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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the April 5, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Survivor: To Thyself Be True

If your career is stalled, you might not need to enroll in an MBA program, switch jobs, or take on more projects to impress the boss. There’s a good chance that the problem is not your company, your managers, or your lack of advanced degrees.

"If you want to succeed in work, you might want to focus on body image," says Rhonda Britten. "It’s the number one reason that people are stuck. It’s the reason they don’t ask for a raise." Research for her latest book, "Do I Look Fat: Get Over Your Body and on with Your Life," also indicates that poor body image is among the top reasons that people who would like to be entrepreneurs never start a business.

Britten, a high-end life coach ( and the host of NBC’s Emmy award winning "Starting Over" daytime reality show, talks about her book – and her life – at a Friends’ Health Connection event on Wednesday, April 12, at 7 p.m. at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. Cost: $25. Call 800-483-7436.

The author of four books, her first was "Fearless Living." There are survival stories, and then there is Britten’s survival story. "Fearless Living" recounts the event that held her hostage for 20 years. At age 14 she was sitting on her mother’s bed chatting happily when her father arrived home. One of her two sisters yelled that he was carrying a shotgun.

Her father, an accountant with a genius IQ, used the gun to kill her mother, who had just left him. He then pointed it at her. Britten, who says she had always known that her father hated her, was sure that she too would be shot. But, instead, he knelt down, pointed the gun at his own head and pulled the trigger.

Deciding on living arrangements for Britten and her two only slightly older sisters, a judge handed custody of the two younger girls to their 18-year-old sister, and sent them back to the house in which they had witnessed the murder suicide. Britten lived in that Michigan house with her sisters until she won a scholarship to college, and never once did anyone – inside or outside the house – ever say a word about the event that had orphaned the girls.

Speaking with Britten, it is hard to image that she ever lived through this nightmare – and the alcoholism and abusive relationships that followed. She has a fresh take on everything from how bogus she thinks the word "stress" is to how the scattered quest for a balanced life is actually creating a country of unbalanced people. Sharp and intelligent, and talking faster than any New Yorker, she laughs a lot and makes an endless number of hilarious observations.

"So, you survived?"

"And thrived," she shoots back.

Always a high-achieving person, and always keeping her grief underground, she became too unfocused for any job but waitressing, and hit bottom after her third suicide attempt. "I saw the look of hopelessness in my sister’s eyes," she recounts, "and I knew that nobody was going to save me." She had begun the road up. Several years later, a counselor at a DUI program she was forced to attend after racking up her third offense handed her a copy of the book "Father Loss."

"It woke me up," she says. "I was 34 years old, and I finally forgave my parents and myself." On the 20th anniversary of her parents’ deaths, she created a ceremony and shut the door on the past. "I’ve devoted 20 years of my life to you," she said to her absent parents. "I thought a good daughter should be miserable if her parents died." But the event that had overshadowed two decades of her youth had shifted in her mind. "It was no longer the filter through which I looked at life," she says.

At just about that time, she stumbled into her career as a life coach. A marketing and finance major at the University of Minnesota (Class of 1984), she had worked in banking and had been director of marketing for a hotel chain before she became "too messed up" to hold a job for long. But, on the upswing, she had done stand-up comedy at the insistent urging of her fellow waitresses ("I had no idea that I was funny. I didn’t know what they were talking about."), tried her hand at comedy writing, and then made her way back to public relations.

One of her public relations clients was a life coach. "He was very intelligent, but he couldn’t connect with people." Still, she urged him on, got him into leading group sessions, and secured speaking engagements for him. At one of those engagements, at the Learning Annex, he succumbed to food poisoning five minutes into his presentation. Britten stepped in for him, and says that "right away I knew I was home."

Shortly thereafter she founded the Fearless Living Institute, located in California. There she progressed from individual coaching to training coaches (at least 100 so far) and to corporate coaching, speaking engagements, and then her television program, now in its third season. She finished her latest book while shooting the latest season of her television show – on a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shooting schedule. The book is an outgrowth of her coaching philosophy, which centers on concentrating on just a few important challenges at a time – for a long time, at least a year. Her number one challenge, becoming healthy, has been the center of her life for longer than that, and, even after running her first marathon on March 19, it is still her focus.

Get unbalanced. Britten says that "balance" is a buzzword – and a destructive one at that. "Everyone says `you just need more balance,’ but what does it mean? People are seeking internal balance, but are rushing around trying to achieve it with external things." Trying to apportion equal time for work, recreation, friends, family, and exercise simply does not work, she says.

Take, for example, a person deciding to achieve balance by starting a small business, expecting that doing so will give him all the time he needs to attend to every area of life.

"People open businesses because they think they will be in control of their lives," she says. "They do it to live a balanced life. But if they never learned to take control of their lives while working at the jobs they hated, how can they do it in a start-up? It requires 12 to 15 hours a day. That’s a start-up. At their jobs they didn’t know how to say `yes,’ didn’t know how to say `no,’ didn’t know how to prioritize, or to live by their values." These skills will not automatically materialize in a start-up, she warns. Far from it.

A person starting a business needs to understand that he will be unbalanced for a while. It’s the same with a new mother, or a marathon runner, or a Ph.D. candidate finishing up a thesis. There will not be equal time for every part of life – and that’s fine. In fact, says Britten, embracing that truth is what brings internal peace – and yes, internal balance.

Choose a commitment. When Britten first sees a coaching client she lists the main areas of life in which many people seek improvement, things like career, romantic relationships, friendships, wealth, world influence, and health. She asks the client to list three things under each category that he would like to work on.

Everyone loves this.

"They get right to work, and they’re so proud," she says. No one has trouble setting dozens of goals. "This is America and we think we can do everything and be everything. They think I’ll say `let’s go for it!’"

But no. Britten makes her clients prioritize. Of all of the things they have listed, they must pick one main area on which to concentrate – and then one, but not more than two, secondary goals.

The commitment will lead you. "We say, `I’m going to learn how to say no,’" observes Britten, "but we have no context for doing it. We end up saying `no’ inappropriately to the boss and unnecessarily to the family."

Focusing on one commitment provides the context for this and other skills that are essential for true balance and for satisfaction with work and relationships.

Britten’s focus on health, for example, has led her to risk becoming known as a diva on the set of her TV show. She doesn’t care because the commitment is more important than any worry about what people will think of her. "I used to eat whatever was around," she says, "but now I call and ask for salmon, for veggies. There’s this big buffet, all the food in the world, but still I ask for salmon. I’ve learned how to ask for what I want." Some people think she is difficult, demanding. But she doesn’t care. She will not say `yes’ to donuts or deli sandwiches.

Her commitment to health has also led her to prioritize. She does her hair and make-up upon arriving at the set not too long after dawn. That used to mean that she would not exercise on production days because she didn’t want to appear "sweaty and icky in front of 2 million people." After she started preparing for the marathon, however, she used breaks for training runs. "That was really, really hard for me," she says.

Look for the spill-over. Britten finds that skills developed during the course of focusing on one big commitment carry over into every area of life. All of a sudden, there is a real reason to say "z." There is a clearly understood need to prioritize. Training for a marathon, or coaching a child’s team, or running for political office makes it easy to say "no" to anything that gets in the way, and creates the necessity of taking on some tasks and letting others go. Once these skills are established, and practiced, they can be applied to all kinds of situations.

Whether it’s poor body image, a horrible relationship with co-workers, mountains of unpaid bills, or nagging regret about an unfinished degree, tackle the most unsettling problem first – and don’t be surprised to see the other problems become more and more manageable.

If Britten found a way to survive – and thrive – so can we, one commitment at a time.

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