Own It, Feel It, and Heal It

I like to go walking with my friend who has a dog. We hike on a trail that allows dogs off leash after a certain point, and so we meet tons of off leash dogs on these hikes.  It is off leash dog central.  Usually, we can tell which dogs don’t want to interact with my friend’s dog, and sometimes people tell us that their dog has had prior bad experiences. Recently, something very different happened. A man showed up at the trailhead at the same time as us, and commanded my friend to keep her dog on a leash. She responded that she would do so until the unleashing area. He then demanded that she keep her dog back while he got ahead on the trail, and off he stalked. His hostile manner was off-putting.  Later, as we hiked, we encountered him again. He was coming back down, and from a great distance, he yelled at my friend to leash her dog. Now, this was in the area where dogs are permitted to be off leash, but she leashed her dog at his request. Then he commanded that she step to the far side of the path from him, which she did. As he got closer, he said in an angry voice, “My dogs have been attacked, badly.” I’ve had a similar experience, myself, so I said to him, “Maybe you could lead with that before telling people what to do. Then we would understand.” My friend added something about how these hikes should be enjoyable, not stressful. He refused to look at us, and marched off angrily without acknowledging that we’d spoken to him.  This man did not want understanding; by coming here, he was looking for something else.

My first thought was that, while I don’t subscribe to the belief that we create our own reality, I do believe that we create our own interpersonal dynamics. This man was creating a hostile environment all around him. I assume that he treated all of the many off leash dog owners on the trail in the same manner that he treated us: expecting all of us to obey his commands while treating all dogs and dog owners as if they were culpable for one dog’s behavior from his past. Instead of walking his leashed, traumatized dogs somewhere where dogs are not allowed off leash, he went to the most high traffic place for dogs who are allowed to go off leash and then expected people to put leashes on their dogs to accommodate him.  There was something provocative in this man’s manner that had me thinking.  It seemed as if he was seeking out a negative experience by coming to this place and ordering people around from the moment he started his hike.

Years ago, my husband and I had a troubled dog who always needed to be leashed when out on walks, and who panicked when an unleashed dog or a fast-moving human approached us.  We never considered taking her any place frequented by off leash dogs.  It would have been hell. What I witnessed in this man was a self-created hell that he spread around to others under the guise of protecting his dogs.  In reality, he was exposing his dogs to a traumatic environment so that he could take his rage out on others under the official mantle of defending his dogs. The likelihood of him recreating the original situation he was claiming to try avoid was high.  Nobody on that trail is required to leash their dogs, and at some point he will cross someone who will refuse to obey his surly commands.

Sometimes people get attached to their hell, and rather than doing the painful work of feeling it and healing it, they throw it around at people, hoping to see their inner hell reflected on the faces of the people around them.  This man reminded me of people who do this. On my own journey, I have been like this man, and perhaps you have too.  One sign that you are creating your own hell and throwing it around is that you find yourself in the same situation over and over again, whether with an abusive boss, a certain kind of friend, or a romantic partner.  You’ll generally be able to find a recurrent “them” theme in these situations that makes you feel a certain way.  Using the example of this man on the trail, I imagine that he sees himself as the only one out there who keeps his dogs on leash and the trail is a dangerous place where everyone else feels like an out of control threat to his victimized dogs; a threat that he alone needs to control by shouting out his demands.

So, what can you do if you discover that you are throwing your hell at others rather than feeling and healing it?  The first step is opening to the possibility that what you believe about others might not be the whole truth.  It is one thing to have a bad experience with one person, or even a few, but if it seems like everybody is wrong, you might be not be perceiving the situation correctly.  Next, identify the theme that comes with every situation that creates the hellish feeling, every situation that triggers you to strike out at others.  Let’s say the angry dog walker hits the theme that everyone out there is out of control, disrespectful, unruly, unsafe and he has to make them behave to protect his dogs.  With help, he can learn to sit with those out of control feelings, and learn to tolerate actually feeling them rather than throwing them away.  This kind of owning is not a simple or easy process and I don’t recommend going it alone, but with guidance and support, the feeling will lead to the healing.  That need to control others dissipates when you realize that those others aren’t the source of your unsafe feelings.  When you find the source, you are in control of the fix.


Siblings in an Abusive Family

One day, my husband and I were snuggling on the couch. Something smelled awful, and I confess that I assumed it was him. Much later in the day, I discovered a dead mouse on the floor right under the couch where he’d been sitting. I’d attributed the stench of mouse corpse to my husband, and he had every reason to assume that it was actually me causing the stench.

This stench-blaming is similar to what can happen among siblings who grow up together in an abusive household. The abuser is like a person who has been carrying around a stinking dead corpse because his or her parent(s) handed it to them, because their parents handed it to them, and so on. It’s just what’s been done for generations. Now the person with the corpse hands it down to their children. It stinks. At first, the children might know that the parent brought the stink, but any child who confronts an abusive parent is going to get smacked down, have the blame turned on them, or meet up with complete denial that there is anything but the most lovely of fragrances in the room.

The problem of the stink remains, so now the choices are: blame yourself or blame someone else other than the abusive parent. Some children blame themselves, some blame their siblings. Now where there could have been a supportive relationship, there is animosity. There are countless combinations that can occur and here is a sampling: one child who blames him or herself and tries to fix the problem might have one or more siblings who also blame him or her. Any number of siblings might blame each other. Sometimes the abuser picks a sibling to side with in blaming another sibling; sometimes that same parent switches sides. Everyone has their own theory about what is causing the stink and everyone has their own idea of how to deal with it. Meanwhile the person who brought the stink gets none of the blame, and is likely to exploit the conflicts among the family members, to throw everyone off from the source of the scent and to keep the siblings from forming any sort of coalition.

The abuse continues, the stink remains, the infighting solves nothing but makes everyone feel like they are doing something.  Everyone takes a role in the family dynamic.  Each child leaves the household and enters adulthood with a template for relationships based on the relationship dynamics they had not only with their parents but also with their siblings.  (There are templates from beyond the family, too, but today I am focusing on siblings). Your relationships with friends, roommates, coworkers, lovers are all shaped by the sibling template. And whenever something arises in your relationships that resembles the stink, you follow the template, especially if there is a power dynamic involved.  Maybe you work in an inequitable workplace with a boss who is not compensating people fairly. If you have your sibling template in place, you might feel hostility festering in the direction of a coworker rather than toward the unfair boss.  Perhaps you are vying with another for your own lover’s attention.  Your sibling template will have you put your focus on the competition while not seeing your lover exploiting the conflict between you and the person vying for your lover.  Maybe you have a best friend who keeps letting you down, but who you keep trusting.  Perhaps you are involved in a hazing ritual with “brothers” or “sisters” who violate you.  Whatever the form, a sibling template will drive relationships until it can be brought to the light of your consciousness, and many of these relationships, since they resemble family, feel like relationships you cannot leave no matter what.

Once you focus beyond the fact that you were on the receiving end of abuse from your parent, and you start to also examine your sibling relationships, things gets murkier. Your sibling(s) might have done some awful things to you, but it is also possible that you did some awful things to them.  This can be hard to admit.  It is also likely that you survived your abusive household by nurturing the belief that you were the victim and your sibling was on the side of the perpetrator; you might have grown to believe that you were the good child and another sibling was the bad one; it’s possible you expressed all the rage of the household while another sibling demonstrated all the emotional control. It can be difficult to admit that your sibling(s) were also being abused, and that what they did to you was not the source of the stink, but the result of the stink. This doesn’t mean your sibling is not accountable for their actions, or you for yours.  It does open up a more complex conversation that moves beyond the binary one where one side holds all the blame and the other all the victimhood.   Once you get to this understanding, you can start doing some good work in your relationships whether with your sibling or with anyone whose relationship with you was formed by the sibling template.

While I would like to end this post by wrapping it up in a neat package of suggestions as to how to start the healing work, I am instead leaving it open-ended, with questions to consider for yourself or discuss in the comments section.  If you had sibling(s) and trauma or abuse in your family, what is your relationship with your sibling(s) like today?  Do you have a sibling template that forms and informs your relationships?  What does it look like? In what arena do you have the most trouble with your sibling template?  Is it at work?  Team sports?  Friends of the same gender or different gender?  People in your cultural group? People in another cultural group? If you have children, how do you react when they are in conflict with friends and/or siblings or even with you?  Feel free to explore and share your answers here!

Reclaiming and Embracing Your True Self

Recently, I witnessed the start of a dog fight that turned into a human fight. A large dog and a small dog met each other on a busy sidewalk. The large dog aggressively jumped on and pinned the small dog who was terrified, as were its owners.  After the dogs’ owners separated them, they started to yell at each other.  Instead of apologizing, the owner of the large dog yelled angrily that her dog is the friendliest dog in the world and has never bitten anyone, ever.  She could not accept that her dog was the aggressor in this situation, because that went against her perception of her dog as friendly, so she lashed out at the people who reacted to her dog as unfriendly.  They were like the mirror telling the evil stepmother that she wasn’t the fairest of them all, so she attacked them for holding up the mirror.

In a similar way, many people are blind to the parts of themselves that don’t fit their idea of who they are.  The more attached a person gets to being a certain type of human, the more threatening any evidence to the contrary can feel.  A person who is overly attached to the idea that they are kind might lash out at someone who tells them that their behavior has been hurtful.  Someone who sees themselves as the smartest one in the room feels threatened when someone points out their lack of knowledge on a subject they believe they are the expert on.  A person whose morals are their identity can’t accept the possibility that their behavior or urges are less than moral.

The more a person is attached to an identity based on a value, the more threatened they feel when someone holds up the mirror that reflects that they also embody the opposite of that value and everything in between.  Like the woman with the “friendly” dog, they might lash out.  The “kind” person might attack someone who has pointed out their hurtful behavior: making excuses, blaming the person who they’ve hurt, or saying something along the lines of “I’m a good person.”  The person who identifies as smart might attack their perceived opponent’s intelligence, or double-down in defending a false premise, just to win the argument so that their self-image stays intact.  The person who identifies with their morals might change the subject or blame the person they’ve sinned against, while their own behavior becomes more unconscious and extreme.

All of this might seem obvious to someone whose own sense of self is intact and who doesn’t rely on someone outside of themselves for validation of their identity.  To a child, a person like this is dangerous, whether it is a parent, adult relative, teacher, religious leader, babysitter, or any adult they look to for guidance.  Imagine the dog owner who is so attached to the idea that her dog is harmless and friendly that she ignores any behavior that doesn’t fit this image.  She lashes out at anyone who points out her dog’s aggressive tendencies, and the aggression goes unchecked because she refuses to see it.  Now, imagine that a small child comes rushing up to pet this “friendly” dog, who is startled by the child and attacks.  The child gets injured, and this dog’s owner, who still can’t accept that her dog is aggressive, lashes out and blames the child for running up to her dog.  Not only is this child bleeding and in pain, but is now being told that they brought this injury onto themselves and that they should be ashamed for forcing this friendly dog to bite them.

Now picture a person who is attached to their own image in this extreme way, and imagine what happens when a child enter their lives.  They’ve already lashed out at and cut off the adults who’ve pointed out their blind spots, so the behaviors they are blind to continue to run rampant and unchecked.  What happens if someone like this becomes a parent,  teacher, religious leader, or any sort of caregiver to children?  Children don’t begin life swallowing their feelings or ignoring injustices or pretending that something that is true is false.  They come into this world as raw creatures holding big, bullshit-free mirrors.  To the person who has been manipulating the outside world to reflect to them what they want to believe about themselves, a child’s true self feels like a dangerous threat.  Instead of accepting that child’s raw truth, this person is going to attack that child any time their truthful self holds up the mirror.  The “kind” parent blames their child for any unkind behavior this child complains about; the “smart” teacher humiliates the child who points out their error; the “moral” leader condemns the child who triggers their immoral urges that they can’t accept as their own.  The child in all these scenarios learns that their pain is their own fault, that being their true self is dangerous, so then they warp themselves into whoever their adult figures need them to be.  This child might grow up so attached to their own warped self-image that got them through childhood intact, that they now lash out at anyone who threatens that image, and the vicious cycle continues.

Anyone who grew up in this way learned that being their true self was dangerous or threatening to an adult in charge.  If this sounds like you, then you learned to bury your true self to suit the needs of the grown-ups’ fragile self-images.  This woman with the dog might have survived childhood by being the friendly girl who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and now she’s broadened this self-image to include her dog.  Maybe you are the person who demeans people as unintelligent because you were taught that being smart was more important than being loved.  Perhaps you are the person who can’t accept that you have urges that go against your morals, and maybe you were violated by someone who blamed you when they acted on you with their own urges they were blind to.  As an adult, you can break the cycle.

The first step in breaking the cycle is to become aware that you are trapped in a cycle to begin with.  You might notice that many of your relationships seem to end in the same way, because something in yourself feels unchangeable.  You might notice that you viciously judge certain behaviors in others that you can’t imagine doing yourself.  It’s possible that you know exactly what it is you were expected to be as a child but you just can’t seem to muster up the courage to be anything else.  This awareness is the beginning.  Know that changing this pattern might be terrifying, and understand that you can’t do this work alone.  Start to build your resources before you dive in.  A good therapist whose self-image is intact is worth their weight in gold.  Friends and or family who accept themselves, warts and all, are vital allies because they are more likely to accept your warts, too.  Support groups and communities built around common healthy interests can be incredible.  Literature is abundant in this topic, so reading up can shed immense light on the work you do to heal.  Keeping a journal that no one can see helps you express unadulterated thoughts and explore parts of yourself without the threat of judgment or punishment.  Add these all together and you are ready to escape the cycle that keeps you locked in place, and begin to walk the path to freedom.

Do You Really Have to Love Yourself in Order to Be Loved?

In my twenties, I was involved in an off-again, on-again relationship that I am certain made all who witnessed it feel a little crazy. This person and I broke up and got back together so many times over a period of three and a half years, I lost count. One day, I was finally done and I officially broke off the relationship, for real this time. I am not proud of this, but knowing that this decision was not mutual and was causing unhappiness, I heard myself saying, “Years from now you’ll look back on this and see that this was good for you, too,” or something like that. I wanted to break up and be told by the person I was hurting in the process, that I was a good person doing a good thing. I wanted to be thanked for ending the relationship, and I didn’t quite want to let go of this person’s good opinion. Not surprisingly, my ex-to-be was not on board with this idea. The response was something along the lines of “I can’t see any scenario where this is a good thing.” A year, a day prior to that moment, that response would have crumbled my resolve and I would not have followed through with the break up. This time, things were different. I now had something in me that had previously been missing; something that helped me know I could survive this person’s disappointment in me, even if it turned into hatred.

I didn’t know this at the time, but that day I ended something bigger than an unhealthy, unworkable relationship. I broke something else that had power over me until that moment: I broke my need to be seen as good and lovable by someone other than myself. During the three and a half years of break up and make up, I had slowly been learning to love myself, to accept myself as good from the inside. I didn’t start this relationship with that self-love, with that acceptance. The day the relationship began was the first day anyone I adored had ever looked at me with equal adoration, and then said that they wanted to be with me. I was so hungry for that feeling of adoration, that I was hooked from that very moment, and willing to overlook just about everything else including the fact that we were incompatible, we didn’t have enough in common to even connect as friends, and that we wanted entirely different things in a relationship. I wanted that feeling of love and acceptance and adoration that I felt in that first moment, and I spent the next few years trying to recreate that feeling.

In the frustration and pain that I felt in this relationship, I reached out for help, thinking I might learn to make this relationship work. I went to therapy. My lover had addiction issues, so I went to Al-anon to seek help from people who also were in relationships with addicts. I reached out to and leaned on friends, some of which had all sorts of impressive patience with my relationship and all the break ups. I joined a spiritual community. I journalled constantly, pouring my frustrations and pain into journal after journal. Over time, my therapist’s nonjudgmental acceptance of me made me start to accept myself. From Al-anon meetings, I felt connected with people who shared in similar frustrations and helped me feel that I was not crazy or alone. My friends’ support taught me that I was lovable no matter how many stupid choices I made. My spiritual community showed me that, by pursuing this relationship, I was trying to fill a hole that no human can fill for another. In my journals, I saw that I had my own wisdom, that my own counsel was valuable, too. All of this accumulated slowly into something solid. One day, it hit me that I loved myself. It also hit me that I enjoyed my own company. I didn’t march out and break up with this person that day; I tried to make the relationship work for probably another year. Over time, I saw the lack of connection, respect, and love in the relationship was in such sharp contrast to the connection, respect, and love I had for myself and my community had for me. It was no longer tolerable, and when I didn’t get thanked or adored for ending the relationship, but left anyway, that need for adoration no longer controlled me, even if it did tug at me a little bit.

So, where am I going with this story? It’s pretty common to hear that you can’t be loved by another unless you love yourself, as if you get a relationship as a prize for loving yourself. What I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen is that you can be in a relationship whether you love or respect yourself or not. You can even be loved deeply by someone whether you love or respect yourself or not. But if you depend on someone else to make you feel lovable and wanted, then love always seems to be in the hands of that person, which gives them great power over you. If instead, you already love and respect yourself, then you walk into love with another as if the love itself is the fertile ground you stand on and get nourishment from together, always solid, always available, even after the person you love is gone.

Leaving the Rut of the Familiar and the Comfortable

A little over a year ago, I stepped out of a rut that I didn’t realize I was in to begin with. I am only now seeing it for what it was, and I am not sure I have a name for the rut yet. What pushed me to take this step was the US presidential election. I started with a a strong feeling that social media contributed to the mess that the United States had gotten into.  It felt to me that polarized citizens were talking about each other in front of each other in that hateful way that social media allows for. Without eye contact, without physical presence, the dialogue becomes dehumanized, often disrespectful and sometimes outright violent. I wanted no part of it anymore. I wanted to connect with fellow humans in a real way, not in a virtual way, and not just the humans who think like me or look like me. I wanted to connect, even in the smallest way, with everyone I came across.

I started small on the day after the election. I decided to make eye contact with everyone I saw while I was out and about. This was not easy that day, because like so many of my like-minded friends, I felt shattered. As I was walking down my street, I saw a man who I made assumptions about, based on how he was dressed, what his car looked like, the music he was playing from his car, and so on. My assumption was that he’d voted for Trump and was about to gloat after sizing me up the way I’d sized him up. What happened instead took me by surprise. He looked tenderly into my eyes and asked gently, “How are you doing?” I felt as if he actually cared about my well-being. All discombobulated, I said, “I’m okay,” and walked on. Things weren’t what I’d assumed, no matter who this man had voted for, and this changed things for me. In that moment, this stranger and I had unexpectedly connected to each other with our humanity.

Since that day, I continue to try to make eye contact with everyone, and that has led to conversations and new friendships with people who previously had never crossed my radar. In our community, there are many people who are from other countries around the world, and there are many native Spanish speakers who have to work a lot harder than me to have a conversation in English. I’d love to learn all the languages, but I decided to try to learn Spanish. In doing so, the rut that I spoke of earlier was revealed even more. Learning a new language as an adult is painfully difficult for me. Trying to speak that new language with another person is even more so. As a native English speaker, I have never been anywhere where people don’t speak at least a little bit of English, so I never had to try to get by in a different language. I grew up learning German, but as a child when I went to visit my mom’s tiny farm town in Germany, everyone wanted to practice their English. As an adult I’ve been to a few other countries, and everyone in those countries has spoken enough English for me not to have to push past my language comfort zone. Yet here in the US, the people I’ve met from other countries have to constantly try to speak a second language in order to do anything.

While it has been a convenient privilege for me to navigate in a world that caters to my language and culture, this convenience has deepened the rut I’m talking about. This rut keeps me locked in the familiar, and keeps me from pushing myself to connect with others in a deep and satisfying way. My rut was comfortable and functional, but I could not stretch past its confines, nor could I truly see anyone but the others who are in the same rut. To step out of this rut is to go into a vast, unfamiliar world full of new people, new rules, and endless potential.  It is to see a world that was once two-dimensional transform into one that is multi-dimensional. It isn’t familiar and in order to navigate this new world, I have to be willing to have my ignorance and blind spots revealed. Sometimes, I look and feel silly when I try to speak Spanish, or try to connect with anyone who is much different than who I used to connect with. I am sure I sound like a two year old. I know that in my attempts to reach out, I might say things that seem inappropriate, or sound stupid. I am sure that my ignorance, once hidden in my own depths, has bubbled up to the surface for all to see. It is a vulnerable place to be. But I feel something like muscles developing every time I try to go beyond what I know. I also feel a thrill when what was once invisible to me becomes visible and visceral. When I connect with others’ humanity, there is a shared sense of joy and understanding that is released into a world that desperately needs it.

What this has led to is a deep feeling that I know very little of all that there is to know, and an equally deep hunger to learn and learn more, to connect more and more. It has been difficult to think of what to write about on this blog, because up until now, I have written here as if I know something and that I am here to share that knowledge. I am no longer comfortable writing in this way. We all have pieces of a puzzle, and every single one of us has something to share. I wish that social media always reflected this, because there is great potential for it to be a place where everyone could share their perspective and build a true picture of the world, revealing to each of us just what it is we can still learn. Instead, for me anyway, social media tended to keep me in a rut where it felt like I was connecting with others, but in reality I was not stretching myself or even connecting because the others I was connecting with all had the same views as I did, spoken in my language.

If I continue to write on this blog, it will be more as an exploration. If I still have any readers, I invite all of you to share in the comment section whatever this or any post inspires, what your perspective is, even if it is in opposition to, or very different from mine.  For this particular post, I have questions.  What is your rut that keeps you from stretching past what you know? What keeps you in that rut? What is it like in your rut?  What do you imagine is beyond it? What keeps you from connecting to others who might help you out of the rut?  For those of you who have gotten out of a rut of any sort, what did you do to get out of it? What did you discover when you got out of your comfort zone? What was it like for the world to see you trying to learn something you did not know? While the rut I spoke of here involves connection and humanity, there are other ruts to dig out of and other ways to discover and reach full potential. It seems that if you pick just one, you activate the others. What do you choose?

Words Don’t Make the Whole Picture

We live in a world that values words over most other things, and many powerful moments get drowned in the constantly verbal torrent.  Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that there is any way to make an impact without using lots of words, and it is hard to understand the impact that can be had in wordless moments.  I hesitate to use the word “silence” here because wordless moments aren’t just silent moments.  They can be quite loud if we listen for something other than words.

This morning, the nonverbal part of me sent me out to the garden for no particular reason.  No words, I just felt a strong urge to go into the garden.  I was greeted with signs of life that I would have missed had I not slowed down enough to see them, had I not listened to that silent but powerful part of me.  Seeing the first sprouts of the seeds I’d planted made the back strain from digging a bed for them worth it, and I got very excited about the upcoming season of eating greens from the garden.  Seeing that the asparagus is coming back after a dry winter, I was filled with this feeling of wonder, as if something impossible is happening right before my eyes.  Smelling the violets filled me with this sense of luxury.  These tiny little weed flowers pack a massive, deep scent.  They taste good, too!  Hearing the birds chattering and chirping gave me a feeling that there is a ton of life all around me. I was in the garden for a total of maybe 10 minutes, and all of these things happened without a single word being spoken.

I would like to invite you to join me in a challenge. Take a moment (or more) of your day when you would normally gratuitously talk or look at a screen or anything with words, and stop.  Ask yourself if words are necessary in that moment.  If you are with someone, invite them to join you in this challenge.  Agree not to speak for a designated amount of time.  Allow yourself to take in the wordless things or beings around you and just be with them. Notice how they make their presence known to you and allow them to impact you. Notice your mind trying to put words on them and let that go. See how this makes you feel.  Are you restless?  Bored?  Feeling under assault by a torrent of word thoughts?  People who aren’t talkers feel this way much of the time.  Even if you are able to give attention to the wordless for just a short second, you have changed something.  Keep practicing this, and you will open up a new world in small, powerful increments.

violets in hand asparagus

The Difference Between Hard Work and Struggle in Relationship

I was once involved with someone who was quite lovely, and who wanted a much different sort of relationship than I did.  Our conflicting desires made the relationship unsustainable and rather painful. Unfortunately, we did not communicate to each other what we wanted our relationship to be until we were both too deeply hooked by the usual things that lure people into relationships, including doomed ones: attraction, sex, fireworks, and big feelings. If we’d spoken about our opposing relationship intentions from the beginning, it might have ended there. We were too attracted to each other to take the risk of losing a chance to be together, so we dove in without saying anything to each other about it.  The sex and fireworks acted as a sort of crazy glue, bonding us two unlikely beings quite firmly together. Once we both were hooked, some truths came out about our completely mismatched intentions in the relationship, but by then, neither of us wanted to let go. It felt like there was too much to lose at this point, so we forged on in this struggle to keep each other.

Eventually, I realized that the struggle was the only thing we had together. There was no real relationship, just that struggle. I remember having a picture in my mind of the two of us trying to carry a heavy treasure chest, each holding one handle and not getting anywhere because we were pulling it in different directions. I pictured one of us trying to carry it downhill toward a path to the ocean, and one of us trying to take it uphill toward the path to a mountain peak.  We couldn’t even get that chest onto either path and we were stuck in the crossroads pulling opposite sides of it, then getting hurt from the struggle; talking about how we felt hurt; discussing strategies that did not factor in the fact that we were going in opposite directions; trying again and getting stuck in that same cycle, over and over again.  I had to admit to myself that I could not move any treasure chest with this particular person, ever, and I had to leave the relationship behind in order to take the path I wanted to take.

That experience gave me a visceral understanding of the difference between struggle and hard work in relationships. A struggle is all-consuming and even feels like hard work, but it is work that takes you nowhere. You bust your ass, but you have no impact. In a struggle, you are controlled by that which you are struggling with. If you are struggling financially, your life is controlled by money, the lack thereof and the means you have to use to try make money. If you are struggling physically with someone who is much stronger than you, you are controlled by that person. If you are struggling with your unsatisfying job, your life feels controlled by that job. If you are struggling with a difficult relationship, you feel controlled by that relationship. When something is controlling you, you have little to no energy, space, bandwidth for anything else. That thing is the main focus of your reality, yet you have no real impact on it. That is what it is like to struggle.

In a good relationship, hard work feels different than struggle does.  A healthy relationship takes hard work, but it does not consume and control your life. A healthy relationship requires you and yours to understand that you can survive the loss of that relationship; that you do not need that relationship in order to survive. When you know this deeply, you are free to state your intention at the beginning of the relationship, knowing that you and who you are interested in are both free to walk away if your intentions are incompatible.  If you decide to build a relationship together, you know that you share common goals and that nobody is sacrificing their values or freedom to be in this relationship, and you start out carrying the relationship on an agreed path. You are choosing each other rather than falling into each other. This feels dignified rather than desperate. Your hard work has an impact. Your hard work gets you somewhere, because you are working together on something that you agreed to work on.  You are on the same page; you are not at odds with each other.  When you disagree about things, you aren’t disagreeing about the entire focus and direction of the relationship.

If you would like to leave the struggle and get to the hard work in a relationship, you are going to have to make changes that might feel scary.  First, you need to find out if this is a relationship that can be fixed: do you have common goals but are just having a hard time figuring out how to work together?  If this is the case, then a good relationship counselor might be able to help you find out how to let go of the struggle and focus on the work.  The work will have you looking at what draws you to the struggle in the relationship and how can you change your focus from the struggle to the hard work.  If on the other hand, you discover that you are in a relationship that can’t be salvaged, you will be focused on ending the relationship.  Your work will have you examining what draws you to a relationship that consumes you but that you can’t have an impact on.  Your work will have you exploring what impact you do want to have.  Once you untangle yourself from the struggle, you will be free to use your energy and hard work to build a satisfying life, with or without a partner.  The hard work is always worth it.

Finding Balance on the Internet: Reclaiming Inspiration, Creativity and Connection

About twenty years ago, before there was the Internet, before I owned a computer, I had rich, complicated and sometimes frustrating friendship with a woman named Barbara.  I have no idea what happened to her in the years since I knew her, and appropriately enough, I cannot find her online anywhere. Back when I knew Barbara, I was a struggling, somewhat lost and plenty broke twenty-something who’d majored in art and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. She shared a lot of her life wisdom with me, since she’d been out in the world much longer and possessed the rare combination of rich life experience, deep insight, and the ability to articulate about both.  During that period, I was bursting with artistic and creative inspiration, and would often tell Barbara about my ideas for various projects and endeavors.  One day she said to me something like this: “Elyn, I feel like you tell me about these ideas you have and then the telling somehow deflates the ideas. I think that if you didn’t talk about them, they might turn into art. By telling me about them, you give them away and they never turn into anything.” Something about this struck me as true and important, so I decided to let it sink in.

One day shortly after this conversation, I was buying groceries and I picked up a sweet potato. I was wearing my favorite hoodie and this sweet potato was shaped as if it were wearing a hoodie, too. I asked the cashier if I and the sweet potato looked alike and she said yes and we shared a giggle with the man in line behind me.  We got into a conversation about spiritual enlightenment resembling a lumpy potato more than bright white lightness.  It was a connected and silly moment with strangers.  I felt a strong urge to call Barbara and tell her about it, but decided that there was something creative about this sweet potato and I would heed her words and not talk about it.  I started heating oil in a pot for soup.  I left the room and came back to discover that the pot was on fire.  Big flames were coming out of the soup pot like a gorgeous, brilliant, strange and somewhat frightening art installation.  I resisted the urge to call Barbara.  I cleaned the pot, started over, and went into the bathroom to wash my hands.  When I looked in the mirror, I noticed that with my hoodie off, my hair had taken the same exact shape as the sweet potato.  It was sticking up as if it were its own hoodie, and I brought that potato in there with me and laughed for quite a while at the image of the two of us in the mirror.  Then I cut the sweet potato up and made a delicious soup.

Again I resisted the urge to call Barbara, and instead I decided to make a little coloring storybook about the whole event, titled “The Sweet Potato of Perfection.”  This turned into a huge project for me, where I made dozens of these little books and gave them to friends and strangers.  Different friends colored the books in different ways, some added drawings to it themselves.  The one copy I still have is one where a friend added an entire picture story line with a little alien flying around in the background of my story.  I gave one of the books to the cashier who’d been there in the first place.  She responded by making her own coloring book about more of the produce in the store, called “The Dreaded Lemon.”  The main character was a lemon with dreadlocks.  So much inspiration, connection and fun grew out of that little moment with the sweet potato, and Barbara was right: if I had told her about my sweet potato, none of this would have happened.  If social media had existed then, the moment would have ended in the grocery store.  I am sure I would have taken a selfie with my doppelganger potato and posted it online, and people might have clicked “like” or made funny comments, but within a short time, it would be buried under some other Facebook moment.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing moments of inspiration online, but I believe that many moments get shared before they’ve had time to incubate and occupy their full potential, and then they get lost.  Instead of giving inspiration away on social media before it can grow, I wonder about exploring the urge to share that moment with others, instead mining that inspiration to see what it holds for us, letting it grow fully before giving it away.  If we see a good looking recipe, why not wait until we make that food before posting the recipe on Pinterest?  That strong urge to share the recipe, if we let it grow, could be turned into an invitation: why not invite a friend or neighbor over to cook together or to try the meal?  I’m sitting here writing about this while sitting next to a window where I see a ton of birds in the yard.  Some of them are comical in the way they interact with each other.  I am resisting the urge to take photos of them or even to talk about what is comical about their interactions, because I think it might be time for me to make a new coloring book.  What do you feel inspired to do?

For more posts about finding balance on the Internet, go here.



Learning to Love Your Broken, Injured Self

Learning to love yourself can be a messy, painful business in general, but even more painful and seemingly impossible if you were abused or neglected as a child.  If you grew up in this way, you grew to believe that certain parts of yourself were unlovable, undesirable, even disgusting or dangerous. When you are raised by parents who are unable to see you and love you, or parents who are abusive, you learn to avoid doing anything that incurs wrath or rejection. You bury the parts of yourself that would do those things. If you learned that being angry is frowned upon, you stuff your anger away. If you learn that speaking your mind is cause for rejection, you bite your tongue. You might have been abused or rejected for being smart, not smart enough, too big, too small, too pretty, not pretty enough, not strong enough, too strong, not enough like your family’s definition of a man or a woman, too wild, not wild enough.  It’s an arbitrary list because actual personality traits or behaviors have nothing to do with your worth, but that is what abuse teaches you to believe.

The simple truth is that you were abused or rejected because your parent(s) were abused or rejected themselves.  The abuse was not your fault, but you had no way of knowing that.  You believed that you caused the abuse by being yourself.  You learned to fear and despise those unique qualities that made you who you were were.  You did what you had to do to survive childhood: you rejected the parts of yourself that you believed caused the abuse.  You put all of your energy into growing the parts of yourself that kept you from being abused.   You learned that only some parts of yourself were desirable and that others were abhorrent; that to be loved, you needed to be a certain way other than just yourself.   This is not love, but how as a child were you supposed to know this?

So, how can you learn to love yourself when you have this deep belief that you or parts of yourself are unlovable, even disgusting?  Before you even try, ask yourself if you are ready to turn your entire life and belief system upside down, if you are ready to feel some incredibly scary feelings that challenge any changes you make.  Are you ready to ditch your old road map that, as messed up as it is, gives your world some feeling of sense and direction?  In order to change your belief system about who you are and what you deserve, you are going to have to go through profound discomfort.  All the parts of your self that helped you survive childhood, the bits that shoved down your essential self, are not going to be happy about the changes you make.  Those parts of you existed entirely for the purpose of keeping you safe from harm in your childhood by shoving down the parts of you that got abused.  Big feelings of danger will be triggered when you change that system.

At this point, you might be wondering why you would bother going through all the pain involved in learning to love yourself.  A friend once shared with me a wonderful quote by Anais Nin: “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  At some point, the pain of locking all of your scary parts down outweighs the fear of what might happen if you were to make some sort of change.  A big part of you wants to grow and is pushing against that bud that keeps you closed down inside of yourself.  When you reach that point, you are ready because nothing is more painful than the place you are in right now.  Now is the time to get help.  I can’t tell you what your new road map will look like, or how long it will take for you to get to the place where you trust yourself enough to love yourself.  I can tell you that you do not have to figure this out alone, that there are others just like you who are struggling on the same path hoping to find you by conquering their own self-hatred, that the path is not linear and sometimes the only way to know that you are making progress is when your old self starts to scream in fear because it is losing its hold over you, and lastly but most importantly, all of the pain is worth it.

When Your Emotional Injury Rules Your Life

When I was too little to appreciate the message, my mom read me the Hans Christian Andersen story  The Fir Tree.  It’s a story that drives its point home in a dark and visceral manner.  It left an ugly impression on me as a child, but as an adult I can appreciate the message in the way it was meant to be understood.  If you are unfamiliar with this story, it is about a little fir tree who was so obsessed with being like the bigger trees that he missed out on all the joys and treasures he had in front of him, while they were in front of them.  His entire short life is spent wishing to be how he imagines the bigger, happier, better trees are.  Every time he achieves the thing he’d been jealous of before, it is empty for him, it does not give him what he thought it would, so he craves the next thing.  Anytime someone like a little bunny reminds him, by jumping over him, that he is small and therefore hasn’t achieved his dream he feels enraged.  The sun tells him to feel the joy of the life he is living, but he does not listen.  He keeps striving for that thing that will give him the escape to the greatness that he is craving.  He gets everything that he wishes for, and still, none of it produces the joy, the magnificence, dignity, and splendor that he seeks. In the end, he dies in a fire having never understood how to enjoy his life, and as he burns up, he says “Oh, had I but enjoyed myself while I could have done so! But now it is too late.”  He couldn’t appreciate what he had until it was gone, because when he had it, he himself was gone, off in the future of his imagination.  Like I said, dark and visceral.

This fir tree could not inhabit his own reality. Sometimes, people can be like this tree, looking externally for something that they hope will make them feel better about themselves.  If you are like this, you might suffer from an emotional injury, one that would be very painful to feel if you were to stop looking outside of yourself and redirect your attention inward.  You might be afraid to look inside, you might not know how.  You just know that you are unhappy and you don’t want to be, so you look for the things that would make you feel better.  When you get those things and realize that you are still unhappy, you try to find bigger, better things.  The more you achieve or receive, the more intense the unhappiness becomes.  You might try fix your feelings of being unlovable by getting married; if you feel unimportant; you might think that a prestigious position at work will do it; if you feel unneeded, you might have a child; if you feel unsafe you might buy a gun.  What happens when any or all of these things that are supposed to make all the bad feelings go away don’t make any of the bad feelings go away?

Feeling unlovable, unimportant, unneeded, unsafe are all symptoms of emotional injuries.  Emotional injuries are internal: they cannot be patched with external objects, activities, achievements, jobs, positions of power, or relationships.  The more a person tries to do so, the more those feelings will grow.  Let’s say that you got married thinking that you would finally feel lovable.  The honeymoon passes, life settles into a routine, and you still feel unlovable.  Now you feel worse: here you are with The One that is supposed to have made you feel loved and you still feel unlovable.  When you thought that the answer was out there somewhere but you didn’t have it yet, at least you could strive for it.  But now you have the thing you strove for, and you are still unhappy.  Unless you start looking inside, you are going to blame your spouse for not making you happy in the marriage.  Your spouse might scramble and try to make you feel better, but unless you attend to your emotional wound, nothing your spouse does will feel like enough.  You can imagine what this will do to a marriage.

The solutions offered to the fir tree were too simple; impossible, really.  For the sun to say “rejoice in thy youth” would be the same as someone telling you, “enjoy your spouse, you are so lucky to have such a good person” when you are feeling miserable and unhappy in your marriage.  It is not a simple thing to stop with the striving and to sit with your emotional injury.  It is hard, ugly, scary work.  I don’t recommend doing it alone.  The first and most important step is to stop looking outside of yourself and accept that there is something inside you that no one else, nothing else can fix but you.  The good news is that, while it is only you who can go inside yourself and face the feelings that this injury holds for you, a therapist can help you find the map to that injury, and can help you to navigate all the pain and fear that comes along with feeling and healing it.  It is yours alone to face and heal, but you do not have figure out how to do it alone.  The other good news is that, while it is hard work, it is work that pays you back tremendously.  When you are no longer enslaved by the striving for the unattainable, you become free, your energy becomes yours, and the love and power that are borne from healing yourself are boundless.

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