Stay With Me | Why Being Present Makes or Breaks Relationships

The other night I was streaming an episode of the show American Odyssey when an intimate scene between two characters struck me in such a lovely way.  For those of you who don’t know the show, it has a “network television series” feel to it and the main plot centers around a female soldier in the middle east who’s presumed dead but continues to survive.  She discovered some secrets about the U.S. government over in the middle east and various U.S. officials want her dead.  There are a lot of different characters in the movie who are directly involved with her and indirectly related to her situation back in the States.  Several journalists in the U.S. are working to investigate her situation and story.  One of the journalists becomes friendly with a woman and this leads to a romantic moment between the two of them.  When they become intimate for the first time, she starts to move very fast and peel off her clothes.  He stops her for a second and says, “Stay with me.”  It was this moment that really spoke to me, but not because it was something new.

As a psychotherapist, a Buddhist and just another human being, I pay attention to my experiences throughout the day and naturally look for reminders of what’s truly important.  One of the most important things, so I’ve found, is that staying with each other, when we’re with each other, truly adds a great deal of meaning to our lives.  So often we’re caught in the trap of our own mind and by the habitual storylines that it gives us.  We learn and are told how to “act” in certain situations and when a similar moment arises, the script in our mind starts to run.  What’s sad about us becoming the script is that we are, indeed, faking our presence in the moment and totally out of touch with how we can connect with the other person.  We’re not really connected with what’s going on in the moment because our mind is making so many assumptions about what’s happening, what things mean, who the person is in front of us, and all of this ruins the rawness and freshness of the moment.  This happens in any and all of our interactions throughout the day, not just in intimate situations.  The meat of life, the juicy parts that are so meaningful to us, can only be savored when we truly stay with each other.  To do this, we need to have the courage to be vulnerable, open, raw, and true in how we are as things happen.  Of course, this is easier said than done for a lot of people.

So many of us don’t know what these words truly mean and how it feels to embody them.  I’m not here to tell you the “5 Steps to Perfect Vulnerability” because part of life is to figure this out as we venture into the world.  Yet, I would like to say that in my near 30 years of studying our human psychology and relationships, staying with each other and truly being with each other is vital to our individual and collective contentment, health and happiness.  Sure, people come and go so they may not stay, but we should try to stay with each other when we’re with each other.  Nearly all of us fantasize about this and deeply desire this type of connection.  However, many of us often get in the way of making it happen.  So many of our relationships and friendships start with this desire for deeper connection, but then they fade away as the scripts, insecurities and habits kick in.  I hope, for all of you, that you can come to understand and experience what it’s like to stay with you, to stay with me, and to stay with all of us whenever we’re together.  If you already know, very intimately, what I’m talking about then please continue to inspire others through genuine connections.  As always and with an honest and open heart, I wish each of you well.

For Parents: “No matter what I do for my kid, it’s never good enough”

As a family psychotherapist, I’ve worked with many parents that tell me that no matter what they do or how hard they try, their kids never seem satisfied.  Parents do their best to support their kids, but it’s as though the game is rigged, because they can never win and what they’re doing is never good enough.  These parents are worn out and exhausted.  There’s yelling and screaming in the house, the emotions always seem to be intense, people are walking on egg-shells, and the ups-and-downs never seem to stop.  And over time, parents can start to check out, lose their patience, and they watch the relationships in their family start to sour (including the one with their partner).  They’re often desperate for some sort of relief.  In order to help those of you who are in a similar situation, I’m going to offer some important points to keep in mind and these have the potential to change things for everyone in your family.  I’m also going to give you a simple formula that you can use to help guide you.  Keep in mind that these are generalities and that everyone situation is unique.  Ultimately, the best thing you can do for yourself after reading this is to seek out a family systems psychotherapist to get the customized support you need.

Kids Are Not Like Adults…

“Well of course they’re not,” you might say.  Yet, many of us who interact with kids seem to forget this.  Why do I say this?  Because many of the parents that I work with will always engage their kid in a discussion when their kids complain or oppose something that they don’t like.  When parents do engage their kids in these situations, they often end up worn out, the kids are pissed, and theres a good chance that the parents, you, have been manipulated.  Some conversations are just not helpful to have, but we need to know how to identify helpful and unhelpful conversations and when it’s best to just listen and empathize with out kids.

Neurologically speaking, the adult brain is more developed and refined.  Adults can openly consider more detail in various situations and entertain a variety of perspectives before coming to a conclusion or making a decision.  We tend to approach kids, without sometimes realizing it, with the assumption that they’re interested in approaching each situation and discussion in the same way.  But kids are not like adults!  No, they have very little power and control over their lives, and so their default-position is different than our own.  This means that the majority of discussions that involve rules and limits are rigged, but adults don’t remember this.

And now it’s time to piss off the younger people

…so long as your kids are limited in what they can do (which they should be so long as they live in your home), they’ll greedily fight for everything they want and whine about what they don’t want.  They’re pros at doing this and that’s because they’ve figured you out and they’ve learned to how exploit your weaknesses.

So parents, it’s fair to expect your kids to be greedy and avoidant…but this does not, DOES NOT, mean that they’re bad!  Nor does this give you a pass to be mean, belittle them, or use this to take jabs at their character.  Kids are supposed to be like this and what’s more, WE were like this.  Remember?  It’s okay to acknowledge that your kids will manipulate and lie.  In fact, we can find some humor in their attempts and love them for it.  But it doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids or bad people.

Adults Can Learn A Lot From Younger People

“Ah the cliché,” you say, “we can always learn from everyone…blah blah blah.”  Yes I know, but set this aside for a second and hear me out.  Kids are amazing and the reason I adore working with them because they’re honest and they often don’t give a shit about being politically correct.  Younger people tend to be more honest and authentic and they’ll show they’re junk to the world with less hesitation.  Though, we may want them to restrain this a bit!  

And now it’s time to piss off the adults…

…stop trying to pretend that everything is fine and hiding the fact that you may not know what to do or what you’re doing!  Not knowing is okay and it’s also okay to be honest with yourselves (also your family systems psychotherapist) and to look at your own weaknesses and mistakes.  Your kids can see through your façade and if you work to maintain it, they learn not to be honest…just like you.

“Why drop my guard,” you ask?  Because being honest and more humble about your weaknesses and screw ups will get you to a better place than lying.  It might suck to do in the moment but you’re playing the long-game.  You need to understand your mistakes and weaknesses at a deeper level if you’re going to do anything about them.  Trying to save face ensures that you’re going to screw up again and again because you’re unable to make the changes that you really need to make.  Also, your example teaches your kids to lie and to avoid admitting the truth to themselves.  When everyone is dishonest, conversations turn into debates and these turn into a heated battles.  We get everything we don’t want by avoiding our own reality, even though it seems to make sense in the moment.  It also makes sense why adults tend to emphasize how they look rather than being honest.

As adults, we’re trained by the “adult” world that we need to be political, diplomatic and as a result, liars.  We’ve learned to suppress what we really think and feel and we don’t do what we truly want to do.  This is how we forget what it was like to be a kid, but this is where your kids excel.  In this way, our kids are our role models and guides…but this doesn’t mean that they’re always right or wise.  It just means that they’re honest and more authentic than we tend to be.  Often times we’re so practiced at telling ourselves our defensive and reactive lies that we forget how to be honest like our kids.  They can help us remember the beauty of being more authentic and honest in our expressions.  So what do we do?  No, we don’t regress back to childhood and act like them.  Rather, we need to combine our experience and knowledge with their courage to be honest and authentic.

Putting It Together: Parents Always Win…Unless They Give Their Power Away

Here’s the simple and straight-forward formula for parents: Focus on setting limits and expectations that are fewer in number but are very important.  Be consistent with your kids, your limits, and your expectations at all times.  Be sure to give them as much independence and as many choices as possible.  Genuinely be willing to listen to their complaints or concerns, but remember that you always have the final decision.  You can feel deeply confident about that.  And they need you to be calm, confident and more stable than them.  When you are, they feel safe and you model how a healthy adult handles difficult situations.

Sure, this sounds simple enough.  “But what about all of the debates and all of the nuances in situations that confuse me!?  I want my kids to have what they want and to be happy…but they’re suffering!”  It can be hard to imagine your family dynamic changing to something positive with your kids.  This formula is easier said than done.  It takes time for change to happen and you’ll need the support of a psychotherapist trained to work with families and kids to get there.  But this general formula works if it’s applied consistently.  The following paragraphs will provide you with alternative ways of looking at your situation and some advice on how to change your approach to your kids.  As you read through them, know that the truth of the situation is that you’re not responsible for how your kids feel, they are.  Even when they’re very young.  Your job is to support them, in a healthy way, as they learn how to deal with their own frustrations, difficult situations, and their emotional reactions.  Your job is not to fix their emotions and when you try to do that for them, they learn that others are responsible for how they feel.  This is a dangerous road to go down and I’ve seen the outcomes of this in many families.

Being a Parent and a Kid is Frustrating

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is the way it’s supposed to be.  Parents need to set limits in order to teach their kids about the world.  We need to help them understand healthy boundaries and to help kids feel safe as they deal with the anxiety and confusion of growing up.  Your kids won’t like you all of the time and they’ll hate the limits, but you need to remember that you’re playing the long-game rather than trying to be their friend or be liked.  If you feel a desperate need to be like by them, then this is a signal that you need to get some support in order to determine why you want them to like you so much.  Ultimately, you’re guiding their development by limiting their freedom and expecting things of them so that they can handle, later on, how the world really works.  If you’re stuck in being liked, you won’t be able to do this for them.  As adults, we know that we have to manage complex situations, deal with red tape, be civil with people we don’t like, and get through frustrating situations without screwing ourselves.  By setting limits and expectations for your kids, you’re helping them navigate these situations and develop these skills early on.  This means that the parent-child dynamic can be quite frustrating for everyone, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Consistency is Queen

By being consistent and communicating limits and expectations to your kids in advance, you’re providing them with a safe psychological container.  Younger people are supposed to be all over the place and when they’re left to their own devices, they typically won’t impose limitations on themselves.  (Heck, adults probably wouldn’t and that’s why shows like The Last Man on Earth is so funny!)  When kids have too much influence and power, they remove their limitations and are in charge of raising themselves.  This is the most terrifying thing for any kid to do because they’re biologically or psychologically equipped to do this.  They’ll hate the limits and fight the expectations, but psychologically, they’ll feel more secure with them.  They’ll never admit to this (though I’ve had some kids admit this), but they want to be contained, protected, and limited because growing up is scary.  And it’s important to inform them of these limits and expectations in advance because it gives them time to prepare.  When these are implemented, they know its coming and want to count on you following through or keeping your word.

As the parents and adults who care for these amazing kids, we need to be very consistent in creating and maintaining the container so they can feel safe.  Our challenge is to also loosen their restrictions and expectations as they get older so they can grow independently.  Sadly, there isn’t a rule book or blueprint for how to do this.  As a result, parents always need to lightly monitor how their kids are growing.  Your consistency provides them with a foundation that they can fall back on when they feel completely lost.  When they know that they have a safety net, they can take risks with more confidence.  Remember when they were little and they wanted to go off on their own?  They’d start to leave you to go be with other kids but at some point, they would turn around to see if you were there.  They wanted to know that you were watching them, that you were making sure they were safe, and they were still connected to you.  As kids get older they still want to know that you’re there and that they can come back when they need to.  Instead of calling you or looking back, your growing kids have internalized the memory of those moments and your stability.  This brings brings them security to venture out into the scary world without looking back.

Don’t Get Lost in the Weeds

By all means, listen to the frustrations, concerns, and gripes of young people with sincerity and an open heart and mind.  Give them the space to really be upset (this does not include flipping out and throwing things, including you!) and dislike something that you do.  They want to be heard, understood, and to have their feelings validated.  However, we need to remain calm, gentle, firm, and consistent with our limits and expectations of them.  When we can maintain this disposition, we can serve as an emotional dampener for our kids.  However, if you’re just as freaked out as them, then nobody will calm down for a long time.  Now let’s say that your kid raises some legitimate points amidst their freak out or upset.  You should feel free to consider their point of view, but I would suggest that you take some time on your own before responding or making a decision.  Definitely discuss the points and your doubts with your partner because you need to be on the same team and on the same page.

In the end, we need to assume and use the power of our role as authority figures without abusing it.  When your kid begins to oppose your decision, you can feel deeply confident that you have the power to make the final decision, though you may need some time to make it.  In this way, you don’t need to get lost in the details or become overwhelmed by your own insecurities (easier said than done, of course).  Listen to them, consider the situation, and communicate your decision when YOU are ready.  If your decision is final, and they need to be, you can lovingly say to your kid, “I know this sucks and that I’m a pain in your ass right now, but this is what I/we have decided is best.”  If you do this enough and remain gently firm, they’ll stop nagging you.  Since your dynamic has not been like this, they’ll push you even harder in the beginning.  This is because they’re used to how things have been, but stick with it.  Again, work with a family systems psychotherapist to help this process along and get the support that you need.

Final Words

Of course, there’s so much more that we could discuss, but this introduction is a good start.  I can’t say it enough, get the support of a family systems psychotherapist because the road probably won’t be very easy.  And I use the term, “family systems psychotherapist,” because not all therapists are trained in family therapy and the complexity of working with families and kids.  Keep this in mind when you meet with a psychotherapist and there’s no harm in using one therapist for the family, and other therapists for individuals in the family.  Though, start slow and consult your family psychotherapist on different ways to provide support for the family and each of its members.  Also, remember that change takes time so don’t rush it, and make solid changes that you’re really committed to because these are the ones that will last.  Quick and unplanned changes tend to create more problems, so be a little selfish and don’t create more work for yourself.  If you’re in the habit of making quick, reactive, and impulsive changes, that’s when you’ll probably end up saying, “Nothing ever seems to work.”

Being Yourself When Others Don’t Want You To Be

“I’m already myself,” you say…but I’m not so sure. You might be and that’s great, but there’s a really good chance that you’re tricking yourself into believing this when it’s not true.  Of course, I can’t sit here (nor will I) and tell you whether you doing this or not because I don’t know you.  However, having studied the human condition for 25+ years, I know that there is a great deal that happens in each of us that remains outside of our awareness. So, I ask that you take a moment to sincerely, honestly, and openly question this for yourself.

Having ventured into and explored the notion of “being ourselves” (philosophically, psychologically, and personally), I’ve found that most of us are not ourselves most of the time.  We make compromises constantly, hold back what we’re really thinking and feeling, and we refrain from doing things that feel natural.  We’re all trained to do this because every culture teaches its people that certain ways of being and behaving are not acceptable.  Therefore, we learn to repress and suppress what happens inside of us and to stifle our natural, authentic, and genuine impulses.  As we get older and more mature, we become more aware of how and when we restrict ourselves, but again, there’s a great deal that we miss.

One of the most amazing things about psychotherapy is that it gives us the space to be ourselves and to dump our stuff out onto the floor so that you can step back and see it. This process of becoming more comfortable with letting it all hang out can be challenging at the start, but in the end, it’s extremely freeing. Not only do you learn how to see yourself and be with yourself, but you learn how to do this in front of someone…which is often the scariest and most powerful part. So if you’re one of the few people that really, really want to venture inside yourself to figure out whether you know and embody yourself authentically, this blog post and podcast may prove to be helpful.

How You’re Not You

“Good morning, how are you?” A question that we often hear and it comes from family, partners, kids, coworkers and strangers. But how often do we pause to answer this question honestly and openly? If you’re having a really shitty day, do you tell them, “Well, things are pretty hard right now. I’m feeling a bit depressed today because I’m really unhappy with my financial situation and I don’t know how to change it.” You probably avoid this, like we all do, and respond with the same bullshit and obligatory phrase, “good, how are you?” They respond with the same and you move on, right? “Well I wouldn’t tell just anyone my personal stuff,” you say. Of course not, but it IS a moment when you’re not authentic, when you’re not your genuine “self.”

What’s unfortunate is that the dominant culture in the U.S. encourages us to be fake and it punishes those, socially, who answer honestly. People who are honest are blamed for making the situation awkward or told that they have poor boundaries. Such statements communicate, “We’re uncomfortable with genuine interactions so keep everything on the surface so the rest of us don’t feel uncomfortable.” What this means is that we’re taught to sacrifice our genuine sense of self so that other people don’t have to deal with their own discomfort. Well, I think this is sad, unfortunate, and a crappy situation. This is why therapy and coaching can be so amazing because it offers a reprieve from this and for us to tap into who we truly are, deep down.

Now let’s say that we give ourselves a pass on the, “how are you,” situation and dumb it down to us using more words to convey the simple, “hello.” Well, we still have a problem because we’re so used to hiding ourselves in small ways that we’re not aware of how we do it in big ways. Our brain works with such speed, efficiency, and automation that a great deal of what we do (and why we do it) is out of our awareness (a.k.a., unconscious). In order to determine whether or not we’re being genuine, we have to amp up our self-awareness and dig around for repressive tendencies. If we’ve never done this, then we can safely assume that we have not been our genuine selves. Why? Because all societies impose a degree of conformity onto all of its members. Humans are just like this in groups.

Our Fundamental Conflict: Individuality vs. Togetherness

As social animals, we all value (though in different ways and to different degrees) our group identity and its members (a.k.a, togetherness). At the same time, we also value our individuality and separateness. When we’re in a group of people who are very similar to us, our comfort level often increases and we tend to experience more relaxed ways of interacting because we like the same things, appreciate the same social dynamics, and so on. Fundamentally, there’s less of a chance for friction, conflict, and the anxiety that can come with being with those who are different from us. By the same token, many of us have a desire to be uniquely appreciated and valued by others. We want to feel special and have something wonderful to offer the world that only we can provide. The bottom line is that we want to know that we’re loved, admired and seen as good people, worthy of good things. There’s value in both of these views but as you can see, the concepts and their natures are in total opposition to one another. So how do we deal with this? Well, most of us don’t handle this conflict very well or even consciously know that it’s going on. The natural result is that we’re not as genuine as we could be.

What most of us do to resolve this problem is to repress and suppress a degree of our individuality for the sake of whatever group. As a result, we become less and less genuine over time. Why less? Because we all start off, as infants and children, by being extremely genuine. It’s only through our developmental years and the process of socialization in our families and communities that we start to repress or suppress how we truly are. A child is, by default, more genuine than most any adult and this is why we love them so much! They also remind us (which may terrify us to the point of saying that we don’t like children) that our fundamental dispositions are that of needing love and acceptance.

Infants can be fussy, sure, and that’s because they’re attempting to get their needs met. But if we focus only on their most basic needs, we see that their focus is on obtaining physical safety, love and connection. They are genuine, simple, and they desire love and softness. But as they (and we) get older, they desire more independence, individuality, and see their natural separation from the world. And when we experience this conflict we tend to suppress or repress our individuality for the sake of continuing to meet our most basic needs. But this creates a great deal of tension within each of us because we desire, more than anything, to be genuine in who we are and to still be just as loved, accepted, and cared about as before. Fundamentally, it is this conflict that many cultures, in my opinion, don’t resolve very well. What I’m suggesting is that we strive for a new alternative by embracing both sides rather than trying to be loyal to one. But before we discuss the solution, we need to understand how our emotional reactivity fuels the conflict.

Reactivity: Fueling the Conflict

What is emotional reactivity or “reactivity?” Reactivity is our emotional response to any situation and it’s typically visible through body language and behaviors. Reactivity can been seen in very small ways, such as a look of disgust, that is barely noticeable, when we’re annoyed with someone. Other times it’s very noticeable. A good example of this is when when people riot in the streets in response to an unjust court ruling or storm out of the room during an argument. The way it plays out in this fundamental conflict occurs in two ways. The first way is seen when an individual represses or suppresses their individuality in response to group pressures. The second is when we push someone to suppress their individuality and adopt the group mentality. I encourage you to sit for a day with this fundamental conflict and to watch for how this process of reactivity and repression occurs in your day. Try to notice it happening to you and when you see it happen for others. I think you’ll be surprised by the number of times it it shows up.

The Solution: Individuality AND Togetherness

The solution of “Individuality AND Togetherness” seems simple enough, right? All we have to do is let go of our reactive responses and allow both to happen. Well, it’s not so easy. We need to shift our way of looking at the world in a deeper way. While the solution is simple, in its intellectual construction, it’s the practice that’s very, very difficult. In fact, it may be so uncomfortable for a lot of you (which means your reactivity is very high and sensitive) that you can’t even entertain the idea of trying for this new balance. However, if you’re up for the challenge and believe that the fight to be genuine is virtuous enough to commit to, then you can achieve a lot more contentment and join with others to enjoy more freedom, less reactivity, less fighting, and thrive on diversity in all areas. So let’s lay out a plan to help you shift your way of viewing your relationships and the world.

Step One: Why is difference so threatening? And is it really a threat?

Think about this. Is the fact that others are different from you threatening to our lives? To our safety? To our well-being?  We all know the answer is “no,” but why do we react as though they are? What could possibly go wrong if we embraced, supported and even encouraged other to be true to themselves? What are we really afraid of?

It’s vital for us to reflect on these questions. The ultimate reality of the situation is that there isn’t anything that’s truly threatening. However, we’ve made meaning of things, such as traditions, code of conduct, and so on, that when others differ, our anxiety and anger come up.  And when our anxiety and anger come up, we’re acting as though we’re having to fight for survival.  What are we trying to survive?

Another question to ask yourself is, “Am I threatened by or afraid of my own individuality?” You might very well be because you’re afraid of how others might react to you, and there’s the reactivity again. Now, you might be afraid of individual choices for religious reasons, but what’s behind this push for everyone to belief the same thing? What would be so terribly wrong if others believed differently? If you’re concerned about their afterlife or immortal soul, I’d encourage you to see if you can let that go. Granted, you’re probably thinking, “absolutely not!”  But let’s consider the fact that each religion acknowledges the truth that none of us can control another person’s will. So ask yourself, is it better to practice being at peace with others in the world or is it more helpful to fight them, suppress their individuality, and to fight a battle you can never win?  The answer is pretty obvious and if you’re still stuck on this I suggest you pause here.  It’s vital to figure out how you resolve this dilemma.

Step Two: Embrace Free Will…and Your Anxiety

As I Just mentioned, we can’t control another person’s will, ever. And this means that the world is not as predictable as our fear would like it to be. When we live under the unconscious assumption that we can control another person’s will and cater to our anxieties, we’re committing ourselves to a very difficult life and a fight we can never win. What’s really going on here is that you’re uncomfortable with difference and diversity. So your challenge is to gain some insight into how this came to be for you. You need this insight in order to let it go and to alter how you are in your relationships to others.

Now let’s say you’ve committed yourself to embracing your free will and that of others. Does that mean that chaos will happen? No. All humans want safety and security. We want good lives and to have our basic needs (the ones I’ve mentioned) met. This is our common bond, and something that we can count on. If we focus more on providing others with acceptance of their individuality and appreciation for their abilities, they’ll want to respond in kind (as they get used to this). This creates a positive cycle, rather than a negative one born out of anxiety and aggression.  To do this, however, we have to be willing to face our anxiety.

Step Three: The Courage to Perpetuate the Positive Cycle of Giving

As I’ve mentioned, our social dynamics strongly influence what we do and how we live. If we don’t believe that our basic needs are getting met, we strive to get them met in a variety of ways. Most times, the way that we try to get them met is by taking and demanding from others. The problem with this is that it inspires others to take and demand from us. I’ve worked with many clients where they and their family members are deeply unhappy because they’re stuck in this cycle. The paradox is that if we give, then others are more and more likely to give to us. The result, a deeply enjoyable dynamic where we love giving to them and they love giving to us. Over time, we form a very accepting relationship that allows us to be who we are and to live an authentic life, without sacrificing the acceptance and acknowledgements that we all want and need.

Sure, it’s cliché to say, “celebrate our differences.” However, the cliché is true. By appreciating differences and accepting others, as they are, they’ll be more likely to want to do right by us. The more that all of us can do this, our lives will become easier, safer, and more fulfilling. Though, you might wonder about how to do this in the face of others who are aggressive, anxious, and demand that you fall in line. So let’s end by addressing this last issue, which is a significant obstacle.

Step Four: Working with Others Who Perpetuate the Negative Cycle

The hardest part of adopting this new way of living and viewing the world is figuring out what to do when you’re faced with situations when people are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuating the negative cycle. In these circumstances, your reactivity will come right back and you’ll move to suppress the other person’s will and individuality. And even though you’re working to perpetuate the positive cycle, your impulse is to get them to fall in line too. So what do you do? Do you just let them do whatever they want? Do you let them turn things to crap? No. What you do is crank up your focus on your own choices and actions.

You have your own limits, your own choices, and your areas of control. This is where all of us need to focus when we bump up against an unhealthy dynamic. If you’re someone’s manager at work or a parent, think about what you’re willing to accept, what is not acceptable, and how you’re going to respond to the other person when they act. For example, if an employee is making constant excuses for why they’re late but they aren’t changing their behavior, use your power to determine what you’re willing to accept. If they continue to be late and this is an issue, you can (and should) write them up or fire them. Let them know your limits and then follow through, but you can do this with compassion and acceptance. What they do is their choice and it’s their life. The best thing you can do is provide them with an opportunity to deal with how the world is rather than enable the negative cycle of behavior. It’s up to them whether they choose to improve themselves or to remain stuck in the negative cycle. I encourage the parents that I work with to use this approach with their kids. Set limits and expectations, communicate them, enforce them consistently, and allow kids to make their own choices. Life is all about learning, so be sure not to withdraw your caring or adoration from them. If you’ve adequately planned ahead for them to make an unhealthy choice, your response should be simple in practice and less emotionally charged. If it is, you’ll need to continue to rework your belief about these types of situations.

Final Note

Making this shift takes time and it can be quite frustrating. Be sure to allow yourself space to grow and to express your frustrations with people who can be supportive. This might be a friend, partner, family member and/or your therapist. I’m not advocating, nor would I ever, for you to suppress or repress your emotions. So be sure to have some outlets where you can express yourself freely without hurting your relationships. A therapist or coach might be the best choice for this because they don’t have a role in your daily life. This relationship allows you total freedom to say whatever you want and to express all of your anxiety and anger without any social consequences. This can be helpful as you continue to change. Over time, your way of being will change and your emotional reactivity will also change. Just know that your reactivity and emotions change second. I once had a therapist say to me, “when we change our behaviors, our emotions take a while to catch up.” He was exactly right, and so I pass this wisdom on to you.

If you take up this worthwhile challenge, be sure to keep in touch and post your progress and your questions. I’ll respond to as many of your questions as I can and I wish you all the best.

The Auto-Follow Etiquette

A while back I read that it’s a thing to automatically follow someone who follows you, but the practicality of this seems…well…absent.  How could we possibly follow, in any sort of meaningful way, hundreds and thousands of people?  But I guess that’s the point, social media isn’t all that meaningful…yet it is…and it isn’t.  So why have an etiquette for something that’s not all that meaningful?  I have no idea…

And for the record, I encourage meaningful interactions so, don’t follow me on anything if you aren’t all that interested.  No offense is taken and please, enjoy what you enjoy.  Similarly, if I don’t follow you it’s not because I dislike you…it’s because I might not be able to in a meaningful way.

When Hope Feels Like Bullshit

When we’re down, especially when we’re really down, we have a hard time feeling hopeful, being optimistic, or seeing that things will get better.  It can be particularly frustrating, even infuriating, for someone who is very depressed to hear, “oh, it’ll get better,” “it’ll be okay,” or, “it’s not that bad.”  The person saying this probably means well, but to the person being told this may experience it as ridiculous, invalidating, ignorant, or belittling.   And no matter how true the statement might be, these reactions tend to occur.  But why?  How we communicate to someone who is really suffering can be tricky and expressing such things can be extremely unhelpful.  So let’s dig into this to figure out what’s going on.

Hope, The Unhelpful Kind – Blind hope or blind faith is not very helpful because it, generally, does not have a substantial foundation.  What I mean by this is that there’s no proof in the pudding and for the person who’s suffering, the proof that they’re seeing is all negative.  To emphasize blind faith or hope completely invalidates the person’s experience.  Furthermore, blind faith or hope can be based more in fantasy than reality and be symbolic of our own discomfort with the situation.  “It’ll get better,” the person says but, what happens when it doesn’t?

I’ve worked with many kids and adults who’ve experience various traumas and if I were to say this to them after they talked about being physically or sexually abused, they’d probably give me the finger and go elsewhere.  When a person is suffering and has suffered greatly, their challenge lies in both accepting (but not liking) the situation and learning how to work and improve their situation.  But right now, however, they have no hope and so they need some experiences where hope is valid and real.  From their perspective, life has shown them that everything sucks, that they’ll fail, that they’re not good enough, and being loved and accepted is not a possibility for them.  Lastly, we need to watch our own discomfort when we’re with a person who is suffering.  Are we saying, “just look on the bright-side” because we honestly don’t know what to say or do?  We might be, and it’s a very natural, albeit unhelpful, thing to say and do.  If this is the case, the best thing you could do is say something such as, “I really want to help but I just don’t know what I could do or say that would help you.  How can I help?”  Not knowing but staying with them, caring for them, but not trying to fix it for them, is the best possible thing you could do.

Hope, The Helpful Kind – Hope that’s based in reality is the most helpful.  We need to acknowledge the evidence or the proof that supports it.  For some of us, we’ve come to the realization that unwanted situations always change for the better, but we don’t know when or how this will happen.  In our lives, we’ve witnessed this truth.  Yet for the person who hasn’t witnessed this, they have to experience it for themselves before they know it.  In order for this to happen, they need to learn how to accept the situation (but they don’t have to like it) and develop the ability to figure out how to improve things.  In short, they need to develop strong problem-solving skills, while managing their emotional reactions.  They then have the opportunity to realize the type of hope that is substantial and real, given their situation.

But for the person who is completely overcome by emotion, reason may not be their strong suit, even when they’re in a calmer state.  Consequently, it can take time for the person to become more reasonable and rational.  We can help them along by listening to them, empathizing (not sympathizing), accepting their views (though not agreeing with), and even asking question about alternatives.  In essence, we’re giving them hope by offering our own rational thinking and by embodying the hope that they don’t presently have.  Of course, they may reject your perspective and this is where the line is drawn.  You’ve offered the possibility of real hope and now it’s up to them to use your support.  Yet, you can’t force them and it’s not helpful to push it on them.  This will only sour the relationship.

Communicating Hope and Possibility – There are times when we’re just not the right person to help and the other person may flat out reject your attempts to care and support them.  While this may sadden us a great deal, we can take our desire to help in order to find them someone who can, in a healthy way, help them.  Many parents are in this spot.  Their relationship with their child might be stressful and have a history of problems that get in the way of forming a supporting and collaborative relationship.  In order to help your child, they’ll need someone else like a therapist.  Then, one of the things that you can do is work to repair the relationship by working with a family systems therapist and/or to find your own therapist.  Over time you can repair the relationship where your child may start to accept your support.  Furthermore, by having your own therapist you can explore how your helping may not be so helpful.

Many of us have such good intentions but often aren’t taught how to work with very difficult, anxiety-provoking, and emotional situations.  We may have a very hard time relating to the other person for whom we care, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get there.  In order to share and communicate real hope, we have to become real hope.  Meaning, we have to exude it and do so authentically with little to no reactivity (aka, enabling, minimizing, soothing, fixing, getting upset) in response to the person who’s suffering.  This way we are able to understand them (empathy), demonstrate that we accept where they’re at (validating), and support them as they, yes they, learn how to make their own changes.  If we try to take on their problems, we end up handicapping their ability to become master problem-solvers.  They need practice and we can’t practice for them.

Recommendations – If you can relate to what’s been described here and wish to move forward in a positive direction, a therapist will be invaluable for you and the other person.  Again, we’re generally not taught how to be psychologically-minded in our schools or in life.  To think that we should be highly self-aware from birth is similar to us thinking that we should all be amazing athletes without having ever trained.  We just doesn’t work like that.  A therapist is going to be able to help you reflect on the situation, yourself, and to help you make solid changes that are truly helpful over time.  So, the next step just might be working with a therapist to undergo training.

What Does It Mean To Get To Know Yourself?

As someone who was in therapy for 10 years during my youth and is now a psychotherapist, the notion of “getting to know ourselves” has always been vital.  But recently, as I’ve been speaking with some of my clients, it’s occurred to me that many of us don’t know what this statement means, exactly.  Some of us might think, “I already know myself, what more is there to do?”  Others might be completely mystified by such a statement or even scared about the endeavor to know oneself.  Having such a long history with psychology, personally and professionally, this task of knowing myself is automatic and intuitive for me…but it’s important to lay it out for those of us who are new to emotional and psychological explorations.  Consequently, this is the goal of this post.

Getting to Know Myself & The Basics

Humans, like all other animals, are all about patterns and this is the most important concept to keep in mind, regardless of how you’re working to know yourself.  However, because humans are so complex the task of seeing the patterns can be quite difficult and it can be rather overwhelming to find a starting point.  To make this task more manageable, we need to identify some major areas in our lives that we can turn our focus and attention to in order to learn about how we are.  These major areas consist of emotional responses, thoughts and beliefs, behaviors, preferences, interpersonal dynamics, and communication styles.  The tricky part is that each of these overlap and influence each other.  For those who are knew to what therapists call “psychological mindedness,” it’s best to take these one at a time.  As we learn to master our ability to observe our mind and body, we can start to look at how the patterns intertwine.  But again, this task will likely be too complicated for the beginner.

Where to Start

Get a journal.  Yes, many people wince at the idea of journaling, but it is vital to in making headway. If you’re working with a therapist, journaling will deepen your sessions because you will have reflected upon yourself and your life in a concentrated outside of sessions.  If you’re not working with a therapist, it will enable you to do the work that’s needed to learn about yourself.  What is it about journaling that’s so beneficial?  It’s an activity that supports a mental shift that doesn’t occur throughout our typical day.  All of us are active through the day and inevitably doing something.  Working, interacting, commuting, checking our phones, watching tv, etc.  Most of us don’t set aside time to reflect upon ourselves and our life.  Sure, we have passing thoughts but they are, passing thoughts.  Journaling is psychological and emotional exercise.  We walk throughout your day but to keep up your health, we often designate time to exercise at the gym or in some other way (or we at least know that doing so is good for us).  Journaling and therapy is our psychological and emotional exercise.  We won’t make gains without them.  Even meditation has it’s limitations and often isn’t very appealing to many of us.

What to Journal About

This is a tricky question because each of us approaches situations differently.  However, in an attempt to account for as many people as possible, I’m going to divide this into two ways.  On the one hand, you can journal about Anything and this is probably best for those who have a very negative reaction to too much structure and prefer to approach things openly in order to learn and explore.  Some people work better with structure because it helps them focus and have a plan.  If this is the case, choose one or two areas, mentioned above, and stay within those to start.  Another approach for structure is to write or talk about situations.  This way we can address all of the areas but the situation keeps us focus and grounded.  These are some good starting points but be open to how your journaling and therapeutic conversations develop and are most helpful.

Important Intentions to Have

Whether you’re journaling or in a therapy session, your motivation and intentions about the activity are very important.  Why?  Because they determine whether the activities are of benefit to you, both in the short-term and long-term.

Curiosity

Maintaining or developing a deep curiosity about any and all aspects of ourselves and of life is vital if we’re going to get to know ourselves.  If we find ourselves saying, “I know,” a lot, then chances are you’re not that open to possibilities and learning.  “I don’t know” is a really wonderful view to maintain because it means that you’re open to knowing and learning.  When journaling or in therapy, Curiosity shows up when we pause and wonder about something.  It shows up when we ask a question of ourselves or to our therapist and genuinely wish to understand.  If we have the habit of putting the period on everything, we won’t learn that much.

A Desire to Understand & Consider Alternative Perspectives

We are always getting feedback from he world, directly or indirectly.  We may ask others for their perspective or simply observe how they react to us.  To understand someone else’s perspective is good because we learn of different options, views, or ways of relating to things.  If we are focused on interpersonal dynamics, observing patterns in many people in response to us is very helpful.  Each person relates to and sees things differently and to learn of their perspectives is to identify possible options for ourselves.

Emphasizing Truth and Being Humble

Learning what’s true and real requires that we accept the fact that we might be wrong about many things that we think.  All of us do our best to make sense of ourselves and the world, but if we’re not open to realizing the truth then we run the risk of believing in a fiction rather than truly knowing ourselves and the world.  To arrive at the truth, we need to reflect, think, consider and even analyze what we know while becoming aware of what we don’t know.  Being wrong is actually a very good thing because it provides us with the opportunity to grow, learn, and adapt.

There’s More But…

I could inundate you with a great deal more because there are so many subtle things that happen for each of us during a journaling or meditation session, and when in therapy, I don’t believe more would be helpful.  For those who are beginners, this is enough and if you want and need more, this is where a good therapist that you connect well with is invaluable.  Just remember that as you begin this adventure and exploration, there’s nothing that needs to be rigid about the process.  In fact, being playful with your experience and to experiment are both helpful and support an open mind.  If you tend toward perfectionism or  the obsessive-compulsive approach, these tendencies will serve as your initial topics to explore.

When Therapy Clients say: "It Doesn’t Work" "I’ve Tried Everything"

As we know, people come for therapy because they’re struggling with some or many aspects of their life.  Sometimes, the level of their suffering exceeds their ability to cope and a sense of desperation comes about.  I’ve seen this mostly in people who have been suffering for longer periods of time and continue to experience their problems.  As I begin working with a new client, I like to understand what they’ve done and what they’re currently doing to help themselves.  It’s at this point that they sometimes say, like I heard this week, “I’ve tried everything,” or, “it doesn’t work.”  These phrases are a flag that tell me that I need to look into.  Generally speaking, I’ve found that what these phrases are pointing to is a combination of things going on in the person.  So let’s go ahead and cover them.

1) A Lack of Patience “I just want…” – This part of the combination is probably the most straight-forward.  We all know what being patient or impatient looks like.  In this context, impatience rears its head when the individual is so focused upon getting to the end point or grasping after the result that they hurry through the process.  They aren’t very willing to tolerate discomfort and so they hurry to the end, toward what they think will bring them relief.  In this way, we’re sprinting toward the positive feeling or what is really, the absence of our pain.  We’re not so concerned about the process that gets us there and in fact, it’s often view as an annoying distraction.  Our vision is narrowed and all we can see is the small point in front of us that we’re completely fixated on.  The process of getting there is generally viewed as annoying and this is when the person may say, “I just want…”
2) Belief That I Should Feel Good – Some people have a very low tolerance for experiencing thoughts and feelings that they don’t like and don’t want.  This is often accompanied by a belief that most people do feel good and that they, as an individual, should experience “good” feelings most of the time too.  Many clients will say, “I want to be normal like everyone else.”  This is often code for, “Everyone else is happy, why am I so miserable?  What’s wrong with me?”  Well, everyone else APPEARS to be happy but deep down, they have many doubts, fears, anxieties, regrets, resentments, doubts, etc. about themselves, their future, and their world.  This is typical for all of us and only vary by degrees.  But, because the dominant U.S. culture is addicted to “good,” we don’t talk about these things as regularly as we should.  If we did, they would become accepted  as a part of life and would see them as healthy and normal.  Things like Facebook trick us into thinking that people are representing themselves accurately but the reality is that most people don’t.  The reality is that we all feel ALL emotions many times each day.
3) External Locus of Control “You made me feel…” – This is a technical term used by therapists.  Simply put, this means that a person’s internal experiences (thoughts and emotions) and behaviors are determined by everything outside of them.  But what’s important about this is that the person not only functions in this way, but they believe that this is how life works.  When a person functions in this way, they’re actually GIVING their own control over to the rest of the world and now the world, unknowingly, is supposed to be responsible for them.  Unfortunately, this way of relating to ourselves and the world is so common that phrases such as, “you made me feel,” go unnoticed.  But this statement is a lie.  The truth of the matter is represented by the statements, “I felt ___ when you,” or, “When you did ____ I take it to mean ___.”  It takes more words and a little more thought to say these things but it’s vital to make a distinction in our language as to who owns our emotions.  Do they or do we?  That answer: We always own our emotions.
After deepening our understanding of these points, the client needs to observe these thoughts, beliefs, and subsequent actions as they go about their day.  This is what I mean when I say to clients, “get to know yourself.”  As they start to see how these things come up in the moment, they can begin to reflect on the reality of things.  Changing what we believe about the world and ourselves takes time and effort.  The client might have tried something but if their motivations have focused on controlling the world and hurrying to the end point (aka, feeling good), it won’t ever work.  Change, especially change that lasts, takes time because it’s all about forming new habits.  At the core, the new habit is embracing our own control and owning what we feel, think, and do.  As we do this, we then have to develop the habit of solving our own problems, creatively, as they arise.  Otherwise if we stay with the original combination, we ensure that we’ll always be victims of the world.  It’s advised that such changes be done with a therapist because they can help you see different aspects of yourself that you might have missed, and we all miss things.

Belonging in a Community of Strangers

This week I’ve found myself homesick–not for any particular place, not even for particular people. Rather, the experience has been one of a generalized ache for those times in my life when I’ve felt enveloped in day-to-day inclusion, love, belonging.
I’ve felt this with my family, certainly, but I’ve also felt this way in communities of strangers, most notably perhaps when I spent a couple of years living in a 20 person housing cooperative during graduate school. We lived together in an old, immense house that would be a mansion for a single family, each of us with our own rooms but sharing the kitchen, living room, and dining room, along with chores and cooking. There was no one common cause or mission that bound us together beyond our choice to live together in this somewhat unorthodox way, and there were many people there with whom I had very little in common and would not have known in any other context of life, I’m quite sure. And yet, we were bound together. Even the people whom I didn’t particularly like, I felt a sort of kinship with, a bond. Just as in flesh and blood families, there was a recognition that, though I didn’t choose them, these people were ‘my people’, and I was part of them.
In the five years or so since I lived in that housing cooperative, I’ve come to think of my time there as a subtly life-changing experience. To be thrown in with a diverse mix of people, ranging in age, personality, background, lifestyles, etc and to watch these strangers, ‘others’, slowly morph into rich, complex, dynamic individuals who were all–on some level–just like me…it was as though I’d been put into a little microcosm of the world to practice blurring the line between self and other. And, it turns out, once those lines begin to blur, it becomes easier to open your heart to people you would never have trusted with the kind of honesty that only comes from exposed vulnerability. It becomes easier to see the confusion from which others are operating when they engage in words or deeds that feel harmful to you–and to see that, really, you’re suffering from the same confusion, yourself.
Without a doubt, this experience expanded my sense of ‘community’ much further than the confines of the cooperative, but it’s a difficult feeling to retain. Since leaving, I’ve undergone several cycles of opening up and shutting down. Sometimes I just feel too scared, too tired, too weak to extend myself outward, and begin to see the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ emerge in clear, harshly etched lines–not everyone can be trusted, a voice whispers. You don’t belong, is another familiar hiss in my ear. And it can feel so impossible to loosen the tightness and tension that creeps into my body as I hold all of this mistrust and alienation inside of me, walking through the world feeling hurried, impatient, and reactive to every little poke or prod.
At this point, when I’m stuck in a ‘shut-down’ stage of the cycle, I do know how much easier it will be when I come out the other side, when I reconnect to the world as my community. I can vividly imagine what a relief it will be to discard the weight of my armor and feel the gentle pressure of the pokes and prods on my bare skin, to know I’m not under attack, just being urged along my path. But it’s still hard, wading through the ‘stuck’ part of this cycle, knowing–without yet feeling–the truth of what you ‘know’. The good news is that all it takes to form the first chink in my armor is the softening warmth that washes over me in the realization that the person right beside me carries burdens I can’t imagine yet feels their weight just like I do. And then, just like that, this person, this stranger, has joined a widening circle of ‘us’, and I can sense the knot in my chest releasing, the opening up beginning…yet again.

Boundaries Within the Cultivation of Egolessness

In the expanse of possibility exist boundaries. From the time we are born, we are exploring them, pushing up against them, seeking to cross them in order to continue our own reach into this expanse. It doesn’t always make us happy to succeed, and it can often cause harm to others when we do. In fact, learning to respect the countless, intangible boundaries intertwined in the fabric of our personal, professional, societal relationships is one of the cornerstones of healthy interactions with others. However, how does one reconcile this clear need for boundaries with the Buddhist cultivation of “egolessness,” of realizing that our own sense of separateness is an illusion and one of the major causes of human suffering?
Contrary to a cursory reading of the term, egolessness is not as much about ‘getting rid’ of one’s ego so much as it is about abandoning the framework that assumes one’s ego, one’s self, is a solid, unchanging form that exists independent of other people and the overall workings of the universe. To be empty of ego is to accept that we are not the collection of preferences, life experiences, even physical forms with which we identify ourselves. Rather, egolessness gives rise to a clearer perception that all of these aggregates are subtly changing moment to moment. Holding on to particular narratives or a sense of how our bodies look is to cling to ideas that are outdated as soon as we’ve lived another second and grown another minute older, which causes a constant state of disharmony between our perceptions and reality. From a Buddhist perspective, letting go of a fixed sense of self gives way to a much more fluid, expansive interaction with the world in which we no longer have the need to defend these abstractions and can, instead, relax with what is. What we lose in self-important ‘specialness,’ we gain in communion with a vast and endlessly enriching universe that is extraordinary in its ordinariness. The realization that we, as individuals, are not the center of the universe, that our desire to avoid suffering and experience joy is common to all sentient beings, in theory, helps us to see that our motivations, our words, and our actions can all be reduced down to these fundamentally human drives. In the face of this basic but profound realization, we can then begin to blur the firm boundaries we erect between ourselves and others, peel away our defenses, allow ourselves to open up, be vulnerable, lose our sense of separateness.
So if the cultivation of egolessness is to blur the separation we feel from others, what does it look like to walk this path while still maintaining healthy boundaries necessary to live a healthy and productive life? This is a question I have struggled with quite a bit in recent years, especially with regards to romantic relationships, but probably in all of my relationships to some extent. The very human instinct to push and erode boundaries is often associated with immaturity or maladjustment, but I have also come to feel that this instinct is, at its heart, a pure desire to connect to something greater than ourselves, to blur those lines in order to feel closer to others. And when people for whom I care deeply begin to insinuate themselves through the limits that feel healthy to me, I find myself torn between a sense of my own self-preservation and a sense of obligation to open myself up as wide-open as I can to others, to blur boundaries for the sake of connection, for the sake of caring for others as part of myself. From this perspective, is enforcing my own boundaries just a way of adding more layers of armor around an ego desperate to remain intact?
In wrestling with this question, I’ve come to think the part of this equation I’ve been neglecting is that of prajna, the wisdom of direct perception.  While Buddhism is based on compassion for others, this compassion is always depicted as coming from a place of strength and dignity. Novices are instructed to first focus on themselves, watching their own minds to discover its delusions and misunderstandings before attempting to help others. And this is for good reason: how are we to see others clearly before we have worked out our own neuroses? So perhaps the key to both cultivating connection and adhering to boundaries is to regard these limits as making healthy connection possible, a sort of safety net for us as we learn how to be skillful bodhisattvas. After all, a drowning man will drown both himself and the man he desperately grasps onto if the savior is just barely treading water himself.

What Does It Mean To Be Personally Responsible?

From a Buddhist perspective, personal responsibility is a delicate, almost paradoxical path to walk. On the one hand, you, and only you, can take responsibility for yourself, your actions, words, experience of reality. On the other, you are intimately and inexorably interconnected with others. As a society, we tend to have little trouble accepting each idea on its own and shouting its truth to the rooftops–conservatives justify the slashing of welfare on the premise of the former, and and liberals base the environmental movement on the latter. But reconciling these two ideas as equal parts of a greater whole is much trickier. Most politically polarizing issues in the U.S. are at a standstill precisely because each side clings to the most convenient ‘truth’ while ignoring the other side of its coin.
As individuals, doing our best to wade through the vicissitudes of everyday life, it becomes even trickier: while we may recognize personal responsibility and interconnectedness on a grander scale, we often forget them on a personal one–we may intellectually understand that we are the only ones who are responsible for our own reactions to others, but in practice, who hasn’t had the felt experience of blaming one’s pain on another person’s betrayal? We may understand in the abstract that everything we do affects others, but who hasn’t deluded themselves into believing that what they choose to eat for dinner either perpetuates or discourages food production practices?
It’s a challenging enough task to remind ourselves that we’re the ones responsible for our own lives or that what we do affects everyone else, much less to merge the two ideas into one integrated, concrete path. In the abstract, holding these truths in one’s mind simultaneously takes some mental gymnastics, but like most paradoxes, if you take the time to soak up the truth of each contradictory statement, you can begin to see the glimmer of a much richer statement that is more ‘true’ than either statement’s ‘truth’ alone. But what happens when we try to apply our abstract understanding to our concrete experience of living?
When I first encountered Buddhism several years ago, this idea of accepting responsibility for my own experience unlocked a subtly life changing shift in my perspective–not that I don’t still slip into the mindset of blaming external currents for my internal weather, but this deeply rooted acceptance, like the breath, is always there to bring me back, focus my attention, and label blame as mere ‘thinking’. What has been and continues to be a challenge is the other side of this coin–that though my interconnectedness to others is real, they are responsible for their own experiences. In other words, when what I must do has the capacity to negatively affect another, how do I proceed? On the face of it, the spirit of the bodhisattva vow, along with the golden rule, would seem to indicate that the thing to do is to always put others first, to refrain from action or deed that might hurt someone else. However, it can be a slippery slope from compassion to unremitting self-sacrifice. In fact, Buddhist teacher and founder of the Shambhala lineage, Chogyam Trungpa warns against this type of “idiot compassion” and advocates for a more substantive compassion that incorporates the dignity inherent in the Buddhist principle of meekness:
“Meek here does not mean being feeble…Whether others are hostile or friendly, the warrior of the meek extense a sense of friendliness to himself and mercy others…Modesty does not mean thinking of yourself as tiny or small. Modesty here means feeling true and genuine.”
In this light, the simplicity of simply putting others before myself breaks down. It is not showing “friendliness” to myself to go through life a martyr; it does not feel “true and genuine” to worry so much about the potential suffering (used in the Buddhist sense to cover the range of dissatisfaction inherent in the human condition, from discomfort to pain) I may cause that my own life is lived in a state of reactivity or paralysis.
Intellectually, I can see how these bits of felt truth and sound logic fit together. It makes a lot of sense to me that we cannot be truly generous to others unless we care for ourselves, and it feels true that attempting to manage the happiness of others to our own detriment goes far beyond simply acknowledging our interconnectedness, into the realm of fruitless delusion. Out here in my lived experience, however, my heart still flutters at the possibility that my words have been misinterpreted and potentially caused harm; the anticipation of blame still tightens in my chest when I contemplate removing myself from the orbit of unhealthy relationships. As usual, my mind has raced ahead and waits impatiently for my heart to catch up, all the while knowing, on some level, that this path would be much easier if they remembered they were one and walked in step.