Debbie Happy Cohen

Debbie at Women's March 2019 year 3 photo by cathy haven howard
Speaking at the Women’s March 2019

I know what it’s like to feel powerless, to feel like your voice doesn’t matter. I was raised in a toxic environment where I was told in a thousand different ways that I don’t matter. Living in that darkness made me feel lonely, powerless and pointless.

The tendrils of pathological emotional abuse in my immediate family are pervasive. Through what is now being known as “ambient abuse,” many extended family members have unwittingly allowed the psychological bullying to perpetuate over many years. Their voices are held hostage to fear, denial and toxic loyalty. Due to nonstop bullying, which was (and is) far more difficult for me to witness than to actually experience, I chose to exit the family system which included dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins . . . many of whom I loved and adored. This confession of my past might be the most difficult piece I have ever written.

Leaving such a large family created a void in my life, and this was the beginning of my hero’s journey. In order to navigate my future, I learned to take risks, trust myself, value my own perspective and honor my power. I learned to connect with people who wanted to bring out the very best in me and in each other. I learned what healthy relationships looked like. I also learned exactly how a person’s community can directly and powerfully influence their immune system and physical health.

More than anything, I yearned for an environment where everyone could thrive. People who were just like me. I made it my mission to learn how to create environments, relationships, and sub-cultures where no one would ever again have to suffer in silence and darkness, where physical, mental and emotional well-being could be normalized: atmospheres of acceptance and joy where Mr. Rogers would want to put on his sweater and make himself at home.

Joy-Based Living is my prototype. The 12 Practices are our daily workout. Our community is a backdrop of encouragement and strength for each of us. It’s a dream come true. And it is totally awesome.

To help you get to know me better, here are a few glimpses of the adventurous journey which brought me here today. The formal education I received (a BA in psychology and an MA in counseling) was helpful but limited due to the emphasis on “fixing what’s wrong” with people rather than “emphasizing what’s right” with them. My quest to having a higher education was to learn how to raise children (and adults) by combining soft, positive idealism with practical behavior modification. I found what I was looking for and after graduating, promptly left the field of counseling.

Lucky to meet an incredibly loving and talented spiritual teacher, my extracurricular studies throughout my 20’s included just about every kind of self-help, spiritual development, and alternative healing method available. She mentored me for a few years and I became a Reiki Master. During this time, I witnessed many miracles and the power of love in action. I also got a close-up view of the shadow side, the underbelly, of being a “seeker” . . . so many people talked the talk but resisted any real transformation or change. I saw this as self-abuse and felt discouraged by it.

I hired a coach. This was the best decision I ever made in my life. I quickly began a full-time career in coaching individuals and groups to help them make their dreams come true, both personally and professionally. Coaching encourages people to recognize and name their deepest values and desires, then holds them accountable for bringing them to life in their own unique style. This was the perfect combination for me!

On 9-11, I watched one of my biggest dreams go down with the towers. I had just been promised a hundred thousand dollar grant from JP Morgan who had been funding (on a smaller scale) my Reach Your Stars personal transformation seminars for children and teachers. I had just delivered a fantastic keynote speech to 500 JP Morgan employees in the southeast region. They were so pleased with my leadership that they put a hundred grand on the side for me and told me that all I had to do was send in the paperwork in order to receive the money. It was around 10 am. As I typed my answers into their form, I looked up to witness the twin towers falling on the TV screen.

Again, I felt voiceless. How could I talk about making dreams come true when what the country really needed was grief support and a sense of safety? Our country’s priorities changed in 3 hours and my seminars lost their meaning. I wasn’t prepared to talk about trauma, safety or sadness.

I never sent in the form requesting the hundred grand. JP Morgan was hit hard, right in New York City. I felt like my school seminars were the last thing they needed to focus on. They had a city to rebuild. But my mission never left me. More than ever, I wanted to help people create atmospheres where no one would ever have to suffer in silence and where each person’s authentic gifts and strengths could shine. I wrote and published: Reach Your Stars! I continued coaching people and providing private seminars and workshops. 

I entered and exited a couple of toxic relationships. I learned about emotional abuse and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I learned that there is such a thing as “loving too much” and I learned to call a spade a spade (naming the abuse). I also learned how to recognize my part and to end unhealthy relationships.

My process of inner healing paid off. I made two great discoveries. First, in order to survive psychological trauma and heal it, I developed superpowers. These include: vigilance, vision, inner knowing, the ability to sense the flow of energy in a room and ride it like a surfer, intuition, the ability to really listen, the ability to unite people for purposes of cooperation and mutual support, the ability to communicate, the ability to move people into empowered action, and the ability to negotiate. As I developed these abilities, I unwittingly honed my favorite superpower: leadership.

Second, I learned that when a person’s inner environment is healthy and balanced, dreams naturally come true. It takes effort and vigilance to create such an inner atmosphere because our culture teaches us to face outward, not inward. When you embark this path, you will appear to be “different” than others, so you’ll need to drum up your courage. But you will fully blossom with the right kind of nudging and support. This is what every great leader provides.

That’s what I’m up to now. At Joy-Based Living.

Helping people empower their joy. Take inspired action. And lead.