Dr. Colleen Georges
Interview by L.A. Strucke
QFTD: Tell us about yourself. Who is Colleen Georges?
Colleen: I’m a life and career coach and a positive psychologist. I work as a writer and small business owner. I teach at Rutgers University. I’m a mom. Those are ways I describe myself from a role perspective.
Spirituality plays a huge role for me and probably more so, the older I get. It has always been present. I am a lover of all God’s creatures. I’m a do gooder and goal setter. I’m an idealist - realist fusion. I’m imperfect, eccentric, and stubborn. I’m somebody who has made a bunch of mistakes and, fortunately, I was able to get to a place that I’m cool with all that. All of these things are part of who I am.
QFTD: Who else inspired you in your career and why?
Colleen: When I started graduate school, I was really lucky to have a lot of mentors. Not everybody is as fortunate, as me. I had amazing women around me -- faculty members, administrators at Rutgers that I admired. They were people who felt passionate about something, and pursued it academically, and in their careers. They were doing work that was helping people personally, academically, and professionally and making a larger, lasting, positive impact. Many were simultaneously managing a family and striving to be a role model for their kids.
It was almost a foreshadowing of what I wanted for myself later on. There were six or seven women that literally took me under their wing, gave me the wisdom of their own experiences, provided advice, shared their knowledge. They offered me opportunities in research, internships, and field work. I wanted to be like them, to help other people, especially women, later on.
QFTD: Which book that you’ve read has had the biggest impact on you and why?
Colleen: Louise Hay’s “Gratitude: A Way of Life.” It was around the year 2000 when I bought it. It was during a challenging time in my life, and I was looking for answers. Something about that title jumped out at me. It was a bunch of people giving advice or talking about how practicing gratitude changed their lives. Their practice of gratitude or of being able to be grateful had shifted things for them. That book had the most lasting impact on me, more than any other. There are many books that I’ve liked and utilized, but that one was the life changer for me.
QFTD: I haven’t read that book yet, but I’ve read Louise Hay’s book, “You Can Heal Your Life.”
Colleen: Yes, I have that book too. Louise Hay has so many. She has an aura about her, and the writers she chooses for her anthology books seem to have that same way about them – they’re inspiring, and touch on your emotions.
QFTD: You are a successful psychologist, life coach and author. What kinds of experiences did you have growing up that lead you into such a fascinating career?
Colleen: I’m blessed to have great parents who raised me to be kind and treat everybody equally. I never assume anything about anybody; I get to know people before I make decisions about them. My parents were always helping people. My mom made sure people were safe and taken care of. My parents are a huge part of where I am today. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents especially in the summers. My grandmother never met somebody she didn’t know. We’d be in the mall and she’d be having an hour long conversation with somebody. And afterwards I’d ask, “Who was that? Where do you know her from?” And she’d say, “I just met her.”
As much as I have lots of traits like my parents, many of my personality traits remind me of my grandmother - the eccentricities, a sort of airiness and friendliness. They’re my greatest influences. I’m blessed to have had a lot of really great role models in my family and to have two parents who are still together. There weren’t many challenges in my early growing up years. As an only child, I learned pretty early on that there aren’t a lot of good expectations for only children. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t live up to the negative expectations of what only children are supposed to be like. I have memories of kids being ridiculed in school for something. As soon as that happened to somebody, I would try to be their best friend until they were okay again. I never liked to see people be lonely or sad.
I can’t remember a time when my desire to help people wasn’t present. My trials arrived later. They came in college and in graduate school. I was much harder on me than I was on anyone else. That lead me into some pretty unhealthy romantic relationships. One that was emotionally abusive, another that was also bad. Those experiences snowballed into other poor choices. Things that impacted my life and academics. During my teens and early twenties, I dealt with anxiety and panic attacks. That’s when the self esteem stuff got pretty rough. The combination of people in my life that taught me to be good and kind and then having my own experiences with people who weren’t so kind, impacted my desire to help, and honed in on how I wanted to help.
QFTD: At your recent TEDx Talk at Rutgers, you spoke about the importance of gratitude. Tell us why gratitude is so important in life.
Colleen: I never believed that being thankful was that important until getting that Louise Hay book. I didn’t realize when I was at my lowest point, with panic attacks happening several times a day, and feeling so terribly about myself. I felt regretful, resentful, envious, like I didn’t have enough of what I needed to be happy, feeling sorry for myself, in a crappy place. When you’re in that place, you don’t think of yourself as being ungrateful. Nobody likes to think of themselves that way. What I realized after I started trying to be grateful, was that I had been ungrateful. I didn’t realize what I had. There may have been challenges, but I was so focused on them, that I was blind and oblivious to everything that was good in my life. I know that until a person engages in gratitude themselves it is so hard to imagine how could this really change your life so much. But it did, for so many reasons.
Many of us by nature can be so focused on the past and the future, that we’re not in the moment. Practicing gratitude forces you to be in the moment, because it forces you to think about what is good right now. It forces you to look around you and see who you have, what you have. It forces you to look within you and find your strengths and gifts, and forces you to look at your mistakes and the bad experiences or how we label them as bad. It forces you to look at those things and say, “Maybe I’ve gotten something from this. Maybe there is a reason why this happened. Maybe this thing that I thought I had to have so badly that didn’t work out, maybe there was a reason for that and if I look closely enough, I can see that.”
What makes it a life changer and why it’s so important is that it completely reframes how you look at yourself and how you view your world. Every time you face a challenge, it doesn’t mean that you don’t get stressed out or frustrated or that you never feel sorry for yourself, it means that you quickly can get into to the mode of saying, “There is some reason for this, I don’t understand what it is right now, but I am going to know at some point. I know that I’ve been able to deal with these things before and I am going to use whatever challenges I faced before, whatever wisdom I have, to deal with this thing.” It provides you with resources that you already had.
QFTD: What is it like going through the process of a TED Talk? From registration, preparation to the moment you stepped off the stage?
Colleen: It was probably one of the most stressful things that I’ve done in my recent life, aside from giving birth. Knowing that many people struggle with public speaking fears that fear of public speaking is next to dying, I think many people understand that reality.
Having a public speaking fear for many years led me to ultimately decide that I wanted to teach to overcome my fear. I’ve been teaching and doing workshops for years, it’s very normal for me now. Experiencing the anxiety that I went through leading up to the TED Talk was a little bit surprising. It dug up a lot of old stuff. I knew if I am going to have to experience it, I am going to use it. Nothing happens just by chance. I started my TED Talk by telling the truth about how months beforehand I started thinking, “Is there someway I can get out of this?” Even though I knew I’d never do that, just daydreaming about not doing the talk was satisfying.
Several years ago, when I saw Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability, I decided I wanted to do this. I love that she took something that was a challenge for her and turned it into a story, turned it into a passion, a way to help people. And I thought, I want to do that too.
Around two years ago, I applied to two TED Talks to be a speaker and received two rejections. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be or the topic wasn’t right. I kept applying until they finally called. It was in Fall 2014 I contacted Rutgers knowing they were putting together their 2015 TED event. I contacted them to see if they needed speakers. They said they already had them, so I remained in contact with the coordinators for the following year. They asked me to come in and present my ideas for 2016.
They told me to tell them the story I would tell people. It was like an audition in a way. Afterwards, they told me they were continuing to audition speakers.
I was in Florida with my family, Thanksgiving break 2015 when they emailed me and told me they wanted me to speak. I was so excited. They had me phrase my message around the theme they selected, which was stories. I wanted to talk about the stories we tell ourselves that shape the lives we live. I watched more TED Talks and looked at transcripts. I practiced constantly. I did extensive research, I cut my speech from 30 minutes down to a 15 to 18-minute talk. I recorded and videotaped it and watched it over and over. I practiced in front of my husband and son a million times.
QFTD: You were so persistent. You didn’t give up when they turned you down. I always see that with successful people. They don’t give up easily.
Colleen: I believe if it doesn’t work out, it is not the right timing. Once I got up on stage I was fine. There was a point in the middle where I flubbed a little, and I realized this was exactly what I was speaking about, but I kept talking and made it through it. After I got off the stage, the first thing I did was breathe in relief. All these people started coming up to me throughout the day. People cried, people hugged me, people asked for advice. It was a catharsis, an epiphany and euphoria. It was a moment that my heart filled up and I knew I did the right thing. There was a reason for it. That was why I was supposed to do that.
QFTD: Your book, Contagious Optimism, was a huge success. What inspired you to write it? Did you ever imagine it would become so successful?
Colleen: This was another one of those times where things come to you and you know that you’ve made the right decision. In 2010, I missed being there to raise my son and walked away from a full time job to become a home-based entrepreneur. I had this side business writing resumes and doing a little bit of career coaching, and I turned it into a full-time business. Within two months of my new entrepreneur life, a woman told me about her boss, David Mezzapelle, who was looking for people to write inspirational stories for his book about how being positive had changed their lives for the better. I had no idea where this would go. Ironically, David’s book was so similar to the Louise Hay book that literally had changed my life. I wrote a few pieces for it. It ended up an award winning best seller. It was so cool to be a part of the process. Authors and researchers are my celebrities and I was excited to be talking about the book at Barnes & Noble.
At one of my book talks in my hometown library, someone suggested I start a group. I’ve been running that Contagious Optimism monthly wellness group since Sept. 2013. People in Piscataway asked me to start another one in Sept. 2014. That’s the best thing that came out of it. I never imagined the book would do so well and would lead to these groups. Never in a million years. That’s the thing about life that is so exciting. When you start to have faith and stop trying to control everything, and being so afraid of everything, the whole world opens up.
QFTD: What has been the most rewarding part about your career? What has been the most exciting?
Colleen: Being able to craft my career around my son. That’s number one and the primary reason I walked away from full time, salaried work. He was a little over a year old when I left. I didn’t miss anything in his life. I worked from home completely before he started school. When my husband would come home from work, I would go teach classes at Rutgers at night. Since my son started school, I’ve been teaching and working with my clients virtually or in-person during school hours, 9:30 am to 2:30 pm. I take and pick him up from school, participate in school and district events and committees, and help him with his homework after school every day. It is all about my son. My life is all about my family.
The most exciting part has been marrying my two loves for writing and psychology and helping people so much in my career. I always dreamed of being a writer. I thought about being an English major in college. My parents were the ones who suggested I also pursue my other career choice of psychology. The writing I do is directed at helping people, one way or the other. I feel my biggest purpose is to help other people see the good within and around them. Being able to do that was the best thing. Also letting it evolve. My career keeps shifting. By focusing on whatever I love the most in the moment, everything keeps shifting. I don’t really know what will happen but I have faith. I just know it will lead me to cool places.
QFTD: You have spent much of your career helping people, especially women. You’ve said that you look for what is right with them, not what’s wrong. What advice do you give people suffering with low self esteem to improve their lives?
Colleen: It’s normal for people to ask what’s wrong when they see someone sad or say things like “What’s wrong with you?” But when someone says, “What’s right?” it sounds a little funny, because nobody says that.
QFTD: Maybe people should be saying that.
Colleen: I agree. It’s crazy that asking what’s right isn’t a normal phrase. The opposite is, so it’s not surprising that we spend so much time thinking about what’s wrong with us, what’s wrong with our lives and what’s wrong with the world. It’s not easy to stop doing that. It is sort of the way we’re taught. You get one bad grade and the rest of them are good and everybody wants to know why you got the one bad grade. You do nine great things on your performance appraisal and one thing goes wrong, and you go, “Why did I do that one thing wrong?” We do that all the time.
We’re always focused on what’s wrong in our lives. We could have all these really wonderful things, wonderful people, wonderful resources. We so often take that stuff for granted, and wonder why we don’t have more money, or more things, or why we don’t get to go on more vacations. It is an unfortunate piece of human nature. Our brains literally are wired to focus more on the negative. There’s research behind it that says the reason we do that is because we’ve always had to be ready from an evolutionary standpoint. Ready for the problems so we can protect ourselves. The unfortunate thing is we have to teach ourselves to do the opposite, it doesn’t come naturally. People are dealing with self esteem issues, depression, anxiety and eating disorders. There are so many different ways that we torture ourselves.
I also start with gratitude. Gratitude can be helpful for people when they are in that bad place. Gratitude and unhappiness don’t often co-exist. First, you must practice gratitude. Whether it is before you go to sleep at night, whether its at dinner, or waking up in the morning, whatever works for you. Throughout your day, in a journal or in your head, you should have some sort of gratitude practice. Write down three things you’re grateful for today and why. Vary those things up. Learn to find the gratitude in the challenges too. That’s key. Be aware of stories we create for ourselves for why we’re not good enough or why we can’t do something. Being able to learn to catch the thought patterns and pinpoint what types of experiences or events trigger them is important. We should look at them and say, “What is the reality of this? Have I been through this before? How did I deal with it before?” Then we can realize that we’ve been through something like this before, and it wasn’t nearly as catastrophic and damaging as we thought it would be. Is there evidence that it would be like that now? Probably not. Learn to talk ourselves down from those thoughts and replace them by speaking in a different way to ourselves. Focus on what we are good at and capable of doing. What I’ve learned in writing resumes is everybody from CEOs to new graduates to retirees, in every industry has trouble talking about what they’re good at. Use your strengths on purpose, every day. Do things you are afraid of. If you know something is good for you and you are a little afraid of it, figure out how to do it. You’ll find it isn’t as bad as you thought. Remind yourself you are as strong and you can do it and fear will disappear. We let fears and phobias hold us down. We begin to think that we are the fears and phobias. We should tackle those things and learn to be cool with the ways that we’re flawed and own it. Say, “I am always a work in progress. There’s things I am going to work on in myself right now, there are other things that I may never get to. And I refuse to be embarrassed to share those things.” That’s been critical for me, and why Brene Brown was impactful for me and so many other people. It gave me permission to say, “I don’t have to never tell people I had panic attacks. I don’t have to never tell people I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. I never need not to tell people I used to be terrified of public speaking.” There’s a million other things that I’ve written in books and shared. We can share those things and it is not the end of the world. It doesn't define you. It is just one part of who you are. It is important to be honest and share it and not be embarrassed anymore.
QFTD: And by sharing with other people, it makes them more comfortable sharing with you. They feel you know what they’re going through.
Colleen: You don’t want advice from someone who had the white picket fence life and never ever made a mistake. You want to hear from somebody who screwed up and got through it.
QFTD: Tell us about any new books coming out. Any new projects?
Colleen: I got hooked on these positive anthologies. Once you do one of them, it sort of launches you into this world where all these opportunities arise. I have a couple more coming up. I am most excited about the next two because gratitude and grace is the focus. One of them is called “Opening to Gratitude and Grace.” It will be out in August 2016. I share at length, the whole story about my anxiety and self esteem issues, and the things that were going on around that, and how gratitude and grace was a life changer.
In June of 2016, another book, “365 Moments of Grace,” is coming out. And I have a little piece in there that I never shared with anybody about a car accident I had in 1997, right after Christmas. I was hit and had a triple roll over and my car landed back on its wheels in an intersection. All I had was some skin ripped off my hand, some tiny glass shards in my face, and airbag burn. No broken bones. The EMTs happened to be having a holiday party right up the street. In a matter of minutes, there were about 15 EMTs on the scene. In my teenage years and early college years, I had many moments, where I’d feel sorry for myself, and thought there was no God. After that moment in 1997 there has never been a day, no matter what has happened, I’ve ever not believed in God or doubted his existence again. I’m here for a reason, because God let me be.
And, I’m finally writing my own book. It is called Seeing all the Good. I’m hoping to have it out in 2017. It remains a work in progress.
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