When I was twenty-one, I had my tonsils removed. I was one of those people who got strep throat every few minutes, and my doctor finally decided that I needed to have my tonsils taken out. For the entire weekend afterwards, swallowing hurt so much that I could barely open my mouth for a straw. I had a prescription for painkillers, though, and when they ran out but the pain hadn’t, I called the nurse and said that she would really need to send another prescription over, and maybe a little mixed grill of drugs because I was also feeling somewhat anxious. But she wouldn’t. I asked to speak to her supervisor. She told me her supervisor was at lunch and that I needed to buy some gum, of all things, and to chew it vigorously — the thought of which made me clutch at my throat. She explained that when we have a wound in our body, the nearby muscles cramp around it to protect it from any more violation and from infection, and that I would need to use these muscles if I wanted them to relax again. So finally my best friend Pammy went out and bought me some gum, and I began to chew it, with great hostility and skepticism. The first bites caused a ripping sensation in the back of my throat, but within minutes all the pain was gone, permanently.
I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds — the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliation suffered in both — to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance to heal.
Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.
~ From Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott
Like most people, life had given her one sort of education. She had gone to school. She had taken such and such management courses, worked her way through various jobs, and learned such and such skills. She had come to possess a certain professional expertise.
But now she was beginning her second education. This education was an emotional one, about how and what to feel.
This second education did not work like the first one. In the first education, the information to be mastered walked through the front door and announced itself by light of day. It was direct. There were teachers to describe the material to be covered, and then everybody worked through it.
In the second education, there was no set curriculum or set of skills to be covered. Erica just wandered around looking for things she enjoyed. Learning was a by-product of her search for pleasure. The information cam to her indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards, and through the vents of her mind.
Erica read Sense and Sensibility, The Good Soldier, or Anna Karenina and she would find herself moving with the characters, imitating their states of mind, and discovering new emotional flavors. The novels, poems, paintings, and symphonies she consumed never applied directly to her life. Nobody was writing poems about retired CEOs. But what mattered most were the emotional sensations portrayed in them.
In his book Culture Counts, the philosopher Roger Scruton writes that
the reader of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” learns how to animate the natural world with pure hopes of his own; the spectator of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” learns of the pride of corporations, and the benign sadness of civic life; the listener to Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony is presented with the open floodgates of human joy and creativity; the reader of Proust is led through the enchanted world of childhood and made to understand the uncanny prophecy of our later griefs which those days of joy contain.
Even at her age, Erica was learning to perceive in new ways. Just as living in New York or China or Africa gives you a perspective from which to see the world, so, too. spending time in the world of a novelist inculcates its own preconscious viewpoints.
Through trial and error, Erica discovered her tastes. She thought she loved the Impressionists, but now they left her strangely unmoved. Maybe their stuff was too familiar. On the other hand, she became enraptured by the color schemes of the Florentine Renaissance and Rembrandt’s homely, knowing faces. Each of them tuned her mind, the instrument with a million strings. She had some moments of pure pleasure, when she could feel her heart beating faster and a quiver in her stomach — standing in front of a painting, or discovering a new installation or poem. There was a time, reading Anthony Trollope of all people, when she could feel the emotions of the story in her own body, and was alive to the sensations produced there.
“Mine is no callous shell,” Walt Whitman wrote about his body, and Erica was beginning to appreciate what he meant.
~ From The social animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement by David Brooks (New York: Random House, 2011).
Let’s talk about the personal shadow first.
When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy.
We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try to kill your brother.” Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we get to school our bag is quite large.
Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we we known as “the nice Bly boys.” Our bags were already a mile long.
Then we do a log of bag-stuffing in high school. This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own age. So the student’s paranoia about grownups can be misplaced. I lied all through high school automatically to try to be more like the basketball players. Any part of myself that was a little slow went into the bag. My sons are going through the process now: I watched my daughters, who were older, experience it. I noticed with dismay how much they put into the bag, but there was nothing their mother or I could do about it. Often my daughters seemed to make their decision on the issue of fashion and collective ideas of beauty, and they suffered as much damage from other girls as they did from men.
So I maintain that out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice….
Different cultures fill the bag with different contents. In Christian culture sexuality usually goes into the bag. With it goes much spontaneity. Marie Louise Franz warns us, on the other hand, not to sentimentalize primitive cultures by assuming that they have no bag at all. She says in effect that they have a different but sometimes even larger bag. They may put individuality into the bag, or inventiveness. What anthropologists know as “participation mystique” or “a mysterious communal mind” sounds lovely, but it can mean that tribal members all know exactly the same thing and no one knows anything else. It’s possible that bags for all human beings are about the same size.
We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.
~ From A little book on the human shadow by Robert Bly (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988)
Sculpture: Matteo Pugliese
Why do so many go through so much disruption in their middle years? Why then? Why do we consider it to be a crisis? What is the meaning of such an experience?
The midlife crisis, which I prefer to call the Middle Passage, presents us with an opportunity to reexamine our lives and to ask the sometimes frightening, always liberating question: “Who am I apart from my history and the roles I have played?”
When we discover that we have been living what constitutes a false self, that we have been enacting a provisional adulthood, driven by unrealistic expectations, then we open the possibility for the second adulthood, our true personhood.
The Middle Passage is an occasion for redefining and reorienting the personality, a rite of passage between the extended adolescence of first adulthood and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality.
Those who travel the passage consciously render their lives more meaningful. Those who do not, remain prisoners of childhood, however successful they may appear in outer life….
Many of us treat life as if it were a novel. We pass from page to page passively, assuming the author will tell us on the last page what it was all about. As Hemingway once said, if the hero does not die, the author just did not finish the story. So, on the last page we die, with or without illumination.
The invitation of the Middle Passage is to become conscious, accept responsibility for the rest of the pages and risk the largeness of life to which we are summoned. Wherever the reader may be in his or her life, the summons to us is the same as to Tennyson’s Ulysses:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.*
~ From The middle passage: From misery to meaning in midlife by James Hollis (Toronto, CA: Inner City Books, 1993).
*”Ulysses,” in Louis Untermeyer, ed., A concise treasury of great poems.
After two decades of codependent relationships she’s testing out a new approach with her new boyfriend, Carl.
We call it “letting Carl lead.” Instead of straining constantly to control the relationship — fretting, plotting and trying to sculpt it into what she wants it to be — she’s trying to relax, and breathe, and take her cues from him. If he texts her, fine. If he doesn’t, fine. That sort of thing.
It seems to be working. Thus far Carl has been adequately respectful, attentive and affectionate. And she feels less nervous and more cared for than she has in years.
But she has a question.
“You say I should listen to my feelings,” she says. “That they’re like radar, feeding me important information about what’s happening here and now.”
“That’s right,” I say.
“But sometimes feelings lie. Sometimes I get scared when Carl says or does something that reminds me of Bobby.” Bobby is her alcoholic ex-husband. “And I know I’m confusing the two but I’m still scared.”
“Transference,” I nod.
“Right, transference. Then other times I worry that something bad is happening, like Carl’s secretly judging at me, or is going to happen, like we’ll have a fight.”
“Projection,” I say.
“Yes. And then sometimes I get angry at one person, like my boss, and find myself taking it out on another, like my kids.”
“That’s called displacement.”
“Yes, I remember. But here’s my question. These feelings aren’t telling me the truth about what’s happening here and now. Carl isn’t Bobby, we’re not fighting, and I’m mad at my boss, not my kids. So how can I tell the difference between radar signals and the feelings that lie?”
Nobody’s asked that before.
“Wow,” I say. “That’s a really really good question.”
“Okay, let’s see. First, it helps to think of the misleading feelings not as lies, but as memories — leftover reactions to stuff in the past. Like PTSD flashbacks that get triggered when something here and now reminds you of that old something.”
“Like little nightmares,” she says.
“Exactly,” I say. “Because they feel absolutely real. You’re convinced Carl’s secretly judging you, for example.”
“I sure am.”
“So what you need to figure out is whether you’re being triggered.”
“How do I do that?”
“With three questions,” I say.
“The first question is What am I trying to control right now? Here you step back from your reaction to see if you’ve slipped into a old codependent pattern. And if the answer is painfully familiar — like “I’m trying to control how someone feels about me” or “I’m trying to avoid rejection or abuse” — that can signal that you’re caught in a nightmare. And then you take a breath and tell yourself Oh, there I go again.”
“Okay,” she says. “That’s good.”
“The second question is What’s the evidence? Here you step out of your subjectivity and look for what’s objectively true. What’s the hard evidence of how Carl feels about you? Has he actually said or done stuff controlling or judgmental or abusive? Is he acting like Bobby did, or are you just scared that he might?”
“He never does,” she says thoughtfully.
“Right. And the third question is What do you think? This one you ask someone else.”
“Anyone safe, whose judgment you trust. Someone who has an unbiased perspective, not contaminated by your personal history or associations or triggers. You may need to ask it several times of several different people.”
“How does that help?”
“It’s another way of gathering evidence, of discovering whether your feeling comes from radar or nightmare. Granted, nobody else is you, and in the end you have to reach your own conclusion. But other people’s feedback can help. For example, imagine Carl says or does something that reminds you of Bobby’s anger.”
“Now imagine you describe what he said or did to ten people, and ask What do you think? And all ten of them say things like ‘No, that doesn’t sound angry to me’ or ‘No, he just sounds stressed’ or ‘Were you still stressed from that fight you had with your boss?’ How do you think you’d react?”
“I think,” she smiles,” it might help me wake the hell up.”
One stormy night during supper there was a crash of thunder and the house was plunged into total blackness. When the lights came on a few seconds later, the children seemed frightened. I thought the best way to handle it was to make light of their fears. I nearly tossed off, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” but my husband Ted spoke first. He said, “Hey, that was pretty scary.” The children stared at him.
It sounded nice, his saying that. I caught his spirit. “It’s funny,” I said, “when a light is on in a room, everything feels so friendly and familiar. But take that same room with the same things inn it and put it in darkness and suddenly it becomes scary. I don’t know why. It just does.”
Six eyes looked up at me with such relief, such gratitude, that I was overwhelmed. I had made a very simple statement about a very ordinary event, and yet it seemed to mean so much to them. They began to talk, all at once, fighting each other for a turn.
DAVID: Sometimes I think a robber is going to come and kidnap me.
ANDY: My rocking chair looks like a monster in the dark.
JILL: What scares me like anything is when the tree branches scrape against the window.
The words spilled out, each child saying aloud the fearful thoughts he had had when alone in his dark room. We both listened and nodded. They talked and talked. Finally, they were done.
In the silence that followed we all felt so loved and loving that I knew we must have touched the heart of a very powerful process. It was no small matter, this business of validating a child’s feelings. Did other people know about it?
I began to eavesdrop on conversations between parents and children. At the zoo I heard:
CHILD: (Crying.) My finger! My finger hurts!
FATHER: It couldn’t hurt. It’s only a little scratch.
At the supermarket I heard:
CHILD: I’m hot.
MOTHER: How can you feel hot? It’s cool in here.
In the toy store I heard:
CHILD: Mommy, look at this little duck. Isn’t he cute?
MOTHER: Oh, that’s for a little baby. You’re not interested in baby toys any more.
It was astonishing. These parents seemed unable to hear their children’s simplest emotions. Certainly they mean no harm by their responses. Yet in reality what they were telling their children, over and over, was:
You don’t mean what you say.
You don’t know what you know.
You don’t know what you feel.
~ From Liberated parents, liberated children: Your guide to a happier family by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish (New York: Avon Books, 1990).
In group. Liz comes in fifteen minutes late.
“Sorry,” she says to everyone. “Traffic.”
Everyone nods, except Nancy.
“So glad you could make it,” Nancy mutters.
“Whoa,” someone says.
We look at Nancy. Nancy notices.
“What?” she says.
“You’re pissed,” someone says.
“No I’m not,” Nancy says, and bursts into tears.
I wait while someone passes her tissues.
“What’s up?” I ask.
She wipes her eyes and shrugs. “I’m all nervous and angry lately. I don’t know why.”
“Two, three days.”
“What happened three days ago?”
“Nothing.” She looks up. “Wait. My inlaws came to town.”
“Bingo,” someone says.
“Your alcoholic inlaws,” I say.
“Bingo bingo,” someone says. There are chuckles.
“What?” Nancy asks again.
“You’re a victim of gravity,” Liz smiles. “As in shit rolls downhill.“
“I don’t understand,” Nancy says.
“Old saying,” I say. “Shit rolls downhill. Boss yells at Dad, Dad yells at Mom, Mom yells at Sister, Sister yells at Brother, Brother kicks the dog.”
“Oh,” Nancy says.
“Nancy, how does your husband get along with his parents?” Liz asks.
“They make him crazy,” Nancy sniffles. “Nervous, frustrated, angry.”
“And how does he act with you?”
“Like I can’t do anything right,” she says glumly.
“And then how are you with the kids?”
“Controlling,” Nancy admits. “If they don’t do exactly what I say I just…lose it.”
She looks at me in surprise. “Shit does roll downhill.”
“Why does that happen?” someone asks me.
“There are several ways to explain it,” I say. “One is simple displacement. Shit rolls downhill because people take their anger out at the next person below them on the food chain.
“Another is boundary confusion. In alcoholic families the boundaries between members get impossibly blurred. We can’t tell where I end and you begin. Feelings leak from one person into another. Your bad day becomes my bad day. Your anger or anxiety become my problem.”
Nancy frowns. “So my husband catches his parents’ emotional problems, like the flu?”
“Maybe,” I say. “But there’s a third explanation. Being around his parents probably triggers old feelings in him, old pain and fear, helplessness and anger.”
“Like PTSD,” someone says.
“Yes,” Nancy says sadly. “I see that. He regresses.”
“So what should Nancy do?” someone asks.
I smile at Nancy. “She can start by apologizing to her kids.”
“Yes,” Nancy says.
“And tell them that she’s been in a bad mood lately, and it’s not their fault, and she’s working hard on getting out of it.”
“Then she should probably try to talk to her husband about how they can support each other for the next — Nancy, how long?”
“They’re staying a week.”
“The next week or so. For example, they could carve out debriefing time every night, and use it to vent to each other about whatever happens that bothers them.”
Nancy nods. “We can do that.”
“Finally, she can promise herself that for the next week she’ll lean on her support system to process whatever comes up for her. Bring it to group. Call you guys when she gets confused or angry or anxious.”
“Call me,” Liz says.
Nancy smiles. “I’m sorry about before.”
Liz shakes her head. “I went through this for years. Whenever his family visited my husband and I would fight like cats and dogs. Finally we got into therapy and learned to manage our temporary insanity — which is just what it felt like — without resorting to divorce or homicide.”
“And your inlaws still visit?”
“Yes,” Liz sighs. “But one thing that helps is a little ritual we created. The day before we see them I tell my husband, ‘I apologize in advance for the next five days,’ or however long Mom and Dad are in town. And he says the same thing to me. And we hug. And the hug is like a promise that we’ll stay connected, no matter how much shit rolls downhill.”
Why are Americans so hungry for the approval of others?
The adjusted American lacks self-approval; that is to say, he has not developed a self-image that he can believe is both accurate and acceptable. To do so he would require successful techniques for creating an adequate and acceptable self-image through honest introspection, candid association, and meaningful activity.
The patterns to which he has adjusted do not include such techniques. Instead, the culture abounds with misdirections, which the adjusted American acquires. There are the patterns of alienation and projection discussed above, through which he seeks to deny unpalatable aspects of himself. But perhaps above all he learns to seek self-acceptance indirectly, by seeking to substitute the good opinion of others for self-approval. It is thus that he becomes “other-directed.”
Half certain of his own inadequacy, he attempts to present himself to others in an appealing way. When (or if) he has won their approval he hopes that they will be able to convince him that he is a better man than he thinks he is.
But this quest for indirect self-acceptance is fundamentally misdirected…. The opinion of others can contribute to self-acceptance only when the individual believes that others see him as he really is. Otherwise he cannot give credence to the image he sees reflected in their eyes.
But the person who is caught up in the quest for indirect self-acceptance is more concerned with making a favorable impression on others than with seeing an honest reflection of himself. He attempts to manipulate the way he appears to others. Consequently he cannot credit any favorable image they may reflect….
By the time a youth has been transformed into an adult his thirst for approval seems insatiable. But to borrow a phrase from Hoffer, he can never have enough of that which he really does not need. He needs self-acceptance, and however much of his talent, energy, and possession are committed to the struggle to win approval from others, self-acceptance cannot be achieved thereby. There is a fundamental defect in the method.
~ From The adjusted American: Normal neuroses in the individual and society by Snell Putney & Gail J. Putney (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1964).
“You look tired,” I tell him.
“I am,” he says. “I woke up early and couldn’t go back.”
“Something bothering you?”
He nods. “My son.”
“How is he?
“Still in the hospital, but getting out tomorrow.”
“You’re worried about him?”
“No,” he says. “I’m angry at him.”
”He’s in pain, and a shitty mood – which is understandable – and he takes it out on me.”
“And it hurts your feelings.”
“But he’s sick, so you hold back, and then you wake up thinking about it.”
”Right,” he says glumly. “And I know what you think.”
“What do I think?”
“I’m being a big baby.”
“Actually that’s what you think,” I say. “I’m thinking this must be hard for you.”
“Why? He’s the one in the hospital bed.”
“And you’re the one getting triggered.”
“Triggered,” he repeats.
“Sure. Isn’t this how you felt as a kid? When your parents hurt your feelings and you couldn’t say anything?”
He exhales. “Yes.”
“You’re forgetting something I know you know,” I say. “Something we’ve talked about. That there’s no really such thing as a…”
“…grown-up human being,” he finishes.
“Right. It’s the Kid inside you that’s getting triggered. The one who came out of childhood convinced that your parents’ unhappiness and anger meant there was something wrong with him.”
“Huh,” he says. “So I’m confusing my son with my parents?”
“Your Kid is, yes.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“Yes and no,” I say. “Sure, it feels upside down. But it’s not uncommon. Parents with unfinished business with their parents often transfer that stuff to their kids. If you were scared of your parents’ anger you’ll feel scared when your kids get mad at you. If you felt unloved by your parents you’ll worry that your kids will stop loving you.”
“But I know my son loves me,” he frowns.
“Sure, your Adult self knows that,” I say. “Your Kid still worries that he’s defective and unloveable.”
“Yeah,” he sighs.
He looks relieved.
“Does this shit ever entirely go away?” he asks.
“Not entirely,” I say. “We carry a Kid inside until we die. But we can learn how to listen and understand and take better care of him. And when we do that he doesn’t get triggered nearly as often. And eventually he settles down and lives in a quieter place.”
Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence. ~ Erich Fromm
After a year of dating they’re still not on the same page.
Shelly wants a commitment. Stan’s circling the field.
Both have histories. Shelly was married to a narcissist who abused her and their kids and who has fought paying child support even since the divorce. Stan was engaged for six years to a woman who bossed and belittled and ultimately cheated on him.
Both had emotionally unavailable parents.
Both find it hard to trust anyone.
“Jesus,” I say. “How the hell have you stayed together this long?”
“Together?” Shelly says. “I’m not sure we are.” She looks at Stan. “Are we?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “We hang out. We have sex. We play with the kids. We have fun. Sometimes I think we love each other. But there’s this feeling hanging over us, this…”
“Tension?” I say.
“Yes. This tension that never goes away.”
Shelly nods agreement.
“Any idea what it’s about?”
Stan shrugs. “It’s how I always feel in relationships.”
“I know where my tension comes from,” Shelly says. “Feeling alone. Like Stan’s not all there.”
“How so?” I ask.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in a lake, and he’s standing on the dock watching, trying to decide whether to jump in and save me.” She looks at Stan. “It’s like he’s…doing the math.”
“I do my best,” he says. “I care about Shelly. I want to be there for her. But her life is so complicated. She’s got this sociopathic ex, and these two kids who I love but who can be demanding, and this difficult mother, and this annoying sister, and all the time she worries about money…”
“And you’re scared that if you jump into all that you’ll drown too.”
He nods sadly.
“You’d take the risk if you loved me,” Shelly says angrily.
Stan opens his mouth.
“Wait,” I interrupt. “You could both use some help with empathy. Shelly, be fair. It’s really not his lake.”
She sighs and nods.
“And Stan, ever felt like you were drowning? Remember how scary that was?”
“Okay,” I say. “Beyond that, here’s what I think:
“I think you guys are missing something important.
“It’s something I suspect neither of you has ever experienced before with anyone.
“You may never have even seen it in action.
“It’s a kind of special sauce for relationships, and it makes everything easier.
“I call it mutuality.
“Mutuality is the feeling that what’s good for you is good for me, and vice versa.
“More than a feeling, actually. A kind of deep belief, a faith. Something you just know.
“It’s what allows partners to move beyond their personal feelings and points of view and make room for each other in their lives.
“Without it you’re each stuck in your limited perspective, and the relationship feels tight and constricting. It doesn’t feel like a partnership or a collaboration, but like a competition — like only one of you can get your way. And like you have to play defense, analyze, calculate, do the math, or you risk losing something or getting taken advantage of.”
“That’s just how it feels,” Stan says.
“Mutuality changes all that. It’s a kind of emotional lubricant that removes the tension, reduces conflict and lets you feel safe. You can relax and feel like you’re in this together.
“I want to feel that way,” Stan says. He turns to Shelly. “I would love to feel that way.”
She reaches for his hand.
“Can we learn it?” Shelly asks me.
“You can,” I say. “The easiest way is to see it in action. But even if your parents didn’t model it and you never experienced it in prior relationships you can still work at creating it yourself.”
“There are three steps.
“Step One is deciding if you want it. I mean really want it, enough to suffer some discomfort — risk new behaviors, for example.”
“Step Two is committing to each other to make it a priority.”
“And Step Three is practice.”
“What kind of practice?” asks Shelly.
“You act as if. You start behaving if you already believe that what’s good for your partner will be good for you. You stop defending your own preferences and extend yourself for each other. And you see how that feels.
“Isn’t that codependency?” Shelly asks.
“No,” I say. “Codependency comes from fear. Codependents compulsively please or appease others because they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t — they won’t be loved, they’ll be rejected, whatever. But acting as if is neither compulsive or manipulative; it’s conscious and it’s choiceful. A kind of gift. And it comes from love, not anxiety.
“Not just love for your partner, either. You do this for yourself — because you want to learn a new way of being with someone else. Because you want to grow in your ability to give, to love, and to trust.”
“Trust is hard for both of us,” Stan says, and Shelly nods.
“I know,” I say. “But do you know where the phrase act as if comes from?”
“Me either,” I say. “But I like to think it comes from the saying, Act as if you have faith, and faith will be given to you.”
Whether we are hooked on food, alcohol, drugs, sex, money, work, or fame, the impulse to lose ourselves in these things can be seen as a spiritual impulse.
By spiritual impulse I mean a desire to experience a lightness of being, and transcendence that does not take us away from our everyday experience but exists within it.
For surely, what we long for is not a world beyond this one (which for most of us would mean death), but to find some happiness within the perplexing conundrum of our everyday lives. We have only to read the works of people recovering from addictions to see that behind the trappings of disease lies a mystical yearning that is as authentic and urgent as that of any pilgrim.
Somewhere underneath bingeing, starving, exercising, drinking, hallucinating, climaxing, and purchasing, we are desperately seeking a way home to our self. The longer we have been in exile from this true self, the more desperate the yearning and, often, the more desperate the means of attaining pleasure.
For many the motivation to begin, sustain, or deepen a spiritual practice comes in the mindset of grappling with an inner ordering process. As we sift through our life experience we may notice that we consistently allow the urgent to override the important. We may realize that we have a deeply ingrained habit of giving the most time, energy, and commitment to things that ultimately are not very important and that leave us at the end of the day with little enduring satisfaction. We may feel as if we are working for a demanding unknown boss and that we have yet to receive a real paycheck….
When we realize that the entity that we call our “self” is the clearinghouse for everything that will happen to us, we may wake up to the realization that attending to the inner hygiene of this self is the most important thing we could possibly do in this lifetime.
Now we are ready to settle in for the long haul.
We’ve decided we are ready to grow up, and we have reached the sobering realization that it is our life and that there is only one person who can do the work.
~ From Bringing yoga to life: The everyday practice of enlightened living by Donna Farhi (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
“So the relationship’s been going really really well,” she tells me. “He’s attentive and sweet, and we like the same food and music, and he accepts my feelings and even tries to share his own.”
“Okay,” I say.
“And then he had to go out of town on business for a week, and even that feels pretty okay at first. He stays in touch — texts me, sends me pictures of where he is and what he’s doing, tells me he misses me, that sort of thing. Like I said, sweet.”
“Okay,” I say again. Waiting for the other shoe.
“Then two nights ago he goes to a party with his coworkers and meets the daughter of a state senator. And he sends me a picture someone took of them laughing together, and she’s blonde and beautiful, and then he texts me about how interesting and funny she is, and I freak.”
“You know how. All my insecurities rise up and strangle me. I start thinking things like I can’t compete with that and Why would he bother with me if he can hang out with a state senator’s daughter and look at that hair. That kind of crap.”
“And you’ve been doing this to yourself since then.”
“Yes,”she says bleakly. “Make it stop.”
“Well, I can’t make it stop, but maybe you can.”
I think for a minute.
“Ever go on a road trip?” I ask. “A long one?”
“Good. Imagine you’re on a 100-mile road trip, heading north in winter. And along the way there are patches of ice, so every few miles the car skids sideways and you get nervous. You’re able to drive through each skid and get back on dry pavement, but it keeps happening.”
“So what you have to decide is if the trip is worth the skids. Whether you want to get where you’re headed enough to tolerate some skidding — some losses of control — and whether you can do it without panicking or blaming yourself or worrying that there’s something wrong with the car. There’s nothing wrong. There’s just ice on the road.”
“The road is the relationship,” she says.
“And I have to accept not feeling in total control of it.”
“And not turn into a big baby each time the car skids.”
“Yes. And that includes not blaming or insulting yourself. You’re not a baby. It’s okay to feel unsure. But you get through it by remembering that all roads get icy, all drivers skid, and no road trip goes as planned.”
She sighs. “And that all that is okay.”
“It’s the cost of ever going anywhere in the first place.”
Like many of my clients, Millie overworks.
She’s a teacher who gets up at four each morning for the two-hour commute to the school where she’s been a Special Ed teacher at for thirteen years. She is good at what she does, and basks in the appreciation she receives from parents and coworkers.
I’ve also never seen her not looking tired.
She is chronically sleep-deprived and battles an endless series of colds, infections, backaches and muscle strains, panic attacks and depressions.
“I hate how I feel, believe me,” she says. “But I’m ten years from retirement.”
“If you live that long.”
She nods grimly. “I know. But I see no way out of it. It’s my one shot at financial security.”
“Uh huh,” I say. “Thought experiment. You’ve just won the lottery. You have all the money you’ll ever need. What do you do now?”
“What do I do?” she repeats.
“Yes. Quit your job?”
“Uh, no. I’d probably stay on for, oh, another year.”
She looks at me. “I don’t know.”
“So it’s not about financial security, because I just solved that problem for you.”
“I guess not.”
“Okay. Another question. Has it ever occurred to you that created this imbalance in your life on purpose? That you’ve chosen this way of living for some unconscious reason?”
She looks confused. “No.”
I know Millie’s history. I know her mom is an anxious divorcee who pushed Millie to enter teaching so she wouldn’t have to depend on a man. I know her mom’s mom was an Irish immigrant who raised four kids alone and insisted her daughter enter teaching for the very same reason.
So I tell her the roasting pan story.
A family gathers for Thanksgiving and everybody’s there, all the generations. And Daughter’s in the kitchen helping Mom prepare the turkey. And she notices that mom hacks off the front end the turkey with a carving knife. “Mom, you’ve always done that to our turkey. Why?” “I don’t really know,” Mom replies. “It’s how my mom always did it.” “Let’s ask her,” says Daughter. So they go to Grandma. “Grandma, why did you always cut off the front end of a turkey?” “I don’t know,” says Grandma, “but it’s how my mother always did it.” So they go to Great Grandma. “Nana,” shouts Daughter, “why did you always cut the front end off the turkey?” “Because,” Nana shouts back, “my roasting pan was too damned small.”
Millie laughs. Then stops and looks startled.
“I think that’s why you live as you do. I think your current life reflects lessons you inherited from your mom and your grandma and internalized without realizing it. The world’s dangerous. Never depend on a man. Seek financial security above all. Work till you drop. Ignore feelings and other messages from your body. I think those were probably appropriate lessons for grandma to learn. I’m less sure about Mom. I suspect she absorbed them unconsciously and then passed them down to you.
“But I do know you’re not Grandma, and you’re not your mother.
“And I know the right life for each of us grows out of our lessons, our experiences and feelings. Nobody else’s.
“And I think the main reason you’re here with me now is because you’ve been trying to live a life that was cooked up in somebody else’s kitchen.”
I ask Rachel how she made out with her new nurse practitioner.
“I fired her,” she grunts.
“She was a Plan A person.”
We’ve developed a verbal shorthand over the years, so I know what she means.
“You could tell?” I ask.
She sighs. “From the moment we met. She kept me waiting twenty-five minutes, and when I finally got in I was frustrated. She saw it and her back went up. That was strike one.”
“Then I asked if she’d gotten the note you faxed over about my diagnosis and treatment. ‘Yes, I think I saw something like that,’ she said, ‘but I tossed it.’ “
“Yeah. Strike two. Then about thirty minutes into the meeting I was asking why she was recommending one med over another, and she was evasive — you know, handling me like a patient. So I questioned her harder. Guess what she said?”
“She said, ‘Are you getting short with me, Rachel?'”
“What did you say?”
“I stood up and said, ‘I’m sorry, but you won’t do,’ and I left.”
I laugh. “Rachel, I think I love you.”
Bernie Siegel writes,
The thing you see in survivors is that they express feelings. I won’t say some of the things they tell their doctors, when doctors tell them they’re going to die in six months. Boy, do they let the doctor know how they feel about that statement.
Siegel is a surgeon who noticed a correlation between cancer and codependency — burying feelings, people-pleasing, avoiding conflict, deferring to authority. He also noticed that the patients most likely to survive cancer were those who learned to replace their codependent coping with honesty, assertiveness and authentic expression. He created support groups designed to teach them these life-saving skills, and called the people who attended them “exceptional patients.”
I call them Plan B people.
Plan B people are those who outgrow the Plan A we all learn as children. Plan A is control addiction, a fear of rejection that leads t0 self-doubt, emotional constipation, image management, and compulsive attempts to get other people to react to us in the way we want.
It’s Plan A that lies behind our tendency to take others’ feelings personally, wall off instead of opening up, and defend instead of communicating — the things Rachel noticed in the nurse practitioner.
She spotted it because she’d done it herself for years.
And she fired the nurse because she’d learned, through her own struggles with anxiety and depression, that Plan A is bad news.
That addiction to control can’t coexist with emotional or physical health.
That it’s not just ineffective, it makes you sick.
And that it’s the opposite of loving and taking care of yourself.
Or as Bernie Siegel puts it,
One’s attitude towards oneself is the single most important factor in healing and staying well.