In a tiny town in Michigan, there once lived a girl who had dreams too big for the labels she had been asked to hide behind. Her childhood was laced with anxiety, religious oppression, and the ache of unbelonging. Some days she escaped the pain and teasing with binge eating. Other days she amplified it with thoughts that tormented her, hissing, “You’ll never be good enough.” She wanted to be one of those girls — the desired and invited ones. The ones granted a seat at any table of their choosing.
But under the layers upon layers of bullying and guilt, and behind the rattling chains of her restrictive upbringing, something whispered to her, “There is more for you. So much more. Be patient.” Then one day in her early teens, while stretched across the couch, eyes glued to the television and finger shuffling through the channels, she stumbled upon a fitness competition. In that moment, the puzzle pieces of her entire life rearranged themselves. It was as though a secret trap door had been unlocked, and her entire identity was being pulled through it. She visualized what it would look like to parade across that stage. She wanted to know what winning felt like. What vindication felt like. What worthiness felt like.
She immersed herself into fitness, devoting hours to the gym. Each time her heart rate elevated and the sweat dripped from her flesh, she was being refined in spirit and emboldened with willpower. When her feet finally met that first competitive stage, she thought she was the most presentable she could ever be. But she would return home with her gaze meeting the ground. For almost four years straight, she never walked away with a single trophy, a single glance of acknowledgment, a mere nod of recognition. It was the same story all over again. Would she ever catch a break? Would she always be the girl who never wins at anything?
Everything in her being was on fire with diligence, preparation and sacrifice, only to be smacked with more rejection. It was defeating and humiliating. Until one day it wasn’t.
The first time she heard herself being announced as the winner, she was stunned. And, from there, she would go on to win two more world fitness titles, all within the same year. Her face would gloss the cover of major fitness magazines — 10 times and counting.
Lori Harder, now 38, became a a self-made millionaire, a celebrated podcast host, and Founder of The Bliss Project, a popular women’s retreat weekend that attracts life coaches, speakers and entrepreneurs from all over the globe. A bestselling author, she now spends her time inspiring those who know the depths she once swam through. Her most recent book, “A Tribe Called Bliss,” is one of an infinite number of ways she shows up to extend them all a lifeboat.
So what was her turning point — the moment when abundance and possibility came in for a landing, and unworthiness threw its hands up and scampered away in defeat? Harder says her most profound juncture actually came shortly before she fulfilled her dream of gracing the covers of the magazines she had poured over since adolescence.
“I was staring at my vision board. I had this cover up in the center of it, and I was hinging everything on making that cover. It was as though all of my ‘not enough-ness’ was staring me in the face,” she says.” I was telling myself, ‘If you had just gotten this cover, you would finally prove it to everyone — to all of those people who teased you and didn’t invite you and said you would never make it.’”
Harder recalls throwing herself onto her bed and letting all of her pain and anguish unravel out of her. She fell into a sobbing temper tantrum, her hot tears saturating her hands until there were no more. But then something happened. She felt this massive cloud of clarity move over her, enveloping her. “All of the sudden, I just thought, OK, well now what? Because this whole thing isn’t going to get me anywhere,” she says.
Harder realized that the only reason she ever aspired to see herself on that cover was so she could serve as an inspiration for people like herself — girls who felt dejected and spit upon and perpetually met with slamming doors.
“Something just shifted in me. I thought, wait a minute — what wires have gotten crossed in my own mind, where I’m now robbing myself of happiness over something I may never get? Why can’t I be that source of inspiration for people now in my life, even if I’m not on any magazine cover? I can be this person in my gym. I can utilize the platforms I already have to be that person for others, every single day,” says Harder.
That’s exactly what she did, never to glance back again. Gradually, she found herself serving as a leader for women — first, dozens of them, then hundreds, then hundreds of thousands. She found herself at photoshoot after photoshoot, posing for some of the most celebrated fitness magazines in the world. Then her feet met the Tedx stage, where she unpacked her story and captivated the audience.
Harder reflects on that meltdown in her bedroom, nearly a decade ago, with both humor and fondness. “I think we have those moments over and over again throughout our lives — where we want something that maybe isn’t happening right when we want it to. But, these moments have gotten easier for me over the years because I’ve learned the power of asking, ‘OK, well if that thing I want is not for me, what else is there for me?’”
Harder is all about radical responsibility. It’s the only thing, she swears, that has ever worked.
“If we get caught up in the blame, complain, justify cycle, that’s so disempowering,” she says. “If our careers are bad, if our relationships are bad, if the way we feel about ourselves is bad, the only way to fix any of it is to take that radical responsibility for our energy.”
While Harder understands that people do fall prey to horrific injustices, and that some are either born or lured into tragic circumstances that are in no way their fault (a nightmarish kidnapping experience in Mexico at 18 years old having been one of her own), she believes the things that happen to us are only half of the outcomes we end up living out.
“People expend so much energy and time trying to label themselves as victims and prove someone else as having been wrong, when they could spend half of that energy and time, and then become bigger than their problem,” says Harder.
Being a woman who operates several businesses, Harder knows that the people she gives her energy to, both personally and professionally, set the tone for everything else. “A Tribe Called Bliss” is entirely devoted to the facets of this knowing — the understanding that the cast always makes or breaks the movie experience of one’s life.
“There is a part in the book about releasing expectations. It talks about how if we have expectations of people all of the time, whether it’s our supporting cast or the people who play main roles in our lives, then we are never allowing them to show up for the roles they are meant to play. If we are always thinking people need to be someone else for us, they can’t be who they really are, and that means we can’t create deep connections with them,” she says.
Harder and I discuss how common it is for people to move through relationships holding onto expectations for others that the other person never signed up for at all.
“This means that the expectations can become so intense that we will either force good people out of our lives, or those people will leave our lives because they will feel that nothing they ever do will be right or good enough,” says Harder.
While researching, as well as shuffling through her own experiences, for her book, she confirmed again and again that all healthy relationships require massive communication and respect for boundaries. Also an open mind and plenty of understanding.
“We often forget that when we meet another person, we’re not just meeting one person. We’re meeting the other 5,000 people they’ve ever met in their lifetimes. We forget that there are all of these other stories going on behind this moment we are sharing with them.”
This means we are most often disappointed not by who the other person is, but by our shattered ideas of them, which is also to say that all healthy relationships begin with cultivating a healthy relationship with oneself. Perhaps this also means that the comparison sagas and shame stories have got to be thrown overboard.
“I think comparison stems from an old belief rooted in lack. It says, ‘There’s not enough to go around,’ and ‘There’s only one spot at the top’ and, ‘If she already has that, then I won’t get it,’” says Harder.
As though the universe cruelly rations love, and beautiful experiences, and opportunities. Harder believes the opposite is true.
“Going deeper, comparison can cause some people to perceive that something was taken from them, but I find that truly abundant people make plenty of room for others to also reach the top,” she says.
Harder believes our culture is undergoing changes, and I agree. For so long, women were pinned against each other — whether by society, by men or by other women. But the whole feminist movement that is blazing through our society is gradually shifting the notion of competition and scarcity to a spirit of celebration. We are not longer adversaries, but amplifiers of one another’s greatness. We can understand, then, that another man’s or woman’s success is not robbing from our bundle.
Harder and I explore the notion that fear and lack are merely immature responses with roots in laziness. Because if a person thinks everything that manifests in their life is subject to the whims of nature, the powers that reign, the vulnerabilities of being one among billions of creatures inhabiting a spinning ball of rock, it gives them the illusion of being able to relinquish control. It lets them off of the hook. Then, they don’t have to take action to fix their brokenness; they get to wallow in it and point the finger at either God or the person who took their fortune from them.
While Harder agrees that the universe is a place of beautiful mystery, she believes it’s equally a place of eternal abundance. “I think we are always our only block to whatever it is we desire. I’m truly aware that if there is not something manifesting in my life right now, I’m either blocking myself from it, or I’m simply not seeing what is here for me,” she says.
And sometimes, as it has played out in Harder’s story, that means seeing not only that which is staring at us in the face, but the ability to see that which cannot yet be seen — the corners of ours lives that beckon for new opportunities, new platforms and new relationships to be created. Maybe even tenfold.
Editor’s Note: There was an editorial error in the print version of this feature, which listed Harder as a New York Times best-selling author. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.