Letting go of your past can be very scary; not just to your own mind, but to those around you as well. You’ve come to rely deeply on the stories you tell yourself about who you are, what you’ve done, and what’s been done to you.
Making the choice to set down all the baggage, and look with fresh eyes, loving, honest, and compassionate eyes, can be daunting. The ego won’t like it; I can assure you of that.
But when you decide that the time has come, you will see how quickly and easily all those stories dissolve. A tiny little crack is all it takes to let the light come rushing in.
Set down the stories, release yourself of all those burdens and misunderstandings, and let your love shine again.
We live in a society that keeps telling us to do more, be more, achieve more. “Lean in.” says Sheryl Sandberg. “Just do it.” says Nike. Push yourself harder. Get into better shape. Make more money. Get that promotion. Run faster, sleep less, eat less, work more. Worry constantly that you’re not doing enough. No excuses. Don’t be lazy. Why? What for? Why are you stuck in this hamster wheel, exactly? Have you ever stopped for a second to ask yourself what you’re doing all of this for? Is it so that you can be loved? Admired? Respected? Envied perhaps? So that you can afford more stuff? So that you can feel better about yourself? So that years from now, when you’re old and sick, you can actually enjoy your life?
In her book, the Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown describes the dig-deep button: “You know the dig-deep button, right? It’s the button that you rely on when you’re too bone-tired to get up one more time in the middle of the night[,] or to do one more load of throw-up-diarrhea laundry[,] or to catch one more plane[,] or to return one more call[,] or to please/perform/perfect the way you normally do even when you just want to flip someone off and hide under the covers. The dig-deep button is a secret level of pushing through when we’re exhausted and overwhelmed, and when there’s too much to do and too little time for self-care.”
One of the pearls of wisdom Gaya shared with me was “listen to your body.” (This is another one of those super simple sounding lessons that takes a lot of time to really sink in – you have to live the experience of it before you can understand it truly). Listen to your body is the polar opposite of the dig-deep button. Whether you believe in spirit or not, assume for a moment that your body (your emotions, your feelings, your sensations) are the way your soul, or your higher self, communicates with you. It lets you know when you’ve reached your limits and where you are pushing past boundaries when you shouldn’t be. Those messages deserve your attention. They actually exist to serve your highest good.
Okay. It’s exactly what you think. It’s about sex, and fantasy, and pleasure, and the things that turn people on. It’s about eroticism, and emotions, and fear, and shame, and orgasms. But it’s so good (obviously); I don’t care what you think.
“When you recognize and accept what you feel, without judging your emotions by logical standards, you will notice that the natural life of most feelings is remarkably short and fluid. If you are able to feel anger when you are threatened or when someone treats you unjustly, and if circumstances allow you to express yourself assertively, your anger will yield to a calm self-assurance. Likewise, if you’re not ashamed to feel anxious when you perceive danger, chances are that you will take whatever steps are necessary to protect yourself, thereby demonstrating just how courageous you can be. Feelings that are attended to and honored move along, sometimes veering off in unexpected directions [!!! I’ve been telling you this for months]. It’s the feelings that fester and won’t let go that cause us distress. People who ignore or resist their feelings often end up obsessed with them.”
One of the most famous books encapsulating ancient Toltec wisdom is don Miguel’s The Four Agreements. I’ve been studying and working with the agreements almost every day, and while on the surface they are just four simple sentences;
Be impeccable with your word,
Don’t take anything personally,
Don’t make assumptions,
Always do your best;
below the surface, they are really huge pillars of an entire philosophy of life. They are an entirely different way of living in the world. What I love about them is that every day, as I discover more of myself, I find deeper and deeper interpretations of the agreements. New situations and experiences keep teaching me new lessons, bringing me back to these four sentences. It’s an incredible transformative practice. (more…)
As I was reading (and loving) Esther Perel’s book, which I told you about in Part 1, a question kept nagging at me. The process of self discovery (whether through spiritual tradition or in psychotherapy) leads to ever-deepening levels of awareness. Awareness leads to authenticity, with the self and with the other. And in relationship, when we show our authentic self to another, we call this intimacy. In my own experience, as I’ve gotten close and closer to my own authentic self, what arises is incredible desire and passion. A new ecstatic energy; not just in a sexual context, but in a creative context too. (My hypothesis here is that creative energy is the same as erotic energy, but that’s a different post). So how do I reconcile my experience with Esther’s seemingly sound position that intimacy kills desire? Is it true that if we cultivate “intimacy,” that desire necessarily dies?
I think that the answer requires taking a small step further into what we mean by intimacy, and then drawing a distinction. (I think Esther taps into this, but without a proper framework. I humbly offer my own reconciliation for your enjoyment).
The kind of intimacy discussed in Mating in Captivity is what I’ll call egoic intimacy. This is the merging of two into one. It is emotional safety and enmeshment, care-taking, clinging, and a loss of self into the relationship. A coping mechanism for the inherent anxiety of love. (“Please love me. Please promise you’ll never leave me.”). It feels safe and secure, but comes with a price. It is a fusion or a collapse of personal boundaries. In it’s most negative experience, it can feel like obligation, responsibility, control, and manipulation. The communication that manifests sounds sort of like surveillance masked as concern (“where were you? and what were you doing there so long? I was worried about you.”). The relationship engulfs the partners and threatens their individuality. This, says Esther, kills sexual desire. To reawaken the desire, partners must create psychological distance, separateness, emotional privacy, and a reclaiming of a sense of self. (more…)
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon… I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.
I want to know if you can sit with pain mine or your own without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure yours and mine and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes.”
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
I’ve been vaguely interested in Kabbalah for a while now, (Madonna notwithstanding) but every time I touched it, it felt too esoteric and incomprehensible. Maybe I’ve matured in my spiritual understandings, or maybe I just never found the proper teachings. Anyway, yesterday I took a quick dip into what it is, and what it does. And I finally get it!
Tree of Life. Image source: wikipedia
Here’s what I found:
1. The Kabbalah is not a book per se, but a tradition of mystical practices. The Zohar, the primary text, was written (or received, you can say) in 13th century Spain.
2. The Zohar offers many different things – it’s a huge compendium of stuff. It changes some large primary assumptions and reinterprets the whole Torah under this new light.
3. It introduces Ein Sof (the infinite) as the real supreme being, the creator of what we know as God.
4. It reincorporates the divine feminine as an aspect of God, (undermining the patriarchy), and shows how the Torah and Talmud refer to her all along.
5. It explains creation (which I think can be reconciled with evolution, if you’d like), the nature of God, cosmology, the souls, and the mystical world, as well as our purpose as human here on earth. (ie Tikun Olam in relation to consciousness, not specifically “good deeds.”)
6. It offers meditations (repeating the various names of God as the mantra) to induce altered states of consciousness (trance) in order to produce mystical experience. This accomplishes the same thing in Judaism that all the other meditative traditions accomplish – the breaking of the belief structure, the dismantling of the ego, ultimate self-awareness, access to the mystical realm.
7. There are also spells, incantations, and magic (both white and black).
8. There is the explanation and glorification of the hebrew alphabet. The letters carry an incredible symbology beyond language and numbers. They are also used to explain the structure and function of the human body (each one related to certain organs or systems) which reminds me of the energetic meridians in acupuncture.
Fascinating stuff. If you’re interested in learning more, these videos (here, here, and here) are very good background and context.
“We aren’t who we want to be. We are what society demands. We are what our parents choose. We don’t want to disappoint anyone; we have a great need to be loved. So we smother the best in us. Gradually, the light of our dreams turns into the monster of our nightmares. They become things not done, possibilities not lived.”
I just returned from a week in the land of wine and pasta, where I was honored to officiate (symbolically) the wedding of my brother and sister-in-law. I suppose it’s only fitting that I spent the entire week contemplating love, marriage, commitment, desire, and sex.
It all started before I left… I signed up for Psychotherapy 2.0 – a two week online summit of brilliant minds sharing their fascinating work. Regrettably, I only caught a few sessions, but I did get to hear the one I was most excited about: Esther Perel, The Double Flame: Reconciling Intimacy and Sexuality. The talk focused on:
Why loss of desire is the prime sexual complaint that leads to relational unhappiness, infidelity, and even divorce
How love and desire relate, but also conflict. How the need for security and closeness can coexist with our quest for separateness and freedom.
Eroticism as a quality of aliveness and vitality in relationships extending far beyond a repertoire of sexual techniques, frequency, and performance
(I think you can buy the program through Sounds True, if you’re interested).
I may have posted some stuff about Esther before, here’s her site, but I’m too lazy to go back and check. Fearless, brilliant, and hilarious, she’s one of my favorite authors, speakers, therapists. She studies desire and passion in the context of loving intimate relationships. Her latest work is on the subject of infidelity. Her two TED talks are here and here (both have millions of views).
In 2007, she wrote Mating in Captivity, which is perhaps one of my new favorites. I liked it so much that I read it twice this past week. (When I say “read” I mean listened to, because audiobooks are my favorite favorite thing; lots of “favorites” in this post, but so what.).
In the book, Esther explores how the concepts of increasing intimacy, transparency, and the comforts of best-friendship, which are considered the pillars of a good mature loving relationship, kill erotic sexual desire. They are, in fact, polar opposites to the mysterious, unknowable, lustful feelings associated with early stages of a romantic relationship.
And so the main question she considers is whether a loving committed relationship can sustain hot passionate sex over time. With intriguing case studies and surprising practical advice (humbly offered in deference to the elusive ineffable energy of Eros), the book is a must read for anyone seeking to reclaim that missing spark. What resonates most for me, is that in order to maintain passion, in order to remain attractive to, and attracted to, your partner, you must love yourself first; you must nurture yourself and maintain your independent sense of self, you must learn the art of embodied surrender, even within the confines of a committed relationship. A big big “YES!” in my opinion.
I posted some time ago (here) about Gaya’s famous teaching: “there’s no one out there, just a bunch of mirrors reflecting you back to yourself.” It took me nearly a year to really grasp the magnitude of how this principle actually operates. In short, there are many different ways to think about this idea.
One is that every time you are emotionally triggered by something, it’s an invitation to go inside and discover more about yourself. The trigger is a gift; a clue, of sorts, letting you know that there is some negative self-judgment hanging out in your subconscious, waiting to be healed. Another way to think about this is that the external world is just a reflection of what’s going on inside of you. If you have chaos, or drama, or negativity in the world around you, look inward and you’ll see that that is precisely what’s happening inside your mind. If someone is mistreating you on the outside, I’d bet you are mistreating yourself on the inside. (No blame or judgement – just food for thought). A third perspective is that all the judgments you hold about other people, are really all about you. They have nothing to do with the behavior or appearance of another person. This last perspective was the subject of my previous post.
I could go on about this all day, but what I wanted to share here is a recent article from mindbodygreen by Dr. Lissa Rankin. “What the universe is really trying to tell you.” Lissa does a great job of asking just the right questions about this, often controversial, topic. The article offers another avenue to think about the world-as-mirrors principle. Here is the response I posted to the piece (on facebook).
The way i see it – this principle operates in the macro and micro sense. Our unconscious shadow side may, in fact, be manifesting our external reality in order to teach us, or allow us to experience being human. But in the micro (or local) sense, we absolutely create the story of what happens to us. And those are the feelings we experience as reality. Events objectively are value neutral, neither good nor bad. It’s the story we create around them that creates our reality. What if our conventional stories about life events aren’t accurate? What if we celebrate someone’s passing, instead of turning it into a tragic event? What if we experience loss and savor the grief as a beautiful human experience, while at the same time feeling excited for the person’s transition? This may sound morbid, but if you consider the implications, what’s really lost by changing all of our interpretations to positive ones? What if we drop all the story-lines?
Before you all get out your pitchforks, let me just say that I’m not indifferent to suffering – just the opposite. It is with a heart full of compassion and great empathy that I offer the possibility that we can perceive life differently. That perhaps we aren’t victims of a cruel unpredictable world at all. Instead we are absolutely in control of our experience (if you take time to develop the awareness that you have a choice of how to live in the world). Maybe, just maybe, life is actually a beautiful magical experience, just waiting for you to be able to see it clearly.
Some time ago, along the path of intense self-discovery, I realized that I’m not good at conflict, neither the confrontation, nor the resolution. Ironic, for a litigator, yes? (You’d be surprised how many lawyers have a problem with conflict). But conflict happens in every relationship, and if you don’t know how to handle conflict in a healthy constructive way, you’re in real trouble.
What I mean, in a practical sense, is that when my feelings are hurt; when I am mistreated in some way; when a friend or loved one oversteps a boundary – I don’t say anything. I just pretend it didn’t happen. I ignore it. I shove it down, deeper and deeper. I will push it down as far as possible, and will let it rot in the depths of my psyche. I always assumed this was normal, and called it “forgiveness.” Boy, was I wrong!
Here’s how this dance goes: My friend, Jennifer, says something to me that I perceive as hurtful. It’s not malicious. It’s not intentionally hurtful. It’s just some casual comment. I feel a slight inner pang, an unpleasant but familiar twinge of something. I brush it off without saying anything. Later I replay the comment over and over in my mind. “Why did she say that? How could she think that? etc. etc.“
But I never say anything about it, and because of that, Jennifer has no idea that her comment affected me. The next time we speak she makes a similar comment. And again, that unpleasant feeling bubbles up in me. Then another comment, another comment, and pretty soon I’m in resentment-land. That’s when I become passive aggressive. It’s not fun (for me, or for Jennifer). If Jennifer has the guts to ask me if something’s wrong, I will be annoyed that she doesn’t intuitively get why I’m upset. “How could she not get it?” I think to myself. And so I punish her by saying “nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.” Let her suffer in guilt and confusion, I decide.
Sexy, right? Don’t all line up at once to be my friend!
Ultimately, Jennifer will do some innocuous thing, (which I perceive as “the final straw,”) and I lash out, in self-righteous rage, and sever the relationship entirely.
When I looked at why this happens, I realized it’s because I’m afraid to verbalize my hurt feelings when they first arise. I don’t want to appear petty. I don’t want to create drama. I don’t want unpleasantness between us. But at the heart of it, if I’m being really honest, I’m afraid that my feelings don’t matter. I’m afraid that this person doesn’t really care that they’ve upset me. It is, of course, a deep seated sense of unworthiness.
On the other side, what ends up happening, is that I don’t actually bond with people in a vulnerable way. I don’t ever allow myself to be seen, authentically. The friendship always stays at the surface level, because I don’t want to invest emotionally when I know it’s going to end in separation. I keep my distance, because I know they will just end up doing a series of hurtful things (which I won’t bring up or resolve), and I want to stay away from that drama and discomfort.
And so when I first realized this, I became embarrassed. I thought “Oh god. I’ve been acting like a complete childish jerk for so long!” (More self-judgment, which I promptly turned around). And I decided to make a note of all the places I do this – places where I don’t voice my feelings; where I don’t speak up for myself; where I am afraid of being vulnerable; where I am afraid of showing the side of me that is sensitive and scared; where I put the feelings and potential negative judgments of other people above my own. The list just grew and grew and grew.
That’s when I made the decision to stop compromising myself. I decided that I’m going to face my fears. I am going to find a way to communicate my feelings without drama, without anger, without blame, and without judgment. (This is an art-form that takes a lot of courage and practice). From now on, I am going to be honest and authentic. I am going to start valuing my own feelings. I’m going to care about my own heart. I am going to let people know when something has made me uncomfortable, and they can then value my feelings or not, that’s their business.
In my budding coaching practice, I’m starting to see that actually lots of people struggle with this. Most people are terrified of speaking honestly and vulnerably about their feelings. Their coping strategies vary, but at the root is the very same fear that their feelings aren’t valid, worthwhile, or important. Here’s the upshot: they are! Honor your feelings. Speak up for yourself in a kind, loving, and compassionate way. Be true to how you feel. If you see that you can take care of your own feelings, you will be able to bond intimately with people. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world when you allow yourself to be seen. Your heart will thank you!
Things are blissfully busy here, as usual, but I wanted to share some ideas and posts that are in the works:
1. I’ve been noticing an interesting trend lately, and I’d like to propose a theory. Maybe this is already common knowledge somewhere, but I haven’t yet found any articles or books on it. Here it is: Addiction to anxiety (among successful professionals). Technically, it’s an addiction to the adrenaline, cortisol, etc. that is present in the body during stressful times. We already colloquially call someone like this an “adrenaline junkie.” But I’m seeing this in the context of successful professional people in corporate jobs: lawyers, accountants, management consultants, bankers (even doctors, at times). I think this is distinct from workaholics, because it bleeds out into their lives, outside the office. It’s not an addiction to work, per se. It’s an addiction to stress. What’s interesting to me is the down time, or low stress points, in someone who is constantly busy, overcommitted, stressed out, and exhausted. They report experiencing a kind of boredom, restlessness, and mild anxiety. I think of this as a withdrawl symptom of the addiction. They cannot handle the discomfort of doing nothing, so they keep flinging themselves into high stress jobs, situations, environments, in order to keep the withdrawl symptoms at bay. Still thinking this through…
One of my favorite teachings on handling negative emotions comes from Pema Chodron’s book, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. Pema (I’ve spent so much time with her teachings, that we’re on a first name basis) describes an experience, on a particular retreat, of unabating anxiety every time she sat down to meditate. Struggling with it for days, unable to find its source, or make it subside, she visited her teacher looking for guidance. After listening to her describe the experience, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche said “Oh, that’s the Daikini’s Bliss! That’s a high level of spiritual bliss.” Hearing this, Pema became excited about her next meditation practice. After Rinpoche left, she sat down on her cushion, ready to experience it again, however the feelings were gone.
“When he said that, that was melting it, or space coming into it, or warmth coming into it. You change the way you look at it.”
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. -Rumi
I was out walking Linda recently when a man approached us, and struck up a conversation (with me, not with her). He said that he was thinking of getting a dog, but wasn’t sure it was the right thing for him. He asked a bunch of questions about the responsibilities and commitment required.
As we got to talking, I shared some of the experiences of having Linda in my life (lots of love and affection, but also lots of poop, vomit, allergies, and shedding). At the end, he said “you sound like a very compassionate person. I don’t really understand compassion. I try to be caring, but I just don’t feel anything. I don’t really care about other people the way I think I’m supposed to.” The old me would have been shocked at such an admission, but the new me seems to bring out this kind of thing in people. I took the opportunity to thank him for sharing his honesty with me, and I shared what I know to be true with him.
I came across this article, by John Horgan, questioning the benefits of the new meditation craze. I thought he made some interesting observations, and on some level I agree with him. I sent him the following email; probably worthwhile to share here as well.
I think that one of the issues with meditation is that proper instructions are not included. Sitting still and trying to “not think” is not what it’s about. You are correct that meditation, in and of itself, does very little. Just having a meditation practice doesn’t make you happier, or more peaceful, or nicer. It’s what one does during meditation that leads to awakening (or doesn’t, as the case may be for most people). What’s missing in most traditions (as they are presented in the mainstream), is the method of self-inquiry. (It’s what you’re actually supposed to “do” during meditation).
When I put aside my prejudices and looked at my deepest motivations and fears, I was surprised to be confronted by a rather sorry-looking individual, covered with bandages, limping along on a crutch, incapable of hurting anyone.
I immediately recognized him. It was me. It was my wounded self, a symbolic representation of all those doubts and fears about myself that I had so carefully hidden from public view for so many years. And when I looked a little closer at this injured being, my heart was deeply touched. I wanted to reach out and help him to heal, because I could see, beneath the bandages, that he was only a small boy, a helpless, wounded child.
Throughout the last few months of my work with Gaya, we’ve been talking a lot about the people in my life, and how I’m relating to them. Gaya keeps repeating to me that there’s no one “out there;” everyone is really just a mirror reflecting back at me.
At first this was difficult to grasp. Surely, the people in my life are real humans – I can touch them, see them, hear them (even smell them sometimes). I accepted what she was telling me, but it didn’t really sink in until much later. What she meant is that who they are to us, how we see them, how they make us feel, is nothing more than a reflection of how we see ourselves.
Conceptually, what we choose to see in others, the way we see them, and the judgments we have about them, are nothing more than judgments we hold about ourselves, and how we think we ought to be or not be. In clinical terms, this is called projection. In other spiritual traditions, this is called shadow work.
I came across a movie recently that challenged all of my old beliefs and judgments about who or what I ought to be. In watching the movie, I discovered that I could be happy living in many different ways – a possibility that never existed before. Then I found a news article about a little communist nirvana in Southern Spain, and my heart sang with delight. Me? Communal living? No way. I almost couldn’t believe my own reaction.
So dear friends, set aside your judgments and beliefs of who you ought to be, and give yourself the chance to really live!
While everyone was out drinking and barbecuing this weekend, I spent most of it on the couch with this book (the actual physical book). It was so powerful in so many ways that I’m adding it to my “books that will change your life” list. If you’re unfamiliar with the canon of feminist writing (I was), Polly is a prominent and powerful voice among many amazing leaders. You can read more about her work here.
I want to share some excerpts with you from Beyond Wanting to be Wanted. If I’m being honest, I underlined, highlighted, and scribbled notes on most pages, so picking out excerpts was its own challenge.
In my opinion, Polly has brilliantly distilled a lot of ancient wisdom into a practical modern way of life (primarily for women, but also often applicable to men). She encourages her audience to get really honest and really clear about their desires; to bring their truths into the light, so to speak. Because it is only when we are aware of what we feel and what we want, that we have true freedom to choose how we live in the world. She has also articulated a very subtle phenomenon that resonates profoundly for me – the idea that women often focus on being the object of someone else’s desire, instead of the subject of their own. It is when you stop seeking approval of others, you stop trying to be the person you think you should be, that you can really live authentically, vulnerably, and with integrity.
This is a difficult one. It sounds easy, but it’s really not. Just be honest. Just tell the truth. The truth will set you free. How many times have you heard these words? And yet, it’s such a struggle for so many people. This lesson has appeared several times in the last few weeks. It has tested my strength and courage; but when I stepped up to meet the challenge instead of hiding from the truth, it left me feeling absolutely magical.
To look for truth, and to be honest, is terrifying. Forget big universal truths; I’m talking about little truths, personal truths. We are afraid to look inward, and to be honest with ourselves. And even if we are courageous enough to do that, then we are so concerned with the feelings of others, that we are afraid to share our truths with them. We punish ourselves with all sorts of guilt for causing someone emotional pain, when we really have no idea how they will feel if we’re honest. We jump through crazy ridiculous hoops, all because we want to avoid the turmoil of emotional pain (theirs and ours). Being honest and being kind are not mutually exclusive. You can and should deliver your truth without blame or judgment, but definitely with kindness. It just takes a little practice.
Some time ago I took a short business trip to Ohio. I picked up my rental car, and found that the agent had thrown in a GPS for free. (I usually opt out of the GPS because of a traumatic experience in Albany, but that’s a different story).
Anyway, I plugged in the address of my destination, and when I pulled up to the building, the GPS announced “You have arrived!” How nice, I thought. I have arrived. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that.
After my meeting, I returned to the car, and plugged in the address of my next destination. When I got there, the GPS again announced “You have arrived!” Again, I took a moment to savor my arrival and settle my thoughts. As I got out of the car, I felt great. I could stop worrying about the traffic, or the weird sound the car was making, or being late for my meeting. All those worry thoughts are no longer relevant in this moment.
Just taking that small second to recalibrate and calm my thoughts before moving forward made such a difference! What a lovely mantra that would be – with every step, at different points throughout the day (no matter what you’re doing), you stop for a moment and think “I have arrived.” In this way, you get to really cherish the journey.
How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Every article, every self help guide, every book on relationships, tells us the same thing – learn to love yourself first! But what does that really mean? How do you actually love yourself? How do you get to that place where you’re not just repeating silly affirmations, but you genuinely feel feelings of love for you, within your body?
It’s a three step process.
First you have to listen. Listen to your thoughts and judgments about yourself.
Pay attention to the internal dialogue that happens within you. How do you talk to yourself? Specifically, what do you say to yourself? Do you judge yourself? Are you mean and harsh with yourself? Do you berate yourself for mistakes or embarrassing moments?
When I started to pay attention to my thoughts, I found out that every time I looked in a mirror, or walked by a reflective surface, I would grimace internally. I could and would immediately pick out everything that was wrong with how I looked in that moment. Do you do that to yourself? (I know you do). Next time you catch yourself doing that – try to shift to kindness for yourself. Look for the good things in the mirror, and forgive whatever you think is “wrong” with you in that moment. You can take a judgment like “I’m overweight” (typically perceived as a negative), and find three things that are good about being overweight. Turn your negative judgments about reality into positives.
Treat yourself compassionately. Treat yourself as if you were a little child; be an unconditionally loving and wise parent for yourself. Remember what you were like when you were three or four years old, and find that child still living within you. When you look at yourself, do it with the eyes of love. When you talk to yourself, talk with the voice of love. Just this alone will shift so many things for you.
Second, find your standards of perfection. As you go through your day, when you notice that you’re feeling “bad” or uncomfortable, focus on what you’re thinking about yourself in that moment (or the 10 seconds prior to the bad feeling arising). The negative opinions your internal judge voice has about you are not arbitrary. They are the perfect result of the standards of perfection you created for yourself long ago.
“If only I am __________ (strong, confident, smart, rich, sophisticated…), then I will have made it. Then I will feel good.” Your judge is always comparing you to some standard of perfection, and letting you know that you’ve failed, and thus making you feel unworthy. This whole psychological mechanism operates like a perfect machine – the standard of perfection generates an automatic judgmental thought. When you start to see your thoughts as separate from “you,” it will be almost funny. By bringing your standards of perfection into awareness, you will be able to release them, and actually feel better!
What are your standards of perfection? How do you find them?
They aren’t always self evident. Whenever you notice a judgement like “ugh I’m so stupid, why did I just do that thing?” Ask yourself what or who is it that I should have been in that moment? What/who am I comparing myself to?
The answers you come up with are your standards. Write them down!! They sound something like:
“I should be the kind of person who doesn’t make mistakes – mistakes are not allowed”
“I should be the kind of person who doesn’t spill the coffee – clumsiness isn’t sexy or cool. I must be suave and cool all the time.”
“I should be the kind of person who doesn’t trip in public – I have to always appear in control of my body.”
The more you do this, the more you recognize how silly these standards are; and how unkind, irrational, and untrustworthy that inner judge voice is. Then you can let these standards go.
Third, begin looking at your patterns of behavior. Think about why you do the things you do, and what is the fear that’s really driving them. Try to articulate your own flaws and weaknesses (without judgement), instead of denying them. This is brutal honesty. This means you get really really still, and you examine yourself (with love).
It will look something like this:
When I feel intimidated by someone, I have judged this person as better than me. In a flash, somewhere inside of me it was decided that this is someone I ought to fear, respect, admire, and seek approval from. I have judged myself as worse than this person, and I immediately put on my armor (shiny and seductive, but made entirely of metal). I am so nervous that this person will see my flaws, my weakness, or something wrong with me, that I become like stone on the outside, impenetrable. Ice queen.
I try to appear as perfect as I can, in every way I can, in that moment. I try to stand taller. I consider everything I’m about to say two or three times, before saying it. Internally, my pulse beats a little quicker. I feel a little anxious and jittery. I am extremely self-conscious of how I look, how I stand, sit, walk, hold my wine glass, what I’m wearing. I don’t really pay attention to what the person is saying, because I’m either wondering if they’re judging me, or I’m planning my next witty response.
I want this person to know how smart I am; that I’m good enough. That I’m not weak. That I’m worthy of their respect and admiration. I want to “win him over.” I’m also extremely sensitive to everything he says – if I perceive something slightly offensive (even if it’s meant as a joke), my armor grows thicker and my defenses go up. I become a little aggressive, prickly even. I up the ante with a snide remark, all the while not wanting him to see that I’m exposed. I defend my position, my integrity, my worth at all costs. Maybe I have a zinger ready, with which I can retaliate. Maybe I just roll my eyes to let him know that what he said doesn’t affect me.
Alternatively, if his remark was intentionally offensive and combat ensues, I will get progressively more and more agitated and aggressive. The idea of concession, or even the slightest admission that he may be right, is impossible. In the heat of battle, I won’t budge a single inch. I will bend logic and reason in my favor in order to win. I will play semantics. I will use all sorts of manipulative tools to get my way. I will exhaust my opponent until he gives up in exasperation, usually because he sees that there’s no point in fighting me. I don’t care why he gives up, as long as I am the last one standing.
Regardless of the nature of the encounter, at some point it’s over, and I leave the person’s presence, but mentally I replay the conversation a million times. Sometimes the mental replay lasts until the next day. Sometimes it can last for weeks. I smile and congratulate myself for the moments when I said or did something smart or funny. I endlessly berate myself for the one dumb thing I said…
That’s the kind of self-examination I’m talking about. That is the level of honest reflection you make. Admit these things to yourself. We are all just human. We are all just doing our best. We are all perfectly imperfect. Accept that sometimes, you play out your patterns (maybe more often than you think). You don’t need to pretend that you don’t. You can admit it without shame or fear of judgment. When you do, and you see that there’s nothing to judge (because we’re all just acting like scared little children), you will come to love yourself. You will literally fall in love with your own self, and your patterns will slowly start to disintegrate.
Remember the only judgments that hurt you are your own.
Here are some prompts to get your started:
1. When I feel intimidated by someone, I ___________________
2. When I am hurt by something a friend has done, I ___________________
3. When I am hurt by something my lover/partner/spouse has said, I _________________
4. When my mother/father/parental figure makes me angry, I _____________________
5. When my boss calls me into her office, I ______________________
6. When I see my ex-husband’s/ex-wife’s number on the caller ID, I ____________________
7. When someone cuts me off on the highway, I ____________________.
I’ve been working my way through the Five Levels of Attachment by don Miguel Ruiz Jr. Although you can probably get through it in one sitting, I’m taking my time with the book. I will read a few pages, and then take some time to digest what it means. When I go back, I will re-read a few pages, and find a new deeper understanding. The words resonate in very interesting ways. The Ruiz family seems to have a knack for that kind of writing.
I came upon an exercise in the book that I find very profound – The Labyrinth in the Toltec Tradition. The instructions are pretty simple, the results however are very powerful. The focus of the exercise is a taking of responsibility for our own lives, a letting go of egoic conditioning and limiting beliefs, and a healing method of forgiveness.
And so without further ado, imagine yourself standing at the entrance to a large life-size labyrinth…
This is a review I’ve been meaning to share with you for weeks. You’ll want to file this one under “science-catches-up-with-spiritual-truths.” Here is a link to the amazon page. If you’re naturally skeptical, or you’d like some assurance from the medical community that all this self-love and don’t-believe-your-thoughts stuff is safe and healthy, this is the book for you!!
The book is written in really practical tone, almost like a manual to healing. The concepts and approaches suggested in the book are very similar to the self-inquiry and neutral observation we learn in meditation and spiritual tradition generally. The authors use, what I consider, platonic names for the mushy spiritual things that don’t seem to fit in with science.
For instance, we often talk about intuition, and how we ought to learn to listen to it, and allow it to guide our decision-making. In the book, this concept is called your “wise advocate.” The authors suggest that when your brain is sending you conditioned responses or compelling you to behave in certain ways, you ought to listen closely for your wise advocate, who will guide you in healthier, more loving ways.
The authors do stop short at one point in the discussion of mindfulness, to assert that their view doesn’t endorse the non-judgement standard we’re used to talking about here. But that’s fine; to each their own, right?
All in all, as my awareness grows, this book helped me take it a step further. It helped to understand myself from a clinical perspective and to see my spiritual practice from a scientific point of view. I would highly recommend it.
There is life. And then there is the story you tell about it.
One of the most important steps in the shamanic tradition of the Toltecs, is a taking of responsibility. While I’ve always considered myself a very responsible person, this is a different kind of responsibility. The tradition teaches that we must take ownership of our lives, of all the bad things that happened to us, of the stories we tell ourselves about those things, of the pain, and of the emotional wounds. This is the only path to true freedom and happiness.
After studying the basic tenets of the tradition, and learning the Toltec psychology, I embarked on the long, and sometimes scary, process of reframing my stories. As I looked at each painful experience of my past, examining my thoughts, feeling, and actions, I began dismantling the victim perspective. When I was done, I realized that I am no longer the victim of any of my stories.
I want to be clear that this isn’t about denying the truth of what happened, but it’s about finding the core negative beliefs that create the victim story. By removing the pity party dialogue, the right versus wrong dichotomy, and the negative judgments against ourselves and others, we are unshackled from the victim mind-frame and all the pain that comes with it. (If you’re familiar with Buddhist lingo, this is the second arrow of suffering).
The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not the thinker. The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought. That thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter: beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.
You’ll forgive me for my absence over the last few months – I’ve been continuing on my intense, thrilling, and at times terrifying, journey of spiritual discovery. For the past year, I have immersed myself, heart and soul, into the study of Buddhism, mindfulness, meditation, awareness, past-life regression therapy, and Toltec tradition. I have found, through a variety of modalities, a peace, fulfillment, love, kindness, and a passion for all of what life brings. I’ve spent the last six months doing an apprenticeship program, that first took me deeper into my own awareness and spiritual practice, and then taught me how to teach what I’ve learned.
My adventures have now brought me back here, with a new set of skills and wisdom to share with you. Over the next few weeks, I will be refocusing my work in that direction. My intention is to use what I’ve learned, and what I now know to be true, to help lead you (if you’re interested), to your discovery of yourself and what is true for you. I imagine it will take the shape of a coaching practice, but I’m still working that out in my head. (If this resonates with you, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss further).
I’m also preparing a very interesting interview with Judi Cohen, which I’ll post in the coming weeks. Judi is the founder of Warrior One, whose mission is to train lawyers in mindfulness (if you don’t know what that is yet, you will soon!). I had the great pleasure and privilege of participating in the Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers course over the last few months. I can’t recommend it enough!
That’s all I have to share for now. I’ll be back soon with more fun stuff to explore.
The last few weeks have been a difficult time in my life. A time of growth, of transition, of healing in disguise. These weeks have been a lesson in following my intuition and doing what I know is right, even when it’s incredibly painful and scary for the ego-mind. I’ve been watching myself, my thoughts, my emotions, from an observer perspective and choosing which beliefs to hold on to and which to let go of. It has made this time a little easier than I thought it would be.
On my way to run an ordinary errand yesterday, I came upon a new dollar store in the unlikeliest of places. I love dollar stores! To me, they are like a scavenger hunt. I always feel like I’m in a real life game; my task is to sort through the junk and find those rare decent items at ridiculously low prices. So fun. (more…)
Here are some additional resources to consider and investigate. I’ll just give you a brief annotated list and you can look further into anything that piques your interest.
* Mooji – His website is here, but his satsang videos (available on youtube) are terrific and plentiful. I was introduced to Mooji by a friend who is much more advanced than I am in spiritual practice – and I’d say that he’s not really for beginners. Mooji is a spiritual teacher or guru with a style that he calls “the lazy man’s way to enlightenment.” In my opinion, there’s nothing lazy about it – his talks are very philosophical, abstract, and often leave me feeling quite out of my depth when listening to him. If you’re ready to be taken to the proverbial “next level,” Mooji’s a great resource. If I’m not mistaken (which I might be), I think his teachings are of a Hindu lineage, rather than a Buddhist one.
* Lao Tzu – (from wikipedia) was a philosopher and poet of ancient China. He is best known as the reputed author of the Tao Te Chingand the founder of philosophical Taoism, but he is also revered as a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. The Tao is full of nifty lessons, quotes, versus that align beautifully with spiritual wisdom. Here is one:
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
As far as I know, one of the best modern interpreters of the Tao in our Western world is Dr. Wayne Dyer. His site is here. He’s a regular on the self-help circuit and is a best selling author many times over.
* A Course in Miracles – similar to how Esther Hicks receives Abraham (see my post on the law of attraction), and how Jane Roberts received the Seth Material (a future post), this guide to spiritual transformation (in my opinion, just another approach to the same universal truths) was received by Helen Schucman in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and compiled into what’s been called the New Age Bible. The most prominent teacher of this particular path is Marianne Williamson. She has a ton of books, audio courses, and interviews, if you’d like to learn more.
The subject of pilgrimages came up yesterday as I was watching the new PBS show called Sacred Journeys. The show follows Bruce Feiler as he travels the world on six historic pilgrimages: Lourdes, Shikoku, Jerusalem, The Hajj, Kumbh Mela, Osun-Osogbo. I watched the first two yesterday and was really fascinated. You should check them out.
I really got into researching the Camino Santiago pilgrimage a few months ago, even going so far as to read Shirley Maclaine’s book, The Camino, about her experience. There’s a terrific documentary about it (the pilgrimage, not the book) here. The Camino (also known as the Way of St. James) is an 800+ mile journey from Northern France, across Spain, and all the way to the Atlantic.
This is a touchy and controversial subject. I’m not sure that I’ve formed any solid opinions about it yet, but let me tell you what I know, and share a quick story.
Some years ago, a friend cornered me at a family function, and basically held me captive for thirty minutes, telling me about The Secret. You’ve all probably heard about it/read the book/watched the video, or been similarly cornered by a follower. Well I gave it a fair shake back then, and decided it didn’t work for me. I now realize that I didn’t fully understand it, and wasn’t going about it the right way. (more…)
I’d like to share two resources for meditation that I find very helpful.
Let me first say (admit) that I didn’t awaken through meditation, and I wasn’t especially drawn to it at first. Meditation is difficult. It can be boring (if you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing). It’s physically uncomfortable, if not downright painful… And that’s just on the surface!
I first believed that meditation was supposed to make me feel good and happy and peaceful, but after a few sessions, all I felt was anxiety and an odd emotional discomfort. That’s when I decided that meditation wasn’t for me.
However, as I got more and more into the spiritual teachings, I tried to force it. I tried to “make” myself meditate every day. My mind came up with thoughts like “i should do this. i should want to meditate. i should have enough discipline to actually do it and develop a daily practice because otherwise I’m not living a spiritual life.” These are all, of course, just more judgments and mind traps. Once I realized that and let go of what I “should” be doing, I suddenly found myself drawn naturally to meditation, without having to force it. (Sidenote for beginners: the anxiety and emotional discomfort is meditation gold – don’t run from it. Welcome it. Use it.)
So my advice to you – don’t force it on yourself. Allow what’s there. When the time is right, you will be drawn to it naturally, without having to push yourself.
Resource #1: The insight timer app. It’s free and available on iphone and android. There are a ton of terrific guided meditations, if you’re into that. Or alternatively, there is just a timer function with beautiful bells (are they called bells? gongs? chimes? I’m not sure). Be aware though, that if you set your phone to airplane mode, in order to avoid interruptions, you will lose access to the guided meditations during that time.
Resource #2: Gary’s gratitude meditation. (it’s the first of the free sessions – you’ll need to create an account to access it, but it’s entirely free). This was one of the first meditations I ever did and continue to do almost daily. For me (as for many spiritual people), gratitude is a huge and important aspect of practice and belief structure. I think it is a crucial component of happiness, fulfillment, worthiness, and love. I downloaded the audio to my phone and listen to it (most days) while I’m walking the dog.
Good morning internet friends! It’s cold here this morning, so with a hot cup of coffee, I’ve sat down to write some more…
Several weeks after I discovered Gary and the Toltec wisdom, I thought surely these ideas must be available in other traditions, and so my relationship with Buddhism began. Instead of following one specific sect of Buddhism (they seem to be country-specific), I cherry picked ideas and teachers from the different lineages. Here is a collection of monks and nuns and dharmas that I follow. (more…)
It is my belief that once you awaken, and you start on your own spiritual path, you begin to see that every religion and every tradition teaches almost exactly the same universal truths; they just all go about it in different ways. This is a great thing, because as I mentioned before, different modalities will resonate for different people. It is up to you to find the one that will open the door for you.
And so here are some resources that will take you along the Toltec path.
The best known modern teachings of the ancient Toltec wisdom are the Four Agreementsby don Miguel Ruiz.
This book is a terrific quick read. The concepts are seemingly simple, but when you try to put them into practice, you’ll see that it’s really hard work.
If you haven’t done a lot of meditative inquiry, you might also find some ideas to be revolutionary. My favorite one is don’t take anything personally. At first you think “ok. sure. I can try not to take things personally.” But when you dive deep with that one, and you really try not to take anything at all personally, you start to bump up against your value system, which makes you wonder if there are some things that should be taken personally – which is exactly the point. When you’ve gotten a handle on the Four Agreements, there is the Fifth Agreement, which will take you deeper into the mastery of awareness, transformation, and intent. These are the three pillars of the Toltec tradition. (more…)
I’ve come up with a series of ideas over the last few weeks, that involve making major decisions and investments of time and money. At first I felt a sense of excitement, and then some feelings of fear and doubt started to creep in. In trying to watch my thoughts from an observer perspective, I started to wonder if the fear and doubt was conditioned egoic thinking, or if it was my intuition telling me to stop and wait. A few articles and youtube videos later, I came upon one from Simone Wright – which resonated with me.
I think the main take-away from the video, and the answer to my question, is that intuition comes in an emotionally neutral way. If you’re experiencing an emotional charge, that is not the intuition speaking. It could be your own fear based thoughts or beliefs, or it could be an emotional reaction to the intuitive information itself. The key is to stop and watch what’s happening in the mind at that moment.
I also especially liked what Simone says right in the beginning: “Our intuition is the voice of our soul… who wants the highest good for us, who believes that we are capable of doing everything and anything that we set our minds to. So it’s also important to make the distinction that the voice of our intuition is going to guide us in supportive ways. It’s never going to diminish us. It’s never going to tell us that we’re a failure or we’re stupid.”
Happy Friday!! I came across two amazing new pieces in my spiritual journey, and since blog posts are free, I figured I’d share some more videos with you. (Also embedding videos is my new favorite thing, so yay!)
Here is a good sample of The Work by Byron Katie. Her entire message is that believing our internal beliefs is the cause of our suffering. Her program (which is easy and available for free) gets you to look at the roots of your beliefs, and to question them. In the questioning (or “inquiry,” as she calls it) you will find relief and peace and happiness. Check out this conversation where she walks through the basic steps of the program. (There’s a lot more of these available on her youtube channel).
The second thing I wanted to share is Jill Bolte Taylor’s interview with Oprah. Some of you may have seen her TED Talk. I think this video is much more interesting and gives a medical or clinical explanation to all this mushy stuff I’ve been talking about.
Since my recent “awakening,” I’ve spent the last few weeks getting deeper into this area of awareness, mindfulness, consciousness, and spirituality. Here, for your enlightenment, is a collection of some of my favorite teachers.
I know I promised a full post on Brene Brown, and I will get to that, but in the interim, if you haven’t seen this TED talk, you must. Here’s her groundbreaking book The Gifts of Imperfection.
Here is Tara Brach (who is awesome by the way), talking about Happiness. Her youtube channel has a ton of amazing content. One of my favorites is the video on learning to respond rather than react.
Here is Jack Kornfield talking about forgiveness. His simple meditation on forgiveness is intensely profound. Try it.
Here is Dan Millman’s amazon page. I read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and the Laws of Spirit in the last two weeks. Both were very good and worth reading – the same principles presented in slightly different ways. (They are available on Scribd, by the way). Here’s his TED talk.
Here is Eckhart Tolle talking about the Power of Now at Google. Check out some of his other videos on Youtube. He’s a really interesting person!
Finally, I’ve decided that I’m going to start training for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Here is a documentary by Australian filmmaker Mark Shea.
Last week I shared my search for happiness story with you. (The tl;dr version is – I was unhappy. Found peace. Now I’m happy.) Thank you to everyone who wrote me, for all the love, support, and internet hugs!
This week, I’m so thrilled to welcome a very special guest, Will Meyerhofer, JD MSW, to continue this conversation about self-esteem. I’ve been following (read internet stalking) Will for some time, so I’m really excited that he agreed to sit down for a chat with me.
Here’s what you need to know about Will: he is the author of “Way Worse than Being a Dentist: the Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning” which was published in the fall of 2011. He has also written a book introducing and elaborating upon the central concepts of psychotherapy, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy,” which was reissued as a paperback in December, 2011. Will writes regularly for Above The Law, and maintains a blog about life, the law and psychotherapy, at www.thepeoplestherapist.com. He attended Harvard College, the NYU School of Law, and the Hunter College School of Social Work. From 1997-1999, Will worked as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. Since 2005 he’s been a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Manhattan and a somewhat inadvertent speciality in working with lawyers. Will’s new book, a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space, is called “Bad Therapist: A Romance.” For more information about Will and his practice, please visit www.aquietroom.com.
Now without further ado…
So my approach to this topic of self-esteem is obviously a spiritual one (and I have no mental health training), can you talk about the academic/clinical version of low self esteem and what it does to people?
I trace the roots of low self-esteem back to the evolutionary need to please the parent. Young creatures – especially mammals, and in particular, humans – are helpless when they’re born, and in our case, remain helpless for many years afterward. It is crucial that we please our parents so we can receive the care we need to survive. But none of us can perfectly please our parents – anymore than any parent can provide all for all the needs of any child. Parenting is an impossible task – just like being a perfect child is an impossible task. So we grow up feeling perhaps we haven’t succeeded in pleasing – that’s the beginning of low self-esteem. Essentially, we take in negative messages – in psychotherapy we call these messages “introjects” – that attack us. Tapes of our parents’ criticisms or our peers’ inability to accept us play in our heads even years after we’ve left our childhood surroundings. In the worst cases, we can wind up with a persistent feeling that there’s a “badness” within us, a defectiveness, something that makes us unacceptable, unlovable – that we’ve failed to please and are thus, somehow, broken.
I think it’s often difficult for people to admit that they have this “weakness,” or to recognize it in themselves. Can you describe some of the words that your lawyer patients use that signal low self-esteem or internal self judgment?
I’ve referred to law firms as “the abattoirs of self-esteem” and I mean it. There’s something about all those risk-averse, competitive pleasers stuck together in one office that leads to relentless competition and cruelty. With lawyers, it tends to come out as a feeling that they, alone, of all the people in the law firm (often enormous law firms) somehow “can’t cut it.” It’s usually a secret they keep to themselves – a terrible feeling they lock up inside until, perhaps, they feel safe enough to confide in someone like me. And I’ve been shocked at how far lawyers plunge in their own self-estimate after only a year or two in biglaw. How could someone who went to Yale, then Yale Law School, then won a place at one of the top law firms in the world, suddenly doubt his own abilities? As in, completely doubt his ability to compete with anyone else at the firm? But that’s what happens when you isolate someone and overwork him, then provide ceaseless criticism without a word of validation of his abilities, his dedication, his hard work and determination to please. I’ve seen it, and it’s brutal and destructive and senseless.
What is the typical treatment plan for someone who suffers from this lack of confidence?
The general approach in psychotherapy is to provide a supportive, accepting atmosphere where a person can express his authentic feelings and thoughts, and in so doing, get to know himself. If you truly understand yourself – it never fails – you’ll start to like yourself. That makes sense, if you think about it. Why shouldn’t you like yourself? You have so much in common! Low self-esteem normally comes from listening to negative introjects – the old tapes that play in your head – and trying to be someone you’re not – in effect, living someone else’s life. But if you start to live consciously, and authentically, you’ll be living your own life, and that generally produces happiness. What always astonishes me isn’t that people learn to love themselves – it’s that so many of us have been taught NOT to love ourselves. That amounts to reproducing the worst of our own parenting in the way we raise our own inner child. We abuse the child within us – and that creates mental and emotional distress. It’s tragic.
In talking to people about setting down their “quest for perfection,” I’ve heard them say “if I don’t drive myself to succeed, then I won’t get anywhere. I need this negative internal voice. If I set it down, I won’t be motivated to accomplish anything.” And it’s true that a lot of people “at the top,” are driven by the negative voice. My personal experience has been the reverse. As soon as I stopped trying to be perfect, I became even more energized and excited about setting new goals and achieving them. Can you talk about motivations and what are healthy versus unhealthy drivers for people?
I don’t believe in “coaching” and “driving yourself harder” and all that sort of talk. If you are procrastinating, or resisting doing something, it’s probably because your unconscious – your inner child – is trying to tell you something. Instead of trying to blast through the child’s reluctance and ignore that message, I’d propose sitting the kid down at a table and giving him a good listen – he probably has something important to say. It might be that you aren’t the person you think you should be – you’re the person you are. And that authentic incarnation of you doesn’t want to do what he doesn’t want to do. I’m always correcting my clients, when they tell me what they “should” be doing. I tell them I’m much more interested in what you WANT to be doing, because that’s what you’re actually likely to do, and succeed at, and find happiness with.
Unlike the tech and business sectors, the legal industry abhors failure and doesn’t allow for even the smallest of errors. How can people go through this restorative process (“I’m not perfect, and that’s ok.”) while keeping their jobs? Is there a way, or must one leave the Biglaw environment first?
Frankly, a lot of people go into law for the wrong reasons – they’re good at going to school and getting good grades, and they don’t know what else to do with their lives, so they look for a way to translate good grades into money and status. That means a lot of people go into law and find themselves doing stuff they don’t want to do and hence aren’t much good at. I’d advise everyone who really isn’t interested in law to do something else – at least, if, given the reality of school loans, they have that option. At this point the legal industry is such a mess that most law students leave school without a job, and maybe that’s a good thing. The loans may never get paid off – but at least they have no excuse to stay in a career they were never interested in in the first place. My advice is to give yourself permission to do something you honestly want to do. Don’t tell me “I can’t earn a living that way” because for the first few years of any career, it isn’t about money. It amazes me that a kid will sink himself into debt to the tune of $240,000 to get a law degree when he has no idea what he’ll even do with it – but he’ll balk at working for $40,000 or even unpaid as an intern, to start a career he knows he’ll love. Find someone who has the job you’d kill for – the dream job. Then figure out how you can work for him – even if you’re sweeping the floor. That’s the first step towards happiness and feeling good about what you do.
It seems to me that the profession, at large, operates on fear and control – first destroying confidence and then keeping everyone in line, so to speak, with the threat of shame. Not just in a large firm environment, but we certainly see it in most courtrooms, we read it in opinions and dissents and legal blogs. I’m talking about the snark, and “take downs,” and intellectually bullying of sorts. Can you weigh in on whether you think this is a necessary element of the profession, a result of the current economic climate perhaps, or can we make an effort to find a kinder, gentler law?
I never liked law – it just doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t get excited about details and minutiae, and I hate adversarial relationships. I like the big picture and getting to yes. Everyone knows, as soon as the lawyers get involved, that the relationship will turn hostile and suspicious and argumentative, and the negotiations will bog down in details and everything will stop being any fun. I don’t think there is such a thing as a kinder, gentler law. You can try to do good with law – to effect social change – but I’m not sure you aren’t better off simply organizing and protesting and educating, rather than litigating. Consciousness-raising is the goal, and that doesn’t generally come about through adversarial battles in court. That comes about through sitting down and talking and sharing and empathizing with one another’s situations. Maybe that’s why I gave up law and switched to psychotherapy – I felt I could be kinder and gentler, and do a lot more good.
Thanks to Will for taking the time to give us a deeper view of these questions. I’ll be back again next week with more on this topic!
I have been on a bit of a hiatus the last few months… But now I’m back, and boy do I have a story to tell you! Buckle up…
As longtime friends know, I went from BigLaw to recruiting to essentially running my own business. I’ve had, what some people might consider, a series of professionally successful years, with my fair share of setbacks along the way. Generally though, I’ve been good at anything I tried, and even when I failed, it usually wasn’t for lack of trying.
A few months ago, running a million miles an hour, I realized that I was really unhappy. I mean really really unhappy. On paper, everything looked amazing, but in the pit of my stomach I knew something was wrong. First, I blamed everything around me: the hours I was working, the type of work I was doing, the difficult clients, or uncooperative economy.
Then my beloved dog died, and I wrote off my unhappiness to grief. Then when I got over that, I threw myself into one hobby after another – looking for something that would make me happy. I learned to cook, to code, to sew. I watched everything I could find on Netflix. I read one book after another and still … nothing.
I threw myself into the self-help arena. I practiced daily affirmations and learned about the laws of attraction. I read article after article about happiness and passion and what it means and how to find it… nothing worked. Hypnosis? Tried it. Didn’t work. I let a friend drag me to some kind of seminar, which turned out to be a cult. (I’m not kidding). I tried returning to my religious upbringing, and when that didn’t work, I investigated other religions. I even went to see a shaman in New York who chanted, waved feathers at me, and then and spit-sprayed me with fire and rum. (I promise this is all true).
I watched every TED Talk available and still nothing resonated. I read Godin and Gladwell and Daniel Pink… still nothing.
I guess you could say that I was depressed, although this feeling wasn’t debilitating. I did feel a little anti-social, but I was still functioning normally. I’ve also been through a few bouts of depression in the past, and this just felt different somehow. Not to sound pretentious, but the only words that made sense were “existential crisis.” I knew there was something else I wasn’t getting… Some elusive joie de vivre.
I finally threw my hands up and cried. Happiness was just not in the cards for me. I didn’t get it and I wasn’t ever going to find it. I just felt like I was going through the motions. Numb. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t specifically sad either. I was just unfulfilled. I saw people talk about life and work with such passion and enthusiasm that it made me green with envy. (These weren’t lawyer friends, obviously). I thought to myself “what’s wrong with you? You left the law, you are your own boss, what else do you want?” Then I felt guilty for being unhappy.
I didn’t get why I couldn’t feel this thing that I kept reading about. And then I found something that literally changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE. This is going to sound really corny; because I’m not this person. (I don’t do mushy, new agey, yoga, ashrams, or meditation…) But (drum roll please…) I found peace. You know where I found it? Inside my head. Crazy right?
Can you believe there was a vicious, brutal, fight-to-the-death, war going on inside me? I had no idea. I was just me; living life, doing things, striving to succeed, working hard, and all the while, it turns out, I was living in a war zone. One I created all inside my mind.*
You know who was to blame for my unhappiness? Me. No one else. Not the work, not the clients, not the economy. It was all in my head. And when I figured out how to call a cease-fire, the wave of joy and happiness and relief that came over me can only be described as a spiritual enlightment.
Now I know you hear me say “voices in my head” and you immediately jump to schizophrenia. No no no. Not actual voices. I assure you that, aside from some anxiety, a few panic attacks, and the occasional dip into depression, I’ve never had any kind of schizophrenic episodes or dissociative disorders.
The best, and I think only, way to explain what was happening is by example, so you’ll forgive me as I get a little personal. Let’s use an example we can all relate to:
Picture it. BigLaw 2008… I’d get a call from a partner asking me to come in to her office so she could give me a new matter to work on. If you looked at me from the outside you would see me get a notepad, run/walk to her office, get all the details, get to work right away, and work on the assignment until it was done and perfect. You’d see me rushing to hand it in as soon as it was done, and waiting impatiently for feedback, any kind of feedback. It was usually good work and I was thrilled with the praise.
On the inside, this would play out very differently. I’d get the call, hang up the phone, and as I was gathering my notepad, I’d think “oh god, what if this will be too hard? What if I won’t understand? What if I won’t know how to do it? What if this is the assignment where I finally fail and everyone will see that I’m a fraud, that I don’t deserve to be here, that I’m not smart enough…” All of these thoughts would fly by in a second, and then haunt me throughout the entire assignment. When I’d finally get my feedback and it was positive, I’d glow from the validation and praise. Wings would carry me home that evening … That feeling would last through dinner, and the next day the cycle would begin again. And that’s how my life went. It wasn’t confined to work alone. I felt this way in a lot of other areas of my life too. On the outside, I projected confidence, competence, and calm (most of the time). On the inside, disaster.
So here’s what was really going on – for whatever reason, trauma, bad parenting, etc., we grow up with a feeling that we’re not good enough. This feels bad on an emotional level, even if we aren’t aware of the thoughts that create that emotion. So to cope with those bad feelings, we create a perfect version of ourselves: an ideal image and we think that if only we achieved this level of perfection, then we’d be happy. Then we’d get the love/respect/praise/admiration that we so desperately want.
Insert your own type of perfection into this sentence and you’ll recognize this process in yourself. “if only I were ____________________ (successful enough, rich enough, thin enough) then I’d be happy.” In our corner of the world, it can be something like: if only I get the biglaw job, if only I make partner, if only I could bring in clients, if only I get to argue at the Supreme Court…
Then one of two things happens. Either:
we fail to achieve that goal and feel even worse about ourselves, or
we achieve it, feel good for 30 seconds, and then go back to feeling bad.
Why does that happen? Because the negative I’m-not-good-enough voice inside, the one that created the perfect __________ for you to achieve, the one that sets goals for you, and drives you to achieve them, is a nasty insatiable demon. As soon you achieve the goal he set out for you, he just moves the goal posts further away.
So what happens next? Unhappiness. Discontent. And a variety of other things, depending on the type of person you are.
If you failed to achieve the goals (didn’t make it to biglaw, didn’t make it to partner, didn’t bring in those clients, etc.) the demon keeps reminding you that you are a failure, that you should be ashamed of yourself, that you’re not good enough, and that everyone around is laughing at you. You feel this in the pit of your stomach. It’s not pretty.
Alternatively, you achieve your goals – you celebrate them for a while, basking in the praise and respect you get from others, and then the elation wears off and the same feelings come back. You start to worry about things like “well now I’m in biglaw, what if I can’t handle this job, what if I get fired, what if someone realizes I don’t belong here, what if those new clients leave….” It’s exactly the same voice. He never really goes away, no matter what you achieve.
Again, these “voices” or demons are thoughts in your head. And unless you know to “listen for them” closely, you don’t even know they’re there. They are a part of your belief structure. They are what Toltecs call mitote. They are what therapists call self-loathing and low self esteem.
People cope with these feelings differently. Some become workaholics (“I’ll just work till I drop so I don’t have to deal with these feelings and anxieties”). Some drink more than they should. Some turn to pills or pain killers. This is called “numbing.” You go to external substances to try to escape from the bad feelings.
So… now that we can all admit that we have low self esteem and we are secretly terrified inside, and using a variety of coping mechanisms to cover it up – let’s talk about what low self esteem does to you.
It makes you sensitive to judgment and criticism.
It makes you judgmental and highly critical of others.
It makes you either try to please other people for validation, or
It makes you strive for perfection to avoid embarrassment, or
It makes you angry all the time, so you lash out at people and things for no reason.
It makes you irritable and anxious.
Protracted self-loathing can lead to an intense feeling of shame. ** Shame prevents us from connecting with people. We try to hide our true selves from others because we believe that if they saw the real us, they’d be disgusted/disappointed/judgmental/etc. Shame prevents us from feeling empathy or compassion. It isolates us and creates fear and anxiety around social interactions… Then comes more “numbing” – alcohol, drugs, meds, retail therapy binges, overeating, over-exercising… Any of this starting to sound familiar?
The solution here is simpler than you think. This doesn’t need years of psycho-therapy. There is nothing wrong with you.
In its simplest form – it requires you to admit to yourself that you are imperfect. Get comfortable with that idea. Recognize your fears. Recognize that you are constantly judging yourself against a standard of perfection that isn’t possible. Learn to stop doing that to yourself. Then admit your imperfections to the rest of the world. And set down that mask you carry around. Be the real you. Stop pretending to be perfect, because we all actually see the real you, and accept you just as your are. You don’t need to punish yourself anymore.
Here come the skeptics: “But what if I have unreasonable expectations and they’ve gotten me pretty far in life. I don’t want to set them down, I need them. They drive me to succeed.”
Yep. I know. I thought the same thing. However, once you realize that perfection is not the same as striving for your best, and that by striving for perfection, you aren’t living up to your potential, you’ll see that you don’t need it. There are healthy, appropriate motivations and drivers that can help you achieve success without punishment. And when you achieve success with healthy motivations, you can enjoy that success and actually be happy. Not just for two hours, but forever.
This all means that you have to challenge the status quo – and I get that that’s scary. But it’s possible. And I’m not the only one who’s doing it. (More on this later).
Once you recognize these things and put them in perspective, a cascade of positive happy emotions fills you with a carefree confidence that is absolutely overwhelming. As soon as the light went off in my head, I suddenly felt like a completely different person. In fact, my friends and family keep asking me if I’m on drugs, because they don’t recognize this new happy, fun, carefree person I’ve become. If you’ve ever truly been in love and know what that feels like – this is the same feeling.
Once you are filled with confidence, and are free of self judgment, you can stop caring about what others think. You can stop looking for approval or validation from others. You can stop the drinking, or the meds, or whatever you use to numb the pain. I’d venture a guess, that if you did these things and found internal peace, you could even find happiness in BigLaw. (Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I now realize that if I had found my confidence and peace then, I could have continued working in what was otherwise a toxic environment.).
Now the question becomes “what does the real you want?” And the answers will come automatically. It won’t be a struggle. You won’t torture yourself with pros and cons. Once you find this peace and happiness – you can do anything. And that’s when you can start figuring out the rest of your life.
I found a quote recently that I thought captured this entire concept perfectly:
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards, they try to have more things or more money in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are then do what you need to do in order to have what you want. ”
Margaret Young, Author of Hail and Fairwell
Why am I sharing this story with you here? Because sometimes I veer off from posts on recruiting, but also because I see this suffering often, not just among friends, but very often manifested in the candidates who call me. [Update 2016: I wrote this post before I began the coaching work; when I was still doing legal recruiting]. They don’t know what they want. They know they aren’t happy, but they aren’t entirely sure why. They aren’t sure if they like being a lawyer. The status/prestige is nice, but it’s not enough. Some like the money (if they make money), but it’s also not enough. Some know they don’t like the work, but are afraid of what that means. They try to job hop their way to happiness; because, the thinking goes: another firm, another area of law, or other environments – inhouse, government work, a nonprofit – will make them happy.
I’m not going to weigh in on whether inhouse is better than a law firm. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The absolute facts don’t really make a difference. The question is will you be happy? And what happens after you make the jump and are still unhappy? I’ll tell you what happens – you’ll call me a year later and ask for help again. I see it all the time…
I don’t know what will make them happy. The problem is they don’t know what will make them happy either. What they’re running from isn’t BigLaw, law firm life, or the profession per se. They are typically running from the bad feelings, the anxiety, the fear and lack of confidence inside.
I’m also not suggesting that you give up on everything and sit on your couch all day. I’m saying that you should find inner peace, let go of the impossible expectations you have for yourself. Then let go of everyone else’s expectations, so you can have the mental freedom to figure out what it is you really want. Then go do that thing.
Set goals – achieve them – enjoy them. But do it with the right motivation and for the right reasons. The beauty is that these goals don’t have to be noble. They can be completely selfish and that’s fine too. If you want more money because you really really want a Maserati – go for it. Work like mad until you make enough to afford it. But your days won’t be miserable, even if you’re working hard. You won’t feel scared and vulnerable. Do anything you want, just as long as achieving it actually makes you happy. It’s a question of running to something you want, versus running away from something you don’t want.
So the million dollar question – how? It took me a few months to recognize and admit how unhappy I was. I kept blaming everything and everyone else around me. Then once I committed myself to finding a solution, it took another few months to find the one that worked for me. (I have no affiliation with Gary’s program and do not receive any kind of compensation for recommending it. I recommend it because it’s the only thing that resonated with me.).
Once I started listening to the audio podcasts, and doing some reflecting, it took about a week. Once I understood intellectually what I was doing, and I “tried it on” by thinking about my own life and actions and beliefs and motivations, the cascade came in two or three days. Perhaps in therapy this is done in other ways… I’m not sure, I didn’t pursue the mental health option. I went the spiritual route.
I don’t have a clean and simple solution for you. This won’t take an hour or a day. It takes some heavy lifting and an adventure into some scary psychological territory. The only thing I can tell you is it’s incredibly beautiful and fun on the other side. So try it… I promise you, you’ll be so very happy you did.
* Absolutely all the credit for my spiritual awakening goes to Gary van Warmerdam, and his work based on Toltec Wisdom and the teachings of Don Miguel Ruiz. Thank you Gary, for putting together the program and making so much of it available for free. For Gary’s much more thorough explanation of the thoughts and feelings of “not good enough,” check out his free mp3 podcast here.
** I will do a separate post on Brene Brown and her research, findings, and books about shame. A lot of this “spiritual” stuff lines up nicely with her academic social science research. Her approach in the book “Gifts of Imperfection” (which I highly recommend), is more platonic than mine… but the message is exactly the same.