Recently a friend shared an article that I loved from Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” Coates discusses his experience of studying a foreign language, pushing through the despair, and experiencing moments of success while recognizing he will be back in struggle again:
There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.
His words on “giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things” particularly resonate. In many ways this blog post is largely agrees with him, so you might read that instead of this.
I’ve experienced in my life—and talked with folks who have had similar experiences—internalizing an attitude that struggling is an intrinsic sign of failure. That either you’ve “got it”—an innate ability to do a thing—or you don’t, and if you don’t you should stop embarrassing yourself by trying.
This attitude sucks. It’s paralyzing, for one, and it causes people to think they are either “superior” or “inferior.” And while the “superior” folks may have some benefits in terms of entitlement and judgment, deep in their hearts they know they’re only a few public mistakes away from falling into the abyss of “inferiority.” It’s all a trap.
What I’ve come to learn is that the most rewarding and persistent experiences in my life have come from meeting and working through challenges. Defaulting only to what is easy or comes naturally means that my whole Being begins to warp.
When I was a kid, athleticism was my biggest weakness, but I was able to do the intellectual thing well. So I could cultivate a sharp mind in a body that wasn’t getting enough exercise or physical care. I’m fortunate that my father and friends around me continued to push me to find a physical activity that I could do for my health—though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.
When I experienced challenges later in life, I could look back to those early periods of feeling completely overwhelmed and powerless. Moments when I’d hiked ten miles and felt I was at my limit, but knew the only way out of the situation was to hike the remaining ten miles.
In the past year I’ve experienced success in parts of my life after a long period of struggle, and parts of me would like to simply bask in the success. But instead, someone pointed out that I was exhibiting some signs of physical discomfort and suggested I see a physical therapist. Both of these showed me imbalances in my body. I’d gotten good at working out the “big” muscles, but some of the rotator and less obvious coordinating muscles in my shoulders and legs were very weak. My body had learned to compensate with other muscles, and that compensation began creating painful conditions.
Seeing this therapist plunged me back into all my childhood experiences of discomfort, overwhelm, embarrassment, and the urge to avoid. And I kept going back, and doing the exercises, and discovered new capacities for strength and resilience. I began to learn why my body had done what it had done, and how that compensation affected other activities. Instead of feeling helpless to this condition, suddenly there was something I could do to make gradual improvements.
We all have different capacities and potentials, but we have room to grow what we want to grow. We build self-esteem by looking at the things we want to be able to do and giving ourselves permission to work toward it, even when there’s struggle.
It helps when we have an encouraging circle of friends and family and resources to get whatever training, coaching, or support. For some of us, that’s what we long to grow.
The challenge is less to become successful and a master; the challenge is to move through the upset and difficulty without force and self-criticism. The challenge is to not agree with the stories about limitations but to continue returning to the growing edge.
In Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, Sallie Nichols contemplated the tarot card The Wheel of Fortune in a way that has stayed with me for more than ten years. Nichols speaks of The Wheel as an image of human consciousness in various stages of evolution and Self-possession.
In the early stages of consciousness, we are at the edge of The Wheel. Our emotional reactions to life events “ride” us. We’re lifted high into the air and then slammed into the ground and run over. At the mercy of our emotions, we are even further at the mercy of life and the people around us who elicit the emotions. We cannot separate our awareness of self from the emotional reaction, we have no power, no choice in how we respond.
Nichols’s metaphor of spiritual growth is consciousness’s movement from edge to the center of the Wheel. In the center, we continue to spin, but the spinning is less violent. We are better able to watch the movements from a distance. We can watch ourselves spin around the Wheel but instead of lashing out or shutting down, we can try something different. In a sense, we see that we cannot control the Wheel of emotions and life circumstances but we can control how we engage with them.
Spiritual and contemplative practice help us to become more aware of this process. We see the cycle of emotion. We begin to see how we can take ownership of our emotional cycles, instead of blaming others for our feelings.
This is a spiritual growth that does not involve negating what is painful. It is a growth that teaches us how to move back into center when we find we’re at the edge of reactivity. Too many people have shame at having feelings at all, thinking that spiritual enlightenment means being an emotionless being that has transcended human vulnerability.
If that’s true, I’m not there yet. What my observation is, and what I have learned from the greatest Teachers of my life, is that spiritual growth means those emotions, passions, and reactions have more room to simply be themselves, to give their purest response, to alert me to their needs.
I can feel the emotional reaction, watch myself going through the old cycles of blame and defensiveness, and all the while some part of me sits quietly in the center, knowing that it’s all bullshit. The emotion is valid, but the stories of blame often aren’t. Some part of me may say, very urgently, “They’ll be so mad at me!” and feel all the terror and guilt of disappointing someone else, and meanwhile in that still center there is that knowing. Perhaps it’s, “No, they won’t.” Or sometimes it’s even, “If they are, it is okay. They have a right to be angry.”
To shift the metaphor slightly, I see the trajectory of psychospiritual growth as both moving consciousness to the center of the wheel and, ideally, putting that centered consciousness in the driver’s seat. That entire sentence looks straightforward but getting there could take years of work, with growth and setbacks.
Some days, the best I can do is to be in my emotional reaction and conscious of the part of me that knows it will be okay. That part of me might be able to blunt my most toxic responses or impulsive decisions. Some days I lose it entirely and make hurtful mistakes, but with practice and self-compassion those instances grow further and further apart.
Even still there is a part of me that feels a “should,” that I “should” be able to move out of the painful experience into joyful enthusiasm. And some days I can. Other days, I need to practice the best I can with what I’ve got.
In a previous job, my primary work was with people who had been arrested, incarcerated, were on probation or Corrections supervision, or had accepted mental health and substance abuse counseling in lieu of other consequences.
As a case manager, my roles included supporting these folks in both getting the mental and emotional skills they needed to improve their lives and find better solutions to their problems, as well as helping them to find and apply for the resources they need to live a life within the bounds of law. It was my first job out of graduate school and I wasn’t great at it. Being a middle class person with a graduate degree didn’t help when I had no experience or expertise in navigating social service systems or surviving homelessness. Other clients were more adept, savvy, and familiar with the system that they knew where to apply and what to do.
As part of this work, I had a number of clients who were registered sex offenders. A few were in complete denial of their history and remained elusive to accountability, but others had done their time, followed their probation, engaged diligently in their mandated treatment and wanted to simply find a place where they could live and work and stay out of trouble. The highest level offenders were highly isolated, had few social and economic resources—even the folks who formerly made more money than I ever would struggled to find anywhere to live. Legally, the constraints were significant, and beyond that it was hard to find a landlord willing to rent a space. Forget about getting a job.
That’s an extreme example of the kind of problems my clients generally faced. Hopelessness was high, and in many cases the relative structure of incarceration seemed more tolerable than the freedom in which they received so little support.
I’ve reflected on this in the recent weeks since so many revelations of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and coercion continue to surface in the media. I have this sense that in the larger culture, we don’t do accountability well. The dominant cultural pattern is to underrespond and overreact.
We underrespond:In so many of the stories coming to light, we hear the theme that the perpetrator’s abuse was an “open secret” for years. Colleagues and employees colluded. Friends and peers justified or minimized the abuse to the assaulted people. So many victims of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault find their stories doubted or disbelieved because the perpetrator was respected in community, a friend and colleague, or else the perpetrator was so powerful and threatening that pushing back seemed worse than tolerating the abuse.
We overreact: Through some mysterious confluence of events, someone is believed and then all the stories come out. Or stories that have been out for years suddenly get taken seriously. That’s not the problem. The problem is that suddenly the perpetrator went from misunderstood person to complete evil demon who is a piece of shit. People, often seemingly male, make loud public declarations that “If anyone I knew did that to a friend of mine, I’d kill them,” without apparently contemplating the possibility that someone they know has done it, and it may well have been their best friend, their sibling, their religious leader. Or they may well have themself violated someone’s boundaries and consent at some point in life.
There are definitely exceptions, individuals and groups that are doing the work to protect each other while identifying and managing sources of harm. In the larger culture, however, the criminal bears the symbolic weight of the community’s evils, even after they’ve experienced the consequences of their behavior.
I think this tendency extends into communities where certain behavior and ideas are not legally criminalized but socially proscribed. When an accusation finally gets taken seriously, what follows could be the accused engaging in ritual confession and then seeking “treatment,” which typically is a way of avoiding accountability by reframing the problem as a personal struggle. When that is not possible, or the accused is not savvy or avoidant enough, they may instead be cast out.
What’s hard to do is engender effective consequences and accountability processes that keep the community together and recognize the personhood of victim and perpetrator. This is even harder to do when trying to interrupt patterns of abuse and harm before they escalate to tragedy and trauma.
There is no issue with prioritizing community safety, self-defense, and freedom of association. When someone is causing harm, the first task is to stop the harm, and then repair it. The wellbeing of those harmed comes before the comfort and success of those causing the harm. For those who use their positions of power to abuse and harass, I see the loss of that power and influence as a form of harm reduction. Rather than “ending their careers” it could be more like reducing the power they have to something safer for others.
What I take issue with is how collective outrage seems to allow the rest of us to ignore our own evil tendencies in a way to make us feel somehow safer. The sex offender we recognize—publicly known in community—is less of a threat than the one we don’t yet know about. The one who’s in our community. The one we like. The one “no one would expect” but sometimes people wonder about, quietly to each other.
When I say “evil tendencies” I don’t mean that all of us are going to directly commit violence in the course of our lives. But I suspect more of us than we want to acknowledge have either committed, contemplated, or colluded with some act, ideology, or bias we otherwise find morally repugnant.
Those of us who speak the loudest about others’ evil, who call for the greatest and most merciless violence against the people who they think embody evil—I don’t trust those people. No matter which ideology they espouse, which political party they vote for, whether they wrap it up in social justice language or speak with religious rhetoric. To me they’re as suspect as all of us who minimize evil, justify it, make excuses for it.
I’ve caused harm in my life, and I’ve suffered harm. I’ve taken the drug of self-righteousness and fueled vitriol against others. I’ve been silent when speaking could have aided others. I’ve failed to recognize what was happening and act when I could. People have confronted me with my harm and I’ve responded defensively, and sometimes I’ve responded with listening and accepted accountability.
When I consider that we’re all capable of evil, then I come to feel we need to confront each other with a compassionate heart. I want to offer good faith opportunities to the other person to hear the harm they’ve caused and give them an opportunity to redress. I also need to be ready for the other person not to show up in good faith, and know how I will protect myself and my community. I want to listen to my trust and mistrust alike, but seek with that synthesizing virtue named by Erik Eriksson, hope.
It seems like everyone I know feels worn out and discouraged in some parts of their lives, though they may have other places where they feel enlivened and invigorated. Mostly what wears us out is the piece where we have to work together.
So often in organizations I hear people feeling resentful, drained, and burned out by meetings and efforts to move forward. Even when everyone nominally seems to want the same thing, the process of moving toward that thing is rife with conflict, doubts, betrayal, mistrust, ass-covering, politics, manipulation. We want this, but I don’t trust the way you want it.
In groups there is also often a tension between leadership and membership. Those of us who are not actively leading, manifesting, creating have the best vantage to see how those leaders/creators/manifesters are screwing up, making mistakes, causing problems as much as they are generating new opportunities and structures. Sometimes, when our needs are being met, we can be at peace with this conflict and focus on what is good and working. Other times, when our needs are unmet, we focus on what’s going poorly and ponder strategies to get our leaders to meet our goals.
Are you tired?
So often I find anxiety comes with the unwillingness to be with. This may not be causal but co-arising. When I feel most anxious, I am afraid to hear what someone is about to say. I see the email sitting in my inbox but some part of me doesn’t want to know what it says. That anxious part of me seems to think that if I can simply not read the email then I can avoid the reality in which whatever the email says exists. Even when my rational brain knows that the email is already written and the person who wrote it already lives in the reality that’s happening—the reality where the email exists.
This creates tension. The tension of knowing my mind is not living in reality. The tension of attempting to navigate this Existential conflict between what I want to be true and what I know to be true—and the fear of having to face the unknown to enter reality. At some point I will need to risk reading the email and learning what’s there. Once it’s accomplished, I feel a sense of relief. I can finally respond to reality—although parts of me might ratchet it up a notch, respond with anger or denial and continue protecting the reality I want from the reality that is.
Are you tired?
What truths have you been avoiding? What experiences in your body do you find undesirable? What realities have you been trying not to accept? What grief have you been postponing?
What if turning toward and being with these things could offer you true ease? Not a comfortable ease, but the ease of no longer trying to control a world beyond your control. Not a reassuring ease, but the ease of finding what is actually within your power, what is meaningful to you, and finally investing yourself in that.
My intention is to generally write weekly posts, but it’s also important for me to take in and learn from others. This post offers some links to articles from white women and people of color that I think help unpack and begin to work through the destructive, soul-killing effects of patriarchy and white supremacy. Please look through these and, if they speak to you, consider supporting the writers in whatever way you can.
An essay by a writer and instructor about “who we believe and why.” Particular focus on how language, memory, and emotions, and the ways certain patriarchal norms make it harder to hear, understand, and believe women’s stories of abuse.
Writing exercises to help white people in particular reflect upon our racial identity formation and how it informs the way we relate to the suffering of people of color. Includes an overview of reactions to someone else’s pain and responding as a white person to being called out.
One day, during meditation practice, I noticed how much I kept moving out of the practice into fantasies or arguments playing on the movie screen of my brain. When I returned to my breath and presence, I had an unexpected thought.
Ugh, now I’m stuck in here with myself.
That errant thought was a thread attached to a long pattern of ways I’d related to myself and my life for years. All the forms of escapism, fantasy, all the difficulties with investing in myself and taking responsibility for my life. All ways parts of me tried to do anything but be stuck “in here.” Like it was middle school and my consciousness got stuck at the uncool table.
The more I sat with that, the more I saw how allowing that distaste to run me contributed to my unhappiness. If I did not particularly like myself or want to be around myself then I was limited in my ability to develop myself. I was too busy envying other people and putting down my wants and needs. I was unable to see the gifts that I brought. I was unable to savor all the ways that my life was already giving me the things I desired.
Feelings of unworthiness, self-hatred, beliefs that I don’t matter—these are some of the most pernicious and hard to unroot weeds in the garden of the Self. They take up space, they choke down the things we want to grow, they come back again and again. For so many, they are so ingrained in a sense of identity that we think they’re “reality,” just facts, confirmed over and over.
Others work themselves to death trying to prove these beliefs are untrue, which is another kind of trap, as trying to disprove something is also a way of giving it credence. “I have to get this person to love me so I can prove I matter.” This implicitly agrees that I don’t matter now.
This doesn’t mean the effort is pointless. So many people grow up in cultures and circumstances that tell them, over and over again, that they don’t matter, such that building that inner certainty of worthiness is incredibly hard. Standing up for ourselves and making the effort to build whatever efficacy, power, and network of supportive relationships we need is all part of the work.
We all have our own journeys to becoming ourselves. For me, what that unexpected thought during meditation started was a process of realizing I needed to start taking interest in myself. I needed to begin to act like I mattered. I needed to recognize that, very literally, I matter. I am material, I take up space and resources, my very existence impacts the people around me, regardless of what my mind or people and systems in my life might say.
To believe I didn’t matter, then, was both self-destructive and an abdication of my responsibility to be in this world. I did a great many hurtful things to people believing I didn’t matter. I didn’t speak up when my voice would have helped. I didn’t reach out to people who cared about me. I didn’t develop my capacities to help, serve, and bring more joy into the world. My mind said I was doing it for others, but others did not want that of me. They wanted me to see I did matter.
My feelings matter. My wants and needs matter. Even when I don’t like them. Even when my mind, or advertising, or oppressive ideologies, or politicians, or spiritually bypassing religious teachers seem to tell me they don’t. Parts of me still don’t fully believe this, but the more I decide to act as if they matter, and take an interest in the Being I have and not what I think I’m supposed to have, the better life seems to go.
Common sense says that when a person gets defensive it’s because they’re guilty. But I would suggest there is nuance here when people have grown over a lifetime to feel guilty or ashamed of themselves. People who grow up in certain cultures repeatedly receive the message that they are internally defective, untrustworthy, or wrong and need to “get right” through rigid perfectionism or ongoing displays of guilt and shame. Even when we get out of those families, religions, or other communities, that habit of reacting to any implication of guilt and shame persists.
Discussions about the “isms” are rife with defensiveness and hostility. Cisgender people who experience “cis” or “TERF” as a slur. White people who feel appalled, hurt, and disgusted at being called “racist.” Men who experience being told their behavior is “sexist” as “a disgusting insult.” Here I am focusing on these folks, recognizing that many white cisgender men (of which I am one) feel dogpiled, attacked, that somehow it’s okay to hate on privileged people but they’re not allowed to point out when others are acting with disrespect.
What I’m trying to name, before we even go into that, is that most of us in these conversations are reacting to our own feelings of guilt and shame when we hear these things. We think the person is calling us something awful because their words bring up uncomfortable feelings, and we defend against it like we do many other experiences of shame and guilt. We lose center and the possibility for a real, honest conversation in which there is mutual healing and growth.
Certainly anyone can be an asshole regardless of gender, sex, ethnicity, level of ability, class, etc. And it is certain that these reactions happen in all kinds of conversations, even the most seemingly innocuous ones. In our intimate partnerships, a simple disagreement over folding laundry might bring up these feelings. Sometimes it is necessary to step back and care for ourselves. Developing discernment about when to engage, when to step back, is a process that begins by looking at ourselves.
“Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”
One way I think of this is that two things happen from the inner and outer world. From the outer world we hear something like, “I’m pissed at you about what you said.” Or “You seem to listen to other men and belittle women.” Or “Black lives matter.” In the inner world, we “hear” more messages that come from our early wounding, like, “You’re terrible and hurt people you love.” Or “You’re worthless and don’t matter.” Though these are “you” statements, they come from within. They are actually “I” statements, my secret fears about myself. And they are all lies with just enough truth to be highly persuasive.
We could spend our lives trying to get people to stop saying things that bring up these painful inner experiences, which is akin to the solution of trying to cover the entire earth with leather. We could also begin to name, defuse from, and heal those inner wounds, which would be to cover our own feet with leather.
It is worthwhile to start small and engage in contemplation. This does not have to be a politically-related conversation but rather any kind of confrontation that left you feeling confused, hurt, or distanced from someone. Journaling is useful, as it helps to get the thoughts out of our head and so we can look at them with greater objectivity. Talking to someone who will simply listen and reflect what they’re hearing is also useful.
Think on these questions first—What happened? What was said? What did the other person say and do? What did you say and do?
What was your experience? What feelings, memories, imaginations arose? What in particular troubled you?
Taking the most troubling part of the interaction, engage in a process of contemplation. Follow the thread of meaning deeper. For example, “What did it mean to me when this person said [X]?” “What does it mean to me that I felt this way?” “What does it mean to me that I believe this?”
Review this material and see if a pattern emerges, a theme, a scary/upsetting/angering story about yourself or your relationships with other people.
Set an intention to watch how this story plays out over the course of the next two weeks. Whenever you notice that story arising, pause to take a breath, and perhaps journal about it later. Notice how often it comes up, in what circumstances, whether it is fairly constant or limited to certain situations. Also notice when things occur that seem to contradict the story, or times when you might respond.
At this point, we’ve gone far afield of the kind of political arguments with which I framed this, and that’s the point. This is a practice to help you come to greater self-awareness and freedom with your own patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Rather than taking them for granted as unfailingly accurate interactions with the world, they are material for study and growth as you grow deeper in your understanding of the truth of yourself and your relationships. When we do this, the harder and more nuanced discussions go better.
We are all figuring this out. Life, politics, cultural shifts, new technologies, economic transitions. The stakes are high and yet we’re all stumbling around in the dark with only our experiences and understandings of history to guide us. The more free I am with my guilt and shame, the better able I am to hear and respond to these difficult moments. I can sit with a confrontation and take in the information that is useful and discard what is not. I can withdraw from interactions that have become unproductive and focus my energy on what is life-affirming.
I am in love with this world and it breaks my heart.
This hasn’t always been the case. For much of my life I felt divided from the world by a cynical, gray, depressive curtain. Mistrustful of myself and others, wary of being hurt or taken advantage of, I aspired to a spiritual bypassing that one writer about the Enneagram encapsulated perfectly as “The False Buddha.”
As “The False Buddha,” I could make wise or knowing pronouncements and hide behind spiritual notions about the illusory nature of the world. All of which was a way to numb the pain of being in it. If nothing mattered, then there was no reason to take risks, no reason to face disappointment and heartache, no reason to leave my comfort zone. I could swathe myself in cynicism and eat my feelings.
I found teachers who could help me untie those knots in my life force, who taught me that transcending and rising above were not spiritual solutions but forms of avoidance that were not helping anyone. What was being asked of me to fall in love with the world and everything it offers.
Today, I think of nonattachment not as the unwillingness to take action but rather the willingness to act and be with whatever happens as a result. Nonattachment is not numb or distant. Nonattachment acknowledges lust, desire, anger, joy, disappointment, despair, pain, all as worthy and valid experiences of the Self.
Desire is what leads us out of ourselves, out of what is comfortable and into the mystery and expansion available to us. Following desire grows our life and Being, but it is not a guarantee that we will get the results we want.
Which leads me to becoming hope. This expression came to me last year when I saw conflict in my communities and felt despair that people were unable to listen to each other in mutual understanding, a practice that I have long-valued and often strive for. A practice that is, as implied, a practice, something that requires effort and failure and recommitment, something that grows with repetition and learning, something that is not easy or innate.
As I saw this, feeling without hope, I realized what I was seeing was my work. Not to fix my communities and repair all the conflict—that kind of thinking is a trap that both inflates self-importance and deflates efficacy. It leads us to devaluing other people’s power and burning ourselves out. An entire community is needed to mend and strengthen a community. What my community needed was for me to show up as the person I felt needed to exist. To act in a way that would kindle hope in my heart.
Practicing hope in this way invites a practice of the kind of nonattachment I acknowledge above. Because the results are out of my hands, or I may only be able to manage one burst of right action before I need to take a break. And asking us all to step up, to become our bigger selves, is to also be faced with all the ways we limit ourselves and keep ourselves small.
No one needs to be saved so much as they need to see what is possible for them. To see what courage and risk look like, and to know that this risk was undertaken by a fellow human being.
When we feel mistrust in each other, fearful that the other intends us harm or simply is unable to hear and have our best interests at heart, engaging in open-hearted conflict becomes difficult. More often, particularly in Western white-influenced cultures, we retreat from the emotional engagement toward an intellectualization of the problem. Successful conflict thus looks like being technically correct, using proper grammar and argumentative structure, not making any mistakes, having correct evidence. This kind of argumentation is useful for disciplines pursuing truth, such as science and academia, but unhelpful when it comes to building relationships.
When it comes to interpersonal arguments, more often than not what’s at stake are basic human social and survival questions like—”Can I be myself? Will I be safe? Will I be included or rejected? Will I be cared for?” I think conversations about “microaggressions” bring up these questions for all participants. People who live in bodies and identities that experience violence and marginalization walk around with a certain sensitivity to signs of potential exclusion or violence.
For example—as a gay man, when I hear someone use the word “faggot” I do an automatic mental calculus about the context and meaning of that word, particularly how unsafe I should feel. When I was growing up, people used that word primarily in the context of insulting each other and threatening violence. When other queer people are using that word, I usually feel okay because I know that we share certain values and acceptance and that their use of that word typically does not suggest the risk of violence or exclusion. When I’m not sure if the people using the word are queer, or how they feel about queer people, then I feel on edge.
Thus, I understand that different groups might have strong responses to certain words. They want to feel safe and included, as do nearly all humans in social spaces. I also understand that the strong push to control, abolish, or limit the use of certain words and phrases is experienced as an aggression by others.
If I angrily respond to the person who I think is homophobic who uses the word “faggot,” and insist they can’t use that word, that person might experience their own sense of threat of exclusion or marginalization. Perhaps they think I’m being unfair because they do not consider themselves homophobic and do not see a problem with their use of the word. They might think I’m being oppressive by trying to control their language. We could get locked in mutual suspicion and escalate into greater distance. We could also share our experiences with each other in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect, and come closer together.
We don’t know how powerful we are. When it comes to interpersonal, face to face connections, we have much more influence over each others’ emotional states than we might realize. When two people are meeting, all the decades of history, systemic privilege and marginalization, economic disparity, all of that is present and yet not always fully conscious. Or so I want to believe, but often it seems the person in the position of power “forgets” their relative power and privilege until the moment they are aggrieved, and then retreats into it instead of engaging in conflict as an equal participant.
One’s boss is simply a person who makes mistakes and wants to be liked, and so may engage with their employees in a position of friendliness and equality, but the employees are very aware that they cannot have a simply human relationship with their bosses, for their economic security and job prospects depend upon staying in the boss’s good graces. Inevitably certain things stay unspoken, unaddressed.
Similarly, police officers may start a “consensual conversation” that results in the arrest of the person they are speaking with. Police officers are human beings with their own fears, hopes, strengths, and insecurities, and yet the amount of social and political power granted to them makes any interaction entirely lopsided. There is no possibility of authentic conflict. We are told to treat police officers with respect and that any disrespect we show invites punishment, but depending upon the culture and laws of the precinct, there is not necessarily a similar injunction on the officer to comport themselves with honesty and respect.
When there is no basic level of trust and safety, we turn to legalistic solutions. Rather than meet each other directly with our feelings, share our mutual experiences, name our hopes and fears, and discover the right next step—we turn toward third parties, byzantine systems of rules, authority figures to manage the conflict for us. We retreat from the basic questions of love and belonging and instead try to score points on each other. Instead of improving our sense of community and belonging, though, this leaves our resentments and fears simmering, unprocessed, unwitnessed, and any genuine expression of these ends up punished and demonized. Without open-hearted conflict, all we have is war.
A friend of mine recently made a Facebook post that went viral about checking in on your strong people, or your “rocks,” that resonated with a lot of people. I can’t speak for all “rocks” but I have some thoughts that might be useful for those unused to thinking of their strong people as needing support.
Your strong people need support.
They may not ask for it or show it. You may think they are inhuman or don’t have feelings. But they are human and they feel.
Often strong people have a deeply rooted instinct to put others’ needs ahead of their own, with a concurrent doubt that others will be available, able, or willing to support them. Strong people might have a long history of feeling failed, ignored, or humiliated by the people who cared for them, so they learned how to care for themselves.
It is a strange paradox that these very independent self-caring people are nevertheless often driven to be available and helpful to others, and struggle to say no. The unconscious belief might be something like, “Once everyone is okay, then I will take care of myself.” Which never happens.
For those who are not used to offering support to your strong people, I wanted to offer some suggestions:
Be assertive but not pushy.
Reach out and ask how they are, then after a few moments of small talk, ask how they really are. If they say they are fine and don’t need anything, or push you away, let them know you are available and willing to be there for them.
Avoid digging or asking a ton of leading questions, unless you know your rock well enough to ask what you know is the right question. The more you seem to want information or emotional revealing, the more suspicious and withdrawn your rock might become.
Be open to anything.
Sometimes when your strong person opens up, you won’t even realize it. “I didn’t have anything in my fridge today and had to miss lunch.” Okay? Not the end of the world?
But you may not understand the context—how important it is to them to eat regular meals, the sense of security they feel in opening the fridge and finding food. How this is an indicator that their routines of self-care have gotten lost, and how this symbolizes their sense of failure, overwhelm, inadequacy, and fears of slow decline. You don’t have to get all that right away. The takeaway is: keep in mind that the problem might feel a lot deeper than it seems at first.
On the other extreme, your rock might open up to you with some mind-blowing unexpected shit you couldn’t have predicted or even imagined they would be involved with.
And it is entirely possible that they would say either or both in the same tone. Like it’s not that big of a deal, maybe even kind of silly.
You might laugh. Laughing a bit is not a deal breaker. But once you get that this is important, try to compose yourself quickly and invite more information.
Do not, however, make fun of the problem, or imply that it’s not a big deal. In that case you might be confirming their secret fears that their problems are unimportant or no one they love can take care of them. You will lose the opportunity to support them and likely will not have another for a long time.
Once your strong person starts opening up, don’t check your phone or shift your focus on other priorities. That might be experienced as a sign that you are uninterested, overwhelmed, or think their problems don’t matter. They may quickly clam back up and continue pretending things are okay without telling you how you affected them.
If you do need to shift your focus, be really up front about it. “Hey, I need to use the restroom but I want to keep listening to you, so I’ll be right back okay?” “I really need to sleep, but can I call you tomorrow to keep talking about this?”
Be loving and supportive but don’t make a big deal about it.
It’s useful to try to keep your emotional level matching what they’re giving out. If your emotions get bigger than theirs, they will feel they have to take care of you. Examples include: apologizing excessively for some affront, expressing a lot of outrage on their behalf, or responding to vulnerability with huge expressions of feeling and care.
You may love to get big bear hugs when you’re crying, but your strong person might feel overwhelmed and smothered by it. Try starting smaller, like touching their hand or shoulder. Ask for permission to touch. Ask if they want a hug.
Let your strong person talk and try to listen with as little judgment and as much compassion as you can. Check in before giving advice to see if that’s what they want, and be okay if they say no. You might offer observations and opinions if they’re okay with it.
“Wow, that would really piss me off,” is helpful empathy. “What the hell is wrong with that person!” might be too big and might feel to your strong person like you are centering your feelings and not interested in theirs. After a few rounds of this, you might be able to have a more free exchange of feelings, but be cautious the first time.
Accept dark humor.
You and your rock can make liberal use of dark humor so long as it’s clear that you emotionally understand where your rock is coming from and aren’t judging or shaming them. Laughing with, and not at, is an important distinction.
If you’re not into dark humor, understand that you may hear some of it and you don’t have to laugh along but avoid criticizing it at the outset. Your strong person might be more sensitive to shame than you expect. Perhaps they hold themself to high standards and rarely give themself permission to be messy and ungracious.
Let them be messy for a while. Eventually you can bring in any needed accountability, and they will be more open to your opinion when they’ve processed.
Avoid talking about how much you admire their strength.
Strong people may feel like their strength is a burden, that those around expect them to be superhuman and it’s not okay to be weak and vulnerable. They might have been criticized in the past for being cold and “inhuman,” which is even more painful.
If they are showing you vulnerability, this is an opportunity to let them know it’s okay and you love them for being a whole person. Shifting the conversation back to how strong they are and how much you admire it may end up centering your feelings, minimizing their struggles, and communicating to them that their vulnerability is unacceptable.
Be strategic about saying, “You’re being too hard on yourself.”
I can almost guarantee you they’re being too hard on themself, they know it, they’ve been told it before, and probably feel a sense of embarrassment about it. Instead try fostering some curiosity about what in their life makes them feel like they have to be so hard on themself. What are they afraid will happen if they weren’t strong all the time? That’s where they need support.
Make suggestions about steps for more support.
Strong people might be so used to taking care of their needs that when you ask “What can I do for you?” they will struggle to come up with any kind of answer at all. Sometimes your caring, effort, and presence will be more than enough. Sometimes they don’t know how to assess their needs and name how others can support them.
You might ask some general questions about what they’re dealing with and make some suggestions. If you’re a person who is comfortable with receiving care and asking for what you want, this is an opportunity to use your experience to teach them. “Sometimes when I’m down it really makes me happy when people bring me a cooked meal. Could I do that for you?” Again, try not to personalize it if the person says no, defers, or doesn’t have an answer for you. It’s really not about how they feel about you, especially if you’ve made it to this point in the conversation.
Apologize if needed.
If things don’t go well and you realize you hurt their feelings, all is not lost. Your taking responsibility and offering a genuine apology may be quite healing for your strong person.
Knowing when to check in with your strong folks is a tricky thing. Think about what’s been going on in their lives and how you would feel about it, then factor in that they might have the same feelings but be worse at acknowledging them, and act accordingly. Pay attention to if they seem more tired, forgetful, less gracious, more irritable, less on their game.
If there have been a lot of crises lately but things are starting to settle down, that is a great time. Often strong people learn to postpone their crisis response. When they know everyone’s going to be okay or the worst is over, then they might allow themselves to have their crisis response, but struggle to acknowledge it since everyone else has moved on.
Thank you for taking the time to care for your strong people. They are more vulnerable than they want you to know.