ground, borrowed money to work with me, did extraordinarily deep work, and positioned herself to rise from the ashes.

Then she got hit with a cancer diagnosis.

Her fight to thrive has become a literal fight to survive.

Miraculous things are already happening, but she desperately needs more support. She’s still extricating from her toxic marriage, still without independent resources, and every day is a brutal challenge to stay rooted in her power.

I can help with that. We’ve already seen what she can do with my support. Cheri is ferociously strong and flawlessly intuitive. Everything’s in place if she can just stay the course. Please help her complete her shero’s journey.

Cheri and I are raising $5500 so that Cheri can continue her work with me. I’ve cut my fees as much as I can and, combined with your help, I can provide support for a full SIX MONTHS. If we can inspire just 550 people to give just $10 each, Cheri can position herself for the greatest chance of recovery and continue rebuilding her life.

Here’s how to help:

  • Check out our GoFundMe page and read Cheri’s story. Then make a donation in any amount. Every dollar matters actually matters and brings us closer to Cheri’s goals.
  • Share this story with your community and include your endorsement. Five hundred and fifty people is a tiny percentage of our combined tribes. It needn’t feel a burden to anyone and, together, we can really do something special.
  • Leave a comment for Cheri on the GoFundMe page. Her world is shockingly devoid of positive voices. Your encouragement is literally priceless.

I can’t tell you the fire in my heart for this cause. I’ve never asked for anything like this before and, as I’ve said, it’s downright terrifying. But I don’t care. It’s worth any terror to do this work, to walk with this woman when she needs it the most.

My longtime friend, Jennie, put it beautifully after she’d read the story and donated/commented at the campaign:

“Love and thanks to you for letting us participate in Cheri’s triumph!”

That’s how I see it. We are all participating in Cheri’s triumph. I hope you see it that way, too.

Thank you… for believing in us both.

Cheri’s Shero fund to beat cancer

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The ant and the boot

Next week, I’m going to do something that scares me half to death.

In a nutshell: The shero’s journey of a former client (you might remember Cheri) has taken a very dark turn. She’s been given a cancer diagnosis and is in critical need of deep support. She hasn’t the means to fund continuing work with me, and given the dedicated attention her journey demands (and deserves!), I can’t do the work uncompensated.

So I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to reach out to my community for help. Not a little bit of help, mind you. A lot of help. And it’s got me jacked up with fear.

Boy, do I feel foolish/ridiculous/small even saying so. I imagine all the wise and well-meaning naysayers saying, “Whatever for?? There is no rational reason to be afraid and, frankly, it’s Cheri who is at risk.”

All true.

And it doesn’t matter.

So for a minute, I’m going to put aside all that gorgeous wisdom and any (all) self-reproach and just tell you my truth.

Three days ago, I felt like I was in mortal danger.

Trying to get dressed and enter my day, my heart was racing and I couldn’t catch my breath. Terror was clearly mounting so I asked Dean for a hug. After several desperate seconds of clutching, my heart settled down, my breath came back, and I started wondering what precisely was I afraid of. A history of anxiety has long since taught me it’s always best to get specific.

First to float up: humiliation.

I’m not afraid of simple failure. I can weather disappointment and there is always a way forward. But this work is my calling. And I am following a delicate thread into the unknown solely because I’m inspired.

So I’ll be putting my heart out there, way up front and naked, to rally other souls to a concrete show of support and I might be met only weakly by lackluster reflection… That would leave me grossly exposed on the tender fields of my brave hope. And that feels humiliating, if not downright mortifying.

But even as my stomach lurched in a nauseating vote for retreat, I knew such fear was superficial. I am aware that mortification isn’t actually a mortal wound. And if it should happen, though I might shrink, I will surely rebound.

So I turned toward the fear once more and took a deeper step into the darkness. Here is what I saw:

I am an ant.

With conviction in my belly, I crawl into a clearing and raise myself on spindly rear legs. I gather my breath and with all my strength, call out to the creatures around me, offering a vision of healing and service, an invitation to believe and belong. I ask them to give of themselves and, by implication, to demonstrate their belief in me.

Not many are moved. My voice peters out, disappointment creeps in, and embarrassment starts to sting. But before I can recover and look for a new clearing (because I won’t give up), the boot arrives.

It belongs to a demon that lurks in my field but from my insectile perspective, all I see is the boot.

The boot is a bully and failure its food. No matter how small or temporary the shortfall, the boot makes a meal of it. And with its filthy, leather creases freshly plumped, the boot rises and bellows:

Who are you to call anyone forward?

Who are you to ask for support?

You who think your vision is worthy, your life consequential… You are nothing. An ant. Puny and common. A speck and a pest.

Who are you to say, “This matters, please help me?”

Back to the earth, stupid bug.

And the boot smashes my body into the dust, crushing my frail and trembling legs, leaving me destitute in its craterous imprint.

The truth is (and I suspect it might surprise), I have lived under threat of the boot my whole life. Its vicious force scares me breathless.

But this is also true. Next week… It won’t matter.

In a few days, I’m going to stand in the clearing and ask for your help and do my best to inspire you to action. Knowingly, willfully, I’m going to put myself in range of the boot.


Because Cheri deserves it.

And because beyond what I see, this is what I know:

If the boot takes me down, I will be brought up.

On Her silver bow, the Goddess will lift me, above the walls of the crater and into the moonshine. And there I will rise, like a phoenix from fire. And I will be stronger and clearer, ever more ready to serve. Cheri, herself, reminds me – the soul of the Shero is nourished by ash.

So stay tuned. Next week I’ll be back, standing on my spindly rear legs, asking for your help. Cheri has a real shot of beating this cancer and living the life to which she’s been called. I won’t walk away from that potential, and certainly not for some dumb-ass boot.

I hope you’ll hear the call and join me.

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