The Necessity of Connection and Acceptance

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

--Maya Angelou

Skylar Lee. Source: Identities.Mic

As of late, suicide is on my mind. I nearly lost someone to a suicide attempt this fall, am approaching the anniversary of a client's suicide, and reeling from the suicide of yet another trans teenager, Skylar Lee, in Madison, Wisconsin. Given that I am about to bring a child into this world, these tragedies, all of which are in some way tied to LGBTQ+ identities, have spurred me to reflect on the human need for connection and acceptance. Skylar's mom's courageous and heartbreaking news interview highlights this point. As she said, “The night before [he died], he hugged me and kissed me,” Joanne said. “I could feel it. He forgave me that I didn't accept him, and that was his final goodbye to me. I owe him to continue his fight.”

Ironically enough, I have found some of the most poignant lessons about connection and acceptance in the book No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson. Because the book's title conceals more than it reveals about the author's definition of discipline, I want to start by sharing that definition, as it's about connection rather than punishment, which feels particularly relevant on the heels of the school resource officer's violent actions at Spring Valley High. As the authors wrote,

whenever we discipline our kids, our overall goal is not to punish or to give a consequence but to teach. The root of 'discipline' is the word disciple, which means 'student,' 'pupil,' and 'learner.' A disciple, the one receiving discipline is not a prisoner or recipient of punishment, but one who is learning through instruction. Punishment might shut down a behavior in the short term, but teaching offers skills that last a lifetime...we want caregivers to think of discipline as one of the most loving and nurturing things we can do for our kids.

I love this focus on teaching, which actually requires adults to use something besides our fear and conditioning to relate to a child. Siegel and Bryson reiterate again and again that we must connect with our children before we try to redirect their behavior. How that connection looks and sounds is going to differ, based on factors like circumstance and personality, but the result is the same: the child feels understood, valued, and accepted for who they are, not who they should or could be according to somebody else's norms and expectations. The authors do a brilliant job responding to the counter-argument that to connect with children is to spoil them, specifically noting,

Spoiling is not about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can't spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself...Nurturing your relationship with your child and giving her the consistent experiences that form the basis of her accurate belief that she's entitled to your love and affection is exactly what we should be doing. In other words, we want to let our kids know that they can count on getting their needs met.

Not all suicides are linked to a lack of connection and acceptance, but many of them are. So much of my work with clients centers on important relationships--oftentimes with parents and partners--in which they do not think they can express who they are and still be loved. Given that acceptance is a core human emotional need, the inability to be our authentic selves and still feel a sense of belonging and connection is devastating. I cannot overstate this point.

But I want to end this post on a positive note. I just had the opportunity to attend a Boulder Valley Safe Schools Coalition meeting and learned of parents, educators, and administrators working together to make this district's schools safe and equitable learning environments for all students. To see the district's language about honoring student identities and affirming gender fluidity and diversity was heartening. Even more so was the presence of parents who shared testimonials about their love of and support for their gender variant children at a district board meeting. These parents strike me as some of the biggest changers of hearts and minds about connecting with our children's concerns, feelings, and experience and accepting them as they are. May we learn from the tragic losses we have already endured so that human flourishing, not just survival, becomes a realistic aspiration for our society.


Making Contact

Creating a connection is mandatory.

--Ron Kurtz, Pioneer of Hakomi

I happily return from my blogging hiatus, which was in part due to my participation in a sensorimotor psychotherapy (SP)* training. A key component of this introductory training was learning how to make contact statements with clients. I found inspiring the SP message that we must make contact with what matters most to facilitate growth. Making contact--creating connections--seems exactly like what we need to do at this time to heal not only the interpersonal wounds of our lives but also the more macro-level injuries, such as the institutionalized racism and violence in the United States that the recent grand jury acquittals have so rawly exposed. The latter claim may seem like a stretch, but I hope you will stick with me as I seek to link contact statements to broader social forces.

Credit to the Boomer Health Institute


The pioneers of SP and authors of Trauma and the Body describe contact statements as "ways of contacting mental and emotional experience that demonstrate attunement without encouraging a thinking about action." They are short and uncomplicated (our trainer recommended they be three to six words) and help clients to become more aware of their present experience. Here are some of the contact statement examples provided by the authors:

"Seems like your body is tensing."

"Looks like a lot of emotion is coming up right now."

"Seems like these thoughts are confusing."

We deepen what we contact with such statements, which strip away wordy, abstract explanations of our experience. And with their tentative tone (e.g., using phrases like "seems like"), they highlight that the listener is the only one who can know their inner experience and create an opportunity for revision when we, the speaker, mistake one thing for another, such as contacting anger rather than grief.

Since the SP training, I've been thinking about how the use of contact statements could transform romantic and familial relationships, media interviews, and dialogues about difficult topics. Can you imagine what might happen if even for one day we stopped interrogating each other and instead sought to contact the other's experience?

I believe an important outcome of such a social experiment would be the realization that searching for causes before we understand how phenomena impact us is misguided. Too often "why" questions sound like skeptical criticism that invalidate our immediate experience. That is my rationale for recommending that struggling couples try to ban why questions from their conversations. I invite you to track your response to each of the following statements to support the assertion that why questions frequently spur defensiveness and/or withdrawal from the interaction.

"Seems like you are feeling a lot of pain."

"Why are you so upset!?"

Understanding the history and origins of problems is important. Certainly. But if our inquiries stay in the realm of analysis and critique, we do not contact the human aspects of our lived experience. We do not connect. Contact statements, in contrast, cut to the heart of things. As Jennifer DeLucy said, “It makes me sad that so many people feel they're only allowed to show their best face, while their humanity and vulnerabilities are forbidden and hidden. How else do we connect, but by commonality, by mutual understanding and truth in life's experiences? Whether it makes you smile or cringe, a truth spoken is a healing thing.”

Already my own life has been transformed by the simple instruction to make more contact statements. I have become more aware of how often I am explaining, defending, or justifying something rather than attuning to what is actually going on, within me and in others. As I watch, read, and listen to the the facts and fictions of Michael Brown and Eric Garner's deaths and the aftermath of those deaths, I am drawn to the statements that generate and sustain connection. Given poetry's ability to humanize words, I want to close with Jason McCall's "Roll Call for Michael Brown," as it contains many opportunities to make contact.

It will happen,
an honest mistake
in a hot August classroom.
Someone will blink
at the name and swear this
“Michael Brown” can’t be
that “Michael Brown.” Or someone
will be too busy with her head down
finishing syllabi to look up and see the flash
grenades and tear
gas. Someone will be running
late, his mind on the cops
that will probably ticket him
for not having a permit.
Someone won’t see why a name
is such a big deal. Someone will
read his name like the next item on a list
of groceries and move to the next student
before the first groan rumbles
through the stale Missouri air.
Someone will start to speak
his name and then cover his mouth
like a Roman priest closing Janus’s door
and praying all the violence of the world will stop
short of his porch. Someone will ask,
“Michael Brown? Is Michael Brown here?”
and we will all have to answer.

* The Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute describes sensorimotor psychotherapy as follows: "Sensorimotor Psychotherapy® (SP), founded by Dr. Pat Ogden, is a body-oriented talking therapy that integrates verbal techniques with body-centered interventions in the treatment of trauma, attachment, and developmental issues, incorporating theory and technique from psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, neuroscience, and theories of attachment and dissociation."

Enough Room for It All

I recently had the privilege of working with a yoga therapist on some alignment issues, and what do you know? The intense striving and time spent in my head during a long life chapter have taken a significant toll on this body o mine. This skillful teacher helped me to develop a mantra for the path forward, as I learn to breathe more from my belly and open up my constricted chest: "I have room enough for it all; I let go of control." I have room enough for it all. I remember being drawn into both/and theories while in college. They transformed the absolute, black-and-white truths of my childhood into a wondrous grey space of paradoxes and possibilities. "I am large, I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman insisted. For years I confined this more postmodern reality to the intellectual realm, not realizing that a both/and philosophy could apply to the conflicting emotions and physical sensations within. But then I realized I could love someone and be angry at them at the same time--that I could stay connected to another while feeling a difficult emotion toward them. Such a simple thing, really, yet so easy to miss the radical potential of saying, "And this, too," when an either/or framework has set in and flourished, without our conscious consent. Only when my heart was broken did I find my way into Pema Chodron's words:

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

What a revelation to realize I did not have to get rid of the fear and sadness; in fact, the more I resisted their presence, the more I strengthened their control over my daily life. And how terrifying to honor the fear since I firmly believed being afraid was something to conquer, not something to relate to with kindness. Fear-based thinking also drove much of my so-called success. If I let go of control, I questioned (though not with much awareness), who will get things done? Who will protect me from harm?

I have found the neuroscience that explains my revved up nervous system in evolutionary terms to be extremely helpful. We all have this iguana brain that takes us into fight, flee, or freeze mode from time to time (and more regularly than that for many of us). I can relax into the fear a little more knowing it's shared by everyone else on this planet. I am not alone. And. AND! There is so much evolutionary promise in attending to and befriending the fear since these actions reestablish our capacity for empathy, connection, and creativity. What is more, fear's presence, when I allow myself to become aware of it without judgment, can offer useful information--data, if you will--that leads to greater understanding of the world and myself. Then the fear does not flood the landscape, and I can let there be room for the coming together and the falling apart.

As for understanding how my body simultaneously can be rooted downward and expanded upward, I'm slowly and surely feeling my way there. Poets like Rilke help me to re-member,

If we surrendered to earth's intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Surrender. What a difficult word. It requires trust in ourselves and the surrounding world. So many of us have learned that the universe is not a friendly place but, rather, one filled with enemies and warfare. But what if we, like Einstein, decided the universe is an hospitable place? According to him, such a stance would result in using "our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives." When I slow down enough to listen to my own motives, I sense that my intention to understand is stronger than my desire to control, and surrender naturally begins to take place. Understanding, after all, requires opening up, not closing down and off.

So I like my mantra. And I like the instructions to repeat it with my hands on my belly, aware of my inhaling and exhaling breath. When the words become embodied in this way, I am reminded how miraculous and precious life really is. In Kute Blackson's terms, "Every breath you take involves an interaction and communication of trillions of cells. There are universes dancing inside you." There really is room enough for it all.

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at:

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at:

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at:



Distinguishing Wise Discrimination from Aversive Judgment*

In my line of work, particularly with couples, the old adage, "Would you rather be right, or happy?" comes to mind a lot. When large differences exist, as is frequently the case between partnered individuals, digging in our heels and claiming rightness (or the other person's idiocy) becomes oh-so-easy when we feel like our perspectives or even our selfhood are being threatened. That to me is the key: we jump into right/wrong, good/bad stances when we feel afraid. Fear is a natural emotion that arises when we feel unsafe. To fight, flee, or freeze makes perfect sense if our lives are really on the line, such as in instances of violence, abuse, and neglect. However, individuals in intimate relationships frequently resort to this "reptilian brain" reaction when our experience of threat feels real but is not actually true.

The classic pursuer-distance dynamic captures such emotional reactivity. One person starts to see danger signs flashing in the midst of conflict and so begins to retreat (i.e. flee) from the scene. The other person becomes emotionally flooded with a fear of abandonment and chases after the other, raising her voice and refusing to let the interaction come to a halt (i.e. fighting). The fleeing partner, now feeling like a hunted animal trapped in a corner, threatens to leave the house or the relationship and/or explodes in rage. When all is said and done, both people feel ashamed, spent, and remorseful. Sound familiar?

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel helps us to understand the evolutionary history of our emotional reactivity via his brain hand model. He also offers an alternative to going reptilian: pausing long enough to identify the fear and not immediately react to it. When we can calm our nervous systems enough to recognize we are actually safe, such as through deep breathing exercises, we can reengage the more recently developed part of our brain that has the capacity to empathize, cooperate, problem-solve, and be creative.

In contrast, when we react to fear by making others or ourselves bad or wrong, we're using aversive judgment, or what Tara Brach calls "an aggressive force that separates." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines aversive as "tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus." When we use aversive judgment, we make others and ourselves (when the judgment is directed inwards) noxious and punishing entities. In other words, we reinforce a perception of the world as an inherently dangerous place where enemies lurk around every corner. In such a world, war and the establishment of hierarchies composed of "better" and "worse" people become the answer to conflict.

Tara Brach reminds us that this us/them, superior/inferior mentality is also an evolutionary artifact. When we lived in small groups, the framing of outsiders as threats to our survival could and did strengthen internal group cohesion. With our twenty-first century brains, however, we have the evolutionary potential to recognize our interconnectedness and feel compassion for the suffering of others and ourselves. We therefore can practice working with, not against, our fears and so choose not to violate others' or our own dignity when we feel endangered. We can remain whole.

Not reacting to our fears does not mean we tolerate harm to others and ourselves. This is where wise discrimination comes in. We can acknowledge that those who cause suffering are themselves suffering and decide the best course of action is to direct our attention elsewhere or leave the relationship. Standing up for ourselves and acknowledging another's struggles are not mutually exclusive phenomena. Nevertheless, how we take stands matters a lot if we are committed to stopping the war. If we decide to make another bad or wrong for their actions, we're back in the land of aversive judgment. A nonviolent approach, in contrast, asks us to investigate our own unmet needs in the relationship and communicate our desire to honor our own value rather than violate it for the sake of staying in relationship with someone who mistreats us.

At the end of the day, being right versus happy does not quite capture the stakes of social interactions. I would rather deepen my understanding of the human condition so as to be able to recognize quickly that when we harden, whether by becoming self-righteous or emotionally disengaged, we are trying to protect ourselves. Until we can detect and make visible the soft underbelly beneath the daggers and shields, we will not forge authentic connections and a sense of belonging, both of which, in my experience anyway, are the sources of our greatest contentment. To borrow from Brene Brown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

* This post draws heavily from Tara Brach's wonderful talk "Part I: Evolving Toward Unconditional Love."

Saying Yes and Saying No

According to relationship guru John Gottman, saying "Yes" is key to a happy partnership. In his words, could capture all of my research findings with the metaphor of a saltshaker. Instead of filling it with salt, fill it with all the ways you can say yes, and that’s what a good relationship is. “Yes,” you say, “that is a good idea.” “Yes, that’s a great point, I never thought of that.” “Yes, let’s do that if you think it’s important.” You sprinkle yeses throughout your interactions...This is particularly important for men, whose ability to accept influence from women is really one of the most critical issues in a a partnership that’s troubled, the saltshaker is filled with all the ways you can say no. In violent relationships, for example, we see men responding to their wives’ requests by saying, “No way,” “It’s just not going to happen,” “You’re not going to control me,” or simply “Shut up.” When a man is not willing to share power with his wife, our research shows, there is an 81% chance that the marriage will self-destruct.

Gottman has studied 1000s of couples in his "love lab," and I respect his perspective, despite not finding it very attentive to or inclusive of gender variant and queer configurations. When working with people in relationship, I find that questions frequently arise about how much individuals want to bend to sustain a relationship. Gottman's saltshaker metaphor highlights how repeated refusals to accept influence from our partners impedes our connection with them.

That said, I also appreciated seeing the following statement he makes in the article quoted above:

Agreement is not the same as compliance, so if people think they’re giving in all the time, then their relationships are never going to work. There are conflicts that you absolutely must have because to give in is to give up some of your personality.

What troubles me about the saltshaker metaphor is its limited focus on power dynamics and the extent to which gender socialization can contribute to expectations of compliance. Giving in may involve the harmful de-selfing that Gottman acknowledges. But giving in also may strengthen a sense of identity if we have been taught that accommodating others' needs is "good," "polite," and "kind." More pointedly, most of the women with whom I work carry the belief that attending to our own needs is "selfish," "rude," or "unacceptable." Not having practiced the art of listening within, many of us (men included) have a hard time identifying what our unmet needs are, let alone knowing how to make skillful requests of our partners to help us meet them.

In the paragraph opening this entry, Gottman hones in on men saying "No" to the detriment of relationships, but he does not address how important saying "No" remains for many women and additional people who struggle to be seen, heard, and valued as whole, self-determining human beings. In U.S. society, for example, where nearly one in five women have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, "No" is frequently uttered but not heard.

Gottman does highlight that "respect and affection" are the two most important aspects of a relationship. I would like to take this issue of respect a step further by bringing psychologist Donna Hicks' dignity framework to the saltshaker conversation.* Hicks reminds us that dignity comes from a sense of inherent value and worth and that we all come into the world with it. "Each of us is worth having our dignity honored," she declares.

Hicks also emphasizes how vulnerable our dignity needs are since we frequently lose sight of others' and our own preciousness over time. When I think about the highly troubled relationships I have witnessed and of which I have been a part, dignity violations usually abound. If we repeatedly feel mistreated, neglected, and devalued, we create defenses that often take the form of hardness, anger, and resentment.

I am confident that the most powerful "Yeses" we can sprinkle on our relationships are those rooted in an honoring of our partners' inherent value and worth. Moreover, and as Hicks asserts, "when we honor others' dignity, we strengthen our own." However, if dignity violations occur, the ability to say "No, this _____ is not okay" is critical to maintaining a sense of our own value and worth. Under such circumstances, "No" means respecting our right to dignity.

* My wonderful colleague Ellyn Zografi introduced me to Hicks' work.

What if we stopped mistaking habits for defects?

Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.

--Mahatma Gandhi

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "Mental disorders are common in the United States, and in a given year approximately one quarter of adults are diagnosable for one or more disorders." A little digging reveals that this percentage came from a 2005 journal article, which based its survey questions on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. I like to imagine what the findings might be if someone asked the "9,282 English speaking respondents aged 18 years and older" who took this survey between 2001 and 2003, "What if your disorders are patterned behavior rooted in a false core belief?" To spur reflection, I might even give them the above quote and a list of such beliefs. The following is one list I found in Charlotte Kasl's writing (which comes from other work about the nine Enneagram personality types):

1. There must be something wrong with me.

2. I am worthless.

3. I have an inability to do...

4. I'm inadequate.

5. I don't exist.

6. I'm alone.

7. I'm incomplete, there is something missing.

8. I am powerless.

9. There is no love--it's a loveless world.

Moving from a distant thought experiment about over 9,000 anonymous survey respondents in a study conducted 10 years ago toward an inquiry into the possible connections between our own patterned actions and one or more of the abovementioned false beliefs is harder, scarier, and more vulnerable. However, to borrow from Madeleine L'Engle, "To be alive is to be vulnerable." So here goes...

My personal favorite is false core belief #4. When I have not been able to pause and replace that belief with one grounded in connection, love, and belonging, it has become a destiny in the following ways :

I'm not enough.

Internally: "I should be better than I am." "I'm not going to be able to realize my life goals."  "I can't trust myself to make wise decisions." "I'm a bad person." "I'm not loveable."

To the world: "I don't know what I'm doing." "I'm so sorry I can't do anything right!" "This is all my fault." "I'm a failure." "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

I try to make up for my insufficiency by striving, doing, fixing, managing, controlling. I shoulder responsibility for situations to which I contributed but for which I am not entirely responsible. I keep apologizing and making repairs long after most of the people implicated in my supposed "misstep" have forgotten about it. I add more to my overflowing plate. I withdraw.

I value sadness (i.e. melancholy). Solitude (i.e. isolation). Busyness (i.e. workaholism). Self-soothing (i.e. drinking alcohol).

I am depleted, depressed, lonely, overwhelmed, exhausted.

What's the point in taking a journey down that gloomy road? For one, I can trace back to the core belief and more quickly unhook from it because I know that what feels real and manifests in my life in real ways is often not true.* I also understand that my reality is interpreted, which means I can reinterpret and create a new reality rooted in different beliefs, thoughts, words, actions, and values.

Beliefs in connectedness, belonging, and love can seem abstract and sentimental when we have not had much experience generating a destiny from them. For those of us not surrounded and filled up with those beliefs in our childhoods and other cultural contexts where we have spent the bulk of our time, how do we bring them to life?

I recently read Andrew Solomon's chapter on transgender children in Far from the Tree. A mother in there, Carol, illustrated an acceptance, appreciation, and love for her child that I believe we can learn to offer to ourselves, as adults, in the service of generating more wholehearted destinies. So far as I can tell, replacing a false core belief with a life-giving one requires paying the kind of attention to ourselves that Carol paid to her daughter Kim:

[Solomon] said, "Do you wish that Paul had just been happy to be Paul and had stayed that way?" Carol said, "Well, of course I do. It would have been easier for Paul, and for the rest of us. But the key phrase in there is 'happy to be Paul.' He wasn't, and I am just so glad that he had the courage to do something about it. No, if he had been happy to be Paul, anybody would wish for that, but since he wasn't--I can't imagine the courage that it took. I had somebody say this weekend, 'Carol, Paul died, and I haven't finished mourning that.' I don't feel that. Kim is much more present to people than Paul ever was. Paul was never rude, he just wasn't totally present. We didn't quite have his attention." She laughed, then said with adoring emphasis, "And look what we got! Kim!" And grace seemed to be both the cause and consequence of her happiness in that emphatic declaration.

* As Tara Brach said, "We pay attention so that we can begin to loosen that thick cluster that really can define our lives."

Going Back to the Triangle

My, oh my, am I hearing a lot of blaming these days! A Time article title sums up the current U.S. blame game: "In New Poll, Americans Blame Everyone for Government Shutdown." Although I have already written about the Karpman triangle (also called the drama triangle) elsewhere, I know I am yearning for a reminder of what life can look like when people are "proactive rather than reactive, self responsible rather than blaming."* The triangle serves to clarify how we get stuck in vicious blaming and shaming cycles within our private and public relationships. Using the triangle, we can unmask an issue and respond to it in more skillful ways. So back to the triangle I go!

Credit to Thompson Dunn for this image.

Psychiatrist Steven Karpman introduced the triangle in the 1970s. Essentially, the triangle's three points represent the following roles that adults play when engaged in relational power struggles: persecutor, rescuer, and victim. The persecutor seeks to control others via anger, criticism, and blaming, without recognizing the fear driving this abusive behavior. The rescuer tries to control the situation by being helpful, nice, and strong, not seeing that when we try to rescue others from their problems, we prevent them from drawing on their own strengths and resources to resolve issues (i.e. we treat others as victims). The victim also seeks to control others by assuming a position of overwhelm or paralysis in the face of managing his or her life. As victims, we want others to rescue us or whip us into shape.

Importantly, these roles portray a sliver of who we actually are, even if we have grown comfortable in one of them over time and, thus, seemingly inhabited it forever and always. These roles are also dynamic. In other words, we may assume the role of victim in one situation and persecutor in another or morph into a new role when our feelings change about the situation. For example, the rescuer may get tired of saving the day and explode at the victim, thereby shifting to the persecutor role for at least a little while.

The primary problem with hopping on the triangle is that we give up our power. We forget about our capacity to utter the following words,

I'm responsible for what I think, do, say. If something bothers me, it is my problem. If you can do something to help me with my problem, I need to tell you, because you can't read my mind. If you decide not to help me, I'll need to decide what I'm going to do next to fix my problem. Similarly, if something bothers you, it is your problem. If there is something I can do to help you with your problem, you need to tell me. And if I decide not to help you with your problem, you can work it out. You may not handle it the way I might, but you can do it. I don't need to take over.

In current U.S. society, I perceive a lot of persecutory public speech, whether on Facebook walls or CNN. I also sense a lot of self-rescuing via various disengagement strategies, such as drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, taking prescription pills, over-eating, and watching TV or playing video games for hours on end. These strategies often come to the fore when we are feeling overwhelmed and just want Calgon to take us away (aka assuming the victim stance).

Staying present, engaged, and self-responsible is hard. Really hard. But the benefits of manifesting this aspiration overwhelmingly outweigh the costs to others, ourselves, and our planet. Those benefits include a sense of connection and belonging--of feeling seen, heard, and valued and that we are part of something larger than us.** Such a sense of connection and belonging ultimately removes the thrill of persecuting, rescuing, and staying in the one-down position. In Robert Taibbi's terms, when we step off the triangle, we "can be responsible and strong, and yet honest and vulnerable. [We] can take risks, are not locked in roles, and, hence, can be more open and intimate."

Leave it to a 16-year-old young woman to show us what leaving the triangle behind can look, sound, and feel like. As Malala Yousafzai said in response to Jon Stewart's question, "When did you realize the Taliban had made you a target?"

I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, 'If he comes, what would you do Malala?' Then I would reply to myself, 'Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.' But then I said, 'If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat that much with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.' Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that 'I even want education for your children as well.' And I will tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'


* This quote and the next comes from Robert Taibbi's Doing Couple Therapy. I also drew heavily on Taibbi's book in the following portrayal of the Karpman triangle.

** See Brene Brown's Daring Greatly for more on the human need for love, connection, and belonging.

Journeying toward Radical Acceptance

As I speak with more people about the possibilities created by radical acceptance, I often hear responses like:

"I want to be a new and improved me, not accept the way I am."

"If I accept the way things are, they will never change."

"Acceptance equals passivity, and I'm not interested in being passive. I'm an activist!"

"Are you suggesting I accept abuse, dominance, and oppression!?!?"

In a society that consistently promotes a linear and hierarchical view of success and change, these statements make a lot of sense. The subtle and not-so-subtle messages we often receive from families, schools, and work places are that if you do not strive to progress up some kind of ladder, you will become stuck or, worse, a failure. And probably a lazy one at that!

As a mentor recently reminded me, we in the United States also frequently carry around a deep-seated view of ourselves as defective, in part due to the dominance of the original sin doctrine. Why would we not want to jump onto the treadmill of self-improvement after internalizing the message that we are inherently bad? What I find interesting is that other cultures, such as that of the Tibetan Dalai Lama, believe something very different. In the Dalai Lama's words,

Every sentient being—even insects—have Buddha nature. The seed of Buddha means consciousness, the cognitive power—the seed of enlightenment...All these destructive things can be removed from the mind, so therefore there’s no reason to believe some sentient being cannot become Buddha. So every sentient being has that seed.

I do not mean to idealize other cultures or to heroify the Dalai Lama. Instead, I find a powerful inquiry to be, "What would my life be like if I truly believed it is sacred?" The idea of Buddha nature relates to radical acceptance in that believing our lives are worth cherishing encourages us to come back to the present moment, see it clearly, and jump into it wholeheartedly. In contrast, when we stay focused on all the ways we stink at this life, we experience only a sliver of it.

"So what the heck do I mean by radical acceptance!?" you may be wondering if you have reached this point. I am drawn to Tara Brach's portrayal of radical acceptance. She describes it as the ability to be with our experience--our internal weather systems--and say, "Okay, this is here, right now." This "letting be" does not mean passivity in the face of harm. Rather, it means recognizing that our wish for something different is at odds with the reality that is here. We can still dare to dream about and pursue change in the world when we accept our moment-to-moment experience. We do so, however, with more clarity about the pathways that liberate and revitalize us rather than lead to more battling, struggling, exhaustion and, ultimately, loneliness and despair. Perhaps a concrete example is in order.

When I was graduate student and, later, a university professor, I spent most of my conscious moments observing the inequities of social institutions, including those of the university where I worked. I oftentimes felt depleted, powerless, and less and less capable of getting out of bed in the morning, an action that usually preceded armoring up for another day of battle. When I would notice my fatigue and depression, I would quickly call on my internal judge, often without realizing it. She would admonish, "You are so ungrateful. What is wrong with you!? You lead a charmed life and should appreciate it. Get it together and stop complaining. Nobody likes a complainer, especially one as privileged as you."

Needless to say, this incessantly playing tape of criticism did not bring me fulfillment, joy, peace, or that much sought after productivity. What did transform my life was a consciously made commitment to begin paying attention to what was going on inside of me, no matter what that was. This commitment required a shift in my belief that I could not acknowledge my own suffering because of the social and economic privileges I had inherited. Once I began to soften and open to my own pain, I recognized the underlying belief that had guided many of my days to that point: my life was not worthy of close study. I began to interrupt this story of entrenched deficiency with the behaviors and words I could muster. I placed my hand on my heart, for example, and began to use lovinkindness blessings when I became aware of dis-ease: "May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you live with ease."

Slowly but surely, I began to recognize how much of my life had been lived in my head. I therefore had missed out on establishing and sustaining important human connections as well as experiencing the wonders and fragility of this living and dying world. I let myself grieve those unlived precious moments and, eventually, became more adept at perceiving and responding with friendliness to my internal weather systems. As the willlingness to honor the sacredness of my own life grew, I began to let go of my belief in some very familiar roles, like that of the oppressor and oppressed. Recognizing how often my own nature changed, I found that using shorthand, static categories for others and myself no longer made sense. These labels, or solid identifications, kept me from arriving at a deeper understanding of what makes people and systems tick and responding to them in more skillful ways.

Of course I continue to be a work in progress, but I now understand at an experiential level how honoring my own life has expanded my ability to honor others'. I can say and mean to a client, "What if there is nothing wrong with you and you just need to take off all those coats that are covering up who you are?"

I also wholeheartedly believe that the "boundary to what you can accept is the boundary to your freedom."* As poet Danna Faulds wrote,

Trust the energy that Courses through you Trust, Then take surrender even deeper. Be the energy. Don't push anything away. Follow each Sensation back to its source In vastness and pure presence.

Emerge so new, so fresh that You don't know who you are.

Be the energy and blaze a Trail across the clear night Sky like lightning. Dare to Be your own illumination.**

* This quote came from Tara Brach's talk "Absolute Cooperation with the Inevitable." ** The excerpts from "Trusting Prana" came from Tara Brach's talk "From Story to Presence."