Overcoming Tribalism and Moving Toward Understanding

In a year where I feel like I’m huddled in the quiet place at the center of a tornado, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the swirling whirlwind around me and marveling at its cruelty. Whenever I venture a little out of my comfortable quarantine space, bad things seem to happen. A few days ago I commented on an article online, and every day since, I’ve been barraged by people accusing me of intellectual, educational and moral degeneracy. These people don’t know anything about me except for one line of text, and based on that they feel entitled, and even morally obligated, to treat me like an enemy.

What’s more, I understand the urge. Sometimes people express opinions that fill me with righteous anger, and I wonder how anyone could possibly think the way that person does. Unless I consciously push back against the hardwired workings of my brain, it will automatically put that person I disagree with into the category of “other,” a person who is not part of my tribe, and not to be trusted.

Our brains evolved to classify people in this manner in order to keep us safe. When confronted with someone new, our brains will almost instantaneously assess that person’s appearance, demeanor, and attitude, and decide if that person is “us” or “other.” This was a matter of life or death in antiquity. Someone from a neighboring tribe would quite likely be an unsafe rival who competed with us for food and other resources, and they could be dangerous to our physical safety.

Unfortunately, as the centuries progressed, this hardwiring to the ancient structures of our brains didn’t change, and people still unconsciously continue to assess those that are unlike them to be threats. We can easily see this behavior in teenagers who form cliques that are fiercely loyal to each other, and who roam school hallways together looking for “others” to crush.

While people gain identity, safety, and companionship from being part of the group, they may also be stifled by it. Those that don’t conform to the group norms can end up ousted from the group, and find themselves in the cold and frightening role of “other.” As a result, people stop being creative, stop growing and changing, and stop trying to understand those who are different from them in order to avoid losing their safe place as part of the tribe. Sometimes, people will even do things that go against their own moral codes in order to remain in good standing with the group.

While we may not form cliques as often as we get older, we still join and conform to tribes. It may be a political party, a career path, an ethnicity, a religion, or even a family group. Our identities become bound up in these groups and we’re hardwired to see people in other groups as “the other” and somehow threatening to us, even if they actually have no intention of harm.

As people become more and more identified with their tribes, they lose objectivity, and they can be easily manipulated into hating the other group. Unethical people who are looking for power will often use this all-too-human tendency to unite against an “other” to rally people behind them. This process is extremely dangerous. Throughout history we’ve seen what happens when groups of people are demonized, labeled and feared: genocides, civil wars, concentration camps, witch burnings . . . the very worst of human atrocities. They all happen because of this hardwired tribalism.

So what’s the fix? How can we intervene? Well, the first step is to start paying attention. First, pay attention to the messages within your particular groups. Who is it that is being placed in the role of “other,” and who is benefiting from placing people in that role?

Next, pay attention to the feelings in your own body. If you feel comfortable with the messages of one particular group, but the other group’s messages make you feel physically uncomfortable, that’s not a sign that the other group is bad. It’s a sign that you have become so aligned with the beliefs of your own group that the way people from other groups see the world feels alien to your nervous system. Instead of further rejecting the worldview of other people and seeing them as wrong, grow curious. Start investigating other ways of thinking and believing. The more that we understand other people, the more we can embrace their differences.

Read books about topics that you’re uncomfortable with, and by people who you don’t agree with. Talk to people from the other group with an open and compassionate heart and mind, and try to understand why they see the world the way that they do. Nobody arrives at their beliefs in a vacuum. They’ve had life experiences that led them to where they are now. Understanding and knowing those stories breeds compassion, and we are in desperate need of compassion right now.

In my work as a therapist I talk with people from every imaginable group, and I can tell you that suffering, and a need for understanding are universal. Showing understanding for someone in a group different from yours is healing for everyone involved.

So, next time you’re online and see someone posting an opinion that you don’t agree with, instead of pelting them with insults, I encourage you to ask them why they believe what they do, and ask it with a truly open mind. If they answer, it might not change your mind, but it might help you to have understanding and compassion for a different way of seeing the world. It might help you to bring that person out of the “other” category and into the “us” category.

The truth is that we are all human, and while seeking out the differences between us in order to categorize, label and oppress people might be part of our hardwired nature, I believe that we have the capacity to rise above our hardwiring and make choices. People do it every day. They choose not to punch that person that made them angry, or ram that car that cut them off. We have the capacity to choose our behavior because of our amazing frontal lobes, which give us reason and self-awareness. I encourage you to start viewing people as a tribe of humankind in all of its wondrous and beautiful variety. Maybe then we can start treating each other with true humanity.

The Real Reason that Abusers Abuse: It’s Not Why You Think

One of my therapeutic specialties is helping people to work through abuse trauma. I honed my skills working in a domestic violence shelter, and also with Child Welfare Services, but I find that wherever I go, abuse trauma patients follow.

While there is endless variety in the types of abuse traumas that people have experienced, as well as the severity and duration of their abuse experiences, there always seems to be one underlying theme: a sense of shame and personal responsibility.

No matter how often I hear it, I never cease to be shocked by victims of sexual abuse who tell me that they somehow are to blame for their assaults, or the survivors of domestic violence who tell me that if they could have just been better spouses, their relationships could have been saved. These people tell me that their abusers must have seen that they were inherently flawed or unworthy, and that’s why they were chosen to be victims.

At first I would gently tell these people that they were mistaken, and that there was nothing wrong with them, but I quickly learned that the message that they were somehow to blame for what had happened to them was so deeply ingrained that they couldn’t take in any message that contradicted this belief.

That was when I had an epiphany about abuse. It’s not an action. It’s a process. Abuse is a process where the victims are slowly groomed to believe that they are at fault for their mistreatment. It’s an insidious message that starts out small, and grows over time. Abusers slowly push out other supports from the lives of their victims until the only message that can be heard is “You deserve this mistreatment because you are inherently bad and unworthy. If only you could be better, it would stop.”

Having victims who believe this message serves abusers in three ways:

  1. The victim is constantly trying to please the abuser. As a result, the abuser gets catered and deferred to. Depending on the type of abuse, the victim may also be afraid to contradict or stand up to the abuser, giving him/her the benefits of complete power and control over what should be a mutually beneficial relationship.
  2. It takes the blame off of the abuser for the abuse and puts it on the victim, so that the abuser can feel blameless and entitled to continue the abuse.
  3. It keeps victims from leaving because they truly believe that they are unworthy of respectful love, that they deserve the mistreatment, and that they are lucky that the abuser stays with them.

When people tell me now about the deep sense of shame that they feel about the abuse that they’ve suffered, I say, “Yes. That’s the message of abuse. Abuse says that you are somehow to blame for what has happened to you, and that if you were somehow better the abuse would stop. However, think about all that you did to try to be better and how none of it made the abuse stop. The message that you’re to blame is a lie that abuse tells.”

Usually, they nod and say, “Yes. It was just like that.”

Once they understand the message of abuse, I explain how it benefits abusers to get their victims to believe that they are the cause of the abuse. That’s when the healing begins.

There many of myths out there about abuse, and I would like to address some of them here:

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen because the abuser lost control of his/her temper. Abuse is a process. It is pre-meditated and thought through. Abusers behave the way that they do in order to get the benefits of abuse.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen because of alcohol/drug use. Often, both victims and abusers will minimize abuse saying, “Well, he/she was drunk. He/she wouldn’t do that when sober.” Often in these cases the victim pushes the abuser to get clean thinking that will stop the abuse. If the abuser does get clean, the victim is often shocked that the abuse doesn’t stop. What they had failed to understand was that the abuser wasn’t abusing because of the substance. He/she was using the substance as an excuse to abuse and reap the benefits of abuse listed above.
  3. Victims do not enjoy being abused. They don’t stay because they like it or get some kind of thrill out of it. They stay for any mixture of the following reasons: a) They truly believe that they are bad people and nobody else will want them; b) They have become so isolated by the behavior of the abuser that they believe they have nowhere else to go; c) The abuser has convinced them that they cannot survive on their own; d) They are completely financially dependent on the abuser and cannot see a way to support themselves on their own. e) The abuser has threatened to kill them, take their children, or deport them if they leave, and they are afraid that he/she will follow through on these threats.
  4. Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, education level or sexual orientation. It’s something that happens to people just like you.

If you’ve recognized yourself here, know that there is help for you. Even if you don’t have any money or any family or friends that you can go live with, there are shelters that will take you. The wonderful thing about going to a shelter is that they can connect you to a transitional living program. These programs are specifically designed to provide shelter, food, funding, and education for survivors of abuse so that they can rebuild their lives, including finding a career and learning how to support themselves. Don’t continue to wait for things to get better. They won’t. Pack a bag, take your children, and go to a shelter. Your life will immediately improve and you will be able to take your power back.

Read the book, Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. This is the best book about abuse I’ve ever read. Lundy Bancroft was the director of an abuse perpetrator’s program, and he has first-hand knowledge about the way that abusers think. Any time that I’ve been working with an abuse survivor who has read this book, she/he has gathered the courage to leave, and set down at least a portion of the shame she/he had been carrying. Understanding that abusers abuse in order to get the benefits of abuse is an empowering piece of knowledge.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

Go to http://www.RAINN.org. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and they have resources for survivors.

Survivors of childhood abuse, I recommend getting involved in your local Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) organization. They don’t just help the children of alcoholics. They are a 12 step organization for overcoming the effects of all types of childhood abuse.

Know that you are not alone. There is help and support, and if you access it, things will get better.

It’s Not “Just” Depression

Something that I hear a lot, and often from people that should know better, is “well, it’s just depression.” I hear this in many different contexts, for example, a woman who has been having GI issues goes to see her doctor, who tells her that there really isn’t anything wrong with her digestive track, “it’s just depression.”

According to http://www.dictionary.com, the word “just” has several meanings, but in the above context it means, “only or merely.” That doctor could have easily substituted the word “merely” for “just,” as in “there isn’t anything wrong with your digestive track, it’s merely depression.” Then, said doctor refers the woman to see a therapist, and thinks that the problem is resolved.

Only, it’s probably not resolved. In these cases, people often continue to have health problems. If they do seek help from a therapist, they get suggestions about handling stressors, but therapists can’t treat physical symptoms directly. It’s possible that with time and work the symptoms will resolve, but it’s also quite likely that the patient will continue to struggle with health problems.

Unfortunately, after having their symptoms dismissed as “just” depression, people are unlikely to seek medical attention again because it’s too embarrassing to be dismissed like that. If they do seek medical treatment, they’ll likely see a different doctor, and the first one never learns that the referral to a therapist was unhelpful in resolving the symptoms.

It’s true that emotional symptoms can manifest as physical health symptoms, but the unfortunate fact is that doctors jump to this conclusion much too rapidly, without testing, and make a diagnosis based on opinion instead of on evidence.

If the physical symptoms are truly caused by mental health issues, there are often things that doctors can do to alleviate symptoms while the patient works on underlying mental health issues. However, due to their own inherent bias that it’s “just” mental health problems, they choose not to treat. In my own case, it truly was a physical problem, but since the doctors couldn’t easily fit my symptoms into a tidy box, they told me that the symptoms weren’t medical, and were “just” anxiety, and told me to see a therapist. It took me months and multiple doctor’s appointments with different doctors to get the anti-emetics that I needed so that I could keep food down. That’s months of illness that could have been avoided if doctors had simply taken me seriously enough to even treat my symptoms.

While all of this is bad enough, the medical system’s dismissal of mental health symptoms as not being worth treating bleeds out into the public attitude that mental health symptoms are made up and imaginary, leading to advice from well-meaning loved ones such as, “Well, you just need to get over it,” or “just focus on the positive more. You’ll be fine.”

That’s not how it works. People with mental health symptoms aren’t stupid. They’ve tried taking walks, thinking positive, remembering that the weather is nice, and all of the other too-easy fixes that people suggest to them.

Depression is complex. It takes work and time to overcome, and acting like it’s not serious or is easily conquered makes people with mental health problems feel even more alone than the depression tells them that they are already.

The truth is that depression is a serious disease with a death count. People die of depression in alarming numbers. According to the World Health Organization, more that 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and “close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 29-year-olds.”

This idea that it’s “just depression” is a serious barrier to sick people getting the care that they need. An alarming number of patients with depression refuse medication saying that they “don’t want to be dependent on a drug to feel happy.” They wouldn’t refuse other life-saving medications for physical health problems, but they refuse medication for depression because of the idea that depression is something that they “should be able to overcome on their own,” and isn’t really serious.

It is extremely serious.

When people suicide, the big question that as themselves is, “but why would they do that?” People point to the fact that they had everything to live for, and seemed happy.

The answer to this question is that people suicide because they are depressed. It really is that simple. Depressed people can fake happiness quite well in order to get by in the world, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t depressed.

Conventional wisdom says that depression means that the person is “just sad.” People think, “well, I’ve had the blues before too, and it went away.” Depression doesn’t work that way. Often people that are depressed don’t feel sad at all. Depression often presents with anxiety or irritability, but there is one underlying truth with depression–it tells you that you’re terrible and people don’t care about you. In severe cases, depression says that the people in your life would be better off without you, and might even be relieved that you’re gone.

It doesn’t matter how much external proof there is that these thoughts aren’t true. When someone is depressed, these thoughts feel like truth, and anything that contradicts them feels like lies. This is why people die of suicide. It’s not that they’re selfish or weak. It’s that they truly believe that the people in their lives will be better off when they’re gone because depression says they are terrible people, and it feels like truth.

Another ironic truth about depression is that one of the main symptoms is a lack of motivation. A person suffering from depression might not feel sad, but will likely have a difficult time getting motivated to do things. If they are able to accomplish things, depressed people get very little enjoyment out of what they do.

This makes treating depression complicated. It may be that the sick person has seen a therapist and gained knowledge of skills and behaviors that would help, but can’t seem to get enough motivation to perform those behaviors. They are not being lazy. Lack of motivation is one of the most common symptoms of depression.

When motivation is an issue, the best approach is often to start the patient taking antidepressants in order to get the small amount of motivation needed to start applying the skills they are learning in therapy. Antidepressants are important in the treatment of depression in order to increase motivation to do the work to get well, which is why it’s so important to remove the stigma associated with taking them. Antidepressants truly do save lives, and a combination of medication and therapy is often the most effective approach.

If there is a depressed person in your life, the best thing that you can do is reserve judgment and refrain from advice giving. Simply sit with the person if that is all that they are able to muster the motivation for. If the depressed person speaks, just listen. Don’t tell them that they aren’t thinking correctly, and please don’t tell them to get over it or just get outside or be more social. A little-known truth about depression is that hearing unhelpful advice makes the depressed person more depressed. It confirms their depressed thoughts that they are alone, nobody understands them, and people would be better off without them.

So what can you say? Express your willingness to be with them even thought they aren’t happy right now. Tell them that they are loved and important. Encourage them to seek professional help, but stop there with advice giving.

Here is a list of great things to say to depressed people:

  • What you’re going through right now is really hard.
  • I’m here for you.
  • I love you.
  • What can I do to help?
  • What do you need right now?

If they don’t know what they need, that’s OK. The fact that you asked is what’s important. It shows them that you care about them and that you’re willing to listen. Being present with a depressed person is probably the best help that you can give.

Remember, it’s impossible to talk someone out of being depressed, and trying to do so makes the depressed person feel alone and misunderstood, so don’t try.

If you are a depressed person, I urge you to seek professional help. I know that it feels like you shouldn’t have to, but that’s the depression speaking. When your therapist gives you skills to learn and homework to work on, give it your best shot. It may feel silly or like a lot of work, but there is a good reason for it. Your therapist is helping you to create new pathways in your brain that are healthy and move you away from the pathways of depression that are so well worn and easy to walk down. Remember that small movements forward are progress, and give yourself credit for every baby step.

If you are feeling suicidal, know that what depression is telling you about yourself and the people around you is a lie. The people in your life do love you and care about you and will be devastated if you are gone. You are worthy of love and belonging simply because you’re human. You don’t have to do anything to deserve it. Immediately take yourself to your nearest emergency room, or call a suicide helpline. If you can’t muster the motivation, call 911 and professionals will come to you.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-8255, and it is available 24 hours a day. Call.

Let’s all start treating depression as the serious and life-threatening illness that it is. It’s not “just” feeling sad. It’s not fake, selfish or weak, and changing the public attitude towards mental health problems will save lives.

Here are some resources for more information:

Doing Harm Website

Compassionomics TED Talk

TED Talks on Depression

World Health Organization’s Depression Page

Redefining Power

I began writing my book, I’m Sick, Not Crazy: How I Took Control of My Health When Western Medicine Told Me it Was All In My Head, as a way to take my power back after an incredibly disempowering experience.  It seemed to me that if I could understand the story of my own debilitating physical illness, then I could reclaim the control over my body and mind that the medical system had taken from me.  Even better, I could help others to reclaim power and control over their own bodies.

When I became ill, I did what most people do.  I went to my doctor and explained my symptoms, expecting to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  Instead, what I received was a long series of dismissals from medical professionals.  They minimized my symptoms, insinuated that I was exaggerating, and told me that I was “probably just anxious.”  

By the end of a year and a half of severe illness, my energy to ask Western Medicine for help was utterly depleted.  I realized that I was just one small person, and that the medical system was vast and powerful, and my voice was simply too tiny to be heard.

Instead of giving up, however, I gathered my energy back to myself and began to find other ways to heal.  By taking my power back and seeking my own wellness, my own way, I saved my own life.

Unfortunately, many people going through similar situations don’t realize that they even have the option of reclaiming their own power, which is what I want to talk about today.

For centuries, power has been defined as having power over others; the might makes right philosophy.  Kingdoms were created where one person had ultimate power over others.  People with physical strength, or with superior weaponry or technology have subdued others in order to take resources from them.

Hierarchy can be found today in all areas of life.  In the corporations that we work for, where labor is underpaid in order to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, and in governments that take from the people they govern, and give little back.  And, of course, in the medical system, which over-charges for care that is questionably helpful, and often leaves people bankrupt.

These hierarchies don’t work.  They concentrate wealth, resources, and authority in the hands of the few.  They define power as having power over others.

Yet, I believe that power is something very different.  I believe that power is found in all of the ways that people take control of themselves and their own futures.  And I believe that power is found in communities of equals who work together towards a common goal that is helpful and enriching to everyone.

When I realized that asking Western Medicine to save me wasn’t working, I had to re-evaluate.  I had to practice radical acceptance of the fact that my body was likely never going to be the same, and that mainstream sources of medical assistance weren’t going to help me.  I had to start researching other ways to get what I needed in order to get well, and I had to trust my own intuitive knowing that there are many ways to heal–not just the one that capitalism says is right.  I had to take my power back to myself and take charge of my own life and health.

There could be many ways that you are giving your power away.  You could be staying in a relationship that doesn’t serve you and will never give you the future that you want.  Possibly you’re working in a job that makes you feel unimportant and pays you less than you’re worth.  Perhaps you’re relying on a person, or a bureaucracy, to take care of you, your health, or your safety, and you’re finding that it isn’t actually working out the way you’d hoped.

Consider, are there ways that I could take my power back?  Are there ways that I’ve been giving my power away that aren’t serving me?  Is it possible to move away from hierarchy and toward equality and community?

After asking myself these questions about my interactions with Western Medicine, I decided that there were ways that I could take control, take my power back, and make myself whole again.

The first thing that I did was join a yoga studio, and I will forever maintain that this move saved my life.  By joining a community of wellness seekers that accepted my body in all of its brokenness and make me feel acceptable, and then showed me how I could still move my body in ways that felt good, I began the process of taking my power back and moving toward healing.

As I slowly began to regain my physical strength, the strength of my mind and heart began to grow as well.  I became a seeker of wellness in my own right, and the doors slowly opened.  After yoga, massage became part of my healthcare routine, and the stuck and stagnant parts of my body began to move and soften.  Then acupuncture and craniosacral therapy became pieces of my healthcare puzzle.

I know that my body will never be like it was before my illness, and that I will always need to work to maintain my health.  However, I am thrilled to be able to tell you that by taking back my power over my own body and healing, I succeeded in creating a body that works.  

Not only am I well enough to function, but I thrive.  People laugh at how much energy I have to be productive, and they joke that I accomplish as much as two or three people usually do.  They’re right, and it’s because I embody my own power now.  I don’t wait for permission.  I decide what is right for me, and I go after it.  I trust myself.

If you’ve given away your power, taking it back is a process, but awareness is the first step.  Once you’re aware, you can start to make moves away from the old definition of power-over, and towards the new definition of power-within-yourself, and power-in-community.  

Rather than calling you out, I’m calling you in to a new way of being with yourself and those around you, and I support you in every step of the journey.

Labels, and How They’re Used to Justify Abuse

The first time someone called me a slut, I was 10 or 11 years old, and a virgin.  I had a school-girl crush on the boy who said it.  His friend, having noticed my affinity for Crush, was telling him that he should ask me to hang out, and I overheard the conversation.

“Nah,” said Crush. “She’s a slut.”

My face flushed hot with shame and disbelief.  What on earth would make him think I was a slut?  Crush destroyed!  After that, I went out of my way to avoid him.

That was just the beginning of a long string of misogynistic epithets and behavior that make my brain spin, which is why I related hard to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC’s) recent speech on the House Floor in response to Ted Yoho calling her “disgusting,” “out of [her] freaking mind,” and a “fucking bitch.”

For me, the most important part of the speech was when she “said it was important to point out that the issue wasn’t just about one lawmaker’s statements, but also a culture ‘of accepting violence and violent language against women.'” (Chris Walker in Truthout).

The culture of accepting violence and violent language against women is what I want to talk about today.

It bothers me that I feel I need to say this, but it’s probably important before I launch into  some of my own experiences with the type of everyday misogyny that AOC is talking about.  I’m an educated woman–a BA and two MAs.  I tend to be shy in company that I don’t know, I’m a complete failure at flirting, and I’m not a casual dater.  Personality-wise, I tend toward people pleasing, although I’m working on that, and I have depths of empathy and compassion that are yet untested.  I am not promiscuous, stupid, mean, or difficult in any way.

Here are some of the name-calling highlights that led me to the realization that women have not come as far as many people would like to think they have in gaining cultural equality:

  1. Calling women stupid.  Usually this happens when women fail to stroke a man’s ego, laugh at his horrible jokes, or agree with his questionable opinions.  Instead of asking the woman why she isn’t laughing, or requesting her opinion, he assumes that she just doesn’t understand.  A great example of this in my life was when I worked retail at Macy’s.  (FYI, people working retail take an insane amount of abuse.  Be kind to them).  I was minding my own business, ringing up an elderly man’s purchase, when he started telling me terrible, sexist jokes.  They were so insulting that I couldn’t even pretend to laugh at them, and did my best to just finish my task so he would go away.  When I failed to laugh at yet another horrible joke, he said to me, “You’re pretty dim, aren’t you?”  When I gasped, his wife stepped in to cover for him, “Oh, don’t take him seriously,” she said.  “That’s just how he is.”  I felt both sorry for her that she had to live with that man, and angry with her for minimizing his insulting, sexist behavior.
  2. Calling women sluts, whores and bitches.  It’s come to my attention that these insults about a woman’s sexuality have nothing to do with whether or not she’s sexual.  They’re more about cutting a woman down after she’s hurt a man’s ego in some way.  I’ve been called a bitch after telling a man I’m not interested in going out with him so many times that I’ve stopped saying no.  Usually I’ll just give him a wrong number and walk away.  Recently, I broke up with a man who thought that he could tell me what I could and couldn’t post on Facebook, and in response, he launched into a tirade of insults all variations on the theme of bitch.  Not a good look.
  3. Calling women Psycho or Crazy.  After I left an abusive ex-boyfriend who stalked me and broke into my apartment, I found out through the grapevine that he was calling me “Psycho-Bitch.”   I found this ironic given that he was the one who’d behaved like a maniac.

After being called a “psycho-bitch” by this stalker ex-boyfriend I had a revelation about labels, and it is this: Labeling a person is a way for the labeler to justify mistreating the one being labeled.

It’s true.  Stalking Jennifer, the person, and breaking into Jennifer’s house is so much more difficult to justify than stalking Psycho-Bitch.

It might be a “dick move” to ghost a woman after having sex with her, but if she’s a “slut” or a “whore,” well, then, it’s probably happened to her before.  She’ll get over it.

Slapping a woman might be unmanly.  However, slapping “That Bitch?”  Well, she deserved it, right?

As I became aware of this labeling phenomenon as a woman, I began to see all of the different ways that labels are used to dehumanize and enable barbaric behavior toward fellow humans.  Think about the labels that have been placed on people of different ethnicities.  Calling people of Native American descent savages has historically enabled brutalities like stealing Native children from their parents, cutting off their hair, sending them to boarding schools, and physically punishing them for speaking their native language, in order to “kill the Indian, but save the child.”

Think about the labels used against people from Mexico in order to justify stealing their children and putting them in cages, where they languish to this day.

Think about the labels used against Black people in order to justify killing Black teenagers for innocent things like walking down the street in a hoodie.

Bullies use labels like geek and nerd to enable them to feel Ok about their mistreatment of people that are kinder, smarter, or smaller.  I’ll never forget an incident on the school bus in middle school when a group of older boys cornered me, called me “school-girl” and pretended to spit on me.

In today’s news, I read an article about Federal troops occupying Portland and disappearing people from the streets in unmarked vans.  I was horrified that Americans could justify treating other Americans this way until I scanned down to the comments section (always a mistake) and saw what those troops must be thinking.  A man commented that the protesters were “animals” and “thugs” and that they deserved to be taken and detained indefinitely.  Animals.  Thugs.  By dehumanizing the protesters through these labels, the troops rid themselves of any guilt they might feel about what they are doing to the lives of the people that they are taking.  

Words matter.  Words are power.  If you don’t believe me, think about how authoritarian regimes invariably conduct book-burnings.  They fear the spread of ideas that might threaten their power.  The words that we use shape the way that we view reality.  When we label other humans in ways that steal their humanity from them, we are shaping the way that society treats them.  We need to respect this fact, and respect it when people express a preference about the words that we use to describe them.

If someone is labeling you in any way, remember that they’re doing it as a way to justify treating you as a non-human, and act accordingly.

I am now advocating for using these words more often: Human.  Person.  Humankind.  People.

I’ll leave you with this.  When I was a little girl, I used to sit next to my father while he played his guitar.  Sometimes I would put my hand on the instrument in order to feel the vibration of the music.  I loved these times, and I think my father did too.  One of the songs that he used to sing while I sat with him was Puff the Magic Dragon.  As he sang it, I would imagine myself as Jackie Paper playing with Puff, and sailing the seas while Puff intimidated mighty pirates with his roar.

One day it hit me that Jackie was a boy, and that I was a girl.  I immediately felt left out of the song and the adventure.  When I said so, my dad started singing “little boys and girls” so that I would feel included.  I had never heard of non-inclusive language.  I was 7 years old, and didn’t know about feminism, but I already felt excluded because of the preference for male pronouns.  Words matter.  Words have power.

As don Miguel Ruiz would say in his book The Four Agreements, let us be impeccable with our word.  If the urge to dehumanize someone with a label hits, please pause and question the urge.  Let us choose words that embrace the humanity of all people.  I know that it will make the world a kinder and more compassionate place for all of us.

 

Why Narcissists Are Attracted to Highly Sensitive People

Health has always been a struggle for me.  As a child, I have multiple memories of sleeping on the bathroom floor so that I could be near the toilet because I was too sick to be far away.  As a teen, I struggled with debilitating migraines.  Often, when I was at school, trying to study, I suddenly noticed a shimmering circle in my peripheral vision.  If I waited too long, the circle completely engulfed my sight and I was trapped at school in the throes of a migraine so severe that I couldn’t tolerate any light or sound.

As soon as I noticed the shimmering, known as an aura, I ran to the office and called my mother to pick me up so that she could pack me into bed, put a blanket over my bedroom window as make-shift blackout curtains, give me an ice pack for my pounding head, and shut the door so the room would be as quiet as possible, because any noise at all was like a nail being driven into my skull.

I had my last migraine at age 17, and thought that my struggles with my health might actually be over.  What I didn’t realize was that I was just at the beginning of struggling with the health of my romantic relationships.  I’ve discussed my early marriage in previous posts.  Suffice to say it was bad.  Since then there have been a string of bad relationships that looked great in the beginning.  The trauma of these events led me both into therapy, and to become a therapist in my own right.

However, I hadn’t realized what the true problem was until my current therapist, a wonderful woman who specializes in Highly Sensitive People, said, “You know.  I think every man you’ve ever dated was a narcissist.”  

Running through the criteria for narcissism in my head, I realized she was right.

As a Highly Sensitive Person, I possess a depth of empathy that is difficult to find.  When I meet new people who interest me, I invest in getting to know more about them, and I have an unfortunate tendency to notice the light in people and disregard their shadows.  For these reasons, I’m like catnip too narcissists.  They love being put on a pedestal.  They love a person wanting to know more about them and being interested in what they have to offer.

There is a lot of talk in the media about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but most people don’t understand what it truly means.  It sounds like someone who has high self esteem and is generally impressed with themselves.  These qualities don’t sound so awful.  We tend to like people who like themselves.  However, the truth about NPD is so much more insidious.  Here are the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following: 

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) 

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love 

(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions) 

(4) requires excessive admiration 

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations 

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends 

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others 

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her 

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

**Author’s note: While there are women with NPD, 50 to 75% of people with NPD are men, so I’m going to use the pronoun he/him to refer to the NPD person.  Please know that I acknowledge that not all NPD people are male.  I am also going to refer to the person he is dating as her.  This works for my purposes, but know that I recognize that romantic relationships can be between people of the same sex, or people that identify as transgender or gender fluid.**

At first meeting, an NPD person will be excessively charming.  This isn’t to make the other person feel comfortable.  It’s a way to gain admiration.  Unfortunately, this charm takes people in, especially in dating situations. When the NPD person takes a date to a fancy restaurant, buys expensive gifts for her, and takes her on romantic vacations, it isn’t to show his date how much he loves and respects her.  It’s to make her believe he is as amazing as he believes he is.  The more that she believes he is wonderful, the better he feels about himself.

It’s a trap.

Once the NPD person has hooked his target into admiring, and possibly into loving him, things start to shift and the other criteria for NPD show up.

Here’s a real-life example that happened to me.  I had been dating Adam (not his real name) for about 3 years when he suddenly decided that we should move in together.  Instead of discussing this with me, he told all of his friends about his decision, and they brought it up in conversation with me, which is how I found out.  This should have been my first clue.  Then, without discussing it with me, he decided that I should move into his apartment building.  I told him that I would prefer that we look at other places, and choose a place that was new to both of us so that it would be our place instead of a place that belonged to him.

Instead of respecting this request, he informed me that he’d talked with the management of his complex and made an appointment for us to look at an available apartment (criteria 5 and 7).  When I said that I had no intention of looking at the apartment in his complex because I had already made my needs clear to him, he became very angry with me and chose to punish me by taking me on a hike that we had planned for the day and refusing to speak to me the whole time (criterion 9).  It was excruciating, and I eventually told him I wasn’t having a good time and was going back by myself.

Adam eventually caved and said that he would look at other places, but was still rigid about what he wanted in an apartment, and didn’t much care about what I wanted.  We ended up compromising on a place where we lived together for 2 years.  During that two years, we went on amazing trips, ate at fancy restaurants and he gave me beautiful and expensive gifts. He was a very fancy dresser and tended to talk too much about money and his expensive education (criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4).  However, living with him was excessively lonely.  He spent all of his time watching television that I hated, and I mostly hid in the bedroom with earphones in trying to get some peace (criterion 7).

When I finally realized that he was just keeping me around as a roommate and was never going to marry me (criterion 6), I moved out.  The day I left, he didn’t even say goodbye to me.  When I emailed him saying that it bothered me that he didn’t say goodbye, he told me that he had considered us broken up for the whole two years, so he didn’t feel he needed to say goodbye to me (criteria 6, 7 and 9).  I was devastated.  He had lied to me and wasted time that I could have spent trying to find someone who truly loved me and wasn’t an exploitative narcissist.

On their own, any one of these actions doesn’t look too terrible.  Perhaps he simply forgot to tell me that he thought we should move in together.  Maybe he really liked his building and wanted to stay.  Maybe he likes watching television a lot and is careless about making sure the other person enjoys the show that’s on.  However, taken together, they show a pattern of disregard for the rights and needs of others that is pervasive to his personality.  I should also say that Adam was probably the nicest of the narcissists I’ve dated and this is a fairly light example.

Many people wonder how kind and giving people end up with narcissists.  It seems to be a pattern.  When one person in the partnership is cruel and exploitative, the other person seems to be incredibly empathic and caring.  This is exactly because narcissists have an unending need to be loved, understood and cared for.  

In the article “Do Highly Sensitive People Attract Narcissists” Andre Solo writes, “[Narcissists] have very lofty dreams, nothing they do or achieve is ever good enough, so they’re frequently upset, disappointed, or even wildly angry. Isn’t there anyone who can treat them the way they deserve? Yes, unfortunately; and all too often it’s an HSP, the person who keenly feels the pain of others and takes a true sense of satisfaction from helping. HSPs are often the first to try to console and comfort someone in need, and that puts them at risk of getting pulled into a narcissist’s trap.”

What happens is that whenever the HSP gets exhausted by the NPD’s selfish and exploitative behavior, the narcissist reels the HSP back in by “love bombing.”  What is a love bomb?  It’s a super romantic date or trip, or an expensive gift out of nowhere.  The HSP thinks, “Oh.  I was overreacting.  He really does love me,” and then the narcissist goes right back to sucking the empathy and kindness out of the HSP.

If you’re recognizing yourself or your relationship here, please don’t blame yourself.  It’s not your fault.  It’s an insidious trap that unfolds over time and plays on your capacity for kindness and empathy.

However, I urge you to get out now.  It will not get better.  It will only get worse.  Leaving a narcissist can be incredibly painful.  He will blame you and make you question your decision.  He will punish you.  The intermittent reinforcement the narcissist gives, alternating between intense attention and then intense lack of attention is addictive, and leaving a narcissist can feel like detoxing from a drug.  

However, once you’re through the detox, it can feel like being freed from a long and arduous prison sentence.  The day I received my divorce paperwork after I left my NPD ex-husband, and I saw my name in print changed back to the one I’d been born with was one of the happiest days of my life.  I walked away from the courthouse holding my divorce papers with a smile on my face so radiant that several people stopped me as I walked back to my car and asked me why I was so happy.  All I could do was hold up the 1/4 inch-thick divorce decree and say, “I’m free!”

 

 

Why Logic-ing All Over Your Feelings Doesn’t Work

I walk on fire.  It’s true.  I’ve done it on three different occasions.  The first time was at a spiritual retreat in Sedona, AZ, one of the most beautiful and mystical places in the United States.  I was in the middle of trying to free myself from a relationship that was going nowhere, and I was hoping that the retreat would help me to work up the courage to leave.  It had already been an incredible weekend, full of inspiration and revelation, when the leader of the retreat announced that there would be a fire walk that night.

Initially, my reaction was that fire walking was dangerous, and there was no way I’d be participating.  However, as the women of the retreat gathered in the auditorium, and the leader of the group, HeatherAsh Amara, of Warrior Goddess Training fame, began to speak about fire-walking, I questioned my initial negativity.

She explained that as we go through life we make “agreements” with ourselves and the world.  For instance, most of us agree that it isn’t OK to walk into other people’s houses without being invited, and it isn’t OK to take things that don’t belong to us.  These agreements shape how we interact with people in our lives, and also how we interact with ourselves.  One of the first agreements we make as humans, HeatherAsh explained, is that fire is hot–don’t touch.  By breaking that early agreement, it calls all later agreements into question–the agreements about who we are, about our relationships with others, and our relationships with ourselves.  

“Oh,” I thought.  “I need to do that.”

After signing a release form agreeing that I understood I was about to walk on fire, I followed the rest of the women out into the Sedona night, dancing, chanting and clapping along with the beat of a drum.  Eventually we arrived at the fire walk site, and a heap of glowing red coals–all that was left of a great bonfire that burned all that day.  The fire keepers raked the coals out into a pathway where they twinkled like little red stars.

Filled with a mixture of desire and trepidation, I watched as several other women went through the fire.  They seemed to come through unscathed, and several of the women were actually dancing through the coals!

If they could do it, I could too.  So, I screwed up my courage, approached the end of the glowing pathway, lifted my chin in defiance of my old agreement, and stepped out into the fire.  For a second it was OK, and then it hit me.  My feet were burning.  I couldn’t go back.  I had to go through.  So, I hopped and swore the rest of the way through the burning pathway and slunk back into the circle of women around the fire, feeling like a spiritual failure.

My feet stung, and so did my pride.  How were people going through the fire multiple times?  How did they look so happy?  Apparently I wouldn’t be able to break that first agreement that night, but I didn’t know why.

Several years later, I went to another of HeatherAsh’s Warrior Goddess retreats.  This time in Teotihuacan, Mexico.  It was an incredible week of ritual and fellowship, and I was about as happy as I get when HeatherAsh announced that there would be a fire walk that night.  My chest and stomach tightened around the memory of the blistered feet and the humiliation of the time before.  There was no way I was going through that again.

We all gathered in a circle to discuss fire walking.  As I listened to the veteran fire walkers discuss their experiences, I realized a commonality in their stories.  They all spoke about how they felt the moment that the fire invited them in.  Several of them said it was like a door opened for them.  One woman said it was like she got a green light from the fire, and she knew she could go.  I realized I had gone about it all wrong.  I had been approaching the fire with a logical mind instead of an open heart, and that was why I’d been burned.

Western society encourages this logic approach as the best one–the one that makes sense.  People that approach life with emotional openness and intuition are often laughed at for their “naivety.”  However, I believe this extreme preference for logic takes us out of balance with our own emotions and with all of the things that exist in the world that cannot be measured, but are still worth having, like love, kindness, compassion, respect, and connection.

In my work with patients, I often see them tortured by their need to logic all over their depression or their anxiety.  They search for the meaning behind their inability to get out of bed, or their fear of leaving their homes.  They tell me that they can out-think their sadness, simply by looking on the bright side of life, but then they despair that all of their efforts toward positive thinking feel false and make the depression worse.

The truth is that the parts of our brains that feel, and the parts of our brains that create logic are completely different.  When our brains create sadness, there is no logic to it because no logic exists in that part of the brain.  The sadness comes up of its own accord. The same goes for anxiety, gratitude, love, anger–the entire range of human emotion.

When my patients try to logic all over their feelings, I try to gently redirect them back to the feelings themselves.  The truth is that logically explaining the feelings doesn’t actually help very often.  Sometimes, the explanations only deepen the sadness or the fear or the anger.  Emotions are like little children that are asking for attention.  The more that we ignore them, or talk to them in ways that they don’t understand through logic, the more they clamor for our attention.  It is only by embracing them and telling them that it is going to be OK–that they are safe–that they are comforted and quiet down.

In the same way, rather than pushing feelings aside, I encourage you to sit down, acknowledge them by name and tell them that they are safe.  Saying, “Hello fear, I see you.  You’re safe and I’m going to be with you for as long as you need me,” is truly the only way to get emotions back on track.  Pushing feelings away or stuffing them down doesn’t make them leave, it only makes them find another way out into the open, often through physical illness or unjustified cruelty towards those we love.

That night in Teotihuacan, when I approached the twinkling pathway of fire, I opened my heart to it.  I said to the fire, “I’m here with you, and I’ll wait until you tell me you’re ready.”  Instead of going in because my logical mind told me that other people were doing it, so it must be safe, I waited to be invited.  Those of you still in logical mind are probably thinking that fire can’t invite, but you’re wrong.

My friend, Jamie, approached me as I stood beside the fire, waiting for my invitation, and asked me if I wanted her to go through with me.  I was just starting to feel the call of the fire, but it was faint and I still wasn’t sure, so I told her to wait a moment.  Then, maybe five minutes later, I felt it–an overwhelming need to go into the fire.  I ran over to Jamie and said, “Now!”  She didn’t even flinch.  She grabbed my hand and we walked into the fire together.  I screamed all the way across the coals, but instead of the blistering horror of the fire in Sedona, the fire in Teotihuacan felt cool and welcoming.  

It was incredible.  I was completely unscathed, and I was so elated that I went back through the fiery pathway five or six more times.  Afterward, my feet were dirty, but I didn’t have even one blister.

I encourage you to approach yourself as I did the fire–with openness and kindness.  Give your emotions the attention that they deserve and I promise you that they will invite you in, and you will walk through the fire unscathed.

 

 

Let Us Put Light Around it: A Way to Cope with Pain

It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves.  It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought.  And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.

This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small.  This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation.  The reminder left me shaken,  and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away.  Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny.  The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth.  Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune.  Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”

Let us put light around it.

Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life.  As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light.  Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.

While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world.  However, it does change how I feel about them.  So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.

First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world.  Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends.  Let us put light around the sick.  Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease.  Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families.  Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.

As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.

Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system.  Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered.  Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change.  Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system.  They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.

Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.  Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed.  Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention.  Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings.  Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison.  Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.

Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment.  Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed.  Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick.  Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking.  Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems.  And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.

Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends.  Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot.  Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better.  Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.

Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community.  Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity.  Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes.  Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay.  Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.

And finally, let us put light around ourselves.  Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love.  Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.

 

Are the “Bugs” in Your Life Trying to Help you Let Go of What You’re Holding On To?

I had my heart cruelly broken at the end of 2018, and spent all of January 2019 sick in bed, and I’m positive that the two are related.  While I eventually became physically well enough to work, go grocery shopping, and clean my house, I performed these tasks with only my body.  My mind was off trying to alternately figure out how I could have chosen so poorly, and also what was wrong with me.  Maybe you can relate.

As I cycled through the stages of grief again and again, I looked for ways to heal myself.  One of my go to strategies is to make myself super busy, so I started taking piano and Spanish lessons.  That was helpful, and I’m a more accomplished person now as a result, but I was still a complete emotional wreck.  I needed something more.

One morning I was scrolling through my email and got a message from the universe in the form of an email from HeatherAsh Amara, a spiritual teacher that I follow, inviting me to join a trip to Teotihuacan, Mexico, a place I’d wanted to go since my high school Spanish teacher showed us photos of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon located in the Teotihuacan complex.  I opened the email.

Here’s HeatherAsh Amara’s website for more information on what she has to offer: HeatherAsh Amara’s website.

If you’ve never heard of Teotihuacan before, please look it up, because the photos will blow your mind.  It’s a pre-Colombian pyramid complex northeast of Mexico City with three beautifully preserved pyramids along what’s known as the Avenue of the Dead.  As I read the description of the trip, my heart spoke up and said, “I want to go there!”  Since it was the first time my heart had said anything except, “I hurt” in months, I pulled out my credit card and booked the trip.

It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because Teotihuacan turned out to be powerful medicine for my grief.  Every day at the pyramid complex felt like I’d been transported to another world so majestic that my heartache seemed petty and unimportant.  I climbed to the top of both pyramids, descended into the Temple of the Butterflies, and bonded with an incredible group of women, but there is one experience that I particularly want to share with you today.

Each day, we all gathered and walked out to the pyramid complex for ritual.  On this particular day, the instructions were to walk the grounds gathering stones.  Each stone was to represent a loss.  I didn’t know yet what we were going to do with these stones, but I had losses and I was ready to represent them. So, I went out and, with the determination that I give to most tasks, gathered two heaping handfuls of stones.  Then I went to the assigned meeting point and waited for the others to finish their task.

The only other woman at the meeting place was the co-leader of the group, Emily Grieves, who has an amazing personal story and is an incredible painter.  Here’s her website for more information: Emily Grieves’ Website.

Feeling a little bit shy and star-struck, I said hello to her, but then waited quietly for the rest of the group to arrive.

The longer I stood still in the sun, sweating, the more bugs began to take interest in me.  When a particularly nasty bug landed on my arm and bit me, I jumped, dropped all of the stones in one hand and swatted the bug.  With the danger over, I sighed and proceeded to try to identify and re-gather the stones that I’d been holding on to. Emily Grieves watched me, saying nothing.

When another, even more enormous and hideous bug landed on my other arm, I dropped my stones and swatted it away again.  This time, however, instead of staying silent as I began to pick my stones back up, Emily said, “Maybe those bugs are trying to help you let go.”

I froze.

What an incredible idea!  I looked around myself at the swarm of bugs, then at my empty  hand, and then at the stones strewn around my feet and thought, “Maybe the bugs ARE trying to help me let go.”

Then, just as I’d decided not to gather those losses back to myself, the biggest blue-green dragonfly I’ve ever seen circled my head a couple of times and flew away.

I looked at Emily Grieves and said, “Did you see that dragonfly?”

She smiled and said, “Yes.  I did.  Dragonflies symbolize illusion.”

Then I had the epiphany.

All of those stones–all of those losses–they were just illusion anyway.  I had been holding on to those stones waiting for someone to give me permission to let them go in the proper way, but those losses were in the past and they could only touch my present if I continued to hold onto them.  

Now, I would love to tell you that I put the rest of those stones down and was immediately and miraculously healed of my broken heart, but that wouldn’t be true.  What is true is that I changed my mind that day, and it was the beginning of true healing.

Now, my question for you is this: Are there bugs in your life that are trying to help you let go of your stones?  

They may look like annoying problems, but perhaps they’re trying to show you that what you’ve been holding on to is only an illusion that is keeping you from seeing the reality of your life unfolding in this present moment.

For instance, maybe your difficult boss is the “bug” that is trying to show you that you’ve been holding on to the illusion that you need this particular job even though you don’t like it, and by letting go of that illusion you could move into more fulfilling and meaningful work.  Or, perhaps, that difficult partner is the “bug” that’s trying to show you that you’ve been holding on to the illusion that this is the relationship for you, and by letting that go you could either grow more fully into your relationship with yourself, or move into a healthier partnership.

When I realized that the bugs were telling me to let go of the illusion that the relationship I’d lost was the one for me, my relationship with myself blossomed so beautifully that I’m not only still taking piano and Spanish lessons, I started a blog and a podcast and wrote a book.  

Perhaps if you let go of that thing that you’re trying to force, you’ll find that you bloom in new and wonderful ways.  I encourage you to give yourself that chance.

Radical Acceptance: Accepting Reality as it is, Not as We Wish it to Be

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why things happen the way that they do.  It’s sometimes even harder to understand how people make decisions that hurt others and find ways to justify them.  It’s been a trying time for America.  A pandemic, a quarantine, racial injustice and civil unrest, among many other issues have left people wondering what’s next.  Although I’ve joked with people about what terrible thing could possibly happen next, (zombie apocalypse, perhaps?) the joking is mostly to cover up a lot of concern.

On a more micro level, things have been happening in my workplace that directly affect me and my ability to appropriately care for my patients.  Management justifies these decisions because of COVID-19 social distancing and the financial impact of the shutdown.  While I understand that these are real concerns, I also find myself in a state of resistance against decisions that I have no control over and can’t change.  

In conversations with friends, family and clients, it seems to me that many people are finding this same state of resistance, confusion, and sometimes even outrage over how things are.  Outrage can be a trap.  It wants to be fed with more outrage.  So people watch  the news, check social media, and actively look for more things to be outraged about.  Feeding the emotion creates an illusion that one is doing something about these problems, but it’s a lie.  Without some outward action, feeding the outrage is only stealing your sense of calm and well-being.

There is a beautiful equation about acceptance that I would like to share with you (this is as math-ish as I get):

Emotional Pain + Acceptance = Decreased Suffering

OR

Emotional Pain + Non-Acceptance = Increased Suffering

This is known as the Radical Acceptance equation, and it describes a great truth: being in a state of non-acceptance increases the suffering of a bad situation.  You may be asking yourself, what is the difference between emotional pain and suffering.  I see it as a question of duration.  Emotional pain is something that is simply a part of the human experience.  When we have losses, we hurt.  However, suffering happens when we feed the emotional pain and keep it around for longer than we have to.

There are many ways to be in a state of non-acceptance.  Sometimes people will cycle through different variations of non-acceptance for years after a loss.  Non-acceptance includes denial, anger, fighting the truth, outrage, frustration.  As we cycle through these emotions, they feed our suffering.

Acceptance, on the other hand, brings a different attitude to a situation: I don’t like what is happening, but I accept that it is true.  Acceptance does not mean that you condone awful situations.  It doesn’t mean that you like it, or that you are in a state of resignation and won’t do anything to work on the problem.  It simply means that you’re facing reality as it is instead of denying it or fighting against it.

Coming to a state of acceptance allows you to take the next step toward working on the problem.  It’s impossible to make meaningful change in a situation that you haven’t even accepted as truth.

I’m not saying this is easy.  It’s actually quite difficult.  I’ve been finding myself in a state of anger and resistance quite a bit lately, and I’ve watched others go through their process of accepting the truth of what is happening in the world with varying levels of success.  Radical acceptance is a process and a practice.  It may be that you work toward accepting a situation and then something else terrible happens, and you have to start all over.  It’s frustrating, but it’s the place to begin.

Here’s an example that most of us can relate to.  One day you wake up and look in the mirror and realize that you’re not happy with your body.  Perhaps you’ve indulged a bit too much lately.  OK.  Now you have a choice.  You can deny that your body has reached a place where you need to make changes and continue on the path that you’re already on, but how does that help you?  That just leads to more discomfort with your body.  It is only through accepting the fact that your body has gotten to an uncomfortable weight that you can make a choice to begin a diet or an exercise program, or both.

I’m sure that you have already started thinking of situations in your life that you might apply radical acceptance to.  That’s great.  Try it out and see how it shifts things for you.  I know that coming to a place of acceptance always eases the pain and frustration in my own heart and opens me up to take positive actions for change.  I’m sure it can do the same for you.

For more information, I recommend the book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach Link.  There are also some wonderful Radical Acceptance resources, like some meditations, on Tara Brach’s page Tara Brach’s Website.