And it’s not because they are especially intelligent, or funny, or charming. Theirs is a different sort of attractiveness.
Authentic people allow the creative energy of the universe to flow through them unencumbered; and they express it freely, without hesitation. Humbly, they know they are merely a vessel or conduit for whatever wants to be expressed; and really nothing more than that.
They rarely take personal credit for what seeks to flow through them, and so they don’t have a high opinion of themselves, based of their creations. They are not arrogant in their manner, but at best, quietly self-assured.
These people aren’t trendy or fashionable. They don’t really fit in nor stand out. Their homes are not expensively decorated nor perfectly maintained. Their lives, although on the surface often very simple and ordinary, display incredible depth, and meaning, and passion. Everything around them seems to move with an inexplicable harmony; even their chaos seems perfectly orchestrated. People are drawn to them, but no one can really say why. It’s a quality you can feel about them, but you can’t really name, and it’s something you certainly can’t mimic.
Just as an authentic piece of art, created in truth, becomes more beautiful and interesting the longer you look at it, so too with authentic people. They move with a certain flow through life that is captivating. They can turn the painfully mundane into something magical and mysterious. They carry a kind of serenity and innate wisdom that emanates from them, even when times are difficult and stressful. They possess an integrity of spirit and character, that others venerate and try desperately to emulate.
But this quality of authenticity can’t be manufactured. People can tell you all day long about how honest and truthful they are, but it has nothing to do with what they say or don’t say. Ironically, authentic people will tell you that it’s virtually impossible to attain real authenticity. They have a particular kind of energy about them, you just know it instinctively the moment you meet them. The expression of this is wonderfully unique within each such person.
The big secret is we all have this capacity within us, if only we took the time to unlock our own potential for this kind of greatness…
Tolerance is “to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.” Tolerance is to endure with forbearance. It carries a negative quality. Tolerance requires patience, causes frustration, and drains our vital energy. Inevitably, tolerating too much of something, ends in some kind of explosion when we “just can’t take it anymore!”
Acceptance, on the other hand, is a welcoming. It’s a positive emotion. It’s a seeing the goodness, benefit, correctness of a situation or condition. It is taking something we believe to be negative, and fundamentally altering our inner feelings about it.
The distinction is so important.
Tolerating something is allowing it to be, and trying to ignore it. Acceptance is looking deeply at the truth of a situation, and making positive interpretations of what’s there. Not just a silver lining, but the entire thing.
Acceptance is “yes! Please.”
Tolerance is “ugh. Fine.”
It begins with ourselves, accepting aspects of ourselves we don’t like, and finding why those aspects are actually positive. Then looking at aspects of others, and finding why those aspects (which we seem not to like) are also positive.
This is not an easy practice. Our minds are not trained to do this by default. It takes a significant effort to look inward. To see what is being resisted. And to bring it into acceptance.
My teacher, Gaya, used to repeat this to me all the time during our sessions; but like with most of her seemingly simple pieces of wisdom, I didn’t get it right away. It sounds ok. Sort of. Like some version of “all’s fair in love and war” kinda thing, right? (I never understood exactly what that phrase meant either. Either way, not important. Back to where I was going…).
So, love is ruthless. The more I thought about it, the less it made sense. In my view, at the time, love was soft, warm, accepting, gentle, and tender. It was all of these really beautiful, safe, sensitive, caring, protective ideas. Love was a respite. Love was ever-forgiving. Love was a warm comfortable blanket, surrounded by over-sized squishy pillows, on a really cold day. Right?
Nope, not so. Not even close.
Over the past year, I’ve come face to face with the energy of love. I mean face-to-face with the actual spiritual force that is love itself. And let me tell you something; it’s nothing like I imagined. I’ve been shown three faces of this energy: that of God (or the divine entity), that of Kundalini (often depicted as the Goddess Kali), and that of another spiritual force that runs my life, which I affectionately refer to as Gilda. Love is, in fact, in all three instances, absolutely ruthless!
There is, no doubt, a time and place for great tenderness in our often very painful lives. There is also complete unconditional acceptance of all things as they are. There is a tremendous reservoir of compassion, empathy, understanding, patience, and forgiveness. But the energy of love is a fierce, intense, incredible power. It does not pity. It does not have sympathy. It doesn’t care about victim stories or martyrdom or fear-based anything. It is not sentimental. It demands what it demands, and until you comply, there will be no salvation. Resistance is absolutely futile. Love will hurt you again and again until you learn her lessons. It’s really coercive, and can be unbelievably scary. (Some people hate the idea of surrender, and struggle with defiance patters. They try to use their will power to fight and resist this… It ends very badly, and ultimately they realize that they must surrender anyway.).
My experience of God (over several episodes really) is the subject of another post. Suffice it to say for now that each time I encounter this power, I’m left on the floor, sobbing for hours in humility, reverence, and gratitude. This power is infinite beyond anything words can convey. And when it comes, to me, at least, it arrives with a gravity and fierceness beyond descriptions. Neither soft, nor gentle.
The second face of love, Kundalini energy, is often depicted as Kali, the Goddess of destruction, darkness, fire (and a whole bunch of other things, depending on what you read). She burns everything in sight with unflinching momentum. She destroys all that is not truth. She removes all that doesn’t serve, with a swift and severe motion, without giving you a chance to say goodbye. She doesn’t care much for human attachments or promises. My writing ability doesn’t do justice to the incredible magnitude of this force. And yet, all she wants, all she’s really after, is for you to love yourself completely. Doesn’t that seem quaint? (I’m not talking about the fluffy cutesy variety of self-love. I’m talking about the really scary vulnerable painful truth version. Still, it seems strange somehow.)
If you love yourself, and do the work to develop ever-greater authenticity, in a way that is in your own unique spiritual alignment, Kundalini becomes as gentle as a kitten purring softly in your lap. But if you go against yourself, if you do not speak and act in your integrity, if you disorder your feelings, if you refuse to listen to your soul, if you act from the false self, seeking love and approval from other people, she will reign terror upon you without remorse. There’s no negotiating this, and she sees you infinitely better than you can see yourself. Meaning, she knows all of your motivations, even when they are unconscious. She forces you to pay attention and become conscious of them with each step. Otherwise, she will, literally, take away your will to live.
This sounds horrific, doesn’t it? That’s the terrifying nature of the mystical process. That’s why mystics are always wailing and screaming in their poetry, consumed by this force, helplessly at its mercy. In truth, there is actually no cruelty or malice in her approach. Just a matter-of-fact ruthless demand: surrender completely to her will (that is to say, come into complete self-love and awareness, surrendering your unconscious egoic personal will), and the pain stops right away. This is repeated again and again, at each level or layer of work.
And the third experience of this is my own local divine force, or higher self, who is similarly ruthless. Not long after my ego death experience, this spiritual force showed up in my life, and essentially moved into my body and mind. She, Gilda as we call her around here, directs everything I do. This isn’t quite as schizophrenic as it sounds, but close.
When the false begins shedding in earnest, and the true self emerges, it is often quite under-developed and in need of guidance. There is a profound and consistent connection to spirit which accompanies that initial emergence. And then at some point, there is a subtle dissolution or blending of the true small self with the spiritual higher self. There is a kind of humble surrender to the will of spirit, and a getting-out-of-the-way experience for the personal will. In practical terms, everyday there is less and less of my old fear-based self remaining, while my higher self, Gilda, teaches me how to live in accord with her higher values. My old decision-making ability is almost non-existent these days.
Gilda guides me from within nearly all the time. She informs me what to say, and how to say it, when to speak, and when to end a conversation, etc. And everything is in greater service, to my own life and the lives of those around me. It is through Gilda that all of the healing happens with my clients. It is through Gilda that all of the teaching and wisdom is conveyed. I recognize her as a part of me that’s always been there, I just didn’t have a tangible external experience of her until recently.
Interestingly, Gilda is not as docile, tender, or gentle as I would have imagined (or preferred) the force of love to be. It turns out that she, just like Kundalini, is fierce, intense, and demanding. Never mean or gratuitously hurtful, she blurts out the brutal unfiltered truth (without judgment), without any hesitation, or fear of consequence. She triggers me, and often those around me, for everyone’s greater benefit. She encourages me to stand up against injustice and ignorance in ways that are not always comfortable for my former terribly conflict-avoidant self. She is teaching me about courage, and helping me develop strength of character. She has given me a level of confidence that seems to command a respect I don’t understand (simultaneously irritating those with large egos). She brings out anger, when the situation calls for it, which is one of her favorite and my least favorite tools. She teaches me how and when to use it properly. In short, she is nothing like the sweet, peaceful, grandmotherly concepts I had about love. And definitely not the ever-peaceful zen monk images I had of spirituality. She can be really feisty, and quite certain of what to do, in situations where my moral decision-making feels fuzzy.
And yet, Gilda is all love. She is nothing but love and service. She is the Divine Feminine power, in action, without apologies. So is Kundalini. And so too is God (which doesn’t have a distinct gender to me). It turns out that my infinitely wise teacher had it right from the start, as always. Love is absolutely ruthless.
Often times when some negative event befalls someone we know, everyone shakes their heads in sympathy. “What a shame. Poor guy. He’s such a good person. How could this happen to him? He was always so kind and caring.” We make the mistake of thinking that this bad thing that happened is some kind of misfortune. A stroke of bad luck. Perhaps a consequence of the victim’s poor choices even. But this kind of thinking traps us in suffering. It is a victim mindset – that we are all hapless victims of a cruel and random fate.
This is how most people live life from within, but it is not the right way to live.
Bad things happen to good people all the time. Being a good person, or always making good smart choices, doesn’t protect us from negative events. Not even a little bit. Ultimately, death comes for us all. It’s one of the only certainties we have. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Of course, grief, or loss, or illness, can be terribly painful, but there is an important distinction to be made about the actual pain we experience, and the larger story we hold about the experience. The actual suffering is one thing, the larger perspective is another.
It is a misunderstanding of cosmic justice that bad things only happen to bad people, or that by being a good person we can somehow stay on fate’s good side, preventing tragic outcomes. That’s not how it works. Each of us has a particular life experience to live and work through. All of the things that come into our lives, good and especially bad, come to teach us lessons we have chosen to learn. At their core, all the lessons are about love – how to do love in human form.
When we hold negative events in the wrong perspective, we feel afraid and powerless. we hope for the best and constantly worry about the worst, living in a perpetual state of anxiety. We end up entirely missing the very lessons we came into this life to learn. Life is not about success or failure, as we ordinarily understand those things. It’s not about achievement. It’s not about controlling all the variables to make sure everything goes according to our plans. We have only an illusion of personal control.
Life is an opportunity to learn really profound lessons. It’s an experience of love, manifested in human form. It’s a beautifully designed play; orchestrated by an incredible intelligence, full of pain, and joy, and grief, and bliss, and heartbreaking injustice and suffering; all intricately mixed together, in just the right amounts for us, individually, to learn what we came here to learn. It’s all a dance of light and shadows in three dimensional form. We have to turn towards all the events and embrace them fully, as much as that’s possible, changing the larger perspective, so that we might endure the actual pain with less resistance and more personal agency.
Mystics have been writing about this for centuries, trying to share this wisdom of perspective. While it can be very hard not to feel victimized by fate in the throes of pain or grief, pro-actively, intentionally shifting the larger perspective, accepting circumstances and taking ownership of ourselves within those circumstances, letting the resistance drop away and finding the power we do have, actually helps us to move through and out of the pain, getting us out of our suffering much faster.
There is a subtle but pervasive tone of frustration in the writings of all the mystics, that no one understands this, or if they do intellectually understand it, they don’t put it into practice in their own experiences. These aren’t just lofty poetic ideas, they are actual tools of practice. They have to be implemented and lived, but people seem to reject these ideas, therefore seemingly choosing to remain in needless suffering.
“One of the marvels of the world is the sight of a soul sitting in a prison with the keys in its hand”
When I was in my pre-teen years, the powers that be in my family decided to enroll me in a beauty pageant. I will leave the debate about the wisdom of this decision for another post; suffice it to say it got me off the couch, away from the television, and taught me some amazing (deeply traumatic) lessons. In true “tiger mom” fashion, my mom proceeded full steam ahead, dragging the rest of us behind her; no expense was spared. For the talent portion of the competition, my mother choreographed a beautiful ballet, that conceptually involved me emerging from an imaginary oyster shell as a newly formed pearl. This particular choreography required me to dance on my toes (“en pointe” as it’s called).
The problem was that I was an amateur ballet dancer with nowhere near the technical mastery required for that caliber performance. “No problem. You can do it. I believe in you. We will find a way. We have six months to get you there.” I would need six years, not six months, to get to the level of dancing this ballet required. But for better or worse, my mother’s faith in my ability to do just about anything in a fraction of normal time is infinite.
And with that, my parents hired a retired ballerina from one of the famous Russian ballet companies, moved her into our house, and turned one of the spare bedrooms into a complete studio (installing a full wall of mirrors and regulation height ballet bar). If memory serves, Ludmilla was the name of my new tormentor. She kept me in that studio for hours, and hours, and hours, every single day. It was all the militancy of Soviet-style training in the comfort of my childhood home in Brooklyn. Awesome, right?
I can’t say that I hated all of it, but this training coincided with summer vacation, and while all of my friends came over to swim in our pool, I was trapped with Ludmilla, in my new studio, endlessly practicing my pirouettes, as the sounds of laughter and splashing water wafted in through the open window.
Ludmilla was intense. People who know me well think I’m pretty intense, so believe me when I tell you that Ludmilla was really really intense. I was terrified of her most of the time. She rarely smiled, and seemed preternaturally to lack any ability to display warm human emotions. (Occupational hazard, I suppose. Being a professional ballerina is not typically a warm and fuzzy sort of profession). When the floor of the studio would get slippery, from all the polishing my toes had done, Ludmilla would sip from a glass of water, and spit-spray the water on the floor to create traction. When I would get excited about some delicious thing cooking in the kitchen, Ludmilla would say “Food smells better than it tastes. Smelling it is enough. You don’t need to eat it.” You get the idea…
She was a fierce teacher, and I was a less than enthusiastic student. I was lazy, indolent, and performed what was required of me as if I were doing her a favor. Looking back, I don’t envy her at all, having to spend those months training me. I was a pain in her ass, for sure. To her credit though, she never yelled or displayed any abusive qualities. The only validation I got from her were somber nods when I finally mastered each movement to her satisfaction. Over time, I actually started to enjoy our training, and really saw the results of all of that work (or maybe it was Stockholm syndrome, who knows).
One particular day, I remember it like it was yesterday, I decided that I wanted a break. I was tired, bored, and wanted nothing more than to just spend the day playing in the pool. Ludmilla got me out of bed, and I decided to use my trusty “I don’t feel well” excuse to get out of practice. I hadn’t used this one before, so I was sure it would work. She asked me what was wrong, and with my best puppy dog eyes, I lied that I had a stomachache. I doubled over a little, for effect.
She left the room (and just as I began to celebrate my freedom), Ludmilla returned with some pills. “Take these. You’ll feel better. Then we can get to work.” I looked down at the pills in horror, and realized that I’d been caught. What now? Take pills for a stomachache I didn’t have? That seemed, to my eleven year old self, like a dangerous thing to do. I couldn’t believe her heartlessness. I’m sick and she wants me to take pills to feel better? What?? She won’t let me suffer in my (pretend) pain? She thinks practice is more important than my (fake) stomachache? She doesn’t care about me at all. What a bitch!
I tried to finagle my way out of taking the pills, desperately attempting to elicit some kind of human emotion from Ludmilla; pity, sympathy, compassion, something. I was met with a cold hard stare. “No,” she shook her head at me. “This will not work with me. I don’t care that you don’t feel well. Unless you need to go to the doctor, we are going to the studio to practice today. You can have your stomachache later.”
I realized in that moment that my malingering and pity-party tactics won’t work. I had no choice but to comply with Ludmilla’s demands. She was not susceptible to my emotional manipulations. Begrudgingly, I did. But what I learned that fateful day was that using pain, real or imagined, to avoid responsibility doesn’t work. At some point you will get caught, and that will feel bad. You can try to avoid difficult things, things you don’t want to do, by wallowing in your pain or creating victim stories (helpless disempowerment stories about how you can’t, or you’re just not strong enough, or you don’t have what it takes, or you can’t make it on your own), but sooner or later those things catch up with you anyway, and then it’s worse.
Lots of people use stories of pain, suffering, victimhood, or martyrdom to avoid dealing with the real difficult situations in their lives. It’s really common. There are solutions available, but they don’t want any solutions, much like I didn’t want Ludmilla’s pills. Some of us learned early on that being sick will keep us safe, will absolve us of responsibility, will garner love and attention we didn’t get otherwise. These were necessary survival tactics, often in abusive dynamics, but they become very unhealthy adult patterns. Letting them go can be really difficult and scary, healing can be scary, but holding on to them keeps us stuck in unnecessary suffering.
The thing is, as Ludmilla (God bless her) taught me years ago, you will have to face the music sooner or later. At some point in your life, someone (your best friend, your partner, your child) will see through your crap and will work up the courage to confront you and call bullshit. That won’t be fun for you, and you will hate them for it. That will lead to all kinds of relationship conflicts. You might as well get it over with, and save yourself all that drama. Save yourself the emotional cost of the avoidance – it’s not making you happier anyway. Wallowing in self-pity doesn’t make you happy! Confront whatever you need to do, and then when it’s done, you can go play in the pool (or have your fake stomachache, as it were).
Gaya always told me “life demands action.” The lessons that life offers us can be very challenging and legitimately very painful, and they often have a Ludmilla quality to them – ruthless and no room for excuses. Life doesn’t believe our phony excuses. We don’t get to choose the circumstances that life presents, often the lessons come veiled in extraordinary hardships. Sometimes you end up stuck with a Ludmilla, whom you fear and hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But when that happens, we must accept those circumstances, and bring all of ourselves to each present moment, embracing those challenges, using them to cultivate courage, all without making excuses.
We are here now, to live this life, so we must live it fully, confronting our fears and the difficult responsibilities. Yes, we practice radical compassion, but that compassion comes with great personal responsibility, and it does not absolve us of doing difficult things. Yes, we are learning how to push ourselves less (in the wrong directions), and how to listen to our bodies and be more gentle and tender, but that is not a mechanism of avoidance. We still have to do hard things.
Avoiding life, because of fear or any of these other habits, is not the way. It will not lead to happiness.
This beautiful quote by Anais Nin distills the essence of projection into thirteen simple words. It is one of the more profound pieces of wisdom that, when understood and realized completely, can liberate us from so many of our unnecessary conflicts and suffering.
When we look out into the world around us, the circumstances in our lives, the people we encounter, things we see in the news, we are looking at all of it through a kind of filter. It’s as though there is a lens in our mind’s eye, which distorts the truth of what we are looking at, showing us reality a particular way.
This filter or lens operates automatically, and unless we become conscious of this overlay, we mistake our interpretations, our automatic vision, for the truth. That’s what the quote is drawing our attention to – that filter, which is often called “projection.”
Our individual filters are made up of many things, but primarily it is our own subconscious belief system and network of emotional pain. When we were very young and learning how to navigate the world as children, we learned how to earn love, acceptance, safety, and how to avoid pain. We collected a set of emotionally charged experiences that formed and shaped how we see the world and how we live in it. Our childhood minds developed a kind of rule book for what is good, what is bad, what is scary, what’s allowed and what’s not, and what we must do or be in order to get what we want.
These set of beliefs we formed in childhood, created in a very innocent mind, are often false and misleading. And yet, this system of beliefs, this filter, continues to govern our adult lives. We live our adult lives guided and informed by the rules we created as infants and toddlers. (Sounds bizarre, right?)
When we begin doing some discovery and inquiry work, we begin to root out some of these beliefs, and bring them up into conscious awareness. It’s then that we begin to really understand how silly they are and how unreliably they guide us. Then we can begin the work of consciously changing those beliefs and growing in psychological maturity.
“Living one’s truth” or “speaking one’s truth” has become a little bit of a cliche in personal development and/or spiritual circles. It’s often mis-used as a justification for selfishness or reckless confrontation; but that is not at all the proper understanding of this concept.
Really living your truth is about getting still enough, and courageous enough, to admit to yourself what you want, and what you don’t want. It’s tuning in to the pit-of-your-stomach feelings, and figuring stuff out from there. It’s about standing in your integrity, and following your internal guidance, especially when it goes against social norms, or the mores of your specific community. This is terrifying. It just is.
It’s not about being rebellious, for its own sake. Rather, it’s about the moment when you realize that you don’t fit in with “normal,” and no longer want to fake it. It’s when you can’t bear to pretend for a moment longer. It’s the moment when you actually have to honestly and directly say “no” to someone (when they’ve asked you to do something you don’t want to do), knowing that your no will hurt them deeply. It’s the earth shattering moment when your integrity pulls you onto a path that is considered crazy by everyone you know. It can turn your stomach with anxiety and shame to acknowledge what you really really want, and to make a commitment to go after that specific thing. But that’s what living your truth, speaking your truth, and being impeccable with your word means. Authenticity. The real you, warts and all. My friend Will published a new post about this sort of truth telling (in the dating arena) earlier today. (I loved it. You will too).
It takes courage, real courage, to live/speak your truth. Courage isn’t about jumping out of airplanes or diving with sharks. It’s not about physical activities that get the adrenaline pumping. Real courage happens in very quiet and subtle moments. In those intimate, vulnerable exchanges when you’re afraid to speak the truth. When you’re afraid to honor your own feelings. When you’re afraid that if you say or do what your heart is asking of you, that you will be dismissed, shamed, ridiculed, or rejected. Or that the truth of your feelings will hurt the feelings of another. Or that saying “no,” will make someone not like you anymore. (This last one sounds like school-yard stuff, but believe me, it’s everywhere!)
In my work with people, I’ve come to learn that it isn’t death that scares people most – it’s being rejected, unloved, and left all alone; that is the biggest fear. If you investigate any fear, at its core you will find that – “I will lose people’s love and admiration. I will lose their respect. I will lose my social standing. I will lose my reputation. No one will want to be my friend. No one will love me. My family will reject me. My wife/husband will leave me…” This is what’s at the core of everything. But your truth doesn’t care. Your truth asks you to stand up, look this fear in the face, learn to be really comfortable and happy being alone, and do what your heart is telling you to do anyway. There is nothing scarier or more empowering than that.
Over the last few years (and especially throughout the last six months) I’ve had some deeply mystical, sacred, and highly unusual experiences. I was more than certain that if I shared the details of those experiences (even very privately, selectively, and discretely) I would be ridiculed at best, or referred to a psychiatrist at worst. But none of those things happened.
The wonderfully loving people that I’m blessed to have in my life accepted those truths without so much as batting an eyelash. (There were those, of course, who weren’t so accepting, and we’ve now amicably gone our separate ways; and that’s a really good thing!). This is what actually happens when you share your scary truths – you aren’t going to be rejected in the ways you worry about. You will instead separate out the people who love and accept the real you, from those who only conditionally accept you (if you fit in to the image of who they want you to be).
If you are brave enough to be the real you, you will find lots of love and companionship from others who are just like you. I hope you find the courage to try it. Being the real you (whatever that means), out in the open, is a delicious experience! 🙂
I am responsible for what I say. But I am not responsible for what you hear.
don Miguel Ruiz
This is one of my favorite quotes from don Miguel. It is such an important, healing, and liberating piece of wisdom. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately.
Expressions of truth can be really powerful. The intent behind the words, the part of the expression that is conveyed indirectly, is even more powerful. We are responsible for wielding that power wisely.
Speaking truth does not carry the intent to harm.
In fact, speaking truth must be done very carefully and considerately, so that any collateral harm it does produce is minimized. It is typically done vulnerably, with the intent to cease harm that has already been happening.
If the intent of the words is to harm or diminish the other, that’s not justified as speaking truth – it’s vengeance, retaliation, punishment, even if the words are technically true.
Hurtful things, said in the heat of a conflict, in order to win or dominate over another person are not justified as speaking truth.
We are responsible for the harm that harmful words and intentions convey.
On the other hand, we are not responsible for the interpretations other people make. We are not responsible for how our words are heard, or received by those who don’t understand, and don’t make an effort to understand.
There are people who are highly reactive, lacking a certain generosity of spirit. Upon hearing something they don’t like, they immediately jump to absurd unjust conclusions, make ridiculous or inappropriate assumptions, become offended, and sometimes work themselves up into hysterical outrage. Typically, they start flinging wild accusations and personal attacks in response, all without ever asking for clarification or deeper explanations. They seem to always be ready for mortal combat at a moment’s notice, completely certain that their views and interpretations are singularly correct, and therefore the speaker must be destroyed.
Those of us who grew up in oppressive dysfunctional environments know these people well. We were made to believe that we are always responsible for these aggressive inappropriate reactions of others. If they got angry, it was necessarily always our fault. We learned that we must be really careful, tiptoeing around other people, because any careless or unwelcome words would have dire retaliatory consequences. We were made to believe that this is normal, and morally justified, and it was our job to manage their reactions. We learned that we must be thoughtfully sensitive and careful with people who would regularly lash out with cruelty and destructive intent, if we said the wrong things, tried to speak the truth, or expressed unwelcome opinions.
This piece of wisdom resets those false beliefs back on solid ground.
We are responsible for ourselves – to speak with love, to speak with respect and kindness, to express hurt feelings or anger in a measured or careful way. To hold others accountable in a fair and tempered manner.
But we are not responsible for how other people react, how they mis-interpret our words, how angry they get, how destructive they get, or how much gas-lighting or blame-shifting they seek to engage in.
Destructive people like to make others responsible for their emotions. If they are angry, they always find someone to blame, whether it’s justified or not. They are unwilling, or at times unable, to see themselves clearly or control their explosive feelings.
But that does not make us responsible for it. We don’t need to carry that responsibility, nor remain silent in order to avoid upsetting them. If they jump to conclusions, and twist words and intentions out of context, and get angry seeking to provoke escalating chaotic conflict – that is entirely up to them. We don’t have to apologize, nor feel guilty or responsible, for things others choose to get upset about.
Learning to make the distinctions correctly is really important and takes time, courage, and lots of patience to figure out.
Try as we might, we cannot control how other people receive our expressions. We all want to be thought of as good people, to be liked, admired, accepted, and appreciated, but the reality is that everyone hears, sees, and judges others through their own filters. People make assumptions, judgments, and interpretations based on what they believe about themselves, and the pain they experience in their own realities. There is very little we can do about that in relation to another person. We cannot explain ourselves to someone who is unwilling or unable to see past their own filters. We cannot prove our good or innocent intentions when they are convinced they know our true malicious motives. And we cannot be responsible for how they interpret or react to what we say, when they are stuck entirely inside their own reality.
When we realize this, we stop trying so hard to affect what others think of us or how they receive our words. You can’t control their opinions of you, or how they react to you. You can only do and say whatever is in your own integrity, guided by your own love, truth, and compassion. And how other people hear you or react is entirely their business. Their emotions, their reactions, are solely under their sphere of control.
We live in a culture the prizes success and ambition at all costs. What you do for a living, where you live, and what you own seem to determine your worth as a human being.
Everything keeps telling us to do more, be more, achieve more. Go go go. Push yourself harder. Get into better shape. Make more money. Get that promotion. Run faster, sleep less, eat less, work more. If you have pain, take a pill that will numb it so you can push through. Being really really busy is a status symbol. You must worry constantly that you’re not doing enough, that you don’t have enough, that some awful thing is around the corner and you are unprepared.
Why? What for? Why are we stuck in this hamster wheel, exactly?
Have you ever stopped for a second to ask yourself what you’re doing all of this for? Most of us are so conditioned by these false ideas that we literally can’t fathom the possibility of something else. Even if we intellectually see and understand that these social mores are illogical and unhealthy, we just can’t pull ourselves away from the rat race.
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.”
We have to find a way to stop doing this to ourselves.
One of the pearls of wisdom Gaya imparted to 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. Listen to your body is a complete realignment of your values. It is a re-prioritizing of your feelings, and natural limits, above what your mind (and society at large) is telling you to do. Your body (your emotions, your feelings, your physical sensations, and especially your painful symptoms) 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 in a way that is self-abusive. Those messages deserve your attention. They actually exist to serve your highest good.
In our culture, we are taught to fight against our bodies, our symptoms, our illness, to push past our limits, to silence our pain, our emotions, our feelings, our distress, to go for it all (whatever that means). We have lost respect for our own subtle internal guidance system. We’ve lost our ability to love, respect and nurture ourselves, our own bodies, and the spirit within us. We are so busy sacrificing ourselves in search of external love and acceptance, that we neglect our own self-care. We are prioritizing the pursuits of ego, over the authentic pursuits of the heart and soul.
What I’m talking about here isn’t political or economic issues. This same dysfunctional value system informs our familial and interpersonal relationships in deeply unhealthy ways.
I was talking to a friend recently who told me that she hurt her back when she pushed herself to run three extra miles last week. She knew she shouldn’t have (because she’s had back issues in the past), but in her words “like an idiot I pushed myself to do more.” The why part is unclear.
She spent the entire following week in agony, unable to sit or move around without severe spasms. Then came Thanksgiving, and instead of taking care of her back and staying off her feet, she spent the entire week cleaning, cooking, preparing to receive her family over for the holiday. More back pain, more strain, more pain meds, more pushing past her own physical boundaries in order to make the holiday special for the people she loves. Sounds wonderful and selfless right? It’s not.
We are taught to believe that this is what love means. Love = constant sacrifice, and an ignoring of our own personal needs and feelings for the benefit of others. It’s another form of success – doing it all, for them. If you love someone, you put all of your needs aside in order to cater to their needs. You perform the role of a perfect parent/friend/child/lover etc. And theoretically this sounds lovely. But in practice, the people who are conditioned to love this way, who believe this story, sacrifice themselves entirely, in an extreme way that isn’t healthy or self-loving.
Extreme selflessness is not good, is not love, is not virtuous.
At the end of my friend’s Thanksgiving dinner, just after she served dessert, one of her family members got up from the table saying she was going to get a jump start on the black friday shopping deals. My friend became enraged, “How dare she? Can you believe how selfish she is? All she cares about is herself. I sacrificed so much, pushing through my back pain, to make this holiday special for everyone, and she can’t even wait until desert is finished?“
What often ends up happening, for my friend, and for many other people who believe this myth, is we end up exhausted, resentful, and unfulfilled. We aren’t happy, we’re tired and cranky. We sacrifice in order to be the hero, in order to cater to other people’s needs, hoping to win love, affection, and gratitude (sometimes loyalty) in return. Then when a family member (for whom we do all the sacrificing) doesn’t appreciate all the hard work, or doesn’t match our level of sacrifice, or doesn’t provide the love and affection anticipated, all we are left with is anger and frustration.
“Look at all I’ve done for you! Look at how much I sacrifice for you! And all you think about is yourself…“
Does this sound familiar?
If you go inside yourself and ask why you’re really doing all this sacrificing, you’ll find some interesting answers that may surprise you. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t selfless reasons at all. They are an inverted covert form of selfishness.). Unhealthy sacrifice isn’t giving just to give. It isn’t joyful and generous in its giving. It gives with a hidden expectation. And often that expectation goes unmet.
When we push past our own limits, for the sake of winning love or gratitude from someone else, we aren’t being selfless. That’s not love – it’s a secret transactional bargain. But we are the only one who’s in on the secret. The other person generally has no idea what our sacrifice is obligating them to do in return.
If you look within and tried to verbalized the terms of the transaction out loud they sound really odd, and the other person likely wouldn’t ever agree to them explicitly. It sounds a little like this: “I will sacrifice all of myself, I will push myself past my pain, I will endure hardship, to do nice things for you, things you don’t especially want or ask for, but I will just imagine that I can read your mind, so I will decide for you what you want or need. But then in return, you have to put me on a pedestal, and love me, and care for me, and think I’m a great parent/friend/child/lover, and promise to always love me/want me/need me, and never abandon me.Also, if you sacrifice your own happiness, and well being, and wants and needs for me, like I do for you, I would appreciate that too. Then I will know that you really love me.”
It’s a ridiculous set up for disappointment and frustration.
In order to really give love, in a way that is unconditional, and without expectations (where you don’t get resentful or angry; where you aren’t tired or cranky), you have to fill yourself with love first, by taking care of your basic needs, and by honoring your own self and your own body. Then you can let that love generously overflow to others. Then you’re not loving as a bargain, you happily give all of your love, and you’re not secretly expecting anything in return.
To fill yourself with love, you have to learn how to be kind and gentle with yourself, your body, your feelings, and stop pushing yourself to do things you don’t want to do. Listen to your body. You have to learn how to set your boundaries, how to say no, and to stop punishing yourself with guilt trips. No more dig deep buttons. No more pushing through pain. Sometimes it means asking others for help, or even letting go and creating space for others to step in and carry the burden for a while. And if some stuff just doesn’t get done, then it doesn’t get done.
This is fundamentally about sourcing love from within ourselves, rather than trying to hustle and negotiating for it with someone else.
It takes a little practice, but when you experience giving and loving in this way, you’ll never want to go back to the unhealthy sacrificing again.