“Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.” Don Miguel Ruiz
The other day I was working with a client and he commented that the people around town are so rude. He went on to tell me a list of examples why, such as, people don’t smile at him or even say ‘hi’ when he walks by. He concluded that everyone was ignorant and judging him. I explored with him the story he was telling himself about the other people and then asked him why he cared so much about what these people thought about him. After a while, he discussed other times in his life when he felt like he didn’t belong. As mammals, we are social creatures. We have an innate desire to belong and to be accepted. When we feel like we are being outcast it is extremely painful.
All of us have our own filter, through which we interpret the world. Our brains are amazing tools. They take in information and store it. These memories can serve us well, but they also color the way we see the world. There have been studies which show that when we have a history of trauma, even neutral events can become charged with emotion. Our brains become sensitized to pick up on the slightest cue that there is danger. Other people may say that we are overreacting to a situation, but to our brain, which is remembering the past event and working overtime to protect us, it isn’t an overreaction at all.
If you find yourself taking comments personally, here are five tips:
- Take a step back from the situation. In the moment, when we feel we are being personally attacked, our brains flood with fight or flight chemicals and the rational thinking part of our brain shuts down. There is no way to have a rational conversation when someone is triggered, so take a break and allow the thinking part to re-engage. Go for a walk, take some calming breaths or listen to music.
- Once the brain has calmed down, become curious. What was the story that I was just telling myself about that situation. Write it down, so that you can objectively read back what you just wrote or say it out loud. It always amazes me how things sound so right in my head, but as soon as I speak the words out loud I can hear the absurdity of them.
- Ask yourself if the story that you just wrote or said aloud is true. Often our personal interpretation gets added in, when there may be no real evidence of what we are telling ourselves. What are the facts in the situation and what is a personal opinion that is being shared? When someone says something to us that feels like an attack, separate out the evidence from the beliefs. We all have our own preferences. Some people will like what I do, others won’t. We can’t please everyone and that is okay!
- Remember that you have bad days, too. Give the other person some grace. We don’t know what the other person is going through. When I get cut off in traffic, I make up a story about the other person. Maybe they are rushing to get to the hospital. When I picture what they may be going through, I can shift from anger to compassion for them.
- Have the courage to speak up. Often our thoughts about someone’s words or actions are not what their intention was. Is a friend really ignoring us when they don’t answer our message or are they just busy? I know that I will often read a text and while I intend to return it later, I forget. But, if someone doesn’t return my message, I tell the story that they are disrespectful for not giving me an answer. Ask clarifying questions if someone says something or does something that felt personal. It is not easy to clear the air, but it is healthy.
When we take something personally it is the story we are telling ourselves about the situation that gets to us. Other people have their own stories they are telling. When we take responsibility and own our stories, we are able to shift the way we see things and they become much less personal. As Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” What have you taken personally that may need to be re-examined?
“Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.” –Desmond Tutu
We are often told to ‘forgive and forget.’ I don’t believe these two words should ever go together. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what happened. Whatever happened did happen and we do not have a magic eraser to clean it from our mind. We remember what we did or what someone did to us and forgetting the event simply, does not happen. The work of forgiveness is challenging. There are many layers to it. I often hear people say that they have forgiven themselves or someone else, but if there is still something about the situation that continues to bother us, the work is not complete. I once heard someone say that there were some people who were not safe to walk the streets of her mind. Whenever she thought of ‘that person’ or what they did she would attack them. I love that visual and whether it is someone we are rehashing an argument with or beating ourselves up for something we did, as soon as the thought occurs, our brains go into attack mode.
Forgiveness is something we do to release the anger we are holding. This is for both self-forgiveness and the forgiveness of others. The Buddha compared holding onto anger, to holding a hot coal with the intent to throw it at someone. The problem is that while you are holding the hot coal you are the one who is getting burned. We need to drop the coal, because we are only hurting ourselves. Releasing the anger does not mean saying that what happened was okay. It does not mean that we condone whatever happened. What it does mean is that we can move forward. We have not yet developed the time machine, so none of us can go back to change the event. We can decide to release the anger over the event though and that is powerful. Choosing to forgive is to accept our own and other’s imperfections. It is to acknowledge that what was said or done was painful, but we don’t need to carry the pain indefinitely. It is a choice to say that we have suffered enough and we are ready to forgive. It is a personal choice that can have a profound effect. Who are you ready to forgive?
“If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?” –W. Somerset Maugham
We all have our own way of being in this world. Some people are optimistic and ‘happy go lucky,’ while others are pessimistic and constantly waiting for the next stroke of bad luck to hit. We all fall somewhere on that continuum and that is our baseline experience of the world. It is our default internal programming that keeps us stable in life. When we are on our baseline, life feels ‘normal’ or routine. When events happen, they sometimes throw us off our baseline. We can tell when things are off. We either have a feeling of being down, below our baseline, or things are going well and we are above our baseline. Resiliency is often discussed as being able to get back to ‘normal,’ or baseline after an event occurs.
While getting back to baseline is comfortable, this doesn’t always serve us. I often use an example of someone who has been living in poverty their whole life and they suddenly win the lottery or inherit a fortune. Many times, these people spend the money in excess and find themselves right back at their poverty baseline. It doesn’t have to be that way though. If they are able to raise their baseline and see themselves as a wealthy individual who respects the money they have, they can budget and invest to remain wealthy.
In order to raise our baseline, we need to see ourselves differently. This comes from doing the work of self-compassion and forgiveness. It comes from questioning our beliefs about who we are and what we want in our lives. Working in the addictions field, I frequently see people who start doing well once they get clean. For a period of time, things seem to be improving and changing. Then suddenly something happens which causes them to relapse. While they tell me that they have bad luck, what I often see is self-sabotaging behaviors. Their baseline beliefs about who they are have not caught up with the changes that are happening in their lives. They often feel unworthy of good things happening, or feel that they need to be punished for choices they made. While intellectually they want the good, their underlying beliefs are stuck on seeing themselves as ‘broken’ or ‘dirty’ because of what they did. Their baseline beliefs are still low, so their behaviors bring them right back to baseline.
In order to grow, our baseline beliefs about ourselves need to change. When we go through a difficult period, many people emerge stronger than before. This is referred to as post-traumatic growth. The baseline of how they see themselves shifts during the low point and they have more confidence and awareness once they get through. When we go through joyful times our baseline can raise as well. Knowing that we are deserving of the good and worthy of the blessings allows our baseline to float up and become our new normal. The key to growth is recognizing our baseline and questioning the beliefs that hold the baseline down. What are your baseline beliefs?
“Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.”– Lucille Ball
One of the questions I usually ask my clients is ‘What thoughts do you have about yourself when you look in the mirror?’ I have yet to come across anyone who says that they love themselves when they see the reflection looking back. Usually there is a lot of criticism. There are thoughts about the weight they need to lose, the wrinkles that are getting deeper, the grey hairs that are emerging or thoughts of guilt and shame regarding things they did or didn’t do. To even start to ask clients to look in the mirror and talk compassionately let alone, lovingly to themselves is often difficult territory. We have been programed with many messages about self-love that are not serving us. Many people believe that it would be selfish to love themselves. They use as examples people who are narcissistic and flaunt their wealth, status or physical attributes. Actually, I believe that the more obsessed someone is with their image the less they love themselves. Anita Moorjani states, “The less you love yourself, the more you need other people to prove that you’re lovable. That becomes your agenda. When we do love ourselves, we know we’re lovable. We don’t need to prove it.” Self-love has nothing to do with the material things we have or the shape of our bodies. It has everything to do with knowing the truth about who we are. There is a difference between a relative truth and an absolute truth. Relative truths can change over time, but when we hear an absolute truth it touches on something deep inside and resonates. We instinctively know that it is true. When an absolute truth is stumbled across, it makes us take pause and we feel its power. A few absolute truths that I have found are: Anything is possible, Everything is energy, We are all one, I am worthy of love and I am the creator of my own destiny. As I work with clients I have found that helping them come up with their own statement of truth is not as easy as it sounds. One client came up with a statement of, “I deserve to be happy for me and my children.” But, actually saying it aloud was extremely difficult for her. There were so many voices of doubt and self-hated that came up along with the prior programing which said it was wrong to love herself, that actually speaking her truth was excruciating. Re-writing our default programing of doubt and laying down new programing of power takes work. Overcoming the doubts and fears is not a simple task. There is no other task that is more important in life though. When we love ourselves we see the world differently. We realize that our own self-love is the biggest gift we can ever give to ourselves and to those around us.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”– Thomas A. Edison
In life there are many times when the best laid plans go awry. We take action on something and it fails or other people let us down or the weather ruins the day. It is easy to get discouraged and give up when things don’t work out. It is easy to go back into our comfort zone and refuse to try again. It is easy to say it just wasn’t meant to be. It is much harder in life to persevere. Thomas Edison was considered one of the greatest inventors of our time, but he also had some epic fails. His very first patented invention was an electrographic vote recorder. It was designed to allow officials voting on a bill to automatically tally their votes. He thought his fortune was made, but when he took it to Washington it was completely rejected. It would have been easy for him to give up, to stick with working as a telegraph operator, but he continued to push forward. Along with his famous working inventions he also created many not so great inventions that flopped. Edison was a bold and brave thinker who didn’t get discouraged by what looked like failure. He saw the opportunity in each invention that didn’t work and was too busy working on his next idea to focus on the one that didn’t work out as planned.
In the book, Your Invisible Power, Genevieve Behrend shares a story of how she was trying to get accepted to study under a man she greatly admired. When she first approached him with her request he rejected her. She then states, “I declined to be discouraged.” She goes on to explain how she persevered and eventually got him to accept her. I love her line, ‘I DECLINED to be discouraged.’ Even though she got the rejection letter, she chose to hold on to the belief that there was a way for her to study with him. How many times do we simply accept discouragement when we have equal power to decline it? Edison declined to be discouraged as did the Wright brothers, Henry Ford and many other brave thinkers. Although it feels safer to crawl back into our box, that thinking robs the world of our gifts. So, the next time you are discouraged, think about what it would it look like to decline the discouragement and instead move forward.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”–Mahatma Gandhi
Whenever the topic of forgiveness comes up in sessions, most people immediately go to the question, ‘How do I forgive when I have been hurt so much?’ This, to me, is the wrong question to be asking. Instead I try to focus on why we would want to forgive. The Buddha has said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” I love this quote. I know there have been times when I have been angry at someone and then saw that person out having fun and laughing. It burned me up inside when I saw that they were happy and I was still angry and hurt. It was that hot coal that I was holding with the intent of throwing, but all the while I was the one in pain. When we begin to see how the anger and hurt we hold is not hurting the other person, but only causing pain in us, we begin to see the why of forgiveness.
As I envision us as people we have an authentic self that is within, what religions term the soul. I usually point to the heart when I talk about this. When we have hurt, anger and raw pain that hasn’t been healed, it is like a blockage between our authentic self and the world. It is a part of us that is separated, cut off and isolated. When those blockages are small, they don’t interfere too much in our daily life, but when they become bigger the effects of the separation and isolation can be seen and felt. The underlying pain manifests in different ways in different people. Some withdrawal and they themselves become isolated with depression. Others become hypersensitive or over react to small disappointments. Others become angry or vengeful and lash out at others. Under it all is pain and the pain comes from the separation between who we authentically are and the version of life we are living.
So, the why of forgiveness is to remove the block in us that stops us from living life fully and engaging with others in healthy ways. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person and it has absolutely nothing to do with forgetting. The fact that it happened will always be there, but through forgiveness work the reaction to the incident no longer has the power to keep us stuck. Once it is removed, our authentic self is once again able to connect with others and the world. Removing the block is the greatest gift we are able to give our self.
“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.” –Maya Angelou
Forgiveness is a funny thing. We are told from the time we are little to say we are sorry as soon as we do something wrong. Those words ‘I’m sorry’ are supposed to be the magic wand to repair the damage that was done. As a parent I have often told my kids that the sarcastic ‘sorry’ that they gave me wasn’t good enough. I have caught myself yelling at them, “Say sorry like you mean it!” What does it mean to apologize like we mean it? We are taught that there are certain words that we are supposed to say when we have done something wrong. When we carefully speak these words we expect that the person hearing the words will accept our apology and we move on. Many times though we struggle to be able to truly forgive, even when someone says all the right words.
I have come to believe that apologies and forgiveness have nothing to do with the words that are spoken. It has everything to do with the emotion and connection that we have when we are acknowledging our own pain. The process of forgiveness is an act of courage. It is risking vulnerability when we admit that we have fallen short and hurt someone. Being on the receiving end is just as difficult. We are often hurt and angry, so instead of listening to the person making the apology, we are stuck in the anger and that part of us can never forgive. I was working with a client this week and he began talking about some of the abuse he endured as child. When I asked him how much he has been able to heal and forgive over the years he became agitated and stated that he would never be able to forgive his mother’s former boyfriend for what he did over the years. He said, “I will never forget it, so I will never forgive him.” We seem to have a mistaken notion that forgiving and forgetting are somehow synonymous. I discussed with him how the common use of the term forgiveness does imply that once those magical words are spoken the issue is over and everyone moves on like it never happened. This is not what I believe forgiveness is at all. Through our sessions I talked to him about how all of the abuse he endured is like a raw open wound and although he no longer has any contact with his former abuser, the wound is still raw. Now in his life anytime anyone, even his current wife or children, get close to anything that reminds him of the past trauma he reacts in extreme anger. It is at the point where it is causing issues in all of his current relationships. An act of forgiveness, to me, is the process of healing the wound in us. It has nothing to do with the other person. When we have an open wound it is like there is a block in us that we are unable to move beyond. My client was not able to fully connect with his family because he was getting triggered by his past pain whenever something touched upon his wound. I feel it is important to recognize that pain is a block which prevents connection with others and forgiveness is the only way to remove the block. This is a big topic and I will continue this discussion next week.
“Is there anything better than to be longing for something, when you know it is within reach?” Greta Garbo
Last week I discussed how to create a vision that is clear enough to create a longing for change. That is definitely the first step, but just creating the vision isn’t always enough to stay with it long enough for the change to occur. There is often a voice that rises up when we think about this wonderful life we would love living that says things like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ or ‘You’re too old’ or ‘You’re not good enough’ or ‘That will take forever’ or any of the hundreds of other variations on the voice of doubt. We all have the voice of doubt, but we don’t all give it our power. I believe that how much weight we put on the voice of doubt compared to the longing of our dream is proportional to the amount of self-worth we feel. The more worthy we feel we are of our longings the easier it is to dismiss the voice of doubt.
I envision the voice of doubt to be like the dark. We can get angry with the dark or try to fight the dark or yell at the dark all we want and it will not go away. All we need to do is turn on the light. The light is love for ourselves. When we are able to give ourselves the compassion, grace and understanding that we freely give to others we begin to see ourselves differently. Our sense of worthiness for the longing we desire begins to increase. While it sounds so simple to just give yourself more love, it is something that many of us struggle with. I wish there was just one thing that we could all learn to do that would increase a sense of self-worth and decrease the self-doubt. There isn’t, but the good news is that there are thousands of ways that it can be done. We can change our thoughts, our behaviors or our emotions. We can go into nature to connect, get quiet with prayer or meditation or involve ourselves in a hobby. We can paint, journal or play music to touch the authentic part of ourselves that is whole, perfect and well. There are hundreds of self-help books written on this topic and each one is a way that someone has found helpful in order to cultivate self-love. It doesn’t matter how it is done, but what does matter is that you take time to convince yourself that you can do it. Don’t let the voice of doubt be the leader anymore, give it a good push and ask yourself what you could do to increase your sense of self-worth. The authentic you knows what needs to be done and it will give you signals if you listen to them. If what you try feels right do it more- if it doesn’t, try something else. You know what you need in order to increase your self-love. It comes from the same place as the vision does. So listen to your authentic self- you are your own best teacher and the only one that will know what works for you.
One of the biggest blocks to flow is difficulty in coming to terms and acceptance of our past. We have all done things we are not proud of. We all have moments when we realize we lost our temper and lashed out in anger, or did things that were hurtful to someone else. While other people are often quick to point out that we screwed up, the fact is most times we know and our internal voice is already giving ourselves a severe tongue lashing. That voice in our head is our most outspoken critic. It will remind us at every chance it gets that we really don’t know as much as we think we do or that we really are the worthless person someone had told us we were. It is often hard to move beyond that critical voice, but that is exactly what keeps us stuck. Take a moment to truly think about how compassionate you are to yourself. Let’s say you accidentally knock a cup of coffee over and it spills on some important papers on your desk at work, what does your internal voice sound like? Is it screaming and yelling at you or is it telling you that it is okay and you will be able to fix it? Put it on a scale of 0- extremely critical to 10- completely compassionate. Now take a moment and imagine that someone you admire at work (or a good friend, significant other or child) just spilled something. While the initial response may be anger, when you see their reaction and they begin to apologize chances are you begin to show them compassion. You let them know that it was an accident and that they didn’t intend to do it. It is often much easier for us to show compassion to someone else than it is to show compassion to ourselves. One of the exercises that I go through with clients is to ask them to imagine themselves lying in bed crying or upset with themselves. I ask them to visualize themselves walking up behind this image of themselves lying in bed and ask them to comfort themselves, just like they would comfort a child. I have found that it is extremely difficult for some of the clients to do this. There is so much self-hatred built up that to even begin imagining any self-compassion brings up a great deal of emotion. I have encouraged the clients to begin with brief visualizations of this self-compassion exercise daily, trying to stay with it for several seconds only at first, but asking them to gradually build up to staying with it for a full minute and up to five minutes daily. There is a space between the life we are currently living and the life of our dreams. Within that space there is a lot of muck and difficult things to go through. For many people is it easier to stay bound by our circumstances then it is to go through the muck in order to get to the life of our dreams. Beginning with self-compassion gives us the strength to get through the muck. It is one of the most important keys to getting unstuck.