Embracing Struggle

One of my all time favorite movies is The Princess Bride. It’s full of excellent quotes, incredible satire, and wonderful acting. In the past I’ve had a few Princess Bride quoting duels with friends that eventually dissolve into giggling to the point of tears. Recently I followed Cary Elwes (who plays Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie) on Twitter, and he has been posting some of his best lines from Princess Bride. Yesterdays was, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

After a chuckle where I remembered the scene from the movie where Westley performs this witticism, I started thinking about struggle. Often, it seems that people are living life to minimize struggle and maximize pleasure. Advertising campaigns center around presenting a problem that people might identify with, and then showing how their product can solve it. Overweight? Well, try this pill. Dirty floor? Well, try this cleaning product. Frizzy hair? Buy this hair product and your problem is solved.

When hard times hit, as they definitely have in 2020, people tend to look forward to a time when the struggle ends and life goes back to being easier. When there is illness, people look for cures. When relationships get rocky, people look for ways to smooth them out.

Clearly, avoiding struggle is part of human nature. Often, I hear parents saying that they don’t want to their children to struggle the way that they did, and then they do their utmost to make life as easy as possible for their children.

While I understand the instinct to protect, and to seek ease, I wonder about the wisdom of this philosophy. Having had my share of hard times, I can tell you that struggle has led to the most growth in my life, the most self-reflection, the most fruitful changes.

An abusive marriage and ugly divorce led to my going back to school and becoming a psychotherapist. A terrible illness led to my journey into authorship, blogging and podcasting. A painful breakup led to intense spiritual growth and a desire to invest in learning about music and another language. When the fires of struggle show up, if we can embrace them instead of fight, they can forge us from a raw metal into a weapon of great strength and beauty.

On the other hand, we’ve all encountered people who are the product of too much ease and too little struggle. We joke that they were “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” These people tend to be arrogant in their own ignorance of what it is to do hard work–what it is to truly struggle. Often they seem to look down on people who don’t have it as easy as they do, and seem to think it’s some kind of moral failing on their part that the world is harder on them. We call these people who haven’t struggled things like “entitled,” “immature,” and “green.”

Deep down we know that people need struggle to become fully-formed human beings, but we still do our best to dodge it at every turn, and to shield our children from it. We look at celebrities and wealthy people, who we imagine live a life of ease (although this is not actually true), and we think how wonderful it would be to live those lives, leading to even more discontent with the struggles of every-day living.

I would like to advocate for a change in attitude. Instead of looking down on people who are struggling and envying those who have a vapid and overly easy existence, I suggest that we embrace struggle as the transformational process that it is. I suggest that instead of thinking, “Aww . . . poor thing. She/He is really struggling right now,” we think “Wow. That person is really in the forge of the fires of struggle. I wonder what the finished product will be.”

It’s OK to be struggling. It’s a part of life. If your kid is having a hard time with distance learning, that’s OK. Working through that struggle, helps your child to learn how to deal with adversity. Most of us are struggling in some way with the pandemic. Perhaps the struggle is isolation, or joblessness, or fear of infection. Maybe it’s all of these together. And, yes, it is hard, but instead of denying or fighting the reality of your circumstances, I suggest that you ask yourself, “What are the lessons that I could learn from this time in my life?”

Now, I’m definitely not advocating for a “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. That’s one of my top ten most hated phrases. What are bootstraps, anyway? And how am I supposed to pull myself up with them? No. Instead, treat yourself and others with compassion. Support the people in your life as they support you in return. We need each other, and there is no shame in that.

I’m saying that struggle is not something to hide from or be ashamed of. It is not something to apologize for. Each person’s individual struggle can be like a personal hero’s journey. Every hero starts out naive and untested, and then is strengthened by adversity. Nobody is born heroic.

I think it would be appropriate to end with a quote that was brought to my attention by Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. I think it captures this idea of embracing the formative quality of struggle perfectly: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” Theodore Roosevelt.

Shame: How it Affects us, and How to Overcome it

Over the weekend I went out of town to attend my 2-year-old niece’s birthday party. She was adorable, and I enjoyed spending time with my family, but the drive through LA can be brutal. On my way home, a man on a motorcycle whizzed by me and then flipped me off. I have no idea what I could have done to make him angry. I had been driving in the same lane at the same speed for miles.

Despite the knowledge that I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt hot shame flush through my body, and I recognized the sensation as one that I’ve experienced frequently lately. It seems like every time I turn around these days, someone is suggesting that there is something wrong with me.

Whenever I make a comment online, dozens of perfect strangers attempt to shame me by calling me stupid in myriad ways. Partly, I think that people shame others in order to dispel some of their own frustration, but I also think that they do it believing that the shame will teach the other person a lesson.

I’ve seen parents shame their children for the same reason. Children who get bad grades or fail to do their chores properly are often shamed by their parents, who believe that the shame will get their children to behave better in the future.

Unfortunately, these parents’ efforts are misguided. Shame can’t teach anyone anything. Scans of human brains show that the learning centers shut down on shame. No information is getting in until the shamed person’s brain calms down. If the goal is teaching, it is much better and more effective to speak kindly to people, and help them to understand and practice. A relaxed brain is a learning brain.

Brene Brown, the renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” This sense of unworthiness is profoundly damaging to the human psyche. The more that people receive the message that they are unworthy of love, the more that they believe it. Much of my work as a therapist is helping people to undo the programming of shame.

While shame usually begins as damaging messages of unworthiness from the people around us, over time we tend to internalize the shame and begin shaming ourselves. We believe that we need the shame to motivate ourselves–to keep ourselves from becoming lazy couch potatoes.

However, the research shows that shame doesn’t actually motivate people. The more that we shame ourselves, the more depressed we become, which leads to lower levels of motivation, not higher. Giving ourselves kindness and compassion is a much better way to gain motivation.

If you’re thinking that you don’t have shame, think again. Shame is universal. The only people that don’t feel it are psychopaths. The more that we act like shame doesn’t exist, the more it grows. Speaking honestly with each other about the experience of shame is the only way to overcome it.

Brene Brown talks about shame being like a Gremlin. In the 1980s movie, Gremlins, the little green monsters that wreak havoc are only killed in the end by the sun. Shame is the same. It is only by exposing it to the light that it can be defeated.

I’m not suggesting that you start telling everyone you meet about your shame experiences. Doing that would likely just create more experiences to be ashamed of. Instead, share your shame with people who have earned the right to hear your stories, and have the emotional strength to bear the weight of your pain.

These are people who have stuck with you through good times and bad times, and have shown that they can be trusted with your secrets and your pain. If you can’t think of anyone like that in your life, I would suggest that you find a therapist who is trained to hear your shame stories and can help you shed necessary light on your pain.

There’s an important difference between shame and guilt that I’d like to discuss. While shame is the terrible feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging, which is harmful and leads to painful experiences of disconnection, guilt is the knowing that you have done something wrong that you need to make right somehow.

Shame is the sense of “I am bad,” and guilt is the sense of “I did something bad.” Unlike shame, guilt can help people to rebuild connections. When people realize that they have hurt others, they can apologize and seek forgiveness.

If you regularly speak to yourself in the language of shame, I would encourage you to begin practicing self-compassion. If you’re constantly shaming yourself, your nervous system is constantly in fight or flight mode, which is extremely damaging to your body and your nervous system. In this self-protective state, you will have difficulty learning new things, and your body will likely become depressed in order to deal with all of the stress.

Self-compassion is a wonderful way to begin the process of coming out of a self-shaming mind state. There are three components to self compassion: 1) mindfulness, 2) self-kindness, and 3) common humanity.

The mindfulness part is about paying attention to your experience and noticing your self-critical and shaming thoughts. The self-kindness part is really about telling yourself that both you and your feelings are OK. And the common humanity part is reminding yourself that the experience of pain and shame are what make us the same as others, not different.

A self-compassion statement might look something like this: “Wow, I’m feeling a lot of shame right now. It’s OK to feel that way. Many people would feel shame in this situation.” You can create a self-compassion statement that works for you as long as it has all three components. It doesn’t take a lot of time to use the statement, and it can dramatically shift the experience of shame, and reduce your stress.

Despite the messages that you may have received over the course of your lifetime, you are worthy of love and belonging. You don’t have to do anything to become worthy. You are already worthy simply because you are a human being. Babies know that they are worthy of love, and so do the people around them. It seems strange to me that people think that at some unknown point in human development this inherent worthiness goes away. It doesn’t. All people are worthy of love and belonging, including you.

For more information on shame, please look into the work of Brene Brown. She’s one of my sheroes, and I highly recommend her book Daring Greatly. She also has two great TED Talks: “The Power of Vulnerability,” and “Listening to Shame.”

For more information on self-compassion, I recommend the work of Kristin Neff, who has a wonderful TED Talk called “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.”

The Fourfold Path to Forgiveness: A Way to Release Hurt and Resentment

Growing up, I had this idea that forgiveness was something granted upon the repentant.  I thought that when people realized that they had wronged someone, they went to that person and said that they were sorry, and then they received an “I forgive you” as a reward.

As I grew older, I realized that things rarely work this way.  Often, when we have been wronged, the person who wronged us doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that we are hurt.  Sometimes, even when they do apologize, we don’t want to grant forgiveness.  It can feel like condoning their bad behavior.

However, the weight of the resentments that we carry can become a burden almost impossible to bear, and they can keep us in what Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu call “The Revenge Cycle” in The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World.  In The Revenge Cycle, a hurt leads to pain, which leads to choosing to harm another, which leads to rejecting shared humanity, which leads to revenge-retaliation-payback, and then to more violence cruelty and hurt.  And the cycle repeats and repeats.

We can see the Revenge Cycle play itself out in recurrent wars between countries, couples who constantly fight, and feuds between families or family members.  The resentment that they refuse to let go of keeps them from stepping out of the cycle and choosing to forgive in order to end the violence.  While it may feel like violence should be answered with violence, this does nothing to end the pain for everyone involved, and in fact tends to lead to more pain.  Choosing against revenge is truly the strong road, and the path toward healing.

Sometimes when I discuss with people that they need to work on forgiving their abusers, they tell me that they can’t because it would be letting that person off the hook.  They say that by continuing to hold the grudge, they are punishing that person for the hurt that they caused.  Unfortunately, this usually isn’t true.  Usually abusers don’t have any idea about the hurt and resentment that their victims are holding against them.  The result is that the only person that is punished is the one holding the pain.  Choosing to release it is a way for people who have been wronged to heal themselves.

Forgiving is for the victim, not the perpetrator.  In forgiving, victims release the hurt and the resentment that has been eating at their insides.  And in doing so, they regain power over their own lives.

Desmond Tutu was instrumental in South Africa in both ending apartheid, and in helping the country to heal from the violence caused by apartheid laws.  He founded The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which created the safe space necessary for victims of apartheid violence to talk with their abusers in order to create healing, and to release pain and resentment.

Tutu lays out four steps to forgiveness:

  1. Telling the story.  “Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed.  It is how we begin to take back what was taken from us, and how we begin to understand and make meaning out of our hurting” (Tutu, p. 71). Often, after abuse, people hide the stories of their hurt.  But silence and secrets are the breeding ground of shame, and by exposing the stories to the light, we can dispel the shame of the secrets.  It is important to choose carefully to whom we tell our stories.  If it is possible to tell the perpetrator of the hurt in a safe way, that might be preferable.  However, if the perpetrator is not available, or not open to the story, a therapist or a trusted friend/advisor might be a good choice.
  2. Naming the hurt.  “Giving the emotion a name is the way we come to understand how what happened affected us. . . We are each hurt in our own unique ways, and when we give voice to this pain, we begin to heal it” (Tutu, p. 95).  Sometimes the very act of naming the emotion can take some of the power out of it.  By saying, “Oh, I’m feeling hurt, or anxious, or sad,” we give our attention and caring to the emotion, which is the first step in allowing it to heal.  Emotions that we ignore tend to grow, and come out in ways that can be surprising.
  3. Granting forgiveness.  “We choose forgiveness because it is how we find freedom and keep from remaining trapped in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming our hurts.  It is how we move from victim to hero.  A victim is in a position of weakness and subject to the whims of others.  Heroes are people who determine their own fate and their own future” (Tutu, p. 121).  Whether or not the perpetrator of your hurt knows that you have forgiven is not important.  You know.  You know that you have set down the load of your anger, hurt and betrayal.  What a relief!  This can be a slow process.  Sometimes it takes several attempts over time to release  the fulness of the pain.  Be patient with yourself, and don’t expect the process to be completed overnight.
  4. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.  “A preference is always toward renewal or reconciliation, except in cases where safety is an issue.  When we choose to release a relationship, that person walks off with a piece of our hearts and a piece of our history.  The choice is not one to be made lightly or in the heat of the moment”  (Tutu, p. 148).  Deciding whether or not to continue the relationship is difficult and personal.  If the relationship is one where the benefits outweigh the costs, then renewal can be a good plan as long as both parties agree.  However, if having a relationship with the person who hurt you is unsafe, too painful, or puts other people in your life in danger, it is likely that releasing the relationship is the best choice.  Take your time with this decision, and make sure that your heart feels comfortable with the choice that you make.

While this process may seem daunting in the face of overwhelming pain, it is truly the best path towards healing yourself of the pain and resentment you may be carrying due to the hurtful actions of others.  If it is possible for victims of apartheid violence and oppression to meet with their perpetrators, tell their stories, name their hurts, grant forgiveness, and make a choice about whether to renew or release the relationship, I believe that it is possible in almost any situation.

Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that people pretend these situations never happened.  They are never spoken about, and the feelings are suppressed.  In these situations, nobody grows.  The perpetrator never understands the depth of the hurts that they have caused, and the victims never release the pain and resentment or take their power back.  

If you choose to confront your abuser, be aware that he or she may reject your story.  If that occurs, that doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong or that your story lacks merit.  Instead, I would suggest that the abuser was not ready to hear what you had to say and has a lot of work to do on him or herself.  With that knowledge, choose a different person to tell your story to, so that you can heal.  A therapist is always a good choice.

As you read this, there may be many situations that come up for you that you have been holding on to and would benefit from releasing.  If you would like more information about doing so, here are some resources for you:

The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Psychology Today Article on Forgiveness

Mayo Clinic Article on Forgiveness

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.