Haunting History

treeOn my morning walk today, the goons and goblins were out in full glory, Halloween decorations fronting the lawns of my in-town neighborhood. One particular display caught my attention–four faux headstones fronted by skeletons rising up from the ground. One struck a chord. It read, “I’ll be back!”

Oh yeah, I thought, as I reflected on an issue that’s been haunting me for weeks, an emotional wound I buried in childhood, that for the most part, doesn’t wreak havoc on my life anymore. But despite my belief that I’d thoroughly exorcised this demon, come to find out, it still hadn’t vanished completely.

The haunting started a few months ago over a conflict with a friend. She was struggling with her own issue, and to be honest, I didn’t want to hear it. I knew I should be supportive and draw on my inner caregiver, but another part of me, a childish part, felt angry and resentful. I don’t want to help her! I don’t want to prioritize her needs when she’s not paying attention to mine.

I knew these childish thoughts and feelings oh so well. I’d been listening to my internal rants for years. They’d come and go, like ghosts in the night, most often when a friend or lover was caught up in him or herself and seemed indifferent to what was going on with me.

No more, I thought! I must assert my needs and wishes more often. I must stop reacting childishly and choose a different way. Yet despite my desire to do so, I felt fear within my bones. Would I be criticized? Rejected? Or worse yet, abandoned? Of course these weren’t my grown-up thoughts. They’re the thoughts of a vulnerable child. According to Hal and Sidra Stone, founders of the Voice Dialogue method, the vulnerable child within us embodies our sensitivity and fears. Its feelings are easily hurt and it generally lives in fear of abandonment.

Abandonment issues are exacerbated in homes where parents/caregivers were emotionally wounded themselves. Children, being exquisitely sensitive to their surroundings, sense their parents’ unmet needs and typically make a choice, albeit unconsciously, to subjugate their own desires and take on the caretaker role.

The late John Bradshaw, renowned for his books and PBS television programs, concluded that this process is the reversal of the natural order. In his book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, he wrote: The caretaker role is strangely paradoxical. In an attempt to secure parental love and avoid being abandoned, the child in fact is being abandoned. Since the child is there for the parent, there is no one to mirror the child’s feelings and drives and to nurture the child’s needs.

To break the spell, we must encounter our fears, both past and present, and face their causes courageously. It’s essential to take a step back, stop re-acting out of anger, and instead, tend to the vulnerable child within us with love and compassionate care. Only then will we see what’s lurking behind our walls of self-defensive. Only then will we be able to communicate our needs in an emotionally healthy way.

Tears will fall first, if we’re willing to feel them, as mourning is required to heal the haunting hurts of our childhoods. In addition, wrote Alice Miller, acclaimed psychotherapist and author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, we must speak out against our mistreatment, confronting our parents in an inner dialogue to discover and validate our real needs, past and present.

Now you may be thinking, “My parents didn’t mean to hurt me.” Of course they didn’t! They were doing the best they knew how. But that doesn’t mean that you and I didn’t endure significant losses, most especially the loss of being who we were meant to be: the loss of our true selves.

Facing the pain that we buried away not only liberates our true selves, but also releases our gentle spirit, the essence of a vulnerable child who knows how to care without caretaking, love without condition, and confront without controlling in order to feel safe. You see, this spirit knows that our vulnerable child is not the only one hiding in the darkness; it recognizes that our loved ones are hiding there too.

There’s so much more I could write about how our personal histories shape our present relationships, but it’s time to conclude with the words of a man whose own history is haunting, whose poetry is healing, and whose music forever lives in our souls…

A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself – and especially to feel, or not to feel. What you happen to be feeling at any moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what s/he really is. Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending – performing. You get to love your pretense. It’s tropen doorue, we’re locked in an image, an act – and the sad thing is, people get so used to their image, they grow attached to their masks. They love their chains. They forget all about who they really are.

Rest in Peace, Jim Morrison. Rest in truth (even if it scares you) my dearest friends.

Overcoming Suffering

The-Comedy-and-Tragedy-Masks-acting-204463_489_381I find it profoundly ironic that a comedic genius like Robin Williams ended his life in such a tragic way. Aristotle, our earliest literary critic, equated comedy with the ridiculous, tragedy with seriousness. Williams’ story of life and death illustrates the paradox of Ancient Greek theater, but it wasn’t until his “final act,” that we, his audience, fully acknowledged the seriousness of his suffering.

Williams was apparently in severe pain, yet the depth of his despair was eloquently cloaked in humor. I recently learned that he donned this mask in childhood to gain the attention of his stern father. One evening, while watching TV together, he saw a side of his father that was totally unfamiliar: a belly-laughing man enthralled by comedian Jonathan Winters. It was then and there, according to Williams, that Winters became his idol, a “Comedy Buddha,” who he’d strive to emulate. But did he do so at his own expense?

Humor — such an incredible salve for many an aching heart. Research now proves that humor can increase feelings of resilience, hope and optimism, but paradoxically, research also shows that humor, especially the self-deprecating brand, can be used to mask feelings of low self-worth, anxiety and depression. Williams wasn’t a stranger to this style of humor, especially when joking about his battle with addiction. He lived with this disease for several decades, and in addition, suffered with severe clinical depression, and possibly, bipolar disorder.

To live is to suffer, wrote Nietzsche. I don’t mean to sound morbid. I’m not a nihilist who believes that suffering is useless. I believe what Helen Keller believed: All the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.

Suffering, in its original sense, meant “undergoing.” Overcoming suffering requires a prolonged commitment to face what feels insurmountable and heal whatever ails us so that we might become more compassionate and complete as human beings. The 13th century poet, Rumi, encourages us with his words…Don’t turn away, Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you. 

When we look at the bandaged place without resistance or self-criticism, we experience a “progressive softening”, writes Christopher Germer, Ph.D. In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, he defines five stages of acceptance: 1) Aversion—resistance, avoidance, rumination; 2) Curiosity—turning toward discomfort with interest; 3) Tolerance—safely enduring; 4) Allowing—letting feelings come and go; 5) Friendship—embracing, seeing hidden value.

I don’t believe Robin Williams avoided suffering. Conversely, I think he endured it far too long. Maybe he desperately wanted to take off the mask that had become his overarching identity, interchanging the ridiculous with the seriousness in a more public way (and he did, tragically). If only a youthful Robin could have discovered a comic like Kevin Breel, in addition to Jonathan Winters, maybe he’d still be with us. Breel, an advocate for mental health, is determined to “shatter the silence of suffering,” speaking out about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts.

You’ve got to watch Breel’s 11-minute TED Talk, especially if you, or anyone you know, suffers from depression or other mental or emotional anguish. It’s quite moving. And if you are suffering from any severe emotional distress, please don’t suffer in silence. Seek help.

 

I Am Worthy, No Matter What

self-love1I’ve been on the hunt for days, poking around the internet to find an intelligent article on how to strengthen our self-worth. I struck gold today, discovering a powerful speech delivered by comedian Amy Schumer  at a Ms. Foundation gala. She cut to the core of the issue, illustrating how regrettable decisions made in youth can diminish our self-worth, but reversely, how courage and self-compassion will set us free from the belief of “never good enough.”

The root cause of low self-worth varies greatly, just as the image it projects. It can result from blatant neglect, abuse or abandonment, but also from subtler experiences that cause us to doubt or diminish ourselves. It’s inflicted on mass through cultural condemnation — by racism, sexism, or ageism.  It’s fueled when society proclaims, “You gotta be a rock star, a billionaire, a stud, or a stunner” to be valued in our time. “You gotta work yourself to death to make yourself ‘big’ or starve yourself to death to make yourself small.”

The reality of “never good enough” drives us hard on the outside as it drives us crazy within. We want to fit in, be loved, and feel valued. When we don’t, especially as youth, we develop strategies to hide our flaws or compensate for feeling insecure. As we grow into adulthood, many learn to numb the pain of unworthiness with alcohol, drugs, sex, food or other addictions. Some of us start putting others down in an attempt to build ourselves up. We approval-seek, strive for perfection, or jump from one self-improvement project to the next. Like Amy, some of us fall into bed with men we want to want us, only to discover that we feel worth-less after the dirty deed is done.

Buddhist psychologist, Tara Brach, Ph.D., illuminates the “trance of unworthiness” in her book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of the Buddha.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years away trapped in the same old patterns. Entangled in the trance of unworthiness, we grow accustomed to caging ourselves in with self-judgment and anxiety, with restlessness or dissatisfaction…the behaviors we use to keep us from feeling the pain only fuel our suffering. Not only do our escape strategies amplify the feeling that something is wrong with us, they stop us from attending to the very parts of ourselves that most need our attention to heal.

Recently I found myself, like Amy, reliving an experience that happened during my freshman year. I sensed some danger going “there”, but I also knew that if I paid attention to my thoughts, feelings, and actions, without judging myself, I could rewrite my story of unworthiness into a story of abiding self-love. I decided to go for it, carefully. With each step forward, I remained mindful of my choices. I didn’t escape into old patterns; instead, I watched them play out with a curious eye. In the process, I garnered the courage to face what I feared most as a child — rejection. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t resist. I knew I had to feel what I’d buried long ago.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s still a kid inside of me who doesn’t want to feel rejected. Who does! But I’ll never succumb to a strategy designed to mask my childhood pain. The pain is gone. The pattern’s been replaced by a belief that proclaims, I am worthy, no matter what you do or say.

I must conclude with Amy’s words, because her thoughts are definitely worthy of your time. She writes with power and humor…

I can be reduced to that lost college freshman so quickly sometimes. I want to quit. Not performing, but being a woman altogether. I want to throw my hands in the air, after reading a mean Twitter comment, and say, ‘All right! You got it. You figured me out. I’m not pretty. I’m not thin. I do not deserve to use my voice. I’ll start wearing a burqa and start waiting tables at pancake house. All my self-worth is based on what you can see.’ But then I think, f**k that. I am not laying in that freshman bed anymore ever again. I am a woman with thoughts and questions and shit to say. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story — I will. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you, and I thank you.