October 27, 2021

Tools for the Trenches: Elizabeth Benton Thompson

After 30 years of battling obesity and struggling with her finances, Elizabeth Benton Thompson transformed herself. She lost 150 pounds, she eliminated $130,000 of debt and she committed herself to guiding other women through their own transformations. Her inspiring story and methodologies have touched millions of lives. 

But then, in 2020, her daughter died. Lost and grieving, Elizabeth searched in vain for anything that might help but the advice she found felt too out of reach, too hard to put into practice.

Instead of giving up, she wrote the book that she couldn’t find. No matter what you’re trying to handle, from the most difficult loss to the small day-to-day grievances that keep us from living our best lives, Tools for the Trenches provides the tools and perspectives you need to transform yourself from the inside out.

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Benji Block and today, I am honored to be joined by Elizabeth Benton Thompson. She just authored a new book. The book is titled Tools for the Trenches: Daily Practices for Resilience, Perspective & Progress. Elizabeth, we’re so glad to have you here on Author Hour today.

Elizabeth Thompson: Thanks so much for having me, I’m thrilled to chat with you.

Benji Block: Absolutely. Elizabeth, as we jump in today, can you just give some perspective on your work and tell us a little bit of your background?

Elizabeth Thompson: Absolutely. About seven and a half years ago, I started a podcast called Primal Potential, really to help people in a way that I had helped myself. Prior to starting the podcast, I had lost about 130 pounds after a decade’s long struggle with my weight. I had paid off over $130,000 in debt and I was just eager to talk about everything I learned that I had been doing wrong up until that point. A few years into that, I wrote my first book, Chasing Cupcakes, and then very unexpectedly, I wrote my second book in 2020.

Benji Block: Yeah, and we’re going to dive into that now. We’ll talk a lot about the content of the book, but you say that you wrote this because, at your own personal bottom, every self-help book felt out of touch and out of reach. Tools for the Trenches is the book you needed but didn’t have. Explain a little bit of what happened— obviously we’re going to dive into all of that over the course of the next few minutes— and then talk about who you wrote this book for.

Elizabeth Thompson: Yeah, I was at a place going into 2020 where life felt really great. Not only had I lost a ton of weight and paid off a lot of debt, my business was doing really well, I had just bought a new home and an Apple orchard in Cape Cod, I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. Life was so good. 

I had done years of work on myself to get to a place to really create those outcomes and had a wonderfully healthy pregnancy, was so excited to welcome our daughter, spend nine or 10-months planning with my team for maternity leave and life with a baby and all of these things as a business owner.

My daughter was born fairly unremarkably. I had some challenges that led to a C-section but after extensive testing, I was healthy, she was healthy and then on March 20, 2020, the same week that the whole world shut down, my daughter died unexpectedly and my whole world shattered. 

I mean, not only losing a child is the worst thing that I can imagine— and I’ve lost a parent— I’ve now lost a child and I just feel like there’s just nothing worse. But then it happened the same week that all of the COVID lockdowns happened which might seem unrelated but little things like liquor stores were deemed essential and allowed to stay open, but funerals were banned and called nonessential when we were walking through this grief.

Much of our family was terrified by everything they were hearing about COVID and us being told to shelter in place and so we had a staggering lack of support. Here I was recently post-partum, I was about two weeks post-partum when our daughter died so unexpectedly. I couldn’t even go into a store to buy something to wear to say goodbye to her and then of course, my business is struggling like so many businesses were because people just stopped spending money because they were scared and my team is going, “What do you want us to do?” 

At that point where life was worse than I had ever imagined it could be, like you mentioned, everything I had ever done in terms of self-help felt unreachable. It felt way over my head and just beyond where I was in life and it was devastating.

Benji Block: We’re going to walk through some of your different parts of writing, but what I’d love to do is say now, two years later, as we’re about to head into 2022, think of Elizabeth pre-2020 and then Elizabeth now. What do you think having experienced all this and this tremendous loss and then COVID hitting right at this time— are there two distinct Elizabeth’s like pre-2020 and then now two years later? And what were some of the biggest personal shifts that you’ve seen take place because of this crazy and really traumatic, low time in your life?

Elizabeth Thompson: Yeah, I have said that a number of times and in talking to my mom, of course, [who] not only lost her granddaughter but then had to watch me and feel like she also, in a lot of ways, lost me— because part of me is just, I mean, probably all of me is forever changed but I think also, part of me is just gone. The part of me who was not aware that life could get so bad. 

There was like a little bit of maybe being naïve to just how bad things can get, that even though I had been in really bad times; I had been through a divorce, I had been obese, I had been depressed, I had lost a parent. All of these things, nothing compared to that experience. On the other hand, you get so much more clear on what matters and what doesn’t when you hold your child as she dies and so that shifted things. 

It shifted my business, it shifted my marriage, it shifted my mindset. I mean, you just think about the world differently and even now, I had to take a step back from a lot of my work because all of a sudden, so much felt very insignificant and it took me a while to really come to a place of understanding that what is not significant to me anymore was significant to me just 18 months ago and is still very significant to a lot of people. It just took a long time to see that and understand that and be okay with that.

Grief Can Ride, but It Can’t Drive

Benji Block: Obviously, choosing to write a book is a big undertaking, so what does that do for your grieving process, and how does it hit you, like, I think a good way for me to process some of this is to actually write it down? What was that decision-making process like?

Elizabeth Thompson: At first it wasn’t a book. At first, it was about two weeks after she died, I had to use some of what was in my own mind and in my own prior evolutions in growth to encourage myself in the smallest ways and I had to find something to keep me going because I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel like there was any purpose. It was truly a bottom, so far below anything that I thought was possible. So, I basically started writing myself these little messages of perspective, these little messages of hope, these little messages to encourage the smallest step and having had a podcast for years and having worked with clients for years, after maybe a month or two, I realized, these would help a lot of people.

Certainly, not a lot of people who have lost children— though that was bad too— but people who have lost a job, people who are going through a divorce, people who are just in a very vague but meaningful depression or feeling lost and overwhelmed. Whether it’s, “I’m upset because I got in a fight with somebody I love” or it’s, “I lost my job” or “I lost a loved one”, I realized right away that if these things could help me in this place, then it would be powerful to share them.

Over a period of a few months, I toyed around with, Is this going to be a series of short messages that I share with my clients? and, as I put little pieces of them out into the world through my podcast and client work, I realized, nope, this has to be bigger than that and it has to be more readily available than that. And that’s when I decided it was going to be a book.

Benji Block: Did you keep a journal before all of this? Was that ever part of your life in your system and do you think that that contributed to actually choosing to write some of these messages to yourself? Or what would you suggest for people that maybe are in that space? Because I love that idea of just writing notes and kind of starting there.

Elizabeth Thompson: I’ve always been a big journaler but not in terms of thoughts and feelings, more in terms of habits and choices and things— because that was a big part of my weight loss. Losing over a hundred pounds, things like writing down what I intended for the day and writing down what I did so I’d very much been in that habit. But more than that, in my first book, I wrote about changing your mind through asking questions and thinking differently. 

I was in the habit of making room for a second opinion and a third opinion and knowing that the first thought isn’t the final resting place, it’s not the only perspective. I was in that habit and that’s what really propelled me to realize that my first thoughts of hopelessness and pain and loss and all of this, are real and they are valid but they’re only one piece and there are other perspectives and there are other ways to think about it and feel about it that are as valid and I needed to really, force myself to consider those things.

Benji Block: Yeah, talk to me about that a little bit more because, I think when people go through an intense season of loss, and even just speaking for myself, when I’ve had some of those really dark moments in my life, there can kind of be these two sides where you, like, want to return to some level of optimal living or living from joy, right?

It can feel like you’re living in denial or you’re ignoring your feelings versus consciously working through emotions and doing that in a healthy way. How did you or how have you navigated that and kept yourself in check to go, I don’t want to ignore it but I do want to seek out the healthiest way?

Elizabeth Thompson: Yeah, in some ways, I’ve been very protective of my pain. I really don’t want to not be sad. I really don’t want to find a way to “get over it” because— I’m sure I would feel differently if it was a different kind of situation but because this was the death of my daughter and my firstborn, part of that is reflective of how important she is to me and how much I love her. So, I started to tell myself that the grief can ride with me but it can’t drive.

The grief can be as big as it needs to be and it can be here every day for the rest of my life and it can be in every conversation and it can be in every thoughtful moment and it can be, it’s because it needs to be. It can ride with me, it is welcomed here, it just can’t drive. That means, my grief is not deciding what I eat or if I work out or how I speak to my husband, or if I respond to a text message from a friend. The grief is here as I make a choice that is objectively the right choice for me and then it kind of evolved. Not only did I tell myself like, “Okay, grief can ride with me, but it can’t drive. The anger can ride with me but it can’t drive. The sadness can ride with me, but it can’t drive.” And it’s beautiful, the way that it sort of evolved with me in the last 18 months since she died that, now it’s like, the lack of motivation can ride with me but it can’t drive. It’s not the decision-maker but it is welcomed here. It’s not bad. Sadness isn’t bad, anger isn’t bad, loneliness isn’t bad. It is welcome here but it’s not going to be the thing that makes my decisions.

Benji Block: How does that play out practically in your relationships? Do you acknowledge, “Hey, this is riding with me but I’m trying to consciously not let it drive”? In your closest relationships or with your team, how does that actually flesh itself out? 

Elizabeth Thompson: There’s a lot of things that I am still angry about, in terms of the way people showed up or didn’t show up for whatever reason, and the way people responded to me or didn’t respond to me. Just the other day, we were having a conversation, six months after our daughter died, I found out I was pregnant again with our son and he’s now five months old upstairs napping right now.

Yeah, as we plan up the holidays, as [it’s] our son’s first holidays, we’ve had the conversation, “Do we invite so and so and such and such?”. It’s included people who have really hurt us. The answer is, “Yes, we invite them. Our home is open to them and I’m still angry and that’s okay. They are also family or friends, and that door is open”.

That doesn’t mean that I need to go out to lunch with them tomorrow, but they are part of this network we’ve created in our lives and I don’t want to close that door, and, in some cases, my husband doesn’t want to close that door. So, the anger can ride. It is valid. In some relationships, I’m not ready to not be mad yet.

Maybe I will be in a year but we consider that as we make that decision, is the anger driving? Because if I’m making the choice based on the anger, then I’m letting the anger drive. If I’m just acknowledging I’m really angry but I’m making a decision that’s separate from the anger, that feels more in control for me.

That’s just where I’m at and it’s the same thing as when I’m unmotivated. Is that making the decision about whether or not I work out? Or am I making the decision about whether or not I work out objectively? Acknowledging that I’m not motivated and that’s fine, I can be not motivated as I pick up and put down a dumbbell.

Whether it’s anger or its lack of motivation, if that factors into how I decide, it’s driving and that’s not what I want for my life right now today.

Benji Block: Wow. That’s so good because, when you think about it, even if you let anger or any of these things drive, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes, the amount of decisions you can make fast when those things are driving can really derail so much. I don’t even want to call it just progress but where you ultimately want to end up.

Elizabeth Thompson: Well, and it’s not even so much about the impact it has on the relationship or the other person but on how I feel.

There’s been so many times where I’m responding to a text message or an email and I have to check myself, “What is driving these words? Is it who I am on principle or is it the emotion I’m feeling that is circumstantial?” Because I know that, as the years go by, a lot of the acuity of the anger of the— whatever it is— it’s not going to feel the same as it does right now. 

It doesn’t feel the same 18 months from the event that it did on day two or day three. I don’t want to make decisions that can change a relationship based on an emotion that is very real and it is not bad, but it also doesn’t have to influence how I choose and how I interact. How I feel, yes. How I operate, no.

The Fruitfulness of Perspective

Benji Block: Wow, I mean, that’s worth the whole listening to this podcast I’d say because that’s such a simple question to ask yourself, just the two words, “What’s driving?” I think it’s so impactful. Let’s hit on another chapter you have here. You have a chapter on fruitfulness and, you say, “That loss is always fruitful. You might not initially see it or even acknowledge it. It’s okay if you don’t welcome it but it’s fruitful. Then you also, right around there, mentioned the power of pruning and how it’s necessary for future growth. Is that a concept that you always believe or sometimes as you are writing that, you’re trying to just remind yourself of the power of pruning and the fruitfulness that’s come from this heavy season?

Elizabeth Thompson: You know, I’ve always seen it to be true and I should share a couple of stories in the book about how we bought this old farm property on Cape Cod and we have to prune the trees. It is always scary and people have literally come to our door and, “Why are you killing the apple trees?” Like, we’re not. We’re not killing them, we’re pruning so that they can grow back more healthy. 

The thing is, it’s not that I ever wonder is this true. What I have to come back to is that the fact that good things can come from it does not mean that I wish this had happened or that I’m glad that it happened or that it is only good. It can be bad, hard, devastating, life-altering in painful ways, and also produce things of value. One of the things of value that it produced was a stronger marriage for me because we, collectively, have a very different way of operating in life because of this. 

Another thing of value that came from this is the book that I know is going to help people. That does not mean that I’m glad that this happened. It does not mean that it is good that this happened but— even when it is the worst thing— there’s always something that comes from it that we can acknowledge as good along with the bad, along with the fact that we’d rather not have that good thing that came from it if it meant that we could have the thing we lost. But there is still always fruitfulness. 

Benji Block: Do you think that the power and the beauty of loss is something that people can grasp or be taught beforehand? Because you mentioned you kind of have this naïve feeling, right? But you’ve realized that over the last 18 months, definitely have had a similar experience there. Do you feel like it’s something that can be taught beforehand or only felt in your own circumstance with time? 

Elizabeth Thompson: It’s two different things in my mind. Intellectually, can you understand that there are things and ways that you perceive the world that are only available when you lose – like I think intellectually, we can understand but feeling it and having it be a part of your soul and part of your psyche and the fact that — I see it as a filter and I always say this now when I’m talking to family members or friends. 

I’ll say, “I think I might see this differently because of everything we’ve been through in the last 18 months”. Even though they can understand how my perspective is different, their perspective isn’t changed until it’s their life. 

Benji Block: I think that’s spot on. So then with that in mind, what would you say— because you know there’s people that didn’t respond in, maybe, what you would say as a very helpful way. So then I wonder, how can we be the type of friends that can better come alongside when we’re not the ones actually walking through it and what would you say to someone who is maybe in that position? 

They’re the friend, they’re not the one going through the major loss; how can we not be the gung-ho way to ‘trying to keep it positive’ friend but how do we be present for people when we’re not actually going through the loss? 

Elizabeth Thompson: I think the first thing is just making sure that they know that you are there and not, “Oh, I’m here for you” in the weeks after but constantly, “Hey, I’m here.” I have some friends who messaged me two or three times a week even though I didn’t respond for like three months. But they just kept [at it] so that when I was ready, there was that open door and I never had to be like, “Oh gosh, well I haven’t…” You know, be consistent. 

Also, the other thing is ask, “I know that I can’t understand where you’re at or what you’re going through but please know that I’m here for the things that are helpful, for the things that aren’t helpful. Is there anything you can think of that I could do to help?” And more often than not, the answer you’re going to get is no but keep asking. When you say something and a lot of people say, “I don’t know if this is the right thing to say or not.” 

Instead of stating it like that and following it up, you can share what’s in your heart and then say, “Does that help or does that make it worse? Is that one of the things that just makes you want to punch somebody in the face or does that…?” – because letting people know that you’re a safe place to be like, “No, I actually hate when people say that. It really drives me crazy”. Let people know that you want to learn not how to respond to people who are struggling in general. I want to learn how to respond to you. 

How to show up for you. Because, if you would talk to my husband, his needs would have been very, very different from my needs and there is no one-size-fits-all. The other thing I would say— and this might just be my own personal thing but— I have heard it from a lot of folks who have gone through really tragic circumstances, don’t tell your story. If somebody is going through their own thing— I see this all the time. 

It is very, very common and I think it’s a way that we want to relate but what it does is it makes it not about the person that you are trying to help, and all of a sudden it makes it about you and now, we’re talking about you. Whether it’s like you telling a story of when you lost your job or you’re telling the story of like your friend lost a child and found out that XYZ was really helpful. You can say like, “When you’re ready, if you want to talk about some of my experiences let me know.”

They probably won’t be like, “Yeah, share your experiences” but just try not to— even though it is a very natural way to want to relate and communicate, I understand. I think one of the best things we can do is humble ourselves and say, “I don’t understand because even if you lost a parent and I’ve lost a parent, I’m not you and I didn’t have your relationship and your circumstance.” 

Coming from a place of, “I don’t understand, and I am here for you, and I want to understand your unique journey” I think is so much more valuable than “I understand because let me tell you about my journey”. That’s just not usually going to open doors.

The Power in an “I Am” Statement

Benji Block: Yeah, that’s so good. The diverting back to self is such a natural thing. We just go back to our situation and our circumstance. To listen and even allow some quiet without bringing it back to self and the compassion that’s showed there, the empathy that’s showed there, I think we all can understand. If it was us that’s what we would want. You share this quote and I might butcher the name, Bjork— how do you even say that? 

Elizabeth Thompson: I think it’s Bi-York. 

Benji Block: So do I but I’m glad that you said it and not me. I want to read this quote that you share and then I would love for you to talk about what it meant to you and what it means to you but here’s the quote:

“After tragedies, one has to invent a new world, knit it or embroider, make it up. It’s not going to be given to you because you deserve it. It doesn’t work that way. You have to imagine something that doesn’t exist and dig a cave into the future and demand space. It’s a territorial hope affair. At the time, that digging is utopian but in the future, it will become your reality.” 

When did you stumble on that quote and what does that mean to you? 

Elizabeth Thompson: It had to have been a few months after Dagny died. I would say, yeah and at first, it was tough because I was like, “I don’t want a new world. I want the old world. I want my baby back in my house, I want to hold her. I want to be able to kiss her again.” I still feel that way. And also, that’s not the end of the story. I had to get into this habit of almost daydreaming. I really believe that, as adults, we underutilize imagination. 

Well, we imagine things but not positive things. We let worry become a sort of negative active imagination. But that hopefulness and that dreaming, I believe it’s not only healing, but it’s also a very important piece of creating change in your life. So, I would say to myself, “If everything is possible, what do I want?” And yeah, for months and months and months, my first thing was like, “I want Dagny back” but beyond that, “Okay, I want a big family. I want to be a full-time mom. I want to have five, six, seven kids.” 

I want my husband home with us too. Even if, at first, it feels like a pipe dream, it’s not going to be given to us, but we also can demand space. For me, demanding space for my professional dreams, for my personal dreams is about putting things in action to move in that direction, even if it’s only the tiniest little micro-step. It’s a powerful thing and we can almost rob ourselves of healing if we just stay in the moment we’re in. 

If we just stay in the pain cave, if we just stay in the problem— and I still have to do this because I go to very dark hard places about the last day of our life and everything is happening so quickly and unexpectedly and having to say goodbye to her— and I can redirect, acknowledging that, to what that can inspire me to create for my life and create for my family and create for my marriage and create for my business. 

I just think we need to dream more, and we need to embrace more micro-actions to move in the directions of those things that we want. 

Benji Block: Right along the line of what you’re talking about there and following up that quote, you actually had a quote that you wrote that made me literally say, “Amen” out loud in a coffee shop yesterday. You say, “If you claim the past as your present pattern, you will keep it as your present pattern”. I don’t know if there might be a couple helpful questions that you ask yourself, or that we can ask ourselves, to push back on those past patterns, those limiting beliefs. What would you say to those that may often get stuck there or to yourself when you’re in that place? 

Elizabeth Thompson: Well, one of the things that I remind myself of often is that the most powerful words that we could ever say are those that follow “I am.” If we say, “I am inconsistent. I am stuck.” what we are saying is, “The way things have been is the way I choose for them to be now and I am choosing the way things have been instead of choosing to do something differently.” I am always on guard against those words “I am.” 

“I am unmotivated. I am fat. I am broke. I am lonely.” You are literally claiming the problem, as well as the past, as your present. So, I am just like always looking for that language because instead, I’ll say, “I am determined to change this. I am committed to taking action in a different direction”. Then the other thing is, I just very simply ask myself almost probably five or six times a day if not more, “Is that related to the problem or to the solution?”

Because when there is something that we don’t like that we don’t want for ourselves, for our lives, for our patterns; that is powerful energy. That not liking, that resisting, that resenting, that is powerful energy but it’s completely inert if it’s backwards, right? If it’s focused on where we’ve been. However, if we can just channel that and say, “You know what? This energy of not wanting this, of not liking this is powerful if we point it towards the solution”. 

I just remind myself of that all the time whether it’s, “I don’t like the way I look in the mirror” or, “I am stressed about money” or, “I’m feeling hopeless about the future”. There is a seed of desire in that. There is a seed of something I want that is different and I can channel that energy in a very productive way but it just takes some consciousness to do that. 

Benji Block: Yeah, I think recognizing where you’ve been and then also allowing yourself to create a better presence now because some people will think, “Well, that is living in denial if I say, or if I don’t acknowledge, that I’ve been inconsistent in the past.” But to say, “I was inconsistent and now I am consistent,” you know? You’re allowing yourself to step into a new sense of self, which I think, the older we get, we can know our patterns and we can get beaten down by that. But I love what you’re saying there because it is true. 

We get to choose today who we’re going to be and that’s powerful. I also want to encourage those that are listening to the show right now, go pick up the book. At the end of each chapter, there is an in-practice section and so if you like the questions that Elizabeth is sharing, I promise there is plenty more of really practical application that you’ll find in the book. Elizabeth, as we start to wrap up today, do you have a practice or maybe a chapter or a topic that we haven’t touched on yet that you’d want to highlight as we start to wrap up? 

Elizabeth Thompson: My favorite chapter is the one that tells the story about the occluder, when you go to the eye doctor. I started wearing glasses when I was in first or second grade and I remember going to the eye doctor. Have you ever had the experience where they like put the little black thing up against your face and they put different lenses and, “Is it better like this or like this?”

Benji Block: Yeah, yes. 

Elizabeth Thompson: You know, that always makes me crazy because when they flip one, I don’t remember what the previous one was. But I started to realize in this process that that is a way to think about perspective. So now, when I feel angry, I understand that I’m just seeing things through one lens and I will literally imagine that I just have that anger lens on and I’ll ask myself, “Well, is it better if I look at it like this? What if I look at it through this lens versus the anger lens? What if I look at it through the understanding or the empathetic or any number of different things? Am I more hopeful or less hopeful with this perspective or this perspective?” 

Yes, it is very true that some people let us down. It is also very true that we see that through the perspective of, “We just lost our daughter.” They didn’t, right? They had other fears. 

Their fears of the pandemic are probably very different from ours because we didn’t watch the news in March and April and May because our daughter had just died. So, when I look at it through the lens of, “They had information that we didn’t have. We had experiences that they didn’t have”, it really helps to make me feel a different feeling and I remind myself— and I know I talk about it in that chapter— it’s always a focus before it’s a feeling. 

Benji Block: That’s good. 

Elizabeth Thompson: Anger is always a focus before it’s a feeling. I’m focused on the things that pissed me off when I feel angry, and I can focus on all of the things that were done that were generous if I want to feel a different way. So, if I am focused on something that makes me sad, I understand that, if I want to feel differently, I can focus on something different and that’s the way it goes. 

It’s always a focus before it’s a feeling and I just go into a lot of examples in that chapter. I just love that chapter. 

Benji Block: Absolutely and that is such a good way and practical way to leave this conversation and a good jumping-off point to remind people to go pick up, Tools for the Trenches. Absolutely a fantastic read. Elizabeth, we’re so sorry for your loss. Thank you for choosing to write this book even in the midst of a really hard time and to have that lens shift, that perspective, simultaneously while you do have some anger in the car still. 

You are not allowing that or taking a passive approach. The content is just really, really good and hitting at such a good time and so thank you for sharing even in the midst of grief. 

Elizabeth Thompson: Thank you so much. 

Benji Block: Besides checking out the book, where can people follow you, connect with you and reach out? 

Elizabeth Thompson: My first book is called, Chasing Cupcakes. It kind of details the tools and the perspectives I used to lose a ton of weight, get out of debt, and then otherwise, I have a podcast called Primal Potential. 

Benji Block: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for being on Author Hour today, Elizabeth. I know that this book is going to be a great resource for so many. 

Elizabeth Thompson: Thank you. 

Benji Block: Awesome.