In June 2023, just two weeks after ending my 15-month career break, I found myself in a room filled with 400 people who had traveled from all over the world to listen to bestselling authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell share their genius, wisdom, and wit at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in upstate New York. At The Art of New Creation workshop, the atmosphere was buzzing with creativity and personal empowerment, an energy so lively and palpable I could feel it in my bones. The speakers had just concluded another extraordinary and transformative talk. As Elizabeth Gilbert turned away from the audience to make her way backstage, I couldn’t contain my excitement: “Liz, Liz!” I called out, as if I’ve personally known her for ages, eager to catch her attention. I was fangirling hard.
I had managed to sit in the front row, less than 20 feet away from her. Upon hearing her name, she turned around with a half-smile, her blond and ombre-pink bob lightly swaying as she locked her eyes on mine. “I want to tell you something,” I said, feeling calm and bold. In my mind, it would play out like this: I would say, “I just wrapped up a 15-month sabbatical. Thank you for inspiring me with your unapologetic, authentic living and for giving me permission to live my dreams.” In return, she would acknowledge my gratitude and calmly walk away. It wouldn’t take more than 15 seconds. Reality turned out to be quite different, and instead, she told me: “I’m sorry, I can’t. If I stay, I’ll have to make room for others,” and promptly walked away.
I felt the sting of rejection piercing the middle of my chest, my face growing warmer from embarrassment and low-level shame. I should know better that you must give celebrities their space. I’ve been around so many of them throughout my life, pretending that their presence didn’t stir a delicious frenzy in the pit of my stomach, pretending that they’re just regular people. They are, but they’re also not, particularly those who we genuinely admire. They’re our possibilities and come anointed with layers of our high expectations, a cup that’s not their responsibility to fill. “That’s why you don’t want to meet your heroes,” reminded me another Lizzy, a published author and delightful human being who had flown in from Ireland to celebrate her birthday at the event. I get that. But perhaps, that’s precisely why we need to meet our heroes: they may teach us lessons not found within the confines of their public work.
How Elizabeth Gilbert came into my life
The year was 2009. I was living in Rio de Janeiro, about to move back to the United States after a nine- year hiatus. In my tiny apartment across from Copacabana Beach, I devoured Eat, Pray, Love, feeling deeply connected to it. My life was nothing like Elizabeth’s, but I felt as if I had been the protagonist of that story in a parallel universe. It felt prophetic. I wasn’t the only one who felt the book’s impact. With her memoir, Elizabeth Gilbert struck a chord in women’s psyche across the globe, selling more than 12 million copies, her story becoming a Hollywood blockbuster starring Julia Roberts.
This is a woman who “had it all,” a thriving career, a husband, a beautiful home, and a comfortable life that checks all of the this-is-how-you’re-supposed-to-live boxes. However, feeling disconnected and unhappy, she had the audacity to file for divorce and travel the world searching for peace within her heart. How self-indulgent! The nerve!
To Elizabeth, being unapologetically “selfish” was a spiritual act, and how dare could anyone, much less a woman, trade safety, family, and loyalty for a life lived on her own terms? She triggered the rage of many, but in me, she planted seeds for what was possible. So much so that often throughout my moments of self-doubt and despair, I asked myself: what would Elizabeth Gilbert do?
As time passed I continued to read her books and follow her journey on the public stage. Embracing both the sublime and flawed aspects of her human nature, Elizabeth Gilbert has been consistently sharing the most vulnerable and raw aspects of her life with astonishing detail for almost 20 years. She possesses the bravery of a thousand soldiers on the front lines of the most brutal battles and candidly delivers her message in poetic prose. Not only does she reveal her deepest, darkest moments, but she also generously imparts her wisdom and offers glimpses into the most exquisitely beautiful and intimate parts of her soul, showing us how she overcomes life’s wreckages. The positive impact she has had on my mental health is not irrelevant. So when towards the end of my career break I learned she would speak at Omega, I bought my tickets immediately. It would be a perfect way to close an extraordinary cycle of expansion in my life and start a new chapter.
The Art of New Creation
Despite being named one of the most influential people in the world by Times Magazine, Elizabeth tells us in the first hours of the workshop that she “wakes up mentally ill almost every day,” referring to the old software programmed with old shame points and self-hatred telling her “I’m a failure.” She’s forthcoming about her co-dependent tendencies that can so easily spiral out of control that she’s enrolled in a 12-step program to overcome relationship addiction. She then asks us to close our eyes and draw a self-portrait with our non-dominant hand. As expected, the result of our art session is hilarious, but also profoundly endearing. That imperfect thing we just brought to life on paper is meant to symbolize our inner child. “I spent my life taking this little imperfect being from foster home to foster home, asking ‘will you take care of me?’ ” she shares. Her metaphors are so simple and yet so powerful.
I can relate to wanting people to love me. For most of my life, I’ve been terrified of rejection and criticism, feeling afraid to disappoint my family, my colleagues, my love interests, and the person I met 10 seconds ago at the grocery store. Just like Elizabeth, I also searched for validation outside of myself, often saying ‘yes’ when I meant to say ‘no,’ or trying to come across polished and perfect to feel worth it of love. I had to be a nice girl, sweet, polite, beautiful, smart, productive, and often all of the above at once. And when I rebelled and didn’t match those societal’s and self-imposed expectations, I would spiral into self-criticism, feeling small and defeated. Often, not being truthful to myself came with high health bills, like having to undergo a hysterectomy.
You can’t do new creation without a new relationship to yourself.”
“You can’t do new creation without a new relationship to yourself,” Elizabeth delivers with conviction. She shares how she’s been healing these old wounds that make her feel unlovable and trigger people-pleasing reactions, causing her to find salvation in others and not within. She now practices mothering herself with profound self-love and “exquisite tenderness.” “I’ve adopted myself like you adopt a sweet little cat or dog from the pet shop. And you love your pet. I’m my own cat,” she tells us.
Her daily routine involves writing love letters to herself where she channels her Divine Mother and God: “My darling, my love, you’re my most cherished. I’m with you from birth and will be with you in death. There’s nothing you can do to lose my love.” She then asks us to do the same and download on paper our matriarchal mysticism so we can nurture our inner child. The letter from my Divine Mother had loving expressions so new and profound that when I read them aloud to the lady sitting next to me, warm tears rolled down my cheeks. I’ve come a long way since I started practicing radical self-love, but this exercise moved me deeply. There’s still work ahead.
Quoting Brené Brown, Elizabeth tells us that “the angriest people you’ll meet are the ones with less boundaries.” Basically, once you start really loving yourself, it becomes a lot easier to set boundaries without the nagging feeling that you’re doing something wrong. Aware of her triggers, Elizabeth no longer says ‘yes’ immediately to anything anymore. She double-checks if whatever she’s saying ‘yes’ to will interfere with the things she holds sacred, like her time alone. She uses the metaphor of drawing a circle and placing inside it the things she considers sacred. “If I’m going to become a creative, spiritual person, I need to become the guardian of my solitude.” Those words nurtured me like a hot bowl of soup on a cold winter night. I’m an extrovert who loves the company of people, but solitude provides me rest and direct access to the divine. It goes inside my circle.
She says seeking attention is part of our wiring, particularly for women. “We’re taught to attract attention, to be polite and kind. Therefore, we must learn to send attention away when boundaries are being crossed. We must learn to say, ‘You’re not entitled to be in my life; you can’t have my energy; I don’t want your magic.’ ”
When I returned home from the workshop, I read the transcript of Glennon Doyle’s podcast “We Can Do Hard Things,” episode 95. In it, Elizabeth shares additional reflections, words of wisdom that sound like empowering dissent: “Say no to somebody. Disappoint someone. Somebody’s expecting you to do something? Don’t do it. Cancel something. Cancel something or say no to somebody. That would be the best thing that you could possibly do for yourself right now. And I actually realized that I’m doing that person a service, because I hate it so much when people say no to me and I don’t get what I want. That is a great spiritual growth edge for me. So when I am denied what I want, it causes me to have to find growth within myself. And so if I say no to somebody else, I’m giving them the opportunity to be really upset and then figure out how to take care of themselves in that.”
When Elizabeth Gilbert said no to my request to deliver her a message, I was momentarily upset. Not a lot, but enough to feel a bit shaken up. Still, within minutes I understood that she gave me a personal lesson on boundary-setting, even if it didn’t come packaged with the pink satin ribbons of my romantic meet-my-hero imagination. She gracefully declined my request, expressing her refusal in a respectful manner that honored both herself and me. I met my hero, and ultimately, she elevated me.