I recently appeared on Art Costello's Shower Epiphanies podcast. We had a lively, wide-ranging conversation. Click here to listen to the podcast.
Enjoy the transcription below!
My guest is Marie-Elizabeth Mali. She is a midlife transformation specialist who works with successful professionals who struggle in their personal relationships. She also shows people how to let the love and pleasure they cultivate in their relationships expand their professional success. She believes accessing your spiritual essence is the key to transforming limiting beliefs about yourself and what you’re capable of. Experiencing the depth of who you are is the path to wholeness, personal power and being proactive in your life. Marie-Elizabeth is also a published poet with an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She is an underwater photographer who has a thing for sharks. Welcome to the show, Marie-Elizabeth.
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
I was born in New York and my family comes from three places primarily. My father’s side of the family is from Venezuela and also the United States. My mother’s side of the family is entirely from Sweden. I was born in New York. I grew up visiting Sweden and Venezuela ever since I was smaller than a year old and learned three languages simultaneously as I grew. I didn’t get English until I got into school and I was three. I began life with a mishmash of influences, languages and inputs that I had to sort out and figure out very quickly. That created an ability to move into and assess situations very quickly, read people and tried to do the right thing to fit in because everywhere I went had a different custom. The customs in Sweden are quite different from Venezuela and New York.
I grew adept at trying to do the right thing to fit in. Yet at the same time, I never experienced belonging because always some part of me would be left out. The gregarious part maybe didn’t get to come out as much in Sweden or the more serious and proper part didn’t get to come out in some other place. A lot of what I’ve focused on in my life is learning to have an internal sense of belonging, what is it to belong to myself and move into any situation with that intact. Rather than trying to change myself to mold, fit in and do everything properly, my focus began to change on how I’ll be authentic no matter where I am in a way that’s calibrated, not ignoring the external, but being able to bring my authentic self in. I’m 52 years old. It’s taken me a good long while to get to that level of authenticity where I’m comfortable being anywhere as myself.
Another piece of it for me is I also feel like it has strengthened my curiosity. Rather than going into a new situation and judging everything by my dominant culture like New York or judging everything according to whether or not it fits that paradigm, I tend to show up much more curious about how you do things. For example, in my junior year in college, I lived in Taiwan. I studied the language and literature. I didn’t even know I did this. This was part of when I still did everything I could to fit in. I took my shoes off at the door. There are all these very prescribed ways of interacting in Chinese culture. When my parents came to visit, my father kept saying, “What are you doing? Why are you trying to be Chinese?” I was like, “I’m not trying to be Chinese. I’m just living in these people’s home as it were in this country’s home. I want to be respectful of their norms, their morals and all of that while I’m a guest in their space.” That felt so natural and easy to me because I had grown up visiting all these different places. I was adept at reading the thing to do.
It’s less fear and more interest like what are they like, what are they about and who are these people? It’s informed so much of what I have done with my life because I work with people. I’m fascinated by people and what makes them tick, and very little culturally puts me off. I feel comfortable with people who have different backgrounds than I do and work with people who have different backgrounds than I do. I haven’t found my background to be particularly a barrier to understanding.
We’re really similar. It’s that curiosity and openness that you’re describing. You’re not just coming with like, “Let me show you how things should be.” It’s more like, “Who are you? What are you passionate about? What’s up in your life? Where did you come from?” That curiosity is infectious. It’s what we need more of in our country. Our country has gotten divided. People have lost that sense of curiosity and have entrenched themselves in saying, “My way is the right way.” It’s to our detriment as a species that’s happening.
Fear is convenient because it makes people controllable.
I learned to scuba dive in 2000 and I fell in love with it. When I got underwater, everything that I had done until that moment, all the meditation I had done, all the study I had done, it was as if it all landed in my body and made sense. There was a sense of home under the water, even with all the apparatus that you wear when you’re scuba diving: the tank, the vest, the regulator in your mouth and all that stuff. There was something about being in an environment that’s not native to human beings. It’s similar to growing up between three cultures and finding myself in a place that was not organized around me. The ocean is organized around itself and the creatures that live in it. I’m a visitor and all of a sudden, I get to be in this beautiful psychedelic coral, colors, fish, sunlight, this stunning landscape that dropped me into such a deep space.
I felt God in the water. I don’t know how else to say it. For me, when I get to be underwater and then I see the sharks who are the apex. Orcas can take down some sharks. Maybe the orcas are really the apex, but I haven’t swum with the orcas yet. Sharks are what I’ve got so far. To be with the apex predator of the ocean and to see the way they move, they have this beautiful undulation when they’re swimming in a relaxed fashion. They undulate back and forth and it’s gorgeous. I used to be a dancer. It has this dance-like feeling to it that I love. They can speed up on a dime and just shoot at something when they’re hunting. I find it so thrilling; the economy of movement, the shape of the motion itself, their focus and their sensitivity. They have these current-sensing cells at the front of their heads that can feel every movement and electrical impulse that’s happening in the water, and how quickly they respond to that. Sharks are such a model of attention, focus, power, the economy of movement and skill. I love them.
I was fearless when I first began scuba diving because I began in a very gentle place. I first went diving in Bonaire, which is off the coast of Venezuela. There were no currents. It’s very gentle, sweet, simple and easy diving. It was a great place to learn. Since then, I have had fear. I have had a few close calls underwater when there’s been a strong current or I’ve gotten low on air and things like that. I’m not as fearless now as I was in the beginning. As a diver, you learn how to read the shark’s behavior. If I’m ever in the water and the sharks start looking like they’re getting hungry, we get out. I’ve never had a close call with a shark. None has ever bumped me and none has ever tested me to see if I’m food so far so good. I’ve always had the luck to dive with very experienced divemasters who know how to read their body language and know when it’s time to get out of the water. If they start changing in the way they move, we get out.
Preparation, attention and knowing how to read the situation.
I do. All my years of meditation practice prepared me to have a profoundly spiritual experience when I drop in the water. I love to talk about the idea of buoyancy. As a scuba diver, buoyancy means you have the air and the weights that you’re carrying in your gear just right so that you can completely relax and the water holds you. If your buoyancy isn’t right, if your weights are too heavy, you’ll sink. If your BCD or the vest that you wear is too full of air, you’ll tend to float and you’ll have to work hard to stay where you are. This is a deep metaphor for life and for our relationship to life or God or the universe or the field of consciousness, whatever thing it is that you call that larger thing that surrounds us and is within us.
Buoyancy, being underwater and having that experience of getting my part just right, my weights, my air and feeling completely held like I can let go. I am held by the water, I ask myself and I have asked clients in the past, “What’s that like in your life? What is the part you need to do to show up? We don’t just passively abdicate our responsibility. We do our practices. We work on our mindset. We exercise. We eat well. All of that is our part to show up and be clear. Where’s the place where you need to relax, let go and let life hold you? What I experience underwater when I get the buoyancy right and I have that visceral experience of feeling held, that has completely transformed how I feel in my life.
No, I grew up in Manhattan then I visited each place.
My father set most of the expectations. It’s so tricky because even though my mother set expectations too, they were just different than the ones that my father set. In certain ways, I patterned after my mother for sure, but in terms of how I excelled at school, it was my father who pushed me in that way. Back then, criticism was the way parents tend to try to get you to be better. We’ve moved beyond that now, thankfully. What happened to the other two points at school when I brought home a 98? He set the expectations very high for me to excel in school and to be a professional of some kind. At the same time, his expectations were always slightly different than what I knew would be right for me or what I wanted.
Let me give you an example. In college, I decided to major in East Asian Studies with a Chinese language and literature concentration. I already spoke four languages and I wanted to learn a fifth language that was very different that I didn’t have roots in. I wasn’t attracted to Russian. I had been reading Chinese philosophy since I was fifteen. I was deeply into Chinese philosophy and also Japanese Zen. It was very logical for me to choose the Chinese language and literature. My father said, “Why don’t you study Latin American Studies since that’s your background?” I said, “First of all, my college doesn’t have a Latin American Studies Department.” It would be difficult to major in that and I’m also attracted to China.
When I went to massage school, it was, “How come you don’t go to physical therapy school? It’s more accepted.” I said, “Because I want to be a massage therapist, not a physical therapist.” When I got my Master’s in Chinese Medicine, it was, “Why don’t you go to medical school? It would be so much better for you to be a doctor.” I said, “Because I want to study Chinese Medicine. I don’t want to work in a hospital.” Every single thing I did was always met with an expectation that it should be slightly different. I maybe have to fight for what I love, which strengthened me.
I want to say something about that too because even though I always did my own thing, I still had a voice in my head telling me it was wrong. I still internalized my father’s voice and had crippling self-criticism for a long time. Even though I somehow had the fortitude to choose my own way, I still crippled myself with inner criticism.
There was something I see and I call it the deepest self, our core or our authentic self, whatever it is. Somehow my allegiance to that deeper part of me that knows what I want as opposed to what I was taught to want has always functioned well in the arena of my career and purpose. I’ve always felt like when I’ve wanted to change what I’m doing and when something inside has said like, “You’re done here. Give up patient care and go back to grad school and get an MFA in poetry and be a writer.” I’m like, “Okay.” It’s not what I would have expected. I was in the middle of buying a larger office and I’m going to expand my practice. I went to the lawyer the day I heard that message from inside and I said, “Can I get my deposit back on his office because I don’t want to buy it? In fact, I’m going to close my practice.” The lawyer was like, “What?” My allegiance to that inner truth is above everything. Even with all that, it was hard for me to have it in a relationship. While I had the clarity around my purpose and my work, I tended to not be as clear when it came to a relationship until I specifically worked on that. Just because you have it in one area, it doesn’t mean you have it everywhere.
Most of the time, but not always. If I don’t, I pay for it.
I’m with you. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t mostly listen to it. This is what I do with my clients as well. The first thing I like to work on with them is around the voices in our heads because I find that there are often competing voices. In my case, there was the voice that was bold and willing to go do what I wanted to do because it was clear and it felt right to me. At the same time, there was a loud critic. I had to learn how to work with all my voices because trying to suppress or deny or cut off any part of ourselves never works. It bites you in the ass in the end. You have to learn how to accept and allow all of it to be heard while you still choose the clear one that you want to follow.
I have a process that I take clients through that helped them navigate their voices and change their relationship to their mind. The second piece is always listening to your body, listening to your gut, whether the message comes from your gut, your heart or your genitals for some people. Wherever the message shows up for you like learning what your signals are for yes and no on the bodily level before your mind has a chance to override it and tell you what you think you should be feeling from its perspective. You need to learn how to feel what your body knows is a true yes or no for you. I teach people that as well. Once you know how to navigate your voices and listen to your body, you can do anything.
The feeling I get when you’re describing it is quite an integration. You listen with your head, you filter there but you’re responding with your heart. You’re taking things into the depths of your soul and then bringing that back out. It doesn’t have to be so compartmentalized. We can take in and respond from all of those places at different times or even at the same time. It’s beautiful that you have access to all three.
It’s so funny what you’re saying is sparking for me. One of the clients I’m working with who has a similar dynamic with his significant other. I wonder how often that happens, where one partner in a relationship has a high value on security, steadiness, tradition and the same as my mother does. The other partner has a value of change, growth, listening to your soul, being creative and doing what feels right. I wonder how often couples come together because there’s something that they balanced out for each other. One can ground the other a little bit and the other can light up and open the fire perhaps in the more grounded one or something like that. My partner and I are similar. We both are oriented toward growth, but he has a more grounded sense of life than I do. I wonder if you’ve noticed that dynamic in a lot of couples.
The expectations are not going to be met. We’re back to expectations.
This image spontaneously arose when I was coaching this couple. I used an image of a triangle as we were talking. One corner of the triangle was tradition, security, sameness, routine, repetitiveness, which was exemplified by one partner. The other corner of the triangle at the base is the partner, who is oriented toward growth, expansion, newness, discovery and all those things. At the apex of the triangle is the union. It’s this space of the relationship that is made by both of those things. I coached them to consider rather than getting into a dynamic where it’s like, “This time we’ll do the growth thing and this time we’ll do the traditional thing.” It’s a tit-for-tat transactional type counting system of who wins, how often, which never gets you into a good situation as a couple.
Rather than that, move to the apex of the triangle and ask yourselves, “What is the best thing in this moment for our union?” Your focus is not on winning or losing according to your favorite perspective. Your focus is on what is the thing that’s going to serve the union at this moment. Sometimes serving the union is going to be doing the traditional thing and sometimes serving the union is going to be doing the adventurous thing. You don’t know until you ask the question, “What serves the union best here?” It gets you out of the win and loses, all this power struggle that can happen.
Compromising is tricky because I feel like with compromising, nobody gets what they want. In a way, unless you can totally wrap yourself around it. It feels more to me like each person gets to be who they are and because they each have room to be themselves, there’s freedom to choose the thing that’s best for the union. It’s not about compromising or going against yourself because I feel like that doesn’t feel great.
That’s such a great skill to have, that adaptability. I was talking with my best friend about there’s a fragility existing in the younger generation. With younger folks who are coming up, there’s a fragility that certainly my parent’s generation didn’t have the luxury for. I feel like there’s a certain way that as a culture, many of us are moving beyond survival at this point in the West. That we are asking these questions of, “What does this mean to me and is this my soul’s calling?” Back in the day, there was no question about your soul’s calling. You just have to find some work that was going to pay the bills. We’ve come to a point as a species where these deeper questions are available to many of us but not everyone. We need to change that so that it’s available to more people. The interesting thing is the way now having the survival needs met gives rise to self-doubt and fragility and insecurity that at least people didn’t talk about it as much. Maybe they still felt it in my parents’ generation, but it didn’t seem to be as much in the forefront like it is now.
I hope we make it through this. I feel like we’re at a tipping point at this moment where we can either fall back into a lot of old war-based and divisive patterning or we have the opportunity to evolve and truly learn what it is to live in connection, to care for each other, all the values that people hold that bring us together and make us better people.
My primary work is as a coach. I call myself a Midlife Transformation Specialist because most of the people who come to me are at that point where they’re realizing that the life they’ve been living doesn’t fit who they are. They’ve been living the expectations of their family, culture, and religion. There’s something innate and true that’s bubbling up that no longer allows them to be happy in that old life. I usually coach people in what used to be the classic midlife crisis moment, which is why I call it midlife transformation. I’m seeing more and more people in their 30s having this crisis of meaning. It speaks to how much quicker we’re evolving. The kinds of places that used to take us until our 40s or even 50s to hit, people are hitting in their 30s and even late twenties. They’re asking, “What am I doing this for? Why am I working so hard? My relationship sucks because my work is all consuming and that doesn’t feel good. I want to find a way to have joy, passion, and meaning in my relationship, not just my work. How do I do that?”
I work with people on things like that. I also work a lot with how their mental structure is set up, the kind of voices that they have speaking and how to reorganize them in a healthier way as well as listening to their bodies. All with the goal of creating a life that’s truly authentic to who they are, where they can be themselves with the people they love and have the people in their lives who love them back, who love them for who they are, who aren’t trying to change them, who aren’t criticizing them all the time, trying to make them into something else but who love and celebrate who they are. That’s my primary work these days is one-on-one coaching. Occasionally, I do group programs but mostly I work one-on-one.
That’s awesome. I think that’s great. Expectations are such a fundamental thing to understand that I don’t think people even realized how much they’re driven by them. Even just turning the lens on expectations as a thing is so powerful because then you see how they were running the show.
I feel like for some people that question doesn’t even arise until something they expect gets taken away. I’m going to lay this out a little bit. When you grow up in this country, you turn on the faucet and you expect water to come out. We’re so fortunate and we get pissed off. We get petulant and mad if the water doesn’t come out. It’s a big deal. The entire world does not live that way. Growing up going to Venezuela, we would have water for two hours a day and the rest of the time not. We have to fill the bathtub and the pots. We had to boil our water to make it drinkable. We didn’t even have drinkable water.
This was the top oil-producing country in the world. It’s still a third world country but also super developed in other ways. That’s how it was when I was little. I got to experience water coming out of a tap as something to be grateful for like, “Isn’t that great? We’ve got running water.” It’s a similar thing with my own body. I stopped being able to walk much because I had very high pain and eventually ended up getting two hip replacements. In the five years that I could barely walk before my surgeries, just being able to walk would fill me with such gratitude. Most people with functioning bodies expect to swing their legs off the bed in the morning and stand up and walk away. I had to calculate every step, “Was I going to make it from here to there? Was there something I could hold onto in case I needed to stop?” Now that I have working hips again, every day I give thanks for the power to walk. I never take walking for granted anymore. It’s such a beautiful way to live and to have gratitude for these simple things that we often don’t notice.
It sure does because when life is going well and giving you all the lovely goodies, it’s so easy to fall into expecting that it will always be that way. When the next storm comes, it blindsides you. I have a question for you. Brené Brown talks about this idea of foreboding joy. People hold back on fully experiencing their joy of the good because they’re afraid of that moment when the next shoe is going to drop. How do you talk about that? I feel like let’s be joyful when we’re joyful because it doesn’t make the grief any less if we held back. Then we’ll be sad when we’re sad, but at least we can enjoy fully what we’re up to.
“The only thing you sometimes have control over is perspective. You don’t have control over your situation. But you have a choice about how you view it.” ~Chris Pine
That’s a great combination. What I hear you say is mindful noticing what’s around you and keeping your attention out and noticing what’s happening. Also, keeping a piece of your intention into your attention inside as well so that you’re feeling your gut and you feel what your responses are. If the gut says turn right, you turn right. It’s a combination. This is what I teach as well and what I’ve had to learn. What I learned when I was little was to have all my attention out there on the outside to try to do the right thing and fit in. I didn’t have enough attention inside. I had to learn how to balance that and be able to feel what feels right for me and what’s my gut saying. At the same time, I have my attention on my environment so that I’m calibrated to what other people can receive and all of that. Being present is the key. Staying present in the moment as opposed to going out in the future. This foreboding joy has a sense of being focused on the future like, “This is okay but what happens if the car crashes?” The car may crash but let’s enjoy this moment right now because we don’t know.
It’s interesting what’s coming up. I remember this moment after college when I got a job at a restaurant. I was working at a restaurant near my parents’ home. My father one day said, “You’ve got to watch out for being so naive.” He called it naive. He said, “Don’t be so naive. People aren’t always nice. They don’t always want the best for you.” Bad things have happened to me in my life. I’m not saying that hasn’t happened. In general, I feel like so much of what has gone well in my life comes out of me having a generally positive view of people. Maybe you can call it naive. I call it curious. I call it open. I call it impressionable. I take people in, I feel them, I’m curious and I want to know them. That’s generally done me well in my life. Rather than looking at that thing as naiveté and I’m going to get screwed over because of it, I just don’t see it that way. It has rarely happened.
Thanks, Art. I’m grateful that you create this space. It’s such a generous space that you provide out of all your experience and all your brilliance of living in the moment for a whole lifetime. I’m grateful that you’re out here doing this and you’re creating a space for people to come and learn about these ideas and hopefully learn to manage expectations well in their lives and create the lives they want. Thank you for that. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you.
If you're ready to explore what it would look like to choose and change your expectations and create a life that thrills and fills you up, click here to book a complimentary Midlife Breakthrough Session with me.
© 2019 Marie-Elizabeth Mali | All Rights Reserved
Images of Marie-Elizabeth by In Her Image Photography