Notes to self
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
I’m going to be honest… it’s been a tough week. Not the worst I’ve ever had, and nothing compared to what many people go through, yet tough nonetheless. I’ve vacillated between feeling more or less okay and feeling like I’m falling apart. So go my emotions when I’m allowing myself to feel them, which is probably why I spent much of my life doing everything I could to avoid that. (Who knew that wasn’t an optimal strategy?)
To be clear, no matter what struggles I may be experiencing, I am lucky. And I say that not in a Pollyanna sort of way. I am physically safe. I have the support of friends and family. And most relevant to the current discussion, I have the luxury of taking time to feel and process my emotions and to ask what I can learn from them. Below, I reflect on three of the themes that have bubbled up. I guess I’d describe them as guiding principles—fundamental ideas that I have come to rely on, especially during difficult times. I’m sharing them in hopes that they might help others who, like me, have less than perfect lives. Of course I realize that this doesn’t apply to any of you, so perhaps you could just pass them on when you have a chance? ;)
Here they are…
Just because things aren’t great doesn’t mean that something went wrong. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I had the pleasure of attending a Mindful Self-Compassion workshop led by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer last spring. There were many wonderful takeaways from that training, and one that’s been ringing in my ears over the past several days is this: We don’t do ourselves any favors by saying that something has “gone wrong” whenever an experience or outcome doesn’t align with our expectations. These unanticipated dips in the road are as much a part of life as the peak moments when the sun shines brightly and everything seems to fall into place effortlessly. To label a subset of our experiences as “wrong” is to deny what it means to be alive. Although we may choose to resist (“I didn’t sign up for this!”), a life of ups and downs is precisely what we signed up for as human beings. If we can learn to see these moments of struggle not as our lives veering off track but as another step towards our (ever-evolving) destination, we avoid adding the insult of negative judgment to our existing injury. Now don’t get me wrong… I’m not claiming that it’s easy to welcome unpleasant experiences with openness and curiosity. In fact, we may be tempted to do just the opposite, to tense up and resist or avoid painful sensations (see intro paragraph), which brings me to my next point.
Pain and suffering aren’t the same thing. I think we’d all agree that pain— the unpleasant sensations we experience when we’ve been hurt physically or emotionally—is inevitable. Like the ups and downs I discussed above, pain is a normal, inescapable part of life. Suffering, in contrast, is optional. It arises when we resist the unpleasant experience of pain, fearing and judging it rather than simply feeling it fully and then letting it go. By resisting, we inadvertently cling to the pain, prolonging the negative experience and in some cases reliving it over and over again. Many have written and spoken on this topic with wisdom and eloquence, including Tara Brach and Geneen Roth, who shared the following metaphor in a recent webinar: Pain is like a hot ember landing in the palm of your hand. Suffering is closing your fist around it and squeezing. Brilliant.
However imperfect, you are enough. I would shout this message from the rooftops if I could. In fact, I am pretty confident that these words alone could change the world. And they’re especially relevant for me during times of struggle, when my need to preserve my unrealistic self-image as the person who has their act together, who is on top of everything, and who always does the right thing kicks into overdrive. Unsurprisingly, this only makes matters worse. When I manage to let go of my need for perfection even just a little and begin to relax into the knowledge that I needn’t do or say anything to establish my worth, my suffering is reduced. As beautifully stated by Nathaniel Branden in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: "If my aim is to prove I am 'enough,' the project goes on to infinity—because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable."
<Please insert sigh of amazement here.>
So I invite you to join me as I practice saying yes to whatever comes—the pleasant and the unpleasant, the planned and the unforeseen, the ups and the downs. And through it all, may we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our intrinsic worth has never been—and will never be—open for debate.