Okay, I’ll admit that when I met with Iyanla Vanzant, I was trying to sneak in my own personal episode of Iyanla: Fix My Life disguised as an interview.
Like many, I’ve admired her for years–watching her give advice to the emotionally battered and broken in an attempt to help them piece their lives back together. Even my own slew of bad dating experiences (when the right swipes weren’t the right swipes) had me thumbing through the pages of her book Faith In The Valley, seeking guidance from the renown spiritual leader on knowing my worth and not giving the wrong people my energy and attention.
You can’t even fathom the way in which I cried off my mascara like a member of the BeyHive who had backstage passes at a Beyoncé concert. That’s how I felt meeting Iyanla–she’s my Beyoncé.
At the youthful age of 63, Iyanla has so many words of wisdom that every teen, twenty-something and thirty-something need to live by. Everything she says could be an Instagram quote that you “like,” screenshot and save in a special folder on your phone when you need to post some subtle shade or words of encouragement. In short, she’s who you run to when you need to get your life.
Iyanla is the true example of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” She was pregnant at age 16 and by 21 she was a wife and mother of three. After surviving an abusive marriage, she went on to Medgar Evers College as well as City University of New York School of Law. Having been a welfare recipient, she wrote a workbook for other women looking to leave the system and break away from abusive relationships. These personal stories helped her to land a book deal, which led to motivational speaking and guest appearances on the holy grail of talk shows, The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Iyanla is the definition of an overcomer–telling the story of going from making millions to being unemployed when her first talk show, Iyanla, was canceled during it’s first season. As if that wasn’t enough, the spiritual teacher then had to overcome the death of her daughter from cancer, which inspired one of her fifteen books, Peace from Broken Pieces.
There’s only so much one person can handle! From death, divorce, poverty and even two suicide attempts, Iyanla has been through it all, and she’s more than equipped to “fix” the lives of the guests she heals on her popular OWN series, which is now in it’s sixth season.
I had a chance to sit down and chat with my “auntie in my head,” and she gave amazing advice for setting your own standards. Here’s what she had to say:
A lot of women feel pressured to have accomplished certain societal milestones like having a husband and kids by age 30, and if they’ve chosen to focus on their careers and don’t have these things by 35 or even 40, they’re made to feel that something is missing. Can you speak to living at your pace? And when you were in your 20s, did you feel any societal pressures?
It’s so funny that women today feel they should have certain things at a certain age because I had everything very soon and I felt like I had missed out on so much of my life.
As women we grow through stages, and there’s a transition from each stage of growth and development to the next. It doesn’t matter what we’re accomplishing in the world, what is it that each of us needs to heal through, grow through and be present through within ourselves? That’s what’s going to determine how we unfold and the pace of what we’re doing is based on the choices that we make as women.
How do women learn to be okay with being by ourselves and not needing the validation of a man?
Being by yourself is very different than being with yourself. “By Yourself” is when you feel the lack, the separation, and the deprivation of something or someone else. Being “with yourself” is when you’re taking the time to get acquainted or reacquainted with who you are and the life that’s flowing within you.
How your life unfolds is determined by the choices you make. I had three kids by the time I was 21, two at 19. I didn’t want that, but I didn’t make choices that would have kept me from being in that situation. I didn’t get married because I wanted to, I got married because I grew up in a time where its bad enough to have one baby out of wedlock, how dare you have two? So let me marry the first ‘Boo Boo the Clown’ that comes through and wants me. Then I had to spend thousands of dollars to get out of that. It’s all about choices and decisions and not allowing outside pressures to push you in a direction or make decisions that don’t honor who you are. Not everyone wants to have a baby [mama] at 22 or even 28. I certainly didn’t want to have one at 16, but I didn’t make the right choices.
Culturally, one of the things that helped me when I was unfolding as a woman were my sister circles. There were four of us and we got together and talked. Two of us had kids, one of us was in college, and the other was as lost as a shoe, but we all supported each other through that. I would tell young women gather within your age group and have three or four sister friends. Come together not to pressure each other, but to share how you’re doing and how you’re feeling.
Because of social media and reality TV, there are so many more people being thrust into fame with no concept of the business aspects of the industry. Can you share what you wish you would have known earlier in your career about handling your finances?
I grew up in poverty and I was never taught how to manage money. I didn’t know when I went to college or practiced law or sold my first book. Even after I made my first million dollars, what didn’t change was the fact that I had never been taught to honor, respect and manage money. That’s something you have to learn how to do.
You have to set it up where your money works for you, you don’t work for it. I didn’t know any of these things at the beginning of my career so I had to learn how to do it.
“Own your stuff” is one of your famous phrases. How do you “own” up to something that you know isn’t good for you?
“Ownership” means that you stand in your truth of what you do, what you think, what you feel and how you do it. If a woman is battling with insecurity and doesn’t think she’s beautiful, she has to own her beauty. I’ve been through that. My big brother used to tell me I was ugly and I believed it until I was about 25. Then I said you know what, I think I’m just drop dead gorgeous and that’s who I’m going to be by my own standards. I’m dark skin, I have Negroid lips, short hair, big boobs, a big butt, and I’m drop dead gorgeous, and I don’t care if you don’t like me! That’s owning your beauty, not your ugly.
But own the stuff that you do to prove to other people that you’re beautiful, that may be detrimental to you. Are you wearing revealing clothes? Do you have on three pairs of spanx instead of one? (Laughs!) Do you talk loudly in a room to draw attention to yourself? Own what you do to prove to other people that you’re beautiful when you don’t believe it; that’s what owning your stuff means.
What would you say to yourself in your 20s, 30s and 40s that helped you be as confident and content with yourself now that you’re 63?
I have to take it even further back to my teens. I would tell my teenage self, ‘have fun, stop taking everything so seriously, and don’t tie yourself down to anyone or anything unless it’s moving you towards your vision.’
In my 20s: “What’s your vision boo?”
You have to have a vision for yourself and for your life. It’s not necessarily about what you’re going to do, but who do you want to be as a woman? Having that vision will help pull you forward.
At 30: “Just do it and stop complaining.”
The kids, the work, the babies, make time for yourself and just do it.
40s: “You have arrived!”
Because you’re not really a woman ’til you’re 40; everything else was busy work! Now you’re getting ready to move into the fullness of who you are, pay attention because you matter. You’re gonna sweat but you matter!
Now at 63, I feel like I’m 20. At 20, I thought I knew everything and at 63 I understand I don’t know anything and I’m okay with that. When I see myself in my children and my grandchildren I say, ‘you look good on other people,’ they’re doing what I taught them. And I don’t have anything to prove to anybody so I can do what brings me joy. I’m no longer disturbed by the things people say about me, and the good news is I’ll probably forget half of it anyway (laughs).
How do you find your purpose? When you speak of having a vision and having a plan, if you don’t know what you want to do, how do you know what God is leading you to do?
Doing, working, and purpose are three different things.
Your purpose isn’t for you; it’s for other people. Teaching, healing, leading, loving, nurturing, those are “purposes,” not “I’m going to be an engineer with a PhD from Harvard.” That’s work! You have to get clear about the difference. You’ve heard this saying before, “what would you do for the rest of your life for free?” What are you good at? What brings you joy that you would do whether or not you got paid for it? That’s your purpose. Remember that your purpose and what you have to do to make a living may be two completely different things.