We’ve all experienced moments that are so difficult, we can’t do anything more than wish them away. We are so uncomfortable with our present experience that we choose harmful actions just to distract ourselves from the pain.
And this pain doesn’t even have to have a tragic cause to demand our attention and action. Boredom can be painful. Restlessness can be painful. Indecision can be painful.
What adds even further suffering to these moments is our rejection of them. We hate how they feel and want them to go away at any cost. We use distraction to hide from them. These can be obvious vices like drugs or alcohol, but it can also be more insidious diversions posing as living, such a drama or busyness. We deny ourselves peace in an attempt to avoid suffering.
The wretched truth is that we can’t avoid it. Moments of suffering, of feeling not quite okay, are going to happen. This pain can be physical, mental and emotional, and the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be okay with not being okay. And this even means making space for that refrain of It shouldn’t be like this.
This is an interesting balance to achieve: to be miserable, hate the misery but accepting that you hate it. It’s a bit of a mindfuck. And it starts to bring up questions about the point of even trying to make things better. I mean, if we’re just supposed to accept things as they are, including the fact that we hate things as they are, then how can change happen?
But accepting the present moment is a change. We stop fighting ourselves and how we feel. We instead turn inwards to our suffering and let it be as it is instead of trying to find an external solution. No distractions, no false pushes to just “feel better”. This is what creates space for the soothing gifts of gratitude and peace.
When someone begins to tell us about a personal struggle, the urge to solve, pacify or minimize their experience can become overwhelming. This reaction is born out of discomfort. It is hard to be with another person’s pain because we can feel helpless.
Solving other people’s problems can give us a false sense of control. This can be over the situation, the other person and even ourselves. And this knee-jerk reaction to regain the upper hand is not surprising. We want to be seen in a certain way, and other people’s problems present scenarios where we can play these desires out. Perhaps we want to be seen as strong, generous, wise or compassionate. And are any of these attributes really so terrible? I’d argue that they aren’t but the need for control that drives them can be.
When confronted with another person’s pain, we need to constantly be checking in with ourselves, especially before we offer any advice or solutions. This is especially true when the solution either asked for or offered by us requires us to jeopardize our own safety. This can be financial, emotional or even physical. People who are scared and in any kind of pain may react unkindly or deceptively to those trying to help. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like chelation therapy, where by being exposed to a suffering person’s mistreatment or manipulation you can somehow bind to their pain and neutralize it.
Instead, we need to choose the path of authentic and unconditional love. By constantly checking in with ourselves, we ensure that we are acting in a way that is genuine, instead of manipulative. We do not know what is best for another person. They do. What we can offer is enough love so that they can learn to trust themselves.
Making space for someone’s pain is hard. Sometimes this means listening and putting the mental origami of how you’re going to solve this person’s life aside. Other times, this means saying I love you but I can’t be here with you right now. That’s okay too. When we learn to offer another person the space to be with their own pain without the need to change it for our own comfort or preferences, we give ourselves the same gift of acceptance, as we are, in this very moment.
When we are hurt by another person’s actions or words, a small bit of relief can come from knowing that we were completely blameless, and that our anger, hurt and resentment are justified. And sometimes, that’s all it was. We were mistakenly caught in the crossfire of another person’s own pain and self-destruction, and it truly had nothing to do with us. But sometimes, these painful interactions are part of a larger pattern of which we are the common factor.
This is not to say that we deserve to be hurt or that we bring such suffering on ourselves because we just can’t learn from our past mistakes. Oh no. Not at all. Not never. No one deserves to be humiliated, belittled or hurt in any way by another person. But it does happen. We do get hurt. And it sucks. But what can make it suck slightly less is recognizing and acknowledging how this pain may be serving us.
For years, I was continually hurt and disappointed by a close family member’s actions. When I would share my experiences with others, I would get sympathy and even accolades for being so strong as to have lived through this other person’s recklessness and callousness. Now, looking back, I can see that I reveled in these responses. I was sane and thoughtful, juxtaposed perfectly against the crazy and selfishness of this person’s actions.
And I kept doing it. In one way or another, I would construct scenarios that were outwardly reasonable on my part, but deep inside, I knew that this person could never meet my expectations. And I’m not sure I really wanted them to.
Instead of looking where to hang the crown of blame, we can instead look for what these repeating patterns give us. In my case, it was sympathy, praise and if I'm completely honest, an excuse. Once we can see these gifts, we can start to reassess their value to us. There might even come a point when they no longer serve us and can be let go. This can make space for healing and offering ourselves the acceptance and love we truly desire.
When asked "Tell me about yourself", most of us will list our occupations, credentials and commitments as if a job or the fact that we have children is what gives us legitimacy as human beings. We explain how we fit into our homes, schools and societies. We highlight our contributions and connections as we try to deliver compelling evidence of our value.
Growing up, a combination of nature and nurture taught me to be useful. This could mean being funny and lighthearted, or doing well at something so as to become conversational fodder that reflected well on others. It could mean working hard or without complaint, or just staying out of the way. Whether these were attributes that those around me actually wanted or needed, I can’t really say for sure. But my young mind was constantly evaluating my worth based on the reactions I’d received from those around me. I developed a sense of what I thought made me valuable and harshly held myself and others up to these fabricated standards.
I still don’t know exactly what to say when asked to tell another person about me. I know this is often used as a conversational ice breaker or to be friendly, but it’s a terribly difficult question for me to answer truthfully. I have learned that I am not my job, but it is a convenient way to package myself. I have learned that I am not my personal relationships, but it can be clarifying or interesting to others to declare my marital status or to explain how children fit into my life. I have learned that I am not my hobbies, but these can be how I show others my individuality. If I am not my job, the people in my life, or how I would spend a free hour, then who or what am I and why am I here?
I would really love to say when asked "Tell me about yourself" that I am that part of your heart that sings good morning on a bright and sunny day. I am the warmth of a hug with a loved one. I am the calm of knowing it’ll all work out. I am part of everyone and everything, and everyone and everything is a part of me. That’s me and that’s you, and this is our shared value.
Whether it came from another person or from the constant internal commentary of our own minds, we have all been told to Cheer Up, in one way or another. At times, this might be the gentle push out of rumination that we need or it can be the lifeline we cling to just to make it to tomorrow. Oftentimes, however, it only serves to needlessly compound our suffering.
The habit of denying our pain is developed very young. We were learning how to fit in and along the way, we were taught about cry babies, to just grow up and of course, smile. When given such directives from another, it often seemed born out of frustration or anger. However when we peel away at it, just a little, we see that it was their own suffering that spurred them to offer such harsh and unyielding commands. These orders were given in an effort to ease the burden of their own helplessness when confronted with another person’s pain.
When we deny our difficult or painful emotions, we compound the belief that we are not acceptable by adding to our laundry list of what’s wrong with us. We then cling to the comfort and familiarity that the projection of competence affords us. We neglect our suffering, which gives it no choice but to grow and invade other parts of our lives. We yell at someone for a minor mishap. We neglect our bodies by over or under nourishing them. We try countless ways to distract ourselves from the epic meltdown within.
Some days, putting on a smile is the only tool we have, and it’s okay to use it with awareness. In doing so we honour the inherent suffering in being human and give ourselves permission to acclimate to it in whatever way feels the safest and most genuine at the time.
With time and compassionate practice, we might find we have more space for our pain. The good times become even sweeter as they are no longer tainted by dismissed suffering. Now that is something to be cheerful about.
Without being completely aware of it, we are often looking to one another for some kind of social cue. A smile can send out the message that we are friendly or that we are happy. Laughter says that we are free of stress. A straight ahead stare sends the message that we are in no mood to interact. While this exchange of social signals can be helpful at times, it can also be deceptive. For example, we see someone not smiling and suddenly our brain can go down any number of paths: What’s their problem? What did I do wrong? Am I boring them?
Throw in behavior on top of subtle facial tweaks and we are really in for it. The causes of behavior multiplied by the infinite interpretations of that behavior equals emotional chaos. We feel so out of control when someone’s demeanor or behavior does not meet our expectations of them. It is exhausting trying to behave in a specific way that will elicit the kind of responses we crave. Toss in some manipulative tendencies and the water gets even murkier. Through frustrating trial and error, we learn that it is impossible to control, coerce or love someone enough into responding to us the way we would like them to.
And exactly what is the response we are looking for? Acceptance. Always. When you boil it down, it is always acceptance.
We are social creatures and therefore how we treat each other matters. But we cannot base our self-worth on the world’s reaction to us because these reactions are so inconsistent. A smile does not always mean safe. An avoided gaze does not always mean dismissal. We cannot spend our precious time here dissecting every interaction to ascertain our worth. We must believe in our worth at all times. We must know that we are acceptable as we are. When we truly know this, the need to have it validated by others in a specific way is weakened.
This kindness to ourselves then becomes a gift to those around us. The people around us are free to be who they are in the moment, as we no longer need them to contort themselves in ways that we think reflects well on us. Our children can be a bit unruly, a good friend can be sad, our coworkers can be preoccupied...when we fully love and accept ourselves, we no longer require others to spend precious time and energy trying to be who they think we need them to be. They can just be themselves. Relationships become easier because we have put down the unsolvable algorithm of what we need others to do in order to make us happy. We have found our happiness in our self-acceptance, as we are, in this very moment.
When we realize we have made a mistake, our body physically responds as if we cannot stand our own humanness. In addition to wanting to vomit or pass out, our internal critic begins to fully endorse our own self-disgust. Oh I can’t believe you did that again! Don’t you know better by now? How could you be so stupid?
In a weird way, I think it’s our mind’s way of trying to help us. It’s trying really hard to figure out the source of our pain and discomfort, and then once it identifies it as being rooted in a mistake, it works double time to fix it. But the fix that the inner critic can provide is one rooted in the idea that because we make mistakes that these are somehow a part of us, and need to be extracted. Unfortunately the mind’s attempt to exorcise our imperfections straight back to hell is neither kind nor effective.
It is so hard to accept our humanness, especially when it leads to a misstep. Maybe we said something thoughtless to a friend, or maybe we plowed into the back end of the car we were tailgating. Maybe we completely forgot a deadline. Maybe we ate that third cookie even though we were supposed to be on a diet. Maybe we fell for someone’s poor treatment of us, again.
Making room for our mistakes is acknowledging that mistakes are part of being human, and that we still have worth in spite of them. This is not about staying stuck in unhealthy habits, letting poor behavior slide, or getting away with anything. In fact, when we make room for mistakes, we also don’t fight so hard against the repercussions of our missteps. We are able to put down the defensive strategies of lying, manipulation or even isolation to avoid the pain of the mistake and its consequences. When we make room for the lessons our mistakes have to offer, we can see them for the teachers that they truly are.
When I don’t listen to the fear that is actually underneath the refrain of falling short, I can try to fill that horrible emptiness with attempts to ensure my place in the pecking order. It’s not something I am proud of but it feels right to own it. I have the ability to let my fear of being chucked aside guide me down paths I have no desire to be on. The habit of sizing up those around me and bringing them down is easy, and sometimes even fun. But it’s not me.
We hurt others to build ourselves up and out of our pain. Sometimes a snide remark towards my partner will slip out or a judgmental thought about a stranger will parade across my brain. If I give myself a moment, I’ll know that what spurred such nastiness is something so different from whatever the surface criticism was directed at. It’ll be a manifestation of my own fear building up and seeking some sort of relief. And for a split second I do feel a little better. A little smarter, a little more forethinking or organized, a little bit more right and maybe even a little bit better than another person. But actually better? No, not at all.
All this kind of behavior does is leave wounds to both deliverer and receiver. We can become closed off or learn to always have claws at the ready. We become precise in how we cut others down, all in an effort to not feel our own fear of not being enough.
Fear is here to stay. It is hard wired into us to keep us safe. The only thing that will help is asking what does this fear actually need. And as delicious as it can feel to badmouth a coworker or turn yourself into the martyr that has to do all the dishes again, I can promise you that neither of those nasty little chewies is what your fear is actually asking for. It’s asking for some reassurance that you are going to be okay, and that you are perfectly acceptable as you are. You can put the whip and the bitch bat down. Anger and cruelty is not what you need and it’s not who you are.
I remember going to a wedding as a kid and seeing this three tiered beauty of a cake. It was covered in pearls and flowers, the icing was a smooth creamy white finish, and I could not wait to eat that thing. I was later informed that it was only a decorative cake. It wasn’t actually for eating. What. The. Fudge. New Years Eve is like that soul crushing decorative cake. It is beautiful, over the top and makes false promises of how delicious it will be. New Years Eve is made of cardboard, just like that cake.
New Years Eve has this glow of possibility, as if something magical happens at the stroke of midnight. Instead, you get some cheap champagne, sore feet (thanks NYE heels), and the onslaught of New Year, New You fills your head with laundry lists of how last year you was complete garbage.
These clothes, this work out, that new job...every year seems to start with an almost ritualistic itemization of how much we’ve fallen short the year before, and how we are going to rectify the sheer horror of our inadequacy in the upcoming twelve months. But as 2018 rolls to an end, I want something better for myself and others. I want us to turn away from the challenge of churning out a new and improved self, and instead look back at everything we’ve done. We’re here. We made it.
This New Years, I am looking back over a year that is unique in its strangeness, and acknowledging the guts it took to get through it without ruining my life. I am looking at it and saying yes! I am listening to what my heart is trying to say instead of holding fast to the lies that depression and anxiety convincingly tell. I am learning that I am not a bother or an inconvenience. I am seeing teachers and lessons all around. I am opening my heart up to healing.
Now I am not knocking the ol’ New Years Resolution. The new year has this feeling of a blank slate, and is a natural time to evaluate old habits and priorities to see what is still working for us and what isn’t. But this year, I am taking a new view on resolutions. One that sees them as tools to cultivate our unique contribution to the world, instead of heavy handed mallets we use to knock ourselves into shape. A view of kindness towards others and myself that is steadfast, no matter the missteps or challenges.
We rocked 2018.