Aspiring to Become Hootless

Recently, I have been wanting a particular thing to happen in my life. And I mean REALLY wanting it. My mindfulness practice continuously teaches me that grasping after desires creates suffering, whereas trusting events to unfold in their own way, at their own pace, generates ease. When we can relax into our life, as it is, we feel more peace and contentment. But this practice of letting go of hoped-for results is no easy task, particularly in the outcomes-obsessed present-day United States. I therefore am consistently on the lookout for tips about approaching life with open palms (i.e. not trying to control everything!). Happily, an acupuncturist  just introduced me to a new concept: becoming hootless. Credit to icanhascheezburger.com

Hale Dwoskin describes hootlessness as follows:

Hootlessness is when you do not give a hoot whether you achieve a particular goal or not. Contrary to popular belief, you do not attain your goals when you desire them strongly enough. In fact, if you honestly examine your past experiences, you'll discover that most of the goals you've achieved are the ones that you let go of wanting--even if not by choice...When you allow yourself to release to the point where you are hootless about getting your goal, two things may happen. Either you'll find that you abandon the goal altogether and feel lighter because of it, or you'll be much more likely to achieve the goal than you were when you wanted it...The more hootless you feel, the freer you are to enjoy whatever you have in this moment without the usual fear of loss or disappointment.

What hootlessness amounts to in my book is a deep trust in our ability to handle whatever arises in our lives. In short, fear does not run the show, wholeheartedness does. This does not mean NOT having goals. It means relating to our goals in ways that allow us to be present to our lives, the people in it, and our environment. Hootlessness also allows us to approach life more flexibly instead of with a ton of rigid expectations, rules, and regulations. As Dwoskin points out, our wanting mind is often seeking approval, control, security, or separation. When we are able to name what we want and release our hopes and fears about how we are going to get there, space appears and we experience more freedom.

I appreciate Dwoskin's attention to language when we set goals. In his words,

'I allow myself to...,' 'I can...,' or, 'I open myself to...' are good ways to begin a goal in courageousness. 'I have...' is a good way to begin a goal in acceptance. 'I am...' is a good way to begin a goal in peace. These ways of starting a goal statement enable the mind to use its creativity to generate possibilities of how the goal can happen.

Here are a few of his courage-based goal statements that I find particularly useful for clients and myself:

  • * I allow myself to feel like I have all the time in the world. (This one challenges the scarcity model dominating U.S. culture.)
  • * I allow myself to have a loving relationship that supports me in my freedom and aliveness. (This one frames the setting of boundaries with others as an act of self-care.)
  • * I allow myself to love and accept (or forgive myself), no matter what. (Hooray for self-compassion!)
  • * I allow myself to be at peace, relaxed in the knowing that all is well and everything is unfolding as it's supposed to be. (Enough said.)

When I follow Dwoskin's advice by being honest with myself about past experiences, I see that desperation and attachment to outcomes were not a central feature of realizing the goals that have been deeply meaningful in my life. For example, during my second year of graduate school, I grew increasingly uncertain about pursuing a doctorate degree, largely because my department did not feel like a good fit for me and my renegade goals. I spoke with my advisor about whether or not to again apply for a fellowship I had unsuccessfully sought the previous year. It would pay for the rest of my schooling and allow me to focus more intently on my studies. She asked if I would choose to stay in the program if I received the fellowship, and I was quick to say "Yes." However, I already had a plan B in place and no longer felt I needed the fellowship to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish vocationally. Lo and behold, I approached the application process much more calmly than I had the year before and had the presence of mind to do a little research about the professors who selected the award recipients so that I better knew my audience. I felt like the essay I submitted authentically represented my academic vision and let go of the outcome. Needless to say, I got the fellowship and ultimately completed the program and my dissertation in ways that honored who I was as well as my commitments to social justice and arts-based research.

In contrast, when I decided to leave academia to pursue becoming a therapist, I did not initially have a job. Increasingly desperate to land work that would pay my bills, I accepted an offer for a position that had a good salary but that was in an organization with which I did not share several core values. Afraid of ongoing unemployment and its financial consequences, I pulled myself out of another job search in which I was a finalist to accept the offer. That second organization had felt like home during the interview process. Less than a year after I took the first job, I was fired. The job was a terrible fit for me, and I had taken several vocal stands against one of the projects the organization was pursuing on ethical grounds. Being fired was a humiliating experience, and, years later, I am still healing from the shame of it.

I do not mean to be polyannaish about hootlessness. Sometimes we've got to do what we've got to do to get by, even if several red flags are smacking us in the face while we do so. But we oftentimes give in to our deepest fears when our wanting mind takes over. We then go about our lives in ways that create a lot of unnecessary suffering. That suffering can be a great teacher, to be sure. Being fired from that job was what my supervisor would call "another fucking growth opportunity" that helped me realize a depth of clarity about my path that I might not have attained without the experience. Going forward, however, I can approach my wants with more awareness about the ties that bind me and, to the best of my ability, release them.

Aspiring to become hootless is akin to what Pema Chodron deems experiencing hopelessness: "giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death." Embracing the uncertainty of life and inevitability of death while pursuing our goals is damn hard. But the benefits of doing so certainly outweigh the costs. The late John O'Donohue captures the fruits of becoming hootless with his beautiful poetry:

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love,

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more

 

May I live this day

 

Compassionate of heart,

Clear in work,

Gracious in awareness,

Courageous in thought,

Generous in love.

 

Going Home

Describing Bowenian family systems theory, James Bitter wrote,

Bowen taught individuals or couples about triangulation* and then expected them to go back to their family-of-origin to extricate themselves emotionally from these triangular patterns. The purpose of going home again is not to confront family members, or even to establish peace and harmony, but to encourage clients to come to know others in their family as they are.

Credit to Hey Girl Social Worker

I recently returned to my childhood town for my twentieth high school reunion. Although this event did not directly involve my family-of-origin, it did involve a kind of "going home again." While I looked forward to discovering the shapes of my classmates' lives, I also entered into that space with a fair amount of trepidation. After all, high school had been a challenging time for me despite my efforts to put on a happy face much of the time. As I performed the role of a high-achieving, engaged student from a "stable family," most of my peers had no idea that I begged my parents to let me leave our huge, competitive, suburban high school or that I struggled with the significant anxiety and depression that accompany perfectionism. I worried that I would face limited and limiting perceptions about who I am, thus feeling like a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of the person I consider myself to have become during the past twenty years. I imagine I was not alone in carrying this fear into the event.

How grateful I was, then, to encounter warm hugs, smiles, and heaps of curiosity about where we each had been during the last two decades. I learned of meandering career pathways, children born and children lost, and relationships that came together and fell apart. For the most part, we weren't there to prove something to each other but, rather, to reconnect with a significant part of our life history and those who contributed to it.

I have learned the hard way that trying to reject our experience is a recipe for suffering. We derive peace and contentment from developing a coherent life story that includes its many chapters, not just the ones we like best or that feel comfortable. As May Benatar eloquently stated,

So many of us have accepted, wholesale, someone else's version of our lives. If you have been told forever that your childhood was idyllic, you might be tempted to go along and not validate some of your own memories, or even your weak suspicions that things were not always perfect...It is truly amazing how much fog, depression, confusion and anxiety begins to lift when the story one narrates starts to be one's own. It needn't be a pretty story or even a wholly accurate story -- just one's own.

The people I encountered at my twenty-year high school reunion reminded me that being the author of our own stories directly and positively correlates with our well-being. I like to joke that I genuinely took back my own narrative in a parking lot a few years back when my dad asked, "You always wanted to be a [MD] doctor, right?" I responded, "No, Dad. I always wanted to be a writer, and I AM a doctor [of the PhD kind]." I needed years to know myself as I am so that I could assume roles I freely chose, such as writer, therapist, and recovering perfectionist instead of professor, striver, and stressball. That work allowed me to enter into my high school reunion speaking as the author of my own story and so feeling less scared than I otherwise would of my peers' projections of me. To the best of my ability, I listened to others' narratives about their own becoming, without assumptions or judgments obstructing my hearing. I am thankful for feeling heard in just this way by so many people that night.

My classmates also reinforced my sense that our ability to trust our experience as it unfolds is essential to feeling freedom and joy. Letting go of limiting beliefs (e.g., my childhood was idyllic) and roles (e.g., the good girl and the high achiever) that we learned from people and contexts outside of ourselves clears the path for such trust to take root. In the poetic words of Kaveri Patel:

Someone is Dying

 

That someone is me.

 

Not a 6 month to one year prognosis from a terminal illness, but a letting go of all I have ever known.

 

I used to believe that fear would save me. Worry just enough, and maybe even sprinkle just a little extra anxiety to convince myself I can control future events.

 

I know nothing. Except for this moment. Beginner’s Mind, my mind is like an empty page. The words cannot be written, the colors cannot

 

be painted until the moment arrives.

 

And when it does, I will know who to be, what to say, what to do. I am on the right path. I wish to let go of all my preconceived notions of what will happen. The only thing I wish to hold onto is trust in this practice.

 

Good bye old mind. I do not hate you. I do not wish for you to die sooner than you must. You brought me here. I will collect ashes from your pyre, let them scatter with the wind and float on the river.

 

You will join the earth, as I am born again.

 

* For those unfamiliar with triangulation and curious about what it is, Bitter did a great job summarizing Bowen's theory: "Bowen (1976) notes that anxiety can easily develop within intimate relationships. Under stressful situations, two people may recruit a third person into the relationship to reduce the anxiety and gain stability. This is called triangulation. Although triangulation may lessen the emotional tension between the two people, the underlying conflict is not addressed and, in the long run, the situation worsens."

 

Reflecting on Rosa Clemente at the White Privilege Conference

I recently had the opportunity to hear Rosa Clemente speak at the White Privilege Conference. I admittedly have been reluctant to attend this conference in the past, finding myself more drawn to participate in grassroots gatherings like the YWCA Madison's Racial Justice Summit. Although I resolutely support white privilege being acknowledged, understood, and dismantled, I have worried that such spaces can inadvertently recenter white people and white issues and even create new institutions for white people to profit from white supremacy. Paul Gorski does an eloquent job of explaining what can happen when only white people gather to address white privilege and how such dialogues often overlook important economic considerations asked by critical race theorists:

During these dialogues we more or less took turns pouring the contents of our [white privilege] knapsacks onto the floor before encouraging each other to “own” whatever came out, taking responsibility for racism. Rarely did we get around to talking about what it meant to be an anti-racist or for racial justice. Rarely did we use those dialogues to grow ourselves into more powerful change agents. This, I think, persists as a problem in white caucusing and other forms of race dialogues today: too much conversation about how hard it is to be a white person taking responsibility for white privilege; way too much thinking that the dialogue, itself, is the anti-racism rather than what prepares us for the anti-racism...Critical race theorists centralize the fundamental questions too often left unasked in conversations about white privilege: What, exactly, does power mean in a capitalistic society? Why, in a capitalistic society, do people and institutions exert power and privilege? What are they after?

The skepticism with which I entered the White Privilege Conference quickly dissipated when Clemente took the stage. Such straight-shooting truth-telling I rarely hear. But like she said, "When we don't name it, we internalize it."

Rosa Clemente. Credit to: (1)ne Drop

In telling her story of growing up in the South Bronx, she named her own privilege of moving to a different, more affluent neighborhood while still in the K-12 school system. This transition, she insisted, was her ticket to college. She had no doubt her co

usins should be standing alongside her at the university door. Because they were denied the opportunities she received, however, they remained on the same block wh

ere she grew up, struggling with poverty. As she said, "We are not all Trayvon because our privileges make us all not Trayvon."

Clemente likely did not endear herself to many audience members when she called President Obama the Deporter in Chief or insist that his presidency was necessary to move the U.S. Empire forward. Seeking audience approval, however, was not her aim. In her address, I heard a call for an "internal revolution of the self" that results in consistency of action. In other words, living an integrated life requires us to do what w

e say we are going to do. In the context of racial justice, being for it often means white people need to fall back and listen, with humility, to those for whom racism is a lived reality, not just a social construct.

She also distinguished doing racial justice work with love from not hurting anybody's feelings. Quoting Frederick Douglass, Clemente said,

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle...If there is no struggle there is no progress...Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Clemente juxtaposed these powerful words alongside an appeal for relearning history--of un

derstanding that our history is not one just of oppression but also of groups of people resisting that oppression "every step of the way." To paraphrase her, knowing that part of our legacy can make us less afraid and help us to fall in love with the struggle for freedom.

This year's conference took place in Dane County, Wisconsin, where more than 74% of black children are poor compared to 5.5% of white children. I am grateful that Clemente took the audience and herself to task for transforming those abominable numbers and reminding us that our nation's children are at stake. As she said about her own daughter, "Hell no, this system is not going to destroy her."

Letting Go of Addiction

Recently I gave up coffee. I was a serious coffee drinker, having developed an addiction to it as a graduate student that I actively nurtured for over a decade. The idea of not having a giant cup of joe (well, several cups in reality) upon getting out of bed in the morning seemed both cruel and ludicrous. Why, then, did I quit this amazing source of liquid caffeine? The primary catalyst was a wake-up call from my partner on the heels of a major loss. An unwavering appeal from an acupuncturist to quit all forms of coffee soon thereafter sealed the deal. Sometimes we need those outside ourselves to hold up a mirror before we can clearly see what is reflected back at us.

I had been plugging along, jittery as hell, through graduate school, a three-year stint as an academic, more graduate school, and, finally, my beloved new career as a psychotherapist. Through much of that time, being on a caffeine-enhanced edge had its benefits. I could not sit still very long--or sleep very well--and so worked a ton and pushed my body to its limits. Accordingly, I accomplished a lot and consistently received the external validation that I used to crave even more than the caffeine. Plus coffee went hand in hand with the beer I also started to drink in graduate school. The alcohol facilitated winding down at the end of the day, after so much coffee consumption, and eased my anxiety about the many tasks left undone, particularly when I was a tenure-track professor. It also muted a deeper, more insidious sense of inherent deficiency.

As I've written previously, a lot of healing can and has come from self-acceptance and the understanding that imperfections actually serve to connect our vulnerable human selves. I mean, who wants to hug perfection? You might mess it up! Moving toward lovingkindness and away from self-judgment greatly decreased my desire to numb out with a beer or two.

Unfortunately, changing our beliefs does not necessarily eliminate the anxiety coursing through our bodies. I come from a family chock full of anxious types. A backward look, through more than one generation, bolstered my decision to quit coffee because in the various cases of alcohol and drug abuse, obsessive compulsive behaviors, perfectionism, rigidity, and stubbornness that I found, I could see the legacy I inherited. As epigenetics has revealed, stress and trauma can affect the gene pool for three to four generations. All of this is to say that an historical glance at my family system supported a decision to halt the incessant self-blame for my anxiety--I was predisposed to this shit after all!--and call on the power I actually had to alleviate my own suffering.

The fact of the matter is that coffee contributed to a sped-up, fearful, hardened self that I no longer wanted to inhabit. More pointedly,  I experienced a fair amount of emotional reactivity while using coffee to weather my long days, which was brought home to me in the face of an unexpected death that profoundly shook my personal and professional worlds. I am grateful that my partner risked expressing concern about my coping strategies during this time of intense grief and raw vulnerability. That care challenged a misguided sense of resilience I had been carrying around: "I will push through this pain." Letting go is different than fighting or giving up, and this tragedy flipped my palms up in a gesture of surrender--to the inevitable sorrow accompanying loss, uncertainty of life, and impermanence of being.

Once I allowed myself to hear the love behind the request to stop inhaling coffee, I could see the remnants of a divided life that I still embodied. Despite the energy and time I had poured into undoing the conditions and habits that fed a deep fear of failure, I had not yet attuned to the embodied aspects of my daily reality. The abovementioned difficult loss presented an opportunity to be more open and honest with myself about the parts of my life that were not working all that well.

I have long aspired to be present to this life and the lives of others, and I can do that more readily when I feel calm, grounded in my body, and well-rested. I may not be able to accomplish as much or create a spurt of short-lived energy to get through something without the false refuge of a 20-ounce coffee, but I can tell you this:

My fears feel less overwhelming. Breathing comes easier. I sleep more readily and restfully. My yearning for an alcoholic beverage at the end of the day has dramatically dwindled. The regulation of my emotions--particularly when I confront something upsetting--requires significantly less effort. I am in greater touch with what is happening in my body and therefore can respond more appropriately to sensations like exhaustion, hunger, and pain.

Weaning myself off coffee over several weeks with the help of half-caff and decaffeinated beans seemed to diminish but not completely eliminate the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Nevertheless, we human beings are amazingly adaptable when we allow rather than resist our experience. Not battling the fatigue, headaches, and flu-like signs of withdrawal helped them to move through and out of my system in a couple of weeks.

Perhaps some day I will be able to have an occasional cup of coffee and savor it. For now, I can accept that my particular family legacy and high doses of caffeine are not a great pair and, so, gently and patiently let go of that over which I have control--my addiction to coffee.

Living from the Inside Out (aka Healing Self-Doubt)

Lately I have been paying attention to how much I quote other authors on this blog. I could attribute this behavior to my academic training, during which we learned both to avoid plagiarism and to honor our forebears and contemporaries by citing their work. I do like to give credit where credit is due, but I would be leaving out a large chunk of the story if I ended it there. A fuller picture of my quotation devotion involves self-doubt. My own healing has sprung from acknowledging and investigating, with tenderness and patience, a tendency (a compulsion, really) to live from the outside in. From early childhood to the present, I have taken in countless messages, from multiple individuals and contexts, that the external world decides the value of my being. These external missives have infiltrated a lot of inner space and, after enough time, have started to feel like my own voice. The unsolicited advice and commentary include statements like,

"You can do better. I'm disappointed with your performance."

"Don't look, dress, or talk that way. What will other people think?"

"Your way of thinking doesn't make any sense. There's no room for it here."

"Don't get too big for your britches!" (Old school, I know, but I love the saying.)

"If you would just follow our rules, your life would be easier."

I am going to venture a guess--without quoting a published author, mind you--that I am not alone in having doubted my ability to look inward for validation, insight, and clarity. The problem with living from the outside in is that we leave our sense of well-being to whichever way the wind is blowing, thereby creating opportunities for that wind to knock us right off our feet. We give up our power to nourish ourselves and determine our own sense of accomplishment and happiness.

Searching my outer landscape for answers has become such an automatic, unconscious habit that unlearning it has required disciplined practice and, more importantly, kindness. Although I now have internal and external resources to interrupt the taking in of messages that are not helpful to me, I did not start out that way. So when I think of the four year old who learned that defeating her peers in musical chairs won her a delicious individual-sized cake, I do not want to beat her upside the head for taking away from that experience the following lessons: the quality of her performance before an outside audience determined her worth, and there was simply not enough cake for everyone to have some. I do want to tell her that who she is matters more than what she does and that definitions of success can include more than winning prizes and approval from the people in charge. I also want to relay to her that despite the scarcity model all around her, she is sufficient as she is and can encourage others to believe in their own sufficiency, too.

Things get a little more dicey when I look back on an older self, but compassion remains more helpful to realizing an aspiration of living from the inside out than criticism, disappointment, or blame. In the realm of my quoteaholism, for example, I can choose to listen inwardly and find that below the shame I feel about my ongoing urge to prove I know enough to publish written words lies piles of self-doubt. Intimately studying their contours, I come to understand that I did not emerge from the womb this way. I learned to master self-doubt as I focused my attention on the workings of the external world and tried to belong to it, with little access to outside voices reinforcing a message about the intrinsic value we all share. Taking in this bigger picture, I can recommit to the aspiration to remember others' and my own inherent preciousness. I can then practice going inward for answers, having decided not to reject my own experience, and seek counsel from others who share the intention to honor everyone's dignity, including our own. Slowly by slowly, I can become less reliant on external "experts" as I carve a life's path, trusting my body's insights, the ability to pause, and learned skillfulness as guides. Replacing old beliefs with new ones, I can determine that the words sought from within are worthy of sharing with the outside world. We are interconnected after all, so the authenticity of the words turns out to matter more than the source.

 

Going on a Pilgrimage

Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free "travel packages" sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage--"a transformative journey to a sacred center" full of hardships, darkness, and peril.  

In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost--challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now--in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts.

 

But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark. Darkness is not the whole of the story--every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy--but it is the part of the story most often left untold.

 

Parker Palmer. Credit to Narayan Mahon and the UCObserver.

That Parker Palmer sure does have some wonderful wisdom up his sleeve. I appreciate that he does not treat arriving at a sense of self as an easy matter, achieved by following a simple script. As the above quote makes clear, "hardships, darkness, and peril" are an essential part of awakening to our "sacred center."

I often hear people associate talk therapy with ineffective turns toward hardships: "Those bad things that happened are behind me, and that's where they should stay." I also frequently hear fear mingled in with a disdain for traveling through the shadows: "If I venture into the darkness, I'll be swallowed by it, never to emerge again." I hear wisdom in these statements, too. Our minds can be powerful juggernauts, taking us into winding labyrinths that contain terrifying monsters and excruciating shame. We need to make sure we have ample resources to go on pilgrimages and, when we feel depleted, be gentle with ourselves for deciding to staying in places where safety abides.

In the realm of healing, what strikes me as important about perceptions of safety is that we understand them to be real and (AND !) not necessarily true. In other words, we can honor our experience of feeling safe while also recognizing that illusions likely cling to that sense of safety. Our perceptions are not the whole story. We are more than our feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and the seemingly inviolable stories we create about all these phenomena, which, as it turns out, are fleeting. Not impermanent.

The illusions we carry about safety and other aspects of our lives usually emerge from earlier attempts at self-protection so we can embark on our pilgrimages with a light touch and plenty of kindness. Fists clench to regain safety when we feel danger. Therefore judgment does not need to accompany our search for the light.

Parker and other wise teachers remind me that I have to go inward to find the sacred center. Others can provide guidance and solace, but they cannot awaken me. They cannot rescue me from the darkness if I am to understand--and understand deeply--that the sacred center is always with and within me. Additionally, we cannot will clarity into being. We often have to get lost and take those falls that Parker mentioned before we open our palms to the sky and surrender to the reality that much of this life is beyond our control.

The beauty of surrender, of letting go, is that we can more readily come back to the present moment and actually inhabit it. Additionally, an open palm provides more space than a clenched fist for insights to emerge. For example, we may come to understand through our pilgrimages that our stories of deficiency actually involve the playing of roles, projected by others and learned over time. With that knowledge, we can unlearn old roles and, in the space generated from that unlearning, focus our attention on living in ways that are not so limited or limiting. We may also come to know that vulnerability--moments of fear, loneliness, and sadness--generated our willingness to play those roles. So we can forgive ourselves and, finally relax with ourselves, understanding that the sacred center really is here. Now.

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!

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.'

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjGL6YY6oMs&feature=kp

 

* 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.

Stop shoulding all over yourself!

A favorite moment in a women's support group of which I was a part involved one of the members imploring another, "Stop shoulding all over yourself!" Those "shoulds" sure do like to creep around, crawling through the openings of our conscious and unconscious minds and oftentimes spilling right out of our mouths. And they come in slightly masked forms to do so. Sometimes they sound like, "I have to..." or, "I need to..." or, "I'm supposed to..." One of the most harmful ones I have heard sounds something like, "I should be different than I am."

Lately, I have been imagining those shoulds as cords of belief that became attached to us along the paths of our lives. Perhaps they came from our caregivers or further back in the ancestral chain, such as our great great great grandfather. Or maybe they became attached to us during interactions with our peers or teachers at school, in the middle of a religious sermon, or after watching a movie.

The cords themselves are not a problem, but how we relate to them sure can be. They can trip us, entangle us, choke us. In so doing, they keep us from realizing an internal spaciousness that allows for greater peace, joy, and freedom. If we let them. And there is the rub. I like to ask others and myself, "Is it possible to turn this 'I should' into 'I want to...' or 'I choose to...'?" That inquiry oftentimes helps to clarify what expectations are at play so that I can more freely decide how to live the daily moments of my life and wake up from the limited and limiting belief that a "right" and "wrong" pathway exists.

Importantly, I do not wheel and deal in a lot of the "choice" talk dominating the scene these days. When choice is attached to the idea of "free markets" and based on a model of scarcity--in which there are clear winners and losers--fear and shame often result, as do greater inequities between the haves and have-nots. I like Lynne Twist's depiction of scarcity as "the great lie":

We spend most of the hours and days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don't have enough of...Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we're already inadequate, already behind, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn't get, or didn't get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack...This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.*

How many of us spend our days living inside the story, "This ______ is supposed to be better than it is!?" Major inequities exist and warrant our close attention and action, yes. What I am suggesting is that bringing a sense of curiosity and wonder to our thoughts about what is supposed to be different allows us to perceive the nuances of situations--how many factors are at play and how many of those factors are impermanent and beyond our control. When we can distinguish what is real (our beliefs and feelings about a situation) from what is true (the situation's many moving parts), we can start to let go of the "shoulds" that are dragging us around and jump more fully into this moment and the next one, even when those moments are messy, hard, and without easy remedies. This life, after all, is made up of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. We cannot get rid of the inevitable pain of life, but we can choose to more fully experience the present moment. Whereas those pesky shoulds reinforce a sense of separation, leaping into now helps to maintain our sense of connection with others, the world around us, and ourselves.

At the women's support group mentioned above, the facilitators shared Isabel Bauche's poem "I Choose" as an alternative to "I Should":

I Choose... to live by choice, not by chance; to make changes, not excuses; to be motivated, not manipulated; to be useful, not used; to excel, not compete. I choose self-esteem, not self-pity; I choose to listen to my inner voice, not the random opinions of others.

We also handed out Pamla Ashlay-McPherson's commentary on this poem. I particularly like her interpretation of "I choose to be motivated, not manipulated":

Yes, it is easier to allow someone to lead you around in life. To tell you what to do, to say and be. At times the path of least resistance is the one where someone else forges the way through and all you have to do is follow. How many people have followed their great leaders into death because they allowed themselves to be manipulated into believing the leader's truth. They never took the time, energy or even interest in learning their own truth. People who walk in their own truth are motivated by it. Those who do not are manipulated by the truth of others.

I wonder how much creative energy would be freed up if more of us stopped shoulding all over ourselves and comparing our situations to others'. What if, instead, we recognized, "Everyone is flawed and strange; most people [including ourselves!] are valiant, too"?**

* I borrowed this quote from pp. 25-26 of Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. ** This quote comes from p. 18 of Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree.