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059: Overcoming Childhood Trauma to Live Fearlessly – Rhonda Britten (Part 2)


Rhonda Britten is an Emmy Award-winner, repeat Oprah guest, and founder of the Fearless Living Institute, an organization dedicated to giving anyone the tools they need to master their emotional fears. She is the author of four national bestsellers including Fearless Living which features her groundbreaking work called the Wheel Technology. During her three seasons on the hit daytime reality drama, Starting Over, Britten was named “America’s Favorite Life Coach” and was dubbed Starting Over’s “Most Valuable Player” by The New York Times. She is a globally recognized expert on the subject of fear and fearlessness.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • How Rhonda’s life was turned upside down at age 14.
  • The challenges that she faced in the years to come.
  • How this traumatic experience has informed and fueled her work as she helps others live fearlessly.

Two-Part Interview:

Connect with Rhonda:

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Interview Transcript

I want to hear why you’ve gotten into this whole passion about fear. Like what’s the story behind this? Because you talked about kind of the sky opening up and a book being downloaded, but there’s got to be more to…Give me a little history there.

Definitely. You talked earlier about thinking something’s wrong with you. I was going to be a minister, as I shared with you. I love God. God’s awesome. And when I was fourteen, I had just announced to my parents I was going to be a minister and my parents had recently separated. It was Father’s Day and my father was coming over to take us to brunch and I was pretty excited, I hadn’t seen him for a few months. And my parents were going through a difficult divorce, right? I mean, this is in the nobody gets divorced phase of our world. Like, you don’t get divorced, right?

Was faith apart of your family life?

Yeah, we went to church every Sunday. I actually started the youth group in my church. So, there was no youth group, I started it. So, yeah, I sang every – in the choir. I sang every solo in the church. I sang at every wedding. So, the church was definitely a huge part of my upbringing.

And so, me to say, “I’m going to be a minister,” I was that girl who would knit scarves and then stuff the box with Jesus pamphlets.

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and that’s unusual to think that you would be a minister as a female in that time period. Like that’s a unique thing.

That’s right. My mother – I remember my mother, because my mother always used to say to me, “Well, you’re going to be a minister’s wife,” because I loved the church so much.

Oh, man.

She goes, “You’re going to be a minister’s wife and you’re going to be in charge of the choir,” because remember, I was in the choir, I sang every solo, right? So, she goes, “You’re going to be the choir director and you’re going to marry a minister.” And then like I said, three to four months before this, an event I’m about to share with you, I said to my mother, “I’m going to be a minister.” And I remember her saying, “Oh! Oh, my gosh. You’re going to be a minister?!” She was so proud that I would have the courage to even claim that, right? To even say that I was going to be doing that.

And then it was – so a few months went by, I told my mother, I told my father that I’m going to be a minister. So, I was feeling really – I would say that that was the happiest time in my life, because I was so connected to God and so feeling like I was on my right path. “I know who I am and I know what I’m going to do,” per say, at fourteen years old of course. And it was Father’s Day, my father comes over to take us out to brunch. We grew up in a little tiny town and go out to brunch; three kids, two adults, five people, that’s a lot of money. But this was a special day, so my mother made me a brand new dress, my mother sewed all of our clothes. And my father comes in, because he’s staying at his mother’s house, “Come on, come on. Let’s go, let’s go.” My two sisters are fighting it out in our one bathroom and my mother’s looking at me like, “Be nice to your dad,” and I’m like, “Okay.” And so, me and my mom, we start walking out, my sisters are still in the bathroom fighting it out and my dad says, “Let me go get my coat from the car,” because it started sprinkling. And this coat was a tan Naugahyde leisure suit coat, I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Naugahyde – fake leather? And my mother with her beehive hairdo. And so, my mom and I start walking out. My dad opens his trunk to get his coat and my sisters are still in the bathroom fighting it out and as my mother and I walk out of the house, my father with the trunk open, doesn’t grab a coat but he grabs a gun and he starts screaming, “This is your fault! This is your fault!” And he fires and he shoots my mother. And I start screaming, “What are you doing, dad?! What are you doing?! Stop!” And he cocks the gun and he points it at me and I absolutely think I’m next. My father strangled me when I was twelve, so I absolutely thought he was going to kill me. And then with my mother’s literally last breath, she screams, “No, don’t!” My father realizing my mother is still alive, takes that bullet intended for me and shoots my mother a second time. And that second bullet goes through her abdomen, out her back, lands in the car horn and for the next twenty minutes all I heard was <honking sound>. And then my father comes right next to me, like literally he slid -. I think about it today and it’s just – can’t believe how graceful he was. He cocked the gun while he was running, landed on his knees, put the gun to his head and fired. So, in a matter of two minutes – probably two minutes, I was the sole witness of watching my father murder my mother and commit suicide in front of me. And you know, the first thought that went through my brain in that moment – the minute the deafening silence happened and I was still alive and my parents were dead – or I didn’t know that at the time, but bleeding in front of me with bullets, is, “This is a really big test God,” and then the thought, “God doesn’t give you a test that you can’t meet,” right? And that’s the first thing that went through my brain, “This is a test from God. God doesn’t give you a test that you can’t overcome.” And I remember thinking to myself, “This is too big of a test, God,” and I ran into my mother’s room, got onto my knees and prayed to God, “Please God, please God, keep my mother alive and I will do your bidding. I will be a minister. I will live my life for you. But if she doesn’t, I don’t know if I can.” And so, my parents did die and I basically – I never got mad at God, I just put God over there, right? Because He does – He – no, too big of a test. I’m fourteen years old for God’s sake, right? So, I put God over there. I stayed over here and basically put a line between the middle of me and God. For the next twenty years…

Where did you go to live? You had two other sisters?

We stayed in that house, David.

Were your sisters older than you?

I was fourteen. One just had turned eighteen. I was fourteen and my little sister was thirteen. Nobody came. Nobody helped us. Relatives didn’t help us. Back then there was no victim funds or anything like that. This is an example of my relatives, and again, I love my relatives and I forgive my relatives and I understand that they didn’t know what to do either. Again, they didn’t have any skills. They had zero skills. There was no skills where I grew up or in our family.

But example is, my uncle just a few years ago, said to me, “Rhonda, where did you girls live after that?” And I go, “Uncle, I lived in – we lived in that house for two years.” “Well, I called once.”

Oh, my goodness.

But this is where we lived. This is the time we lived in and this is where we lived. So, I was a straight A student. Like I said, I was a choir soloist. All those things. I was still a straight A student afterwards but I basically became the daughter of that family, right? I became that family, and so if your father kills your mother, then there’s something wrong with you too. And my mother had told me growing up all the time, “You’re just like your father.” So, David, I actually became afraid of myself.

I was petrified of myself. I was petrified of feeling. I was petrified of getting angry. I was petrified of me, because if my father could kill and my mother kept telling me I was smart like my dad and I’m just like my dad, then I don’t know what I’m capable of.

And I think this is true for so many people. I remember feeling for so many years – they were like, “Oh, you just need to get your anger out.” And I’m like, “If I got angry, I would destroy the world.” Now logically I know that’s not true, but that’s how it felt inside of me.

It felt like I would destroy the world, so what does a person who’s stuffing their feelings and denying all this horrible stuff that happened to them? I started drinking in college, became an alcoholic. Tried to kill myself three times. Got three DUI’s.

I assume that the suicide -. You say that like, “Hey, I tried to kill myself three times.” “Oh, okay. Cool.” Like, you know what I mean? Those are three seasons of life…

Yes.

That were just full of depression, I assume. And just utter hopelessness.

Yeah, I mean, I think for twenty years after my parents died, their death overshadowed everything, right? Because I didn’t save them, you know? I was the only one out there, David. And I did not kick my dad. I did not grab the gun. I did not step in front of my mother. I did nothing to save her and that guilt and that shame and that embarrassment and humiliation and all the things that you want to name it, was who I thought I was, right? Because I didn’t save my mother, I absolutely didn’t deserve to be happy. And if you remember, I was the happiest I’d ever been before they died. So, also happiness was a trigger for me that something bad was about to happen. So, if I even allowed myself to be happy for a second, then something bad was about to happen. Otherwise, you can’t be happy anyway because you watched your mother die. You don’t get to be happy, you didn’t save her. That’s not for you.

Sure, did you tell this story in those twenty years? Or did you just keep it private?

Are you crazy? Are you crazy, David?

Yeah, I assume you would keep it private.

Are you nuts?

Yeah, it’s not, “Hey, -.” You meet a potential partner, “Hey, by the way. Guess what happened to my family?”

God, no, David. No, no, no. I remember the very first time I said it out loud to somebody and then I said it out loud to a group. I remember very distinctly those first times, but for most of my life – for those twenty years, I would never talk about my parents, one. And then if somebody brought up parents, especially in college, I’d be like, “Oh, they’re both passed.” Or like, “Where do your parents live?” “Oh, they’re both passed.” “Oh, both of them?” I’d be like, “Yes.” I go – they’d always say this – always, David, “Accident? Car? An accident?”

I mean, because they both died, right? So, they’d always assume accident. “An accident?!” And I always go, “Yes, an accident.” And then in my brain, because I can’t lie, David…

I literally cannot lie, so what I do in my brain in that moment, I used to go like, “Well, my father accidently bought a gun and he accidently loaded it and he accidently shot my mother and he accidently killed himself.” Like I would tell myself…

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” because I could not say, “Oh, yeah. No, my father murdered my mother and committed suicide when I was fourteen and I was the only witness.”

People would be like this…

Yeah, well that kind of ended the party.

Well, yeah. I mean, and when did start sharing it even a little bit, ninety percent of the time in the beginning because I didn’t know how to share it, people got worried about me or people were in their shit about it. Excuse my language. In their crap about it, they were triggered, so they were upset, right? So, then I ended up taking care of them, right? So, I was either taking care of them, which was exactly what happened on the day they died. I actually went skating that night. I went skating every Sunday. This was a Sunday, so I decided to go skating and all my friends came of course, and they didn’t know I was going to be there. And then all of them cried and were like, “I can’t believe this happened!” And I sat on the bench holding them all and saying, “It’s okay.”

Wow.

So, I had to learn – it took me twenty years and that third suicide attempt, David, I realized I’m not very good at killing myself and I’ve got to figure out another way. And that was really when I said to myself, “I have to start over. I have to literally start at the beginning. I do not know how to be me. I don’t even know who I am.” And that’s when I started with a bunch of gold stars and a calendar and I went back to kindergarten. I actually said to myself, David, “What would I do if I was in kindergarten?” And I got a calendar with gold stars and actually I have it in my office right now. I still have it, which I’m so proud of. And I wrote down anytime I did anything good, anything at all, and put a gold star next to it because I had to find out if I was worth saving. And the things, David, on that calendar are like, “Got angry but didn’t destroy anything.”

Yeah, “Didn’t punch anyone in the throat.”

Yeah, “Felt rejected but wasn’t devastated.” “Went to my counselling session, said I was hurt.” And I did it for thirty days and after thirty days I had a calendar full of stars and I knew, David, that I had hope. That there was hope for me. That there was hope for me.

And obviously over the many years past that, you’ve developed this life calling and message to help people.

Yes, absolutely.

And with what you call “fearless living”. And so, what does that mean? Do you mind pulling your hair back from your mic on the right hand side just a little bit?

Sure, yeah.

Yeah, there you go. So, what does it mean to live fearlessly? What does that mean to you?

Well, I always say fearless living isn’t about jumping out of a plane, it’s about jumping into life. It’s being willing to face yourself, i.e. love yourself, care for yourself, nurture yourself, discover yourself. Fearless living really is about how to understand yourself so that you know how to process fear and move into your wholeness, move into a sense of freedom for yourself. So, that for me is fearless living, because once you understand how you process and that’s really – I focus in on that a lot. Once you understand how you process information, once you understand how that works for you individually, because everyone’s different, then you have a choice inside of that process to stop it at any time. Once you’re awake to it, you can stop it. When you’re not awake to it and you’re beating yourself up, you just beat yourself up some more because you shouldn’t beat yourself up, right?

Or if you’re feeling rejected, you don’t know how to switch that because you think, “I shouldn’t feel rejected. I see that and I’ll just stuff it and forget it.” It’s like, no, no, no, no. We don’t stuff, we don’t ignore. We don’t run. We don’t disengage. We actually have another pathway, which is again called the Wheel of Freedom. So, for me, fearless living really is about deeply being willing to love yourself, embrace yourself, trust yourself. Build the skills necessary for you to live the life your soul intended.

Awesome. I know that you have a resource that you want to make available for people to help them begin to develop some of these resources. What is it? And how would it benefit them?

Oh, absolutely. I would be happy to. This is such a – I want to give them something called Stretch, Risk or Die.

Oh, my.

Yes, Stretch, Risk or Die, David.

Okay.

Because as you’re moving through fear, you’re going to have to stretch. You’re going to have to take risks and there are going to be times that you feel like you’re going to die, but trust me, you won’t. I’m actually going to teach you the process of how to basically put your to-do list away and start taking action from using this model called Stretch, Risk or Die. So, you can start seeing why you don’t do A, B and C. So, you know, everybody has that to-do list, right David? They have ten things on their to-do list and everybody does 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, skip 6, skip 7, do 8, 9, skip 10, right? And then you put six, seven and ten on the next day’s to-do list and it’s like, “I’m going to do those today,” and then it skips again, right? And it keeps skipping and then you beat yourself up, “Why don’t I do this? What’s my problem? Why? Why? Why?” Well, Stretch, Risk or Die is going to explain the “why”. I’m going to talk a little bit about fear in this course. And you’re also going to learn a method to start being able to take action that you want that maybe you’ve been frozen about, frightened about, fleeing from. You know, the freeze, fight, flight and fright? So, starting to move beyond that so you can actually start taking action to live the life your soul intended. So, this is really going to shatter your perception of it being your fault and give you a tool and more than one tool actually, and it has also templates and worksheets that you can use. So, that you’re going to start having an understanding about how you work.

Awesome, Stretch, Risk or Die. And they can get that at www.fearlessliving.org/risk – fearlessliving.org/risk. And we’ll of course make that in the show notes. If you’re listening on your Apple podcast app, you can swipe up and it’ll be right there, the link, in the show notes. Or you can go to our website if you can’t get that and we’ll have all that in the show notes; fearlessliving.org/risk. Rhonda, this has been amazing. You are a rock star.

Oh, you are so kind.

Yeah, and I love your glasses. I love the artwork behind you. It’s amazing.

Thank you. Thank you.

What is the tattoo on your left wrist and why did you get it? Oh! Fearless.

It’s fearless.

It says fearless. That’s awesome.

It says fearless and I just actually got it a few years ago. And it was – I was very ill over the holidays and it was New Year’s Eve and one of my dear friends came over and said, “Come on, I’m going to go get a tattoo.” And I’d been thinking about getting a tattoo but I’m not a tattoo person.

I mean, I’m from Upper Michigan, Upper Minnesota and I don’t do that. And so, she goes, I haven’t been out for like a week because I’ve been sick. I got to the tattoo parlor with her and by the way, don’t go to a tattoo parlor unless you’re willing to go get a tattoo, right? So, I had been thinking about this tattoo and I’d actually been writing it on a napkin and thinking about what I’d want it to look like. So, I was actually in the creation stage.

So, then my friend comes over and goes, “Let’s go!” And I’m like, “Okay!” And next thing I know I have a tattoo. But it was so funny, David. This is the funny part about it, is when I’m leaving, the guy goes, “Well, see you next time,” and I said, “Uh, no. One, I don’t do tattoos and I’m never getting another one. This is already freaky that I have it ‘fearless’.” And I have it on my wrist because I’ve tried to kill myself many times, so I want to remind myself to stay alive, right?

So, he goes, “Yeah, but nobody has one tattoo,” and I went, “What?” So, I go to bed that night, David, and his words are in my brain. Like, “Nobody gets one tattoo,” and I thought to myself, “Well, if I did get a second tattoo, what would I get?” And David, I have letters that my wrote. So, I have her handwriting. So, I have decided and I don’t know when I’m going to do it. I haven’t done it since I got this tattoo, it’s been a couple years. I haven’t felt moved to do it, but I do know if I do get another tattoo, I’m going to take the words – letters in my mother’s letter and trace them, and I’m going to trace the words, “I love you, Mom.” And I think about, if I had that tattoo, “I love you,” that would be pretty amazing in my mother’s handwriting. But I haven’t felt moved to do it yet, but that is my next tattoo, David.

I love it. I love it. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story and inspiring us to live fearlessly.

Oh, thank you, David.

And we’ll make sure that everybody finds their way to your website; www.fearlessliving.org/risk. So, thank you Rhonda.

You’re welcome, David. Thank you.


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thank you!