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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!”
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.