A few weeks ago, I was out walking the dog along the waterfront, where a new pier is being constructed for a residential high-rise. It’s been a little noisy in the neighborhood for the last few months, but nothing really disturbing; just a constant sort of background hum.
This particular day however, as we got closer to the site, I could really hear it. I mean really. You want to know how loud it was? It was louder than the loudest setting on my phone’s music app! Awful, right?
Immediately, the yenta complainer voice that lives in my head chimed in: “Ugh. It’s so loud. I wish it would stop. Why does this need to be happening now? Why can’t I just go for a quiet peaceful walk on a beautiful warm day without something like this ruining it? Why does this always happen to me?”
She’s a real gem…
A pile driver was mercilessly banging away at the steel beams. Bang, bang, bang, without end in sight. And I noticed that I was feeling instantly annoyed.
Normal, right? Who wouldn’t be? Well, I live in a slightly different head-space these days, so my annoyance was like an alarm, letting me know there’s some lesson to learn here (a gift from the universe, if you will).
When I feel annoyance (or any other negative emotional state), I play with it. I use it as a signal, to go inward. I go deep inside the experience, with curiosity, to find out more. I apply a version of mindfulness to it.*
If it’s an emotional reaction, I get into the core of what’s triggering me. If it’s a sensory thing that’s affecting me, I embrace the experience to see how it can be altered by observation from within. It’s an ever-present meditative focus these days (which is actually a much more interesting way to live in the world, but that’s for another post).
So I thought “Ok. Pile driver. No end in sight. I can’t wait it out. What if I didn’t resist the sound? I know it’s unpleasant, but what if I just tried to welcome the sound, and really let myself feel it? What if I treated the sound like music instead of noise?” I chose to allow the sound in, and tried to locate the experience of the sound inside of me. (Yes, that’s right, I stood there, like a crazy lady, staring at the construction site, “feeling” the sound of the pile driver.).
I did a quick body scan to see where the sound was registering inside me. I let go of that very subtle muscle contraction in the ear that tries to keep out unpleasant sounds, and what happened next really surprised me.
After about ten seconds, the sound vanished out of my perception entirely. It’s like I couldn’t even hear it. And when that happened, suddenly the visual came into sharp focus. I stood there mesmerized by the construction scene itself. You’ll forgive me, I’m not a poet, but the whole site was performing a beautiful ballet in front of me! The pile driver was rhythmically moving up and down; the cranes were swinging and swirling around; the excavator was gracefully swooping down and shuttling earth and rocks back and forth… all in some kind of beautiful harmony, as if in sync with a melody only they could hear. I couldn’t believe it. It was captivating and absolutely magical.
I don’t know how long I stood there exactly, but I just couldn’t tear myself away. It was amazing; but more importantly, I almost missed it.
Had I continued to focus on my annoyance, and not overridden my default “normal” resistance, I never would have seen it. This is exactly how we miss the exquisite beauty of everyday life; when all we focus on is the automatic un-investigated negative response. Who knew that irritating construction noise could lead to this incredible experience?
It turns out that with a little internal awareness, we can begin to really savor life completely. Every moment. Every experience. Especially the “bad” ones. As if each experience was an exotic drink you’re tasting for the first time.
The next time you find yourself in an annoying situation, see if you can drop the resistance and watch what happens instead. I bet you’ll be surprised by what you find.
*In case you’ve been out of the loop, mindfulness is the focusing of one’s attention and awareness, with complete acceptance, without judgment, to whatever is arising in the present moment.
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.
As we courageously explore the rich depths of our consciousness, we sometimes come upon some strange and unexpected things. Sometimes fascinating, other times deeply confounding, these patterns are often well-hidden in the unconscious, and when brought up out into the light of awareness, they seem to defy rationality and contradict truth, wisdom, and expectations.
Wanting to be wanted is one of those patterns.
It is both very subtle, and very pervasive. Wanting to be wanted is a kind of egoic perversion of personal desire; it keeps us trapped in being the object of someone else’s desire, instead of the subject of our own.
Meaning, instead of recognizing, identifying, and asking for what we really want and need (often because we don’t know and our feelings are terribly jumbled about this), we focus entirely on being desirable, pleasing, accepted and wanted by someone else.
This is not confined to the sphere of romance or sexuality, but exists across the spectrum of identity. This particular pattern causes a great deal of emotional pain and psychological suffering. It turns out to be one of the central pillars of the ego’s operation.
When we find these feelings and motivations inside, when we explore them and admit them to ourselves, they seem wrong or deeply confusing. They fly directly in the face of sourcing love and approval from within ourselves; which is precisely the point! This is another lie in the mechanism of the ego. It seeks love and happiness externally by trying to please someone else, and earn their love and approval. The feelings and desire of wanting to be wanted prevent us, somatically, from living in our own integrity. I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring and digesting through the wounding that creates this particular set of feelings. It can be both very deeply and very broadly enmeshed in who we are and how we function.
For those unfamiliar with this internal experience, I highly recommend the book below.
Polly is a prominent and powerful voice among many wonderful feminist leaders and thinkers. Her book does an amazing job of articulating how it all works, and distilling a lot of ancient wisdom into a practical modern approach to life (primarily for women, but also often applicable to men).
Polly encourages her audience to get really honest and really clear about their desires, bringing their truths into the light, because it is only when we are aware of what we really feel and what we really want, that we have true freedom to choose how we live in the world.
Here are a few short blurbs from the book:
“Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.”
“Nor is wanting to be wanted the expression of a desire for intimacy or closeness. Rather, wanting to be wanted makes us feel as though we have no clear desires of our own. We focus on how to bring things under control by appearing in a certain way, speaking in a certain manner, implying our needs. Yet we never say directly what we want, and we may never actually know. We have been culturally programmed so thoroughly to tune in to the subtleties of whether or not we are having the “desired effect” that we fail to tune in to what we really want or to see how strongly we are motivated by wanting to be wanted.”
“[People cannot read your mind or guess what it is you want. C]lear and direct communication avoids the indirect message that other must intuit our desires. Attempting to evoke response from others without claiming one’s needs not only is confusing but carries the hidden meaning of danger… It is only when we speak directly, with a secure self-confidence, that we step outside this negative meaning of female desire.
“The Renaissance metaphysician Paracelsus said that we cannot love something without knowing it, or know something without loving it. When we feel deeply loved, we also know that we have been encountered authentically, that we have been true to ourselves in the presence of the other and found that truth fully embraced and accepted. When we tell the truth to a partner or a friend, we are indeed vulnerable to being judged, blamed, or rejected. If we hide the truth in favor of protecting ourselves and appearing in a certain way, however, we may retain an illusion of control but we lose the possibility of being known for who we really are, and hence of being loved.”
One of the most challenging aspects of love and living authentically is developing the courage to speak with truth. This is a really difficult area of work. It sounds easy, but it’s really not.
At the outset, the search for truth within can be a scary endeavor. To be honest with ourselves, to admit our real feelings and allow them into conscious awareness, can be terrifying.
Forget big universal truths; I’m talking about little truths, personal truths, aspects of our personality which are in conflict with who we think we are or should be. Most of us are afraid to really look inward, and to be honest with ourselves, to admit the truth to ourselves, because we might find some really shameful and unacceptable parts. We might find some parts that require us to make difficult choices or changes.
Naturally, none of us really want to endure feelings of shame or emotional turmoil, so most of us prefer to live in denial than to face the difficulties that truth presents. Denial has the appearance of safety and stability, and for a while it can certainly help keep things quiet.
For those of us who are courageous enough to go within, and to do this inner truth seeking privately and make peace internally with who we really are, life offers us the next great challenge and obstacle – other people!!
Sometimes admitting truths to ourselves privately feels ok and comfortable, and we can certainly build up resilience to face greater and more unpleasant truths as we go. But the idea of saying those things out loud to another, or asking that the needs we’ve discovered, or the feelings we’ve found, be accepted, respected, and honored by someone else? That can feel overwhelmingly scary.
The people in our lives, our most intimate relationships, can sometimes turn out to be the scariest places of all.
We might fear their shame, rejection, invalidation, or ridicule. We might fear that the other person will abandon us if they really knew the truth. Other times, we might be very concerned with the feelings of others, afraid of hurting or upsetting them with our truths, and so we become afraid of being honest, or telling them how we really feel. Sometimes we find ourselves in relationship dynamics with people who are psychologically fragile and explosive. They might often respond to our feelings or vulnerable truths in very harmful, toxic, and emotionally violent ways.
As a matter of course, in destructive dynamics like this, especially if there is a power imbalance, in order to stay safe, we learn how to subjugate ourselves and maneuver around others very carefully. We do everything we can, twisting ourselves into knots, just to avoid their psychological landmines. We learn how to coddle them and their insecurities. We learn how to cater to their unreasonable demands and manipulations. We learn that saying an honest and authentic “no,” or expressing contrary feelings can lead to destructive explosions and retaliations. We never know when we’ll step on some trigger with them, so we make ourselves really really small and unobtrusive. We tread lightly. We forgo our own needs and wishes. We speak less and less. We express ourselves less and less. We keep our truths, our opinions, and feelings suppressed, all in an effort to avoid upsetting them.
This is how we end up on “eggshells.”
Despite our best efforts, when we deny and silence our real feelings to avoid conflict with others, inevitably our resentment grows more and more. We end up feeling a variety of contemptuous feelings towards them, which then has carry over effects in all other areas of our lives.
But what’s worse than resentment is that instead of moving towards greater and greater courage in expressing our truths, these relationships drive us further into oppressive silence. We can feel suffocated in these dynamics, which don’t allow any space for our real selves to exist.
So part of the spiritual maturation process involves a kind of unshackling within these relationships, and a liberation of our authentic honest feelings. That requires siding with our feelings, making space for them to exist in our relationships, standing by them when they are attacked or disallowed by others, and learning how to express ourselves honestly to other people, especially if we are used to walking around on eggshells.
That’s part of the real terror of this process – working to wisely and prudently heal the shame and fear of being our authentic selves with others, even if that means incurring the wrath and disapproval of those who seek to keep us silent and small.
We have to slowly work to unlearn the eggshell patterns, and as we do this more and more, we begin to develop greater courage with speaking truth.
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! You must love yourself before you can really love anyone else. They’re right, theoretically, 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, and pretending to love yourself, but genuinely feeling feelings of love for you, within your body?
It’s a process… Unsurprisingly, it involves self-discovery, self-awareness, and changing some internal habits.
It’s quite difficult to love yourself, authentically, when all of the dials and levers inside are set to self-hatred, criticism, shame, and unworthiness. So to correct the internal settings, the process begins with learning the internal landscape, finding all the self-hatred, and doing some work to shift into a more loving direction. The more adjustments we make, the more the real feelings of love can flow.
First, we have to listen.
There are many different practices that teach this kind of internal listening, but basically it means refocusing the attention to what’s happening inside at any given moment. We must learn how to listen to our thoughts and judgments, paying particular attention to the internal dialogue.
How do you talk to yourself?
Specifically, what do you say to yourself?
Are you mean and harsh with yourself?
Do you berate yourself for mistakes or embarrassing moments?
One example of this is 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 almost automatically grimace internally. I braced for a negative reflection, and with lightening speed my eyes would immediately be drawn to everything that was wrong with how I looked in that moment. Do you do that to yourself too? Many of us do…
If you do this with your appearance in the mirror, or in whatever other manifestation you do this to yourself, try to make the shift to kindness for yourself instead of shame and criticism. Actively change the internal dialogue to a more loving tone. Look for the good things in the mirror, and accept whatever you think is “wrong” in that moment.
You can take a judgment like “I’m ugly because I’m overweight” (typically perceived as a negative), and find three things that are good, desirable, and authentically beneficial about being overweight. Really. Question and change the perception of being overweight as a negative, and turn it into an asset. Assume pride about being overweight, rather than shame, and investigate the benefits of begin overweight. (I assure you there are plenty!)
Beginning to change the automatic negative beliefs and assumptions about the reality of what we consider our imperfections is extremely important. This can become a rather radical practice, upending a lot of our previous beliefs about ourselves and others. Turning negative judgments about reality into positives, helps us with acceptance and stops the unending cycle of shame.
We have to learn how to treat ourselves more compassionately. Remember what you were like when you were three or four years old? Find that innocent child still living within you. Treat yourself as if you were that little child; be an unconditionally loving and wise parent for yourself. When you look at yourself, do it with the eyes of love. When you talk to yourself, talk with the voice of love, with encouragement and tenderness.
Just doing this alone will shift so many things for you.
Second, study your enemy – the inner critic.
This part goes a little bit deeper, and opens the door into real inquiry and discovery.
In a relatively simple sense, there are two voices inside the mind – there is an inner judge (who dishes out criticism), and an inner victim (who is hearing and receiving the criticism). The inner judge says “you’re so stupid! You should be ashamed of yourself! Everyone is laughing at how stupid you are,” and the inner victim hears and accepts the judgement, believing that it’s true, and sending feelings of shame into the body.
Most of us aren’t aware of the separation of these two internal perspectives, and we are deeply identified with a singular “me,” inside. As we begin to create the space of awareness and separation, and to see the distinct operations of the judge and the victim, we gain a lot more control about what goes on inside of us and how that makes us feel. In effect, we are working on dis-identification with the judge voice, and solidarity with (and a strengthening of) the victim voice, the authentic true self within.
To begin this practice – as you go through your day, when you notice that you’re feeling bad about yourself, focus on what you’re thinking about yourself in that moment (or the 10 seconds prior to the bad feeling arising). Find the source of the bad feelings, typically it’s a negative opinion that your inner judge has generated.
The negative opinions of the inner judge are not real, and they aren’t true. The inner judge is trying to criticize and shame us into perfection, so that we will be loved and accepted by others. The inner judge doesn’t understand how to source love from within. He is confused about where love comes from or how to experience it, so he pushes and berates us, thinking that that will turn us into perfect humans, incorrectly believing that that will make us feel love.
This entire mechanism operates on the lie that love can be sourced from outside, and that securing the love and approval of other people is the way to feel love and happiness. This is not true.
When we begin to see and understand the silliness of what’s happening inside, we can take the judge’s power away, and really begin to pursue self-love.
Most self-help advice stops there – bringing the inner judge (sometimes called the “inner critic”) into awareness, and then trying to dominate or silence him from within. This doesn’t really work. The inner judge is much more powerful than that, and the feelings of shame he produces in the body can’t be merely dismissed with the mind.
The only way to really combat the critic is to understand deeply how it operates, discover the sources of its power, and begin to dismantle it at the source with discovery, awareness, and acceptance.
Some of the more interesting parts of this work are that the thoughts of the inner judge are not arbitrary nor random! The judgments generated by the inner judge are the results of the standards of perfection we created long ago. It works almost like a perfect computer program inside. This is what’s known as our “programming” or “conditioning.” The standards of perfection, which live deep within, are the codes responsible for creating these critical thoughts.
They sound collectively something like this:
“When I am __________ (stronger, faster, richer, in better shape, healthier, more successful, married, etc.), then I will have made it. Then I will deserve my own acceptance, my own love, my own approval. That’s when I’ll finally feel good about myself.“
This is how we love and approve of ourselves only conditionally, only on account of having achieved something. There are tons and tons of beliefs and standards like this within, which not only feed the inner judge, but keep us from feeling our own love.
Our inner judge is always comparing us to some standard of perfection, and letting us know that we’ve failed, and thus making us feel ashamed and unworthy of love.
Here we encounter the second lie in the mechanism – no matter how much we try, how much we achieve, how much effort we exert, somehow according to the inner judge we always seem to fall short. No matter how much we succeed, no matter how “perfect” we become, the goal posts always manage to move farther away.
Just when we think that we’ve finally achieved some standard of perfection, and we will finally feel love and happiness, (earning respect, approval, or admiration from others), the inner judge manages to undo it. We remain in the never-ending hamster-wheel of striving for something we cannot ever achieve.
This whole psychological mechanism appears almost funny when we really see it. It’s foolishness.
The thing we are desperately trying to achieve or attain is already here, already freely available within us! It’s been here the whole time. It has nothing to do with our external efforts. It has nothing to do with how we look, or what job we have, what others think of us, or what’s in the bank account. Our own love and acceptance, the thing we most want to feel, is always available unconditionally within.
By bringing our standards of perfection into awareness, we become able to release them, to release ourselves from the prison of them, and actually feel better now! We can start giving ourselves love now, in the present, not at some future time.
So what are these codes, these standards of perfection? How do we find them?
They aren’t always self evident. It takes a bit of investigative work within. This is the real purpose of meditation work – to get still enough and quiet enough externally to begin watching and investigating the internal process. I personally am not smart enough to keep all of these things straight in my mind at once, so for me, writing it all down is essential. My meditation work always involves getting still and quiet, and then doing all of my investigative work on paper.
The practice goes like this: whenever you notice a judgement like “ugh I’m so stupid, why did I just do that thing?“
You begin by asking “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 this:
“I should be the kind of person who doesn’t make mistakes – mistakes are not allowed.”
“I should be the kind of person who never skips a day at the gym – I must be super disciplined.”
“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 or fall in public – I have to always appear in control of my body.”
“I should be the kind of person who has a perfectly clean house at all times.”
“I should be the kind of person who has perfectly behaved children.”
“I should be the kind of person who has a dog that never barks or displays aggression.”
“I should be the kind of person who is always stylish and well put together.”
This list can get quite extensive… Seeing it all down in writing, recognizing the internal hostility, recognizing how impossibly contradictory and untenable these standards are, begins a profound dismantling process. Most people are shocked the first time they complete this exercise. They can’t believe how awful and how ridiculous this list can be.
The more we do this, the more we recognize how silly these standards are (and how unkind, irrational, and untrustworthy that inner judge voice is), the more room we can make within for love. Seeing these standards clearly and honestly, we can begin to let them go, and accept who we actually are – terribly imperfect, flawed, vulnerable (often deeply wounded) humans, who generally have very little control over life’s ups and downs.
Bringing compassionate acceptance and tenderness to this subconscious process is how we bring light into the darkness.
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).