Fay Zenoff: “Offer Gratitude”

Offer Gratitude. We cannot simultaneously be stuck in fear (of the future) or regret (the past), when our mind is grounded in the blessings of this present moment. Offering gratitude is the fastest way to achieve becoming present. Each morning for the past decade when I wake up and before I get out of bed, […]

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Offer Gratitude. We cannot simultaneously be stuck in fear (of the future) or regret (the past), when our mind is grounded in the blessings of this present moment. Offering gratitude is the fastest way to achieve becoming present. Each morning for the past decade when I wake up and before I get out of bed, I reach over to my nightstand and grab a notepad and pen. On it I list 10 things for which I am grateful. They can be as simple as gratitude for the warm blanket on top of me or as specific as gratitude for this particular interview that invites me to share my gifts with others. No matter what challenges we may face during the day, spending a few moments in gratitude releases dopamine which helps us feel good and experience positive emptions.


Many ancient traditions around the world believe ‘wellbeing’ or ‘bienestar’ is a state of harmony within ourselves and our world, where we are in balance mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

As a part of our series about “How We Can Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fay Zenoff, MBA.

Fay Zenoff is a nationally respected addiction recovery wellness coach and consultant who works with individuals, teams and organizations to dismantle the shame associated with addiction so that people impacted are able to thrive in all areas of their lives. Fay is a thought leader, frequent speaker, and educator whose experiences, ideas and work in the recovery field have been the subject of articles and interviews in The New York Times, Bloomberg Business Week and USA Today, among others. Prior to starting her own consulting firm, Fay led a San Francisco-based direct-service non-profit focused on breaking the cycles of addiction. Fay lives in Northern California with her partner. She works with clients nationally and internationally. She has an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Fay has been in recovery since 2007. Learn more about Fay, her coaching programs and consulting services at www.fayzenoff.com.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Absolutely. I am originally from Manhattan though I spent most of my ‘growing up’ years in the San Francisco Bay Area. My father was a professor, my mother a psychotherapist and I was the youngest of their three children — two boys and a girl. Life was pretty wonderful in those early years — there was lots of love and togetherness. That all changed when I was 13. My eldest brother died suddenly and that sent our family into a tailspin.

Within a few months of his death, my parent’s marriage ended, my other sibling left for boarding school and my father and his girlfriend moved to Europe. In June of that year, we were a family of 5. By September, it was just my parents and me and a year or so later it was just my mom and me. My mom was absolutely crushed and though we lived together for another few years she was emotionally unavailable to parent. At the time, I internalized a belief that there was something fundamentally wrong with me — why else would everyone have left?

I started drinking about that time — as a teenager. It was a welcomed remedy to alleviate my grief and numb my loneliness. I was a good student, athletic, and a popular kid who excelled — so there really were no external repercussions to my acting out with alcohol.

In college, I learned that most people didn’t blackout when they drank. I did, however, right from the start. I always thought that blacking out was part of the fun — no need to remember. I began to suspect that I might have a problem with drinking — but it was a social norm and I seemed to fit right in. So, I stayed the course, did what was expected of me and didn’t question my drinking again for another 20 years, or so.

During those two decades from 20–40, I backpacked through Africa and India, lived abroad, got married, went to grad school, developed my career and raised our two children. From the outside, I was a success but on the inside, I was invisibly and painfully struggling. I honestly don’t like looking at photos from those years. It was a difficult time. But there you have it…. my “back story”.

What or who inspired you to pursue a career in helping others? We’d love to hear the story.

Good question. When I started my career, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was fortunate to land an entry-level job with a well-respected global company. I participated in their management training program and it appeared that I had endless opportunities to grow professionally. But by the end of that first year, I was deeply discontent; the business itself was not feeding my soul no matter how successful the company or the size of my paycheck. I was longing for more meaning and to have greater impact on other people’s lives. I soon found my purpose when I recognized that there were far fewer women than men in senior positions in the work world. I knew then that I wanted to earn the power of influence no matter which career path I took so I that I could mentor and support women in the workforce — to ultimately fill the void in female leadership. My drive to earn an MBA in business school some years later was fueled by that desire.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Without a doubt that person is my mother. She shows me the value of being a perpetual student of life and the transformative power of resiliency. Even when she was totally heartbroken (after my brother’s death and her own divorce), and while she was experiencing great physical exhaustion and pain (due to chronic fatigue and a bad back), she had faith that life could and would get better. After dealing with her own grief, she was able to encourage me to honor my experiences and to show up authentically. During the times when I have felt lost or hopeless, she has welcomed my truth and invited me to trust my inner knowing as well as seek guidance from mentors. She believes that life is a gift and we each have purpose — even in the darkest moments she finds reason for gratitude. My mother went back to school after her divorce and earned her PhD. I remember seeing her laying on the floor of our apartment. She was wearing a back brace, typing her dissertation about mothers’ experiences surviving the death a child. And decades later she published that as a book. My mother has the ability to celebrate love and treasure joy. She knows life is fleeting and doesn’t want to miss a minute — good or bad — she shows up completely and encourages me to do the same. She has inspired, taught, guided and influenced me positively more than any other person in my lifetime. I would not be the best of who I am today without her.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of pursuing your passion? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I remember many funny moments, but for sure some of the most important lessons I learned pursuing my passion were the result of a mistake I made attempting to go into business with a close family member. In hindsight, I realize that my desire to earn this person’s respect blinded me to the reality that I would need to forgo trusting my own abilities and wisdom in order to support their need to lead our efforts. Partnership was impossible given I wasn’t valued equitably (by them or myself). I had to learn this the hard way.

Some years before, I had shared with them several ideas I had about bringing recovery into the mainstream workplace. After much success in their own career, they approached me about forming a business together given my experience working in the recovery space and given Wall Street’s relatively new interest (i.e., investment) in the recovery sector. My enthusiasm blinded me to the fact that our professional styles were not complimentary.

We hypothesized that creating a firm combining my domain expertise with their business consulting acumen could position us to become leaders in a rapidly emerging field. What followed however were many challenging months of attempting to partner. We faced intense relationship dynamics while trying to shape our offerings and cultivate prospects. We never succeeded in landing a client. Instead, what resulted was a terribly fractured relationship that I thought was irrevocably damaged.

I have since come to understand that ours was never a relationship ideal for a business partnership for we had a notable power dynamic and differences in the ways we approached work, defined success, understood the problems to be solved, and lacked an aligned assessment of our own and each other’s capabilities and worth.

It was a painful but important experience both personally and professionally. The greatest potential loss was not the relationship itself (we have since returned to being family members not associated professionally anyway), nor the business opportunity cost (I have since launched my own firm and they have moved on to other projects in other sectors) but rather missing the value of the lessons from this experience in order to grow. And grow I have.

Here is what I have taken away: Never seek your worth through someone else’s approval; Never measure your success by someone else’s standards; Trust, respect and kindness are essential to maintain psychological safety; and it is never too late to begin again.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Yes, without a doubt it is: “The Best is Yet to Come”. I know this to be true through my own lived experiences and also from watching others committed to growth and service. There is an inherit optimism and promise in the worthiness of being open to what unfolds. Everything changes for sure…and this quote is a reminder that no matter the situation, there are always lessons to be learned, value to contribute and joy to be found.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Several new and exciting programs I have developed during COVID include a 6-week webinar designed for people newly sober called Beyond Treatment: Thriving in Recovery.

One of the most challenging and under resourced areas on the wellness continuum for people impacted by addiction is in the first year of recovery, after participating in an intensive treatment program or going it alone.

Most addiction intervention is crisis-oriented with short-term solutions designed to support immediate behavioral change. However learning to live without dependence upon substances is just the beginning. Living a dynamic, healthy, authentic life — free from addiction, requires on-going vigilance, adopting new skills, cultivating a different mindset and tapping into resources and networks of supportive designed to enhance your journey and support lasting change. Most insurance coverage and programs are aimed at addressing only the crisis stage.

This is why I have designed innovative programs for people after treatment who are re-entering the “real world” (so to speak) — so they have access to on-going support, additional tools, an expanded network of people in recovery and resources to help them navigate life successfully in community — rather than going it alone.

Most people don’t realize how lonely and terrifying it can be to face family, friends and colleagues after admitting they have a substance use problem. That is why it is beneficial to build connections in recovery with others who are living this lifestyle successfully. However most people in recovery are not readily identifiable.

Today there are 23 million adults in the US living with long-term recovery (that is, people with 5 years or more of living free of the substances they used to be dependent upon). The stigma and shame associated with addiction has resulted in people staying quiet and invisible about their recovery because of fear of backlash. As you know, in our culture — admitting to a problem can be akin to admitting that one is weak, lazy or demonstrating poor judgement — in other words –not a person to be respected or trusted.

My work is aimed at challenging and changing that understanding and experience — both individually and collectively.

I have found people who are dedicated to living an active recovery lifestyle are overwhelmingly humble, welcoming, courageous, trustworthy, strong, experienced, dedicated, empathic, and health — all qualities that are in fact admirable and desirable, both personally and professionally.

For organizations, I provide tools to thoughtfully evaluate their policies, communications, management practices and benefits to ensure these are aligned in supporting all types of wellness — eliminating inadvertent discrimination and stigma as well as expanding the understanding of inclusivity and diversity to truly support recovery in all forms.

I could go on all day but will leave it here so we can focus on the rest of our conversation.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In my writing, I talk about cultivating wellbeing habits in our lives, in order to be strong, vibrant and powerful co-creators of a better society. What we create is a reflection of how we think and feel. When we get back to a state of wellbeing and begin to create from that place, the outside world will reflect this state of wellbeing. Let’s dive deeper into this together. Based on your experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellbeing? Please share a story or example for each.

First of all, I totally agree with your philosophy!

Before I share three habits for optimum metal wellbeing, I want to offer my approach to achieving overall well-being that is:

  1. Understand that well-being is an aspiration and you can achieve by balancing essential dimensions of life (I focus on mental, emotional, physical, environmental, professional, financial and spiritual health).
  2. Determine what wellness is for you in each dimension. Here it is important to distinguish between wellness and well-being*. Every person should be empowered to define for themselves what wellness and balance looks like in their own lives (certainly informed by the guidance of health experts).
  3. Identify the areas where there is desire/need for change and which practices/behavior/lifestyles support the wellness you value within each dimension.
  4. Establish realistic goals to support making change/growth where desired (this can include hiring an expert to help with the process!). And,
  5. Prioritize time each day/week/month to focus on nourishing each of the wellness dimensions.
  • Well-being is the result of balancing one’s wellness in each of the dimensions. Wellness is health defined holistically.

With the above as my framework for cultivating well-being, I am now excited to share with your readers the three habits I recommend specifically to improve mental well-being:

  1. Practice Self-Compassion. Remember you are human (fallible and malleable), unique and not alone. You deserve support, you deserve love and you deserve patience. One way that I practice self-compassion is by periodically writing myself a love letter. I imagine that it is 50 years from now and I am wise with lived experiences able to offer myself a different perspective and insight with which to guide my current efforts and approach to life. I find this exercise allows me to tap into deep knowing that I am taken care of, that I am deserving of all that I seek, and it helps puts things into perspective.
  2. Offer Gratitude. We cannot simultaneously be stuck in fear (of the future) or regret (the past), when our mind is grounded in the blessings of this present moment. Offering gratitude is the fastest way to achieve becoming present. Each morning for the past decade when I wake up and before I get out of bed, I reach over to my nightstand and grab a notepad and pen. On it I list 10 things for which I am grateful. They can be as simple as gratitude for the warm blanket on top of me or as specific as gratitude for this particular interview that invites me to share my gifts with others. No matter what challenges we may face during the day, spending a few moments in gratitude releases dopamine which helps us feel good and experience positive emptions.
  3. Find Inspiration. Another daily habit that I suggest, is starting each day by reading several inspirational passages. So many of us reach for our phones to read the news or open emails which can throw us right into chaos, worry and overwhelm. Instead, I choose to pause and start each day by contemplating words of wisdom. Finding Inspiration at the start of each day allows us to tap into awe and feeling connected to a greater purpose; helps to create a sense of equanimity; offers a new perspective and invites us to focus on what is positive rather than be pulled down by our negativity bias.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

I do meditate but the style varies based on the day and the time available. I look forward to spending a few minutes both in the mornings and in the evenings sitting in meditation. I close my eyes, say a prayer and then sit for a few moments (2–5 minutes) breathing slowly and deeply until I feel a sense of peace wash over me. On weekends, my partner and I listen to a 15–20-minute guided meditation together. We usually listen to it mid-morning — after breakfast — either outside in our yard (weather permitting, of course), on our sofa or even in bed. We always take a few moments to share our experience after the meditation ends. We have tried many different teachers and guides. One of my all-time favorites is the Harmonizer by Katie and Gay Hendricks: https://hendricks.com/the-harmonizer/

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellbeing? Please share a story or example for each.

Good habits around sleep, nutrition and exercise are the foundation of physical health. Yet just knowing this formula does not mean it is simple or easy to put into practice. I have had a long “love/hate” relationship with my body. For years, my appraisal of being happy physically was based upon maintaining a certain size and shape (rather than actually achieving fitness through conscientious weight training, cardio, stretching, etc). A significant portion of my self-worth was based on others finding me attractive. And I believed that was highly dependent upon my outside appearance.

It has been a conscious journey learning to embrace and appreciate my physical self at all sizes and abilities. I have experienced the satisfaction of achieving physical feats (such as running a half marathon and birthing my children) and I certainly know the difference between feeling centered as the result of being well rested versus ungrounded due to exhaustion and/or over-eating. I practice being gentle with myself when I make choices that don’t support optimum health because I know there is something there for me to learn and I am not perfect. Overall I make healthy choices and am grateful for my body.

Today I have new appreciation for my fitness abilities and physical health. I took this for granted when I was younger and focused instead on criticizing my looks. Today I am able to enjoy hopping on a bike after months of not cycling to join my partner for a long ride or embarking on a daylong hike for a joyous trek over the foothills to the ocean and back. Moving my body, breathing fresh air, being in nature, doing activities in relationship with my partner all nourish my well-being.

The three habits that I practice to enhance physical well-being are:

  1. Move. Each day find time for physical activities. Walk the dog, dance in the living room, ride a bike, run, swim, stretch — whatever makes you feel good. Move in ways that you enjoy.
  2. Appreciate. Give thanks for the body you have. Recognize your innate abilities. Don’t criticize, compare or judge. Send yourself messages of appreciation for using and honoring your body.
  3. Nourish. Feed yourself plenty of fresh, nutrient-rich foods and of course drink lots of water. There are lots of ways to nourish your body in addition to food — and that includes rest, relaxation, touch, sunshine. You get the gist, or shall I go on?

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are some great ways to begin to integrate it into our lives?

I think meal planning can be very helpful. Figure out what you want to eat over the next few days (there are plenty of ideas and recipes on the internet), make a shopping list and fill your fridge and cupboards with plenty of healthy options so that you can reach for truly satisfying ingredients when you are hungry.

I have weekly go-to meals that I prepare: veggie and cheese stuffed portobella mushrooms (instead of pizza); kale, quinoa, pomegranate and sweet potato salad; veggie stew; tofu and veggie stir fry. I tend to make enough for leftovers which often become lunch the next day.

Having a consistent mealtime routine helps as well. It requires prioritizing time to feed yourself and assures your body that you will be consistently fed. It is important not to feel hungry. My body can count on three nutritious meals at pretty much the same time each day plus plenty of snacks in between (my go to snacks are roasted almonds and grapes).

I want to emphasis that there are many different ways to eat healthily and there is a lot of confusion about it as well. Some people do intermittent fasting, others weigh and measure portions, still others just eat whatever they want whenever they want it. For me, part of being physically and mentally fit is maintaining a healthy relationship with food. I do this by not binging, by not starving myself but rather by staying hydrated and nourished with a balanced diet.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellbeing? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Daily Intentions — In the morning, identify and commit to how you intend to show up this particular day. For example, I dedicate myself to being of service, to living my values, and to overcoming self-limiting beliefs. This helps keep me focused on what I deem to be truly important and it helps to bring me back to my purpose when I get sidetracked throughout the day. Living with integrity guided by our values is a means to experience self-respect.
  2. Daily Review — In the evening, briefly think about your day and identify where you are pleased with how you engaged, where there is room from growth and what actions you need to take to “clean up” anything that caused distress/worry/hurt/misunderstanding. It is important to live without regret or resentment to achieve emotional well-being. We often need to learn to establish healthy boundaries and set realistic expectations of ourselves and others. This is a practice of cultivating self-compassion, self-growth and empathy.
  3. Daily Connections — Throughout the day, find ways to spend quality time with those whom you admire, trust, are nourished by, enjoy, care about, and can receive and/or offer support. Personally, I have created “Team Fay” — that is, identified for myself those individuals in my life whom I know I trust completely and can rely on to gain accurate reflections, guidance, affection, wisdom, and can let my guard down to share, to be real and to grow without fear or judgment or shame. These are people who play different roles in my life that I can easily reach out to and know they will be responsive. My “Team” currently consists of 5 people — my mother, my partner, my best-friend, my therapist, my coach. Nurturing meaningful connections with ourselves, and with others is a vital part of experiencing emotional wellbeing.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellbeing? We’d love to hear it.

Yes, indeed! I see smiling as an external indication of a particular mindset. We can choose to smile at any moment and simultaneously change our thoughts and physical experience. Smiling invites us to experience openness while conveying kindness and accessibility. There is science to suggest that moving our facial muscles to create a smile can positively influence our emotions. Choosing to smile is a habit like choosing to eat healthily, or choosing to walk in nature — that is, making a concerted choice to take action to improve our overall wellbeing. We have the power to make ourselves feel better and be better. Smile.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellbeing? Please share a story or example for each.

1 . Recognize Your Purpose. What drives you to show up each day with a sense of passion and purpose? Remind yourself what is at the core of WHY you do WHAT you do.

Here is a short exercise to help uncover your purpose: Write down on a piece of paper your WHAT (you may have many — so choose just one for now). For example, my WHAT is: To be an attentive loving mother to my children. Next write down WHY you choose to do that. For example, my WHY is: To support my daughters to live their dreams and reach their potential. Knowing they are deeply loved and respected can help them cultivate resilience. Finally identify the essence or core values that drives that WHAT and WHY. For example, the essence or core values of my WHAT and WHY are: Love and connection. In essence, my deepest VALUE or PURPOSE is to nurture my daughters through loving connection to experience resiliency.

2. Bask in Your Essence. Spend time cultivating, nurturing and experiencing the values at the core of your purpose — in other words your essence. For example, using the exercise above, this would mean I should find ways to feel nurtured, feel loved, feel connected, feel resilient. You know the old adage that you can’t give what you don’t have. Examples of activities to achieve this might be for me to take a bath, meditate, reach out to a close friend, practice gratitude, or get a message.

3. Experience Awe. Take a moment to move away from the personal and focus instead on the “collective” (this can mean something different to each one of us. For example, it may be nature, the universe, god, religion, the collective unconscious). By witnessing, sensing and/or remembering that we are part of/there is something greater than ourselves we can find wonder and experience awe. This can be accomplished by visiting the ocean, viewing a sunset, saying prayers, meditation, chanting, practicing yoga, riding a bicycle or any activity that bring you to a sense of joy and peace.

Though I grew up with a religion, I did not cultivate a spiritual practice until I got sober at age 40. Seeking to quiet my busy mind, I learned how to meditate. I read books by spiritual teachers, attended retreats led by monks, sat in solitude until I established a practice that works well for me. The act of learning to meditate exposed me to a world of spirituality that I had never been attracted to. I have since found that my spiritual well-being is perhaps THE most important dimension of my overall well-being for it is where I find my ultimate sense of peace, freedom and belonging.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate overall wellbeing?

Yes.

We know that one can be at work, at home with their family or out in nature by themselves yet be completely consumed by their own thoughts and unable to appreciate or engage in the current moment. As I shared above, experiencing awe is vital for my spiritual wellbeing. I believe, one of the easiest ways to tap into awe and thus get present is by being in nature.

Here is a short two-minute exercise to mindfully connect with nature. Close your eyes. Take a slow deep inhale breath to the count of four and then exhale slowly to the count of four. Repeat this three times. Now imagine you are at the beach standing in front of the ocean. Notice the swell of the waves, breathe in deeply through your nose, sense the temperature of the cool air against your skin, feel the warmth of the sun on your face, listen to the sounds of seagulls squawking in the distance, now bend down and touch the sandy beach below your feet. How do you feel? Can you feel the pounding of your heart? Smile. Now slowly open your eyes and come back to the present moment.

Using our senses mindfully in person or in our imagination can be calming, transformative, relaxing, invigorating, inspirational, awe inducing. All of these experiences are available to each one of us (free of charge!!) and can contribute to our overall sense of wellbeing.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I love this question. My passion is to inspire people to be open about their experiences overcoming challenges. I believe we can end the shame, stigma and isolation associated with having addiction or being in recovery. Truth is, we are all recovering from something. There is so much that connects us as human beings. Being open is demonstrating humanity and creating safety for others. Openness removes barriers by creating connection. Through openness we can reach the millions of people who are struggling alone so that they too can find health, healing and connection. We have the power to do this simply by being open.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

What fun! Do I have to pick just one person? I would love to break bread with Oprah Winfrey, Glennon Doyle, and Sheryl Sandberg. These women have transformed their personal struggles into powerful platforms with which to reach and help millions of others. They do that with heart, power and courage to break molds. I want to learn from them how I can do more to make greater impact and of course to just say thank you for their inspiration! I would also like to share a meal with Mackenzie Scott and Marc Benioff — people who also have tremendous influence and ability to improve the lives of others. I would want them to invest in recovery of course!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Best way to follow or reach me is through my website www.fayzenoff.com. I am also on Facebook www.facebook.com/fay.zenoff and Instagram @fayzifay.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

Thanks so much! It has been a great pleasure.

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