Katherine Woodward Thomas answers the question:
What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?
You know, Phil, ever snce I knew that we were going to speak, I’ve been really just studying this question. And it’s very moving to me actually, because the answer to my question is a bit more complicated than maybe the story that might be more common, which is that you had someone believe in you in high school or it was a friend who did something kind for you.
When I was young, I had a very rocky road as so many of us have, and I think I grew up feeling very alone and pretty lost. And I was what’s considered a throwaway from my family. My values were really different than theirs. My path was very different. I was very rebellious and I was what was considered an at-risk kid. I was doing things like smoking by the time I was 10 and I was promiscuous by the age of 14. So I was very rebellious and difficult, and my family didn’t really know what to do with me. And so, we became estranged when I was 18, and I was on my own.
And, of course, I lived in poverty and I also was messed up around not having an inner sense of my own value, my own worth. I didn’t have a sense of belonging to a tribe. Sometimes what happens in situations like that is you bond with God, because you don’t have a physical family. So, there were a lot of silver linings, maybe golden linings to that cloudy time where I did develop a deep spiritual connection and I did devote my life to service. So, a lot of the things that were in my soul to do in this lifetime were also present, but it was a really hard time.
And so, for me to have gone from that kid who was out on her own at 18, who also, by the way, had a compulsive overeating disorder. I was quite overweight; I was probably close to 200 pounds. I’m kind of short; I was about five-four. And so, I had some real addictive issues. I had relationship problems. I was estranged from my family, as I said. I was really struggling and poor. So, for me to have gone from that to being a teacher of love to thousands of people and two bestselling books in the world, and really feeling like I’ve been able to make a contribution, basically turning everything dark and difficult in my life into gifts that I now have to offer others with great heart and great love is quite a miracle. And the truth is, is that there wasn’t just one person who ever did something so grand that it turned my story from the rags-to-riches experience. It wasn’t one person. It was actually countless people who are not in my family, who did things for me.
I’m starting to get teared up because if I really start to count them and how many people showed me kindness and support and went out of their way to help me, it’s really too long to list. Starting with friends that pooled their income so that they could buy me groceries so that I didn’t starve when I was living in someone’s attic — in exchange for 10 hours of cleaning a week, which is where I landed after I left my parents’ home. And I had my friends buy me groceries so that I could sustain myself. And moving into, when I finally got into a 12-step program, people just being unbelievably generous and kind as I struggled. I couldn’t get abstinent from compulsive overeating for about three years.
I really, really struggled. And at some point, I went to meetings every single day, OA, meetings and tried my hardest. So, OA, for those of you don’t know, is a program that is anonymous. People just share their first name. They don’t really share what they do or where they live. They just show up fully. And they pledge really to be there for each other, to do this together.
And there were amazing things that people did for me. There was a woman named Millie, I never even knew her last name, but she would meet with me once a week every Wednesday night for a meal, just to share a meal with me, just to model for me what it was to eat a meal and have a beginning, middle, and end to that meal, because I actually didn’t know how to have a regular meal if you can believe it. And there were people that I would just go into the rooms with, and I remember having this almost an energetic hole in the back of my heart, which I think, sometimes we have these metaphysical things happening in our bodies that we can feel that are a direct result from the deficits, the emotional deficits that we’ve been struggling with.
I didn’t feel loved by my family. And if I had to, if I was going to draw it like an art piece, I would literally have drawn like a black hole right in back of my heart here. And it would be such a vortex where it felt so open and so raw, like a wound, like an actual wound. And I remember just turning to people who were sitting in back of me, complete strangers in a 12-step meeting and I would say, “Would you please be good enough to put your hand on my back?” And they would just put their hand on my back.
And then there, of course, there was the woman who was studying to be a social worker that I had the good fortune of meeting, Dr. Anne Brooks. She was getting her PhD in social work. And as part of her requirement for the PhD, she needed to provide therapy for someone, and she provided therapy for me. I think we probably were together in her PhD program for about two years. I was paying her $15 a session, which was all I could afford when I was in my twenties, living in Manhattan. I had found my way to New York City, which was a great place to spend my twenties to heal myself. And even after she got her PhD, she continued to see me for another year until I was really ready to leave our treatment together, for $15 an hour.
And then, of course, there was my dear friend who’s remained my friend for life, Chris Falconer, who is an amazing healer, who does a lot of Native American journeying. She studied to be a shaman for many, many years, and she is the kind of person who has amazing energy coming out of her hands. And again, she saw me for about two years, every single week, faithfully for only $15 a session because that was all I could afford. That was once I’d moved to Los Angeles.
And there were so many countless acts of kindness towards me, so many people who were rooting for me. Meanwhile, what was happening inside of me was a fight for my life, really a fight to overcome the sense of worthlessness, the sense of self-hatred I had internalized from the experiences I’d had as a child and how I perceived and interpreted some of the things that were happening in my childhood home, the alcoholism that I grew up with. I was born to a teenage mother who was rejected by her own mother. And so that got passed down to me because she wasn’t mature enough to do it any differently when she was only 18 and had to put herself through college while she was raising a child.
And so all of the things that I was struggling with that I had internalized that were kind of a battle zone in me, and I never would have made it through if it were not for just the simplest little acts of kindness that people did where they were investing in who I could become, who I yearned to become, who I was striving to be. I will say that every time someone invested in me, I couldn’t really pay them back directly. And so I looked for someone to pay back, paying it forward. And so I ended up doing work with people who were homeless. And I chose to do work with people who were homeless because for so many years, I still struggled on that poverty line and recovering from addiction, that I wasn’t really thriving. I’m a very successful person now in the world, but I waited tables for 15 years because it was the best I could do.
It took a long time to really sort all those things out, and a lot of kindness from a lot of people. People who were willing to talk to me at two in the morning when I would just call them because I was struggling and scared... people I never knew their last name. So, I started to then pay forward the kindness that had been shown to me, and I looked around and I thought, “Okay, well, who needs kindness the most?” And at that time, it was in the early nineties and it was before compassion fatigue set in, I think, in Los Angeles where I was living at the time. I started working with people who were homeless and helping them to heal. And ironically, because I had just done so much healing myself and been the recipient of so much kindness, I wasn’t a therapist at that point. I just was a singer/songwriter who was struggling to make ends meet who had never really made any significant contribution up to that point. But I knew how to help them intuitively because so many people had helped me.
One of the things that happened during the five years that I did the In Harmony With The Homeless project was, we ended up writing a lot of songs. I was a singer/songwriter myself and I ran creative writing workshops. And then we brought in songwriters to co-write with people we were serving. And we had artists step up, famous artists step up to record some of the songs, and Mavis Staples was one of them. And we produced a concert at one of the... I think it was at the Troubadour that year, or maybe it was another venue, but in Los Angeles, and Mavis was a part of that. It was being filmed, and we recorded a CD. It was very exciting.
But as I sat with Mavis, I was very shy still. As a matter of fact, I had taken a partner to do the In Harmony project with me and I used to tell him what to say, and then he talked to the group because I was too shy to speak in front of people at that point. But Mavis really saw me, and she leaned across the table one day and she took my hand, and she looked in my eyes and she said, “Katherine, you go, girl. You’ve got it in you. You know how to help people. You keep shining your light. You keep shining your love. I believe in you.” And I have to tell you, just that simple gesture of her sponsoring something in me... she saw something in me that I didn’t quite yet see in myself, but it was like a quickening in my body. And I think that what I learned from that moment is how much strength we gain just from the simplest act of kindness, from the simplest act of sponsorship.
And so I really wanted to share this story, Phil, because I think that sometimes we look at the world and we want to save the world, and we get overwhelmed and maybe even stopped. And I want us to know how much it matters to take one moment or to do one simple thing or to work with one person and pay forward kindness. Because of all of those good efforts, I have now had the privilege of serving and supporting and really helping hundreds of thousands of people.
I don’t think anybody knew when they were investing in my healing, that I would be someone who’d be able to pay it forward at that level. So I just want us all to remember how much kindness matters. How much it matters that we take a moment to see each other and to see the possibility of who we are, where we’re not relating to each other from our circumstances or our sad stories, but we’re seeing the beauty, the goodness, the strength, and the possibility in each and every one of us. So, thanks for the opportunity to share that, Phil.
Katherine Woodward Thomas is the New York Times bestselling author of Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After and Calling in “The One”: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life, as well as an award-winning marriage and family psychotherapist.
Over the past two decades, Katherine has had the honor of teaching hundreds of thousands of people from all corners of the globe to create conscious, loving relationships and to realize the higher potentials all their connections hold for health and happiness. Katherine also trains and certifies people to become Certified Calling in “The One” Coaches, and/or Conscious Uncoupling Coaches and provides ongoing supervision and development to a vibrant community of her coaches from around the world.
She’s a Billboard charting, #1 iTunes jazz artist with her CD, “Lucky in Love,” which was co-written and co-produced with the Brothers Koren.