Honoring Resistance During Times of Change

In a few short weeks, I will begin working full-time in my private psychotherapy practice. Up to this point, I have always worked for someone else. Thus the idea of being entirely self-employed spurs oodles of terror. My fear-based thinking goes something like this: What if new clients don't appear? How will I pay the bills? I've already changed careers so if this one doesn't work, I'm doomed to failure. Who do you think you are!? To turn my attention toward the exhilarating  aspects of this transition more than the distressing ones, I pickuntitleded up Nancy Levin's Jump and Your Life Will Appear: An Inch-by-Inch Guide to Making a Major Change. I am grateful I did. Her honesty while disclosing her own story combined with the pearls of wisdom shared throughout the book helped me to interrupt the unrelenting self-doubt track playing in my own mind. Levin's book also guided me back to the aspirations that got me here in the first place--to be true to myself and live a wholehearted life. I particularly loved her chapter on honoring our resistance.

Levin offered the following criteria for distinguishing resistance from legitimate warnings that we are about to make an ill-advised decision:

If you feel defensive about making a change, if you're making excuses for why you can't make the change, or if you feel defeated before you even begin, you are probably experiencing resistance. If you want the change but feel you can't let go of what you already have, you are probably experiencing resistance. If you're trying to convince yourself that your current life isn't so bad, you're experiencing resistance.

Resistance has certainly been in my house as of late, and I happily heeded Levin's advice to make friends with that resistance--to open to it with curiosity--rather than reject or do battle with it. Of course our impulse is to do anything but let the resistance be there, but I know from experience that the more we resist our experience the more we strengthen it. As Levin wrote, "Resistance is like a beach ball. When you push it underwater, it pops back up to the surface even stronger."

When I've been able to meet the resistance with kindness, I see layers of fear laid bare, many of which were established long before I set out on this latest venture. Sure enough, at the core of my internal bogeymen is an old belief that whatever I do, I'm not good enough and never will be. Thankfully, I know I am more than my thoughts. Each time I identify this pernicious one about my inherent insufficiency, it has a little less power over me and a little more space opens up. It's a gradual process of change, to be sure, but I did not integrate that nasty belief into my being over night. The initial thought of inadequacy had to be repeated over and over and over (and so on and so forth) before it became a belief. I therefore can accept that unlearning it is not going to be like removing tear-away pants and start to shed this habit of diminishing myself, layer by layer.

I can also remember that this voice of self-doubt initially arose in a misguided attempt to keep me safe. By telling myself I needed to and could do more than I was already doing in all areas of my life, I was trying to safeguard my vulnerability from external criticism and judgment. When I can actually absorb that this deficit-based belief emerged to protect me, I easily soften and open to my experience, even when that experience is something as dissatisfying as resistance.

What is more, during the times when the resistance will not pipe down, even after I've attended to and befriended it to the best of my ability, I can remind myself, as Levin reminded me, that I don't have to surrender to its demands. As Levin said about her own process of working with resistance, "I [came to] recognize that the sensations of fight or flight were just the past knocking, and I didn't have to answer that knock."

I appreciated that the chapter on resistance closed with a little text box about offering self-forgiveness. If we take our wholeness to be a birthright, pardoning ourselves for contributing to our fragmentation via our tireless minds makes a lot of sense. So I leave you with Levin's wise instruction on forgiving ourselves for resisting what is good for us:

Forgive yourself for staying in a situation that doesn't serve you. Forgive yourself for resisting your birthright to pleasure, joy, and love, and commit to opening your heart and your life to that birthright. You have a whole new future ahead of you!

 

 

Unfinished Conversations

As of late, unfinished conversations abound in my life. I have had clients seeking peace and forgiveness via dialogues with departed family members as well as those who are alive but inaccessible for any number of reasons. I also have been reckoning with my own unfinished conversations, particularly with someone who died at their own hand. With gratitude, then, I came upon Robert Lesoine and Marilynne Chophel's Unfinished Conversation: Healing from Suicide and Loss. For those of us feeling adrift from an unexpected loss or any relationship that raises a storm of emotions once we give it attention, this book provides amazing resources. In it, Lesoine allows us to witness his grieving process following the suicide of his best friend. He illustrates the panoply of emotions that spiral in and out of his immediate experience--sadness, outrage, fear, regret, guilt, loneliness, and abandonment to name a few--as well as his gradual move toward curiosity, acceptance, and letting go. Lesoine's written dialogues with Larry facilitate this journey and, as he notes, rekindle a connection with his deceased friend.

His co-author Chophel, a trauma specialist and longtime therapist, contributes additional tools for healing throughout the book. For example, the following "Getting Real Journal Exercises" focuses on working with remorse:

Getting real with yourself means noticing--with courageous honesty--your actions and feelings, even difficult feelings such as guilt and genuine remorse. Write a dialoge in which you express your regrets and see what the response of your loved one might be. Write a scenario in your journal in which you and your loved one both take responsibility, make amends, and experience deeper understanding and reconnection with each other.

I was moved by the authors' creation of space for whatever arose for Lesoine and their insistence that grief does not come in right and wrong forms. I also appreciated that the book followed Lesoine for over a year, giving me a window into how my own grief might shapeshift across time, if I allow it to do so. I found his continuous opening toward Larry and himself particularly beautiful. Toward the end of the book, for example, Lesoine desires to let go of his suffering by forgiving Larry and himself. As he writes,

Eventually, I come to recognize that to truly heal, I also need to directly ask for Larry's forgiveness. Larry, my friend, for all the ways I may have caused you pain through my judgment, outrage, hurt, and confusion, for all the ways I acted or failed to act, I ask for your forgiveness. For all the ways I pushed you out of my heart and made you wrong and bad, for all the ways I judged and was critical of you, I ask you now to forgive me. Please my brother, forgive me.

 

And I need to forgive myself as well, for all of the shame, self-judgment, and reactive anger; for the ways I have abandoned and not cared for myself; and for the relentless critical self-talk and guilt that have plagued me since Larry's death. In order to truly heal, I have to be willing to let all that go and welcome myself back into my own heart, as if welcoming home a guest who has been away for too long. I need to say, 'I forgive you,' to myself.

Upon reading this book, I found my own heart releasing its grip on the pain of the last few months and embracing the words of poet Rabindranath Tagore, which Lesoine includes in the epilogue:

Peace, my heart, let the time for

the parting be sweet.

Let it not be a death but completeness.

Let love melt into memory and pain

into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end

in the folding of the wings over the

nest.

Let the last touch of your hands be

gentle like the flower of the night.

Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a

moment, and say your last words in

silence.

I bow to you and hold up my lamp

to light you on your way.

The life-giving power of speaking "truths"

The things that go without saying go even better when said.

--Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

In "The Secret that Became My Life," Jane Isay recounts learning about her husband's gay identity after many years of marriage and then staying in the closet with him for many more. About becoming a "full-fledged secret keeper" she writes,

What may start as a simple set of secrets can spread through a person's character like cancer. Keeping a secret demands habitual denial, which gradually may morph in to self-deception, resulting in the diminution of the self...The keeper worries about being found out. The keeper also tries to create an internal story that keeps self-judgment at bay. So we rationalize, and we explain, and we cover over the bright shiny truth. We tell ourselves stories about how much better off everybody is if they are ignorant. The keeper is afraid of change, of retribution, and of being judged.

I appreciate the attention she gives to the toll these secrets take on the secret keeper, as this aspect of secrecy seems central to shifting our belief that life does indeed go better when we speak our little "t" truths.* In other words, secrets harm, and even destroy, the secret keeper. Because they do so from the inside out, the self-injury inflicted by secrecy may go undetected until the damage is widespread.

I have known many people who have well-crafted explanations for why silence must continue about issues like childhood sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, a family member's alcoholism, infidelity, and trans gender identities. Generally, fear is driving the story and often with good reason. We can lose our loved ones, our place in families, our jobs, and other important aspects of our lives and livelihoods when we speak the truth. I appreciate that Isay does not sugarcoat the pain of truth-telling when we have carefully guarded a secret for a long while. She also does not end the story at encountering pain, loss, and conflict; she follows it to healing:

Telling is not simple for secret keepers who have dedicated much time and energy to the secret. It is painful and humiliating to explain feelings and motives under these circumstances. Even if they believe that they kept the secret for good reasons, they feel guilty. Faced with a loved one wanting the truth, people tend to pull back. Yet an honest account of the circumstances that led to the secret is often necessary to begin the process of healing.

One way to discuss the costs of secrecy in non-judgmental terms is to focus on the energy required to hide truths. "Where our attention goes, our energy flows," so we can assess how much attention we give to covering over the important truths of our lives.** Do we try to control not only what we say but also what others share? Do we spend many moments of each day worrying about what will happen if the truth gets out? Do we resort to numerous avoidance strategies--including using drugs and/or alcohol, overworking, and overexercising--to keep our fear of being found out at bay?

If we do indeed spend significant amounts of time and energy safeguarding our truths, we may want to consider how this management of reality amounts to a lot of unlived life. After all, living from a story of fear differs significantly from being present to the life within and around us. More pointedly, chronic fear puts tremendous stress on the body and impedes creativity, connection, and empathy.

Ultimately, secrets close us off from others since trust and intimacy require a high degree of authenticity and vulnerability. They also limit our freedom and wholeness. When we only focus our attention on the possible horrific outcomes of truth-telling, we become blind to the possible benefits of it. Isay beautifully articulates some possibilities engendered by honesty at the end of her story:

Some revelations stop relationships in their tracks. But others reveal the true person in our midst, the imperfect, limping, and often loving soul we cared about so much. And so we continue to care, and together we can rebuild, this time slowly, on a foundation of truth...We have choices in this life, and we make mistakes. Forgiveness is not impossible, and the wholeness of spirit that comes from truth is cool and pure.
* I'm distinguishing little "t" truths from big "T" truths that claim to be absolute.
** I'm borrowing this saying from Tara Brach.

 

 

And by failure, I meant unforgiven...

Being this moment is who we are. In being the awakened life we are, our practice effort is noticing what blinds us. These blinders are self-centered emotion--thoughts interwoven in forms, conceptions, and sensations. Practice effort may be defined as labeling thoughts and being bodily present, as noticing strategies and experiencing...If we are unclear, we may think practice is about making things better, about changing and improving. Though improvements may occur, they are not the aim of the practice.

--Elihu Genmyo Smith

Because I present myself as a recovering perfectionist, I have had the honor and challenge of working with several clients who also identify with this label. For me, the difficulty of this collaboration resides in an intimate understanding of how fearing failure can create impenetrable fortresses, within and beyond the therapeutic setting. Needless to say, working with perfectionists as a perfectionist means clients frequently hold up an obvious mirror to my face. I do my best to meet what reflects back at me. Admittedly, I sometimes run away until I have calmed my fears or can only be with the reflection for a few moments at a time before my own carefully crafted walls start creeping up, around, and over me, doing their best to safeguard my soft underbelly. The moments of staying with that reflection, without doing anything with or to it, have taught me the following about the blinders of perfectionism:

When we repeatedly and consistently pummel ourselves for our imperfections, the hardest part of our humanity often surfaces in an effort to protect us.  Although we are hurting, those with whom we are in relationship may only see a severe, glaring mask and so withdraw from us or react with their own venom to this perceived enmity. In the moment we most crave connection, we inadvertently create barriers to it. That is what defense mechanisms do; they produce the very phenomenon against which we are trying to defend. Unfortunately, we miss the chance to connect when we harden since bonding in an authentic way requires that we take the armor off and show ourselves to the world, vulnerabilities and all. As Ash Beckham said in her TEDxBoulder talk, "If you want someone to be real with you, they need to know that you bleed, too."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSR4xuU07sc

How do we open and soften to others in the face of the failure specter? My fellow perfectionists, I write with the utmost sincerity when I say that acknowledging our own suffering begins the pathway to healing. We cannot let down the barricades to others until we open to our own experience with curiosity, friendliness, and tenderness. Said differently, we start the recovery process by saying to ourselves, "I'm sorry"--not to apologize but to show care and concern toward the pain within. We begin saying yes to our experience and the life that is here by forgiving it.*

If these words spur all sorts of judgments toward me or yourself, I ask that you foster curiosity about that inner critic. In my experience, that judge is our best and strongest builder of the blockade that is attempting to protect us but is actually keeping us separate, from others and ourselves. She emerged to help us survive at an earlier point in time. Perhaps she showed up when we could not meet parental expectations as children, no matter how hard we tried. Or maybe she appeared when a primary caregiver told us s/he loved us no matter what but modeled a highly conditional self-love (i.e. was a perfectionist him or herself). Beyond the family, perhaps we went to a highly competitive school or spent a lot if time in social institutions where we repeatedly received the message that any performance below some arbitrary ideal represented a failure:

of character

of achievement

of beauty

of "normalcy."

My point is that although the critic means well, she's not helping us a lot of the time. So we can decide to let her go. But that action is easier said than done. Usually, she's a master of wall-building--after all, she's been at it for a long time--so we need to be very intentional and disciplined about cultivating and then employing another, gentler voice. A question I find useful in the service of letting the inner judge go is, What would I have to face/feel/experience if I suspended my judgment?  Generally, when I contemplate setting down the shield of self-judgment, I find what we therapist types call "primary emotions"--the softer, more vulnerable feelings of fear and sadness. If we allow ourselves to investigate these feelings with friendliness, we may generate enough heart space to begin offering ourselves forgiveness. We may even (dare I say it!) want to replace the incessant criticism with blessings of lovingkindness: May I be happy, be safe, be healthy, live with ease.

In addition to offering forgiveness to myself, I find that unlearning dichotomous, value-laden ways of thinking (right/wrong, good/bad, success/failure) opens doors to more wholehearted ways of approaching this life, which is so much more dynamic and complex than rigid black-and-white thinking allows. As I've written previously, this truth has been so important to my own healing that I tattooed a reminder on my body: "Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."

But with what do we replace these binary frameworks? Enter Sharon Salzberg's wisdom, which I recommend reading again and again and again:

the immediate result of an action, and how others respond to it, is only a small part of its value. There are two other significant aspects: the intention giving rise to the an action and the skillfulness with which we perform it. The intention is our basic motivation, or the inner urge that sparks the action. The skillfulness with which we act involves carrying out the intention with sensitivity to and awareness of what might be appropriate in any given situation. While the skillfulness of an action has a great deal to do with the result, it is the intention behind an action that is critically important. We can't control the response to an action. We can do our best to act skillfully, but it is at the level of intention where we make a crucial choice. An action can be motivated by love--or by hatred and revenge. Self-interest can be the source of what we do--or generosity can be. If our intention is wholesome, we can have faith in the workings of interconnectedness to continuously unfold our action, no matter how small or big, in positive ways.

For perfectionists, the "inner urge" driving much action is external approval and/or the achievement of some ideal. But as Salzberg pointed out, we leave a whole lot of our well-being to forces beyond our control when we focus our attention on others' responses and immediate results. What might happen to our actions if we made our intention to forgive ourselves for our imperfections, to offer kindness to ourselves rather than judgment? You will need to try it to believe it, but I know from my own experience that I have oodles more love and compassion to offer outwardly when I can muster friendliness toward myself. I also have more freedom. Moreover, and to circle back to the quote opening this post, I often see the present moment with more clarity when I am forgiving of myself and so remove the blinder of self-judgment. In other words, I tend to act more skillfully from this clear-seeing place that recognizes the "matrix of conditions" influencing this moment.** But that "improved" skillfulness and whatever results it engenders were not the intention. Self-improvement was not the goal. Forgiveness and lovingkindness were.

Once again, we arrive at a question that each of us must answer for ourselves: What stands between me and stripping away "the entangling, unhealthy ways of relating to [myself] with dislike and diminishment"?*** I imagine the answer to this question involves at least some pain that has thus far been covered over. In light of the fact that I permanently placed Rumi's words on my arm, you likely will not be surprised that I am going to close with his words, too:

Don't turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That's where the light enters you.

* As usual, Tara Brach heavily influenced this post. For this one, I particularly drew on her retreat talk, "The Heartspace that is Our True Home."

** Here, I again was borrowing from Sharon Salzberg's Faith.

*** More Sharon Salzberg!