Unknotting the Bindings of Toxic Guilt

To feel guilt about causing harm is a healthy and productive emotion that leads us into healthy, self-responsible relationships. Without guilt, we would have no sense of ethics, no concern for the harm done to another person, no capacity for intimacy. Guilt tells us when we’ve fallen out of integrity with our values, and it leads us back to self-respect.

Unfortunately, guilt sometimes also serves to bind us in automatic deference, to make ourselves smaller, to sacrifice our needs and deep values for the comfort and well-being of others. Guilt makes us vulnerable to control, and at its worst makes us controlling of others.

When we feel responsible for all of another persons’ feelings and needs, any action we take that makes them uncomfortable, upset, or inconvenienced begins to bring up feelings of guilt. One person’s disappointment in me feels like a direct assault on my sense of self. I have to avoid it at all costs. That is when guilt becomes toxic and oppressive.

Strategies of control and dominance

An image of a pug wrapped in a blanket.
This one feels disappointed but doesn’t blame you. Photo by Matthew Henry.

If I cannot differentiate others’ feelings from my own, it’s inevitable that I begin to figure out strategies to manage or avoid feeling guilt. Often this comes out as efforts of control. I must manage myself so that I never hurt, anger, disappoint, or grieve another person—which quickly becomes overwhelmingly stressful, surrounded by people with wildly different responses. I might also try to control those around me so they don’t have those feelings, through bullying, placating, flirting, lying, double-dealing, or exploding in response to any kind of accountability.

To be in a healthy relationship, I need a clear sense of my self, my edges, and the edges of the other person. I need enough distance from their feelings and behaviors to soothe and know myself, so that I can meet them authentically. When I fear disappointing someone, I lack the distance to think about on these expectations. Who appointed me the job of keeping them happy? Is this what I honestly want, or something I’m doing to avoid bad consequences? Is this a task I gave myself? Are the expectations to which I hold myself, or to which they hold me, ones that I can live with?

Perhaps their expectations, hopes, needs are fully valid but still not correct for us. In the early stages of a romantic relationship—okay, in nearly every stage of a romantic relationship—these differences in expectation become clear. Our partners get upset at us for behaviors that are innocuous to us. In Elisa’s family, you ate whatever was in the fridge, but in Jacob’s family you never eat the last of anything without asking. Both expect this behavior of their partners because it’s normal to them, not realizing that family cultures are different. Then they clash, because someone has to be right. Eventually, perhaps, they arrive at the point of seeing these as different and equally valid beliefs, and find a compromise that works for both.

But if Jacob reacts with intense anger and shaming every time Elisa finishes something without asking, and Elisa feels guilty and believes she’s in the wrong, both become smaller and disempowered in the relationship. Elisa starts walking on eggshells, not sure what will set Jacob off. Elisa feels uncomfortable even asking Jacob what he’s upset about, thinking with Jacob that she should simply know and understand and something must be wrong with her for not getting it.

Jacob’s anger might run from a deeper wound. Perhaps he expects that Elisa should be able to know his desires without him needing to ask for them. He feels embarrassed about having wants and needs and shy about asking for what he wants. When Elisa does not magically know what he’s thinking, he feels a deep, years-old disappointment that he is invisible and unseen. While Elisa could spare him from this by being accommodating, in the long run it might be necessary for Jacob to feel this disappointment as his own. Until he begins to face how much this pattern of expecting his needs to be known without him asking for it, he will continue to feel disappointed, disempowered, and heedless of how much he sets up his partners to fail.

Rather than accepting responsibility for others’ feelings, I can focus on cultivating my ability to respond. This is separation that enables connection. Rather than internalizing another’s opinion of me as something threatening and needing control, it behooves us to work on making our inner experience a safe place to experience all of our emotions and thoughts.

When it’s okay to feel disappointed, hurt, angry, fearful, joyous, it’s easier for me to realize that other people can have these feelings without dying. And, indeed, maybe these feelings are necessary. Nobody’s feelings are “wrong,” they are information. When a person feels betrayed by my actions, that’s important information for them in deciding what they need to make this relationship work. If I feel remorse for my actions, that’s important information for me about what I’m willing to do to repair the relationship. If I feel that I was acting in integrity, that is information too.

Without this differentiation, we feel as though we should and must control someone else’s emotional experience. We feel bound to their feelings, that any upset or anger they feel toward us is another binding that keeps us from being ourselves or doing what we want. We have to stop everything and fix them, even if we don’t feel we did anything wrong. We feel reluctant to share our perspectives and act.  While this is primarily for our own comfort, to avoid the feelings that come up when there is anger or hurt directed toward us, it becomes a hook. This person’s disappointment, anger, or hurt develops its own power of control. Unconsciously or otherwise, the relationship becomes a struggle for dominance.

Liberation from guilt and oppression

Here is an important truth, emerging from social justice discourse: “You are responsible for your impact, regardless of your intent.”

Here is another important truth: “I can only be responsible for my experience.”

While paradoxical, both truths are valid. I like to joke and throw out random witticisms in conversation. When I’m lucky, people laugh. Other times people respond with irritation, upset, or anger. My intent was to have fun, my impact was that the person became upset. I might have made light of a topic that is sensitive and important for the person. I failed to meet them where they were, I took up space when they needed it, or I poked a sore spot. When I was younger and stupider, my humor had racist and sexist overtones. Even when I thought I was satirizing racism, the Black person who didn’t know me and didn’t need to hear that felt upset.

My impact did not line up with my intent. To know this is a gift. It helps me to think about what went wrong and how I can better align the two in the future. In the meantime, it is worth acknowledging that I caused harm and making amends.

Where privileged folk—white middle to upper class people in particular—get stuck is in toxic guilt. When we’re confronted or called out, we are in the dilemma discussed above. We do not fully understand the harm we caused and want to keep it at a distance

Image of a hand open beneath hanging chains.
Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra

Being ruled by guilt is not healthy for anyone. It is stressful and narrowing. Marginalized people often experience pressure to contort themselves for the comfort of the socially, politically, and economically powerful, that the feelings of the powerful are more worthy of care and concern than their own. This reinforces fragility in the privileged, who do not have enough practice tolerating emotional stress. In these cases, the consequences of the marginalized not doing emotional labor for their oppressors tend to be more costly than feeling bad for disappointing someone.

In this writing, I speak of ”marginalized” versus “privileged” as relative positions rooted in how much social power one has. Young children are less powerful than their parents. Employees are less powerful than their bosses. In the United States, immigrants, Native people, and people of color are generally less powerful than white people.

The current moment of #metoo is rife with questions about guilt and expectation. As stories come into the light, we see more clearly how much the subjects of patriarchal violence have had to endure, swallow, and allow to poison themselves to get along. Now is a moment when the anger has broken this pattern of denial and minimization. Women and other victims of sexual assault, coercion, and harassment are sharing their stories and pursuing action.

This is the kind of behavior that a sense of toxic guilt would normally bind, and we see that guilt rising to meet the outpouring of anger. Repeated injunctions to think about the harm they may be doing to the men they are accusing. Redirecting the conversation to looking at how those who experienced the harm might have taken more responsibility to avoid it or stop it.

Privileged people struggle, I think, to step out of dominance relationship with regard to feelings. There is a sense that someone’s feelings have to be right and another’s wrong, so a white person working on being “woke” may look at being called out as a sign that they need to throw out all their feelings and perspective and wholly embrace the truth of whomever is calling them out. Complete submission, which is rarely asked for nor appreciated. 

My observation is that part of this is that dominance in relationship is so ingrained that the privileged person is unable to see the difference between engaging in honest conflict versus defensiveness or stonewalling. A person early in interrogating their own perspective gets feedback on their defensiveness or stonewalling and then assumes that means any kind of disagreement or difference of opinion with a person of color is racist.

Men regularly told they are “mansplaining” are unable to fully understand the difference between that and having a conversation. This naturally engenders some frustration which then leads to demands for emotional labor from the marginalized person.

As a white man, I’ve gone through phases where I’ve been called out by a woman or a person of color and responded with a conciliatory, “Thank you, I’ll go think about it,” response that did not engage the critique and mostly seemed to leave the other person feeling grossed out.

These days I practice staying in the conversation, staying with the discomfort and trying to understand what is being said to me while also standing in my perspective and experiences. I am in a place where I do not automatically agree with every person who calls me out or challenges me—but neither do all women or people of color agree with each other. One thing that I do believe, however, is that these folk know about what it’s like to live their experience than I do. There is something I can take in from their perspective that would enrich mine, even if I don’t agree with everything they say. And as I want to move toward my liberation, I would prefer to support others in seeking their own liberation and not thinking I know what they need to do.

As I explore my relationship with guilt, I find there is not a clear maxim that will guide me through each interaction gracefully. Nor do I want a carcereal model in which acknowledging guilt results in exile or imprisonment. What I seek is a way of working with guilt that brings justice to those harmed, reconciliation when possible, and liberation for all involved.

Having an emotional experience has material consequences for our ability to concentrate and be present in the world. If you’ve ever felt anxious, angry, or triggered, and tried to read, take a test, or do your job, you’ve likely seen how much your emotional state affects you. These consequences are mediated by how many inner and outer resources we have to experience and process the emotions without getting overwhelmed. We can deliberately harm someone by pushing their buttons, triggering them, lying about what’s happening, being defensive, being hostile and insulting, or going cold and not responding at all

The Restorative Justice movement employs strategies such as group sharing of stories and experiences to process the harm of a crime and lead both the perpetrator and victims of the crime to find a workable resolution. This model inspires me in its integration of healing and justice for both victim and perpetrator. I believe such a process would further help us to discern who is guilty but capable of returning to the community from those who lack conscience or remorse and will not respect community agreements. For such people, whether on a social or interpersonal level, we do need the capacity to set and defend our boundaries.

Working through hurt without someone being wrong

When I explore patterns of toxic guilt with clients, we often find deep wounds arising from childhood experiences in which disappointing, hurting, or angering one’s protectors and caregivers was experienced as a life-threatening risk. Children depend so much upon their caregivers for emotional regulation and basic needs of existence, and sometimes our experiences of learning are such that people internalize a belief that it’s literally dangerous for a person to be angry or hurt. This becomes a vulnerability in the psyche that activates even as adults when we are better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us.

An image of a Black person looking out from a rooftop with a pensive expression.
Photo by Keem Ibarra

Stepping on an emotional landmine or triggering a trauma response are circumstances in which the paradox of “I am only responsible for my experience” and “My impact is more important than my intent” come into play. The person who is experiencing the trigger or emotional upset may want to blame their partner, but this leaves them disempowered and dependent upon their partner. The partner who stirred up trouble may want to dismiss or blame their partner, but this would be unhelpful and make the problem worse.

It is a difficult dance, but understanding this is our partner’s personal struggle empowers us to be more compassionate and emotionally supportive. When I am not struggling with my guilt and shame, I have more room to be caring and understanding, to acknowledge how they experienced my actions. I don’t have to agree with their interpretation of reality, but I can understand it.

In relationships, these kinds of negotiations are frequent and necessary for a healthy system. Perhaps Jacob tells Elisa that she’s allowed to do whatever she likes on her date with Rhonda. Then, say, Elisa decides to spend the night at Rhonda’s since it’s getting late, and texts Jacob the information before turning off her phone to go to sleep.

Jacob suddenly feels betrayed and angry. On some level he expected Elisa to come home after her date, and maybe he was not fully conscious of that expectation until now. Perhaps he thinks it’s “obvious” and that Elisa deliberately crossed a line. When Elisa comes home, thinking she’s been abiding by the “do whatever you like” rule, she suddenly finds herself being angrily insulted or berated for breaking an agreement that was never overtly made.

If Elisa feels a sense of toxic guilt, she might then stop seeing anyone and resenting John, because he’s so inconsistent. Or she might start hiding, skirting rules, or demanding legalistic rules and insisting Jacob cannot be upset if she follows the letter of the law.

Jacob could have handled things differently. Perhaps her coming home is actually not that important to him, it’s that he felt taken off guard by her texting him right before going to bed. Perhaps it touched on some old pain of his, fears of abandonment. Perhaps this experience has caused him to realize he does have a need to have Elisa home at night, though he’s otherwise okay with her doing anything else.

A way he could communicate that would be to own his experience and share it. “When you did this, I felt angry, hurt, and scared. I think I need you to come home at night, or I would prefer if you had called me so we can talk about it and not you deciding and then turning off your phone.” Instead of internalizing guilt over his feelings, Elisa could acknowledge his experience and feelings and share her own. “We had not talked about it, so I assumed it would be okay. I didn’t think I was going to stay until we found out how icy the roads had gotten.”

In this conversation, harm happened but no one did anything “wrong.” Both partners find a solution through understanding what happened and their own feelings. If they create a rule now, it will be one that works for both—“I will call if I want to spend the night,” or Jacob will realize it isn’t that important to him after all, he mostly wanted some reassurance that she considered his needs.

Safety and mutual accountability are necessary in working through these situations of guilt. Each person involved needs to have the relational safety that it’s okay to discuss their experiences and feelings about the event without being judged, shut down, shamed, denied support, thrown out, assaulted, or otherwise attacked. Each person needs to have the inner safety that it’s okay to experience all of their feelings—especially the painful ones—and to be honest about what they understand of their motivations. Each person needs to be willing to hear and say things that might be difficult.

This accountability is deeply helped by speaking from and of our own subjective experiences. We cannot control our partners, but there are many ways we can talk of our feelings and needs that decrease the friction of the conversation.

It helps to set up rules, such as one person shares their experience while the other person simply listens, quietly, without making a noise, giving commentary, or making faces, only asking for clarification and understanding. Then the other participants get their turn.

Rules for talking are as important as rules for listening. One thing that seems to engender the most defensiveness and anxiety is when one person makes accusations of the other. “You did this, you made me do this.” We’re all walking around in our own subjective worlds, privy to our own inner thoughts, feelings, and motivations, but only able to at best make an informed guess about another person’s. Most of us hate being misrepresented, too, and feel an urge to defend ourselves against any kind of impugning of character.

One strategy to defuse this is to focus on naming your observed behavior and then speaking of my experience. “When you sent me a text saying you were spending the night, I felt angry and hurt. I tried to call you, and your phone went to voicemail, so I figured you’d turned it off. I wondered if you were upset with me. I had a hard time sleeping, and I felt scared.”

For those of us with toxic guilt, these conversations may bring us into a deeper level of affect, the part of us that fuels the patterns of guilt and social control. We may feel terrified, for example. Rage. Some primal emotion connected to a childhood wound, an experience we’ve been trying to avoid since. Scared of being punished. Scared of being abandoned. Rage that our needs were unmet, or ignored. Feeling that is an opportunity to plant our feet on the ground, feel the steadiness that meets them. Breathe deeply, imagining that you can give space to those big feelings, that you can become big enough to hold them with ease. And then we get through the conversation and find that the worst hasn’t happened. Or perhaps it did, and it wasn’t so bad. Something needs to change, but our adult selves are able to manage it. We learned something deeply important that we’ve needed to learn to keep growing. We showed up and were held to account, and now we can be more conscious, more effective.

The path of transformation

Here people begin to have some discomfort. “What if we make a rule, or set a boundary, and my partner continues to break it?” The discomfort connects with deeper fears around addressing toxic guilt. What if we are truly honest about ourselves, and our partner cannot accept it? What if we stop placating or accommodating? What if our partner feels betrayed by our actions, and we have to admit we caused harm? What if I stop doing everything for my community, and our event fails because no one else stepped up?

Essentially: “If I stop controlling others, how can I control them?”

To be empowered, we must accept responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, and let go of the idea that we can control others’. To stop saying “you made me angry” and start owning “I felt angry.” “You made me” feel a feeling binds you to me, and me to you. I have to make you different so I can feel differently.

I’ve noticed a backlash to this wisdom, but I believe the backlash is to the abuse of this wisdom. Too often folks conveniently twist this insight to dismiss and belittle others for daring to have feelings. “You need to be responsible for your feelings.” That truth needs to be balanced by the truth of “I am responsible for my impact.” Feelings are valid sources of information about my needs and values. Anger tells me that I have a boundary you’ve crossed, or a need going unmet, and that needs to be addressed. My responsibility is to explore the feeling, figure out what need it’s pointing toward, and communicate that to you in a respectful way. If you think my responsibility is to never feel or express anger or hurt, you are welcome to go fuck yourself.

If we set a boundary or express a need and our partner persists, then we’ve learned a lot about what they’re capable of and what kind of relationship this is. You get to decide what to do with that information. You get to decide if you are safe to stay, and what you need to create more safety for yourself. You might have to find resources and allies. You might have to make some hard decisions.

Image of a neon sign with the word
Photo by Ross Findon

This is often scary, and feels unfair, but it is the cost of personal power and freedom. When we accept responsibility for ourselves, and stop trying to control, we have so much room for greater honesty, deeper intimacy, more authentic alliances. If another person’s guilt tells them they are out of integrity, then they have all the motivation they need to do the work of coming back to you, working with you to repair.

We are bound to unsustainable patterns out of a fear of death. Not the death of our bodies, but the death of a way of life that is familiar to us, reliable, known. We can fear it like we fear our mortality, for too often we prefer the known misery to the unknown. To change our relationship to guilt will lead to other changes. Maybe the event fails. Maybe the relationship ends. Maybe people do step up and we find the community is able to hold us. Maybe the relationship deepens and becomes better than we’d ever imagined. Maybe things end, but we find something even better.

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Mourning the Life We Thought We Were Supposed to Have

As someone born in the earliest years of the Millennial generation with a lot of privilege, I’ve spent time mulling over the cultural message that I could do whatever I wanted with my life. During the Great Recession, as I coped with the loss of my last career and wondered what would be next for me, I realized I’d been given an incomplete truth. I might be able to do anything I wanted, given enough tenacity, support, and favorable life circumstances; but I definitely could not do everything.

The depth and richness I sought in life—the sense of meaning—meant I must commit to a course of action and give up other possibilities. And this is in some ways inescapable. Even refusing any kind of commitment to stay perpetually unattached requires sacrifice of the life I could have had if I’d stuck with a relationship, a career, a project.

When I was younger, I filled myself up with dreams about the life I imagined I wanted, ideas about how people should treat me and what would be my signs of success. The dreams inspired me and motivated me to move toward them, yet in the course of living I would begin to encounter ways these dreams and aspirations caused me suffering. My dreams of a different life tended to be attached to a deep longing that had yet to be met. Yet when I was stuck in longing for what I did not have in my life, I was caught between two worlds. I could not walk confidently in either.

Confronting this sense of limitation and the finite nature of my time, energy, and money brought me to a deeper confrontation of the relationship between dreaming and realizing. These dreams had become expectations, and life frequently fails to meet my expectations. My expectations were formed at a time when I had no real experience. By the time I met the real person who would be my partner, I already had these imaginations of what marriage was supposed to look like. Before I began working, I had these expectations of career.

Image of a city street. In the foreground, a mannequin lay on its back. Its head is detached and turned toward the camera.
“Mannequin Parts,” by Edu Lauton

Imagination and expectations, furthermore, are unchecked by any limitations except the ones shaping my mind. I can imagine that a lover will respond to my intimacy and vulnerability with completely intuitive, empathic accuracy—will say the exact right thing—will know just where to touch—will know how fast or slow to go without me needing to say a word.

But then I take the risk and share, and my lover has had a long day and their attention lapsed as I shared with them. They didn’t understand why what I said was a big deal. They go too fast, or too slow. Or, my lover actually does something I envisioned. They say the thing I’ve longed to hear for years. But something didn’t work about it. It didn’t touch me the way I imagined it would. It failed to heal the pain, lift the burden of my self-deprecation.

Disappointed expectations often foster resentment, ingratitude, and blame. My heart is too filled up with beliefs about how life is supposed to be and feelings about why it’s not that way. There is no room for joy, or love, or gratitude.
These dreams and expectations run the risk of becoming a hostile form of entitled resentment. We feel angry that the world didn’t give us what we wanted or needed. We demand what we want and refuse to acknowledge that, once we are adults, no one is responsible for giving it to us. We rail against and resent people for things that can never be undone. We stomp on others and take what we need because we’ve suffered enough and fuck all those happy people.
The misalignment between expectation and reality often spurs us to change on or the other. Which we choose is not easily answered, and pain awaits in either direction. If my real, living parents consistently disappoint my expectations, I am in a muddle. I can try to change them, but the efforts are rarely effective and usually make my relationships worse. I could look for people to fill the idealized roles of Mother, Father, Parent, Caregiver and give me the nurturing, mentorship, tough love, or whatever it is that I feel my life is missing. Perhaps I’m lucky and find people to do that, or perhaps I experience a string of disappointments where yet another person seems to fail me.
In his poem, “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He continues with a series of questions, rather than answers. The dream deferred does not disappear or stay safely frozen in time, waiting for us to be ready for it. His images suggest the dream as something organic that can become stale, putrid, crusted-over, burdensome, and concludes with the suggestion of a dream being more like a land mine, in danger of an unexpected and catastrophic explosion.
That the poem is a series of questions suggests a lack of conclusion. The speaker of the poem does not yet seem to know, but perhaps contemplates their own deferred dreams, wondering—how long can this go on? How long will this dream be unmet?
For some, the most vivid and compelling dreams remain with us, becoming toxic until we finally realize the effort of resisting the dream outdoes the potential struggle and pain of moving toward the dream, embodying the dream, bringing the dream out of the ethereal realms of imagination, through the transforming and refining efforts of making it real.
At some point, whether we make the dream manifest or we accept it will never be, we stand at the threshold of grief. Here, the grief is our mourning that that reality is not what I thought it should be. My childhood dreams were impractical, or did not taste as sweet as I believed they would. The story I wrote is not like the one I imagined. The person I thought should never disappointment me finally does, and does in a big way, and yet I still love them.
There is a deep relationship between acceptance and grief. Grieving is the step most people want to skip on the path to acceptance and freedom. In grief and acceptance, I see that that what I am living right now is my life, and all my expectations and dreams of what should be are not my life. No matter how hard I work to set things up for success, to make my experience perfect, there will be variables beyond my control.
There is grief in growing up with family expectations one suddenly discovers are impossible to meet because you discover you’re queer or transgender, because you’re unable to bear children, because you don’t actually love or understand the career expectations laid out for you. There is grief in living with an abuser and coming to realize that there is no way you can get them to love you the way—somewhere deep in your heart—you truly believe they could.
We can get stuck in this grief, as much as we can get stuck in our efforts to avoid this realization. When I was younger, people called this stuckness “self-pity.” Perhaps they still do, but that expression seems to be less common. Calling it such may motivate some folks to let go and work through it, but for others it feels contemptuous and adds more shame and self-judgment on top of the stuck grief. This experience is the underside of that angry, self-righteous entitlement spoken of earlier. It is still anchored to that entitlement—a sense of unfairness, a sense that somehow, someone should make this right. There is still blame—self-blame, blaming parents, blaming society, blaming a deity.
What I want to speak of when I say “blame” is the emotional hook, not the act of assessing a situation and understanding why it happened and how peoples’ behaviors caused it. Blame feels heavy. It spurs up intense responses ranging from deep sadness to rage. It leaves us feeling powerless over ourselves. Blame says that the person on the other end of the blame to be different in some way, so I can be different. This is not acceptance.
Moving out of blame doesn’t require we say everything was okay. It doesn’t mean I say what abusers have done is totally fine. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed, or I don’t live under a system of injustice. It doesn’t necessarily make any of these things go away. What it does is unhook ourselves from these sources of suffering. We get our power back so we can think creatively about how we want to be in the world we have. 
To illustrate this in a concrete way: imagine having a parent who does not always act the way you think a parent should act. 
Let’s say you have this idea that Fathers are supposed to be inspiring, firm but kind, impeccable in their word, attentive, and interested in their children’s lives. Let’s say your father instead was somewhat meek, often traveled a lot and came home too exhausted to play, rarely stood up for you or himself. 
As you grow older, you may notice yourself having struggles—either being meek like him, or acting out ferociously when you feel disrespected, afraid of being in any way like him. You love him, but you feel embarrassed by him. You feel angry that he wasn’t more of a “man.” You think, “If only I had a real father, my life would be better.”
The relationship with this father would be complex in many ways. You might avoid him. You might confront him often, call him weak. You might hold him in quiet contempt. You might badger him to step up and be more “of a father.” At some point, this adherence to an idealized reality stops being useful. Certain things about your father are fixed, or he counters your efforts by withdrawing, fighting back, ignoring you. No matter what you both try, your relationship stays strained and distant. Eventually it becomes clear that it would be easier to mourn the father you never had, then figure out what kind of relationship you want with the one you do.
When you stop wanting or needing him to be different, suddenly different things become possible. It’s easier to be around him and appreciate the good things he does. When you see yourself acting like him, you have an easier time acknowledging this and figuring out if you want to act differently. Instead of wasting energy wishing your father would be different—something you cannot change—you can explore being the difference that you desire. Then you are free. You no longer need to blame your father for not being enough for you. You can begin to see the ways you can be enough for yourself, or find that enoughness through other relationships.
Grief immerses us in the pain of what we truly have no power over. Painful though this is, it is a healing bath that leaves us feeling lighter, cleaner with time. 
Moving through the grief and disillusionment, shedding the blame and entitlement, is also a sacrifice of the beliefs that inspired optimism and hope. Afterward we might feel lost or cynical, lacking the compass that oriented us in life so far. 
That optimism and hope, however, had become too rigid. It came from a place of externality, of imposition, of believing I am not okay because my life does not match these things. Moving through the mourning and the sense of emptiness, meaninglessness, is scary and painful. Eventually, however, we wake up to a deeper sense of our own values, a fresh way of being in the world. We see the dawning of a sense of hope that knows I can be okay and meaningfully engage in my life regardless of what happens.


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Spinning in the Wheel

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.

An image of of a fair-skinned person on a throne turning a crank. The crank appears to spin a wheel to which six fair-skinned people are attached. At the top of the wheel is a person with a crown holding two trophies. Moving clockwise, the people on the wheel appear to be falling over, one's crown falling off their head, and on the bottom of the wheel hangs a person looking distressed. Continuing clockwise, the two people moving upward appear to be becoming happier and more successful.
The Wheel of Fortune

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.

You Matter

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.

Three figures in silhouette standing on a peak, looking outward at a star-filled night sky.
“Lost in a sky full of stars,” photo by Benjamin Davies

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.

You matter, too.

Willing with Discomfort

Some people feel they are completely without discipline and will, mostly thrown about by the waves of life circumstance, craving, accident, emotion, or simply being screwed with by others. By “some people” I mean “most people at least every once in a while.” Will is the capacity to recommit and continue following one’s intention even with these conditions.

I recently committed to studying something new, a martial art, which brings up a lot for me around my body, athleticism, and conflict. As with all new habits, the first few sessions were quite fun and exhilarating. I wanted to go around telling everyone how cool it was and all the cool things I was learning.

Beware the person who has done something new for less than a month but tells you it changed their life. For it is inevitable that after newness wears off, the practice goes through a sour period. It starts to bring up feelings of boredom or frustration as we realize we’re not as far along as we hoped, or the work is not as glamorous as we’d imagined, and we have to keep showing up to gain the benefits.

Image of a person standing on a mountain ridge with a backpack and thick jacket.
An act of will. Photo by Danka & Peter.

Getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning doesn’t seem as rewarding as hitting snooze. Those vicissitudes of life come up again—emotions, discomfort, cravings, unexpected circumstances. Giving up the practice sounds tempting, especially since it didn’t immediately make your life better. You’re still the same person, growing slowly, but perhaps not as slowly as you were when you weren’t doing the practice.

In talking about mindfulness practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn advises beginners to start the practice with a curious skepticism. Believing it’s going to perfect you and go so smoothly is a recipe for overwhelming discouragement when we hit the phase I’m writing about. Believing that it’s a waste of time and will do nothing for you is a guarantee that you will get no benefit.

I think his advice applies to all new habits or practices, including mental health treatment. We ought to commit to them for at least a month, ideally three months, and continue showing up so long as they are not actively causing us harm. But do the practice with curiosity, watching your experience as it happens with interest. Let it be an opportunity to learn about yourself in a new way. Perhaps you notice a tendency to give up at the first sign of frustration, or to fixate on the practice and ignore other matters such as self-care and relationships with other people. After we’ve been doing the new practice for three months, six months, a few years, through times of hardship and times of ease, then we can accurately evaluate the power of the practice and the gains it brings to life.

Underlying all of this is the cultivation of will, which offers so much more. If I am able to bike to work in the winter gloom, simply because I said I would do it, then I am able to start the hard conversation with my loved ones about something I know we need to discuss. If I can rearrange my schedule to go to that workout class then I can flexibly commit to my dreams and my life goals. If I can let myself be thrown to the ground and get back up to face my attacker, then I can call my congressperson about something that matters to me.

Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist who founded the theoretical orientation of Psychosynthesis, either drew upon or happened upon a concept contained in Western esoteric traditions: that will is a human faculty that expresses one’s Higher Self. In this respect, will is not the Victorian concept of muscling through all hardship, ignoring pain, controlling vulnerability, or somehow never facing problems and setbacks in life. Will is about experiencing all of that and still moving wisely in the direction of desire.

If that’s too esoteric for you, you might think of will as a psychological “muscle” that becomes stronger with exercise. We exercise it by committing to doing something and then doing it. Simple but not easy. Start with what’s achievable for you, and build from there. With practice, we gradually expand feeling that sense of agency and meaning in life.

Nothing to Fix

In the past few years my thinking has shifted around the idea of “fixing.” I am of the opinion that when it comes to myself, the idea of being “broken” or needing to be “fixed” comes from internalized shame and is not useful for the work of becoming whole and in integrity.

This is a confrontational idea. We are so beset by ideas of who we are “supposed” to be. When we look to the harm we do to ourselves and our loved ones, or the harm done by others, it sounds bizarre to hear someone say there’s nothing to be “fixed.”

I do not suggest there is no harm being done, and there aren’t people who do and espouse evil. I simply do not think shame offers us anything useful for becoming whole and building harmonious communities. Shame as wielded today is a tool of dominance and social control. “You are bad” is all it has to offer. “You are broken.” “Fixing” has denotations of fastening into place as well as repair. “Fixing” is about maintaining things as they are, not transforming the lead of life into gold.

When we believe that judgment is an essential truth, then we have no room to grow or become better. If I’m bad, then everything I do to become better is still based on the premise of my badness. All of my works, my good efforts, my skills have been built over the shoddy foundation of my badness. As soon as I make any kind of mistake or hurt someone, or am myself hurt—an absolutely inevitable risk and reality of living any kind of enjoyable life—it cuts right to that foundation and seems to confirm it as the underlying bedrock truth. “See? You were bad all along. You simply hid it well.”

From a mindfulness-based perspective, this is an exceptionally convincing illusion. When we sit in meditation, we become aware of a deeper level of awareness and a broader experience of Selfhood that is able to experience pain and joy but is neither and both. It is the field on which these experiences play out. When I connect with that sense of spacious Self, I find myself fully capable of expressing the qualities of life I most desire. It is like I discover I already am the person I always wanted to be.

And then I get stuck in one of these smaller parts of me, the ones that carry all my doubts and fears and anger, and I forget that spaciousness and become convinced that this smallness is my truth. So I have to keep practicing.

This is why there is nothing to “fix.” The idea that I have to “fix” comes from this smallness, this idea that I am “bad” but I can make myself “better.” It is not coming from that spacious Self, and its solutions are inevitably limited and stuck in the smaller thinking that only maintain the problem.

A green glass alembic of Iranian origin
An alchemical Alembic of Iranian origin

If I start with the assumption that I am basically good, that everything in me is striving for wholeness and integrity, then I have to take my inner conflicts seriously without taking sides. The parts of me that cause harm, lash out, and interfere with my goals do so with a notion of my best interests. They try, in their painful ways, to bring something important to my attention, and my work is to—as best as I can today—drop out of my attitude of trying to categorize and fix and into a deeper listening, witnessing state. To really understand what these parts want and fear, and why this upsetting pattern persists in spite of all my efforts to “fix.”

At times this means putting limits on the parts of me that are causing harm, which is in practice easier when I am doing so from a place of acceptance and non-shaming. It is not about accepting all behavior and outcomes. It is about accepting the innate dignity of every part of me and a willingness to seek out what needs liberation within the painful and harmful impulses.

This process of listening and understanding allows these conflicts to soften and dissolve into each other. With time, a solution emerges—including facets of all—a way forward that moves out of the stuckness, reduces harm, and increases efficacy.

Thoughts on Resilience

In preparation for a workshop I will be leading at Many Gods West I am contemplating resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”

An orientation toward resilience assumes that one will meet adversity, trauma, tragedy, or stress at some point in life. A blade of grass is resilient because you can step on it, and once the pressure’s off it will eventually return itself to its original angle and shape, or one close enough to keep getting sunlight. A pack of wolves is resilient because it can keep itself intact, responsive, and generative even when it loses members. Forests are resilient when a diversity of species contributes to the ecosystem—if one species suffers significant disease or loss, others could pick up the slack.

All of these models of resilience have limits, of course—paving over the grass will likely override its resilience. Even then, over time as the concrete breaks up and tiny cracks form, life will emerge. The concrete itself has a certain amount of resilience, but lacking life and people willing to invest in infrastructure maintenance, it will inevitably break apart and never put itself back together.

From sandy ground, a tiny plant grows, casting a long shadow.
Photo by Evan Kirby.

Life rebounds. Life repairs itself. Life adapts even to the greatest stressors. If we identified with life itself, thinking through the history of the organism on Earth from the first DNA strands weaving together in some ocean to my fingers typing on a keyboard, life is amazingly resilient. Our species is quite resilient, able to adapt to a variety of ecosystems, catastrophes, food sources. Though we can look at history and see some remarkably self-destructive behavior, in sum we are a species geared toward survival—and not just our own personal survival, but the survival of our groups, of things greater than ourselves.

Here I approach spiritual thinking, but spirituality offers much in terms of resilience. Ritual binds people in an experience of shared meaning and connection with something larger than the self—such as community, nature, deity, or a personified ideal. An intention for one’s life, a commitment to a cause, service to a community or deity, close personal relationships, even a beloved pet may be enough to keep us going through the hard times until we recover.

Though excessive pain and trauma is overwhelming and not desirable, being resilient isn’t about a life free of pain and hardship. Avoiding conflict, hardship, discomfort, and painful experience decreases resilience. Our muscles become stronger when they’re torn apart in concentrated exercise, then allowed to rest and rebuild, then torn apart again.

When I was a barista, I became rather inured to scalding hot water. In my early days, if I spilled the water on my skin, it would obviously hurt a ton and I’d stick my hand under the cold faucet water and shout at my coworkers, “We GIVE that to people to PUT IN THEIR BODY!” After three years, I would simply shake the water off and keep going, then remind myself it was still a good idea to apply the cool water. We can become too insensitive to pain and damage which will affect our long-term resilience in other ways.

We need rest and challenge, and sometimes we need one when we most think we need the other. When I get too comfortable and too fearful of leaving my house to do something challenging, that’s usually the time I need to push myself to take a risk. Likewise when I get super rigid in my practices and keep forcing myself to do things even when it’s hurting my body, that’s often a time when I need to relax, rest, or make a change.

One practice that helps is articulating and returning to intention. If my intention is to run a marathon, then my practices around becoming stronger and giving myself rest should serve that intention. If I get injured, I would want to follow my healer’s recommendations but all in service to the goal of running a marathon. Perhaps I reach a point where that intention no longer seems worth the pain and effort, but then that points to whether I have an even larger intention that running a marathon may or may not serve. Do I want a life filled with exciting experiences? Do I want a life where I live long enough to see great-grandchildren?

Perhaps you can’t state an intention today, because you’re not sure what you want. That’s okay. It can take a while to figure it out, and perhaps the intention today is to explore possibilities until you figure it out. One thing that helps me is to ask myself, “What quality do I want to experience (or express) in my life?” Then sit and listen. Maybe all I get today is a bodily sensation that I cannot name, but even that’s information. It might be the quality I center around, what I seek out and nurture in my interactions. The crushed grass perks back up, pointing toward the sun. This quality could be the sun you seek.

Heroes and Villains

People say, “everyone is the hero of their own story.” A hero overcomes opposition and adversity to win the day, often possessing some great moral virtue or charisma that makes us align with the hero and against those opposing the hero.

What troubles us is when we flip the story and see that the villain is also the hero of their story, and from their vantage, everything the “villain” does makes sense. We might begin to empathize with them, align against the former “hero.”

An image of a cat in a green lawn, behind which is a fence. Beside the cat is a yellow flag with an image of a cat in a space suit.
The first, by Sticker Mule

In the past twenty or so years, a theme has become prevalent in hero stories in which we see the hero and the villain creating each other. Batman explores this in its many iterations, through many tellings and retellings. Sometimes it is The Joker who kills young Bruce Wayne’s parents, beginning the quest that leads toward Wayne becoming The Joker’s nemesis. In Allan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Batman creates The Joker during a botched robbery by knocking him into a pit of chemicals that leads to The Joker’s eternally frozen clownish face.

We are mirrors for each other, and sometimes we don’t like what we see in those mirrors. Sometimes we define ourselves by our opposition to something else, in which case our opportunities for evolution narrow and we become somewhat dependent upon that opposing force to maintain identity.

Lately I’ve observed a lot of discussion about bullying and abuse, with both “sides” of an issue accusing the other “side” of engaging in this kind of behavior. These discussions are so tricky and rife with miscommunications and egotism. People who are abusive and disruptive to community are so good at leverage the language of being victimized by abuse and bullying. And, people who are truly abusive and bullying are so good at appearing innocuous and likable that their victims are disbelieved.

Sometimes, people can be in conflict with neither being the victim. This happens more often than we want to admit. We can be locked in patterns of mutually hurtful behavior, both of us having completely legitimate reasons to feel hurt and disliking of the other, both deserving of an apology for some things. We are human, fallible, and in a constant state of growth.

Lately I have reflected on defensiveness and justification. Both seem entirely about maintaining the ego—either maintaining the image of myself that I want to believe in, or maintaining the image of myself I want you to believe. When I apologize with justification, I am taking some responsibility for my harm but still trying to make sure you think what I want you to think of me. When I get defensive about your opinions, more often than not it’s because there’s an image of myself that I treasure that your opinions are threatening to expose as inaccurate to downright false.

The more honestly I know myself and openly I express that knowledge, the more easy life becomes. In the short run, this honesty troubles and uproots relationship, but over time my relationships become more intimate, more open, more resilient. I am better able to express my experience without blaming you for it, and hearing your experience without taking it personally. The ego expands to include an honest self-appraisal rather than gripping, white-knuckled, this precious idea of who I want to be.

We take part in many stories, and we’re the hero in very few of them.

Meditation – The Two Worlds

We live in, at least, two worlds—the inner experience and the outer world. Each of us has our preference, often understood as a personality that is more introverted (inner-focused) or extroverted (outer-focused).

I’ve seen several memes and articles about the care and feeding of the introvert and the extrovert, and we benefit from knowing our tendencies, but I find it unfortunate that we seem to view them as fixed and unchangeable personality types and not preferences we can develop.

The inner and outer worlds are separate yet in relationship with each other. We need not defend against one to protect the other.

This meditation helps you to find your best balanced style of attending to and interacting with your inner and outer worlds. With practice, this may help you feel more at ease with your natural social style, better able to manage stressors in the environment, and strengthen your ability to maintain your self.

This meditation guides you through making contact with your inner experience, being present to the surrounding environment, and then being with the flow of information between the two worlds.

Link to audio file of the Two Worlds meditation.

Cultivating Will

Sometimes I feel like a puppet, dangling from the moon, pulled by erratic moods and the needs and desires of others. Sometimes my intuition is profoundly helpful, and following it makes my life richer and more profound. Other times I wonder if what I am sensing is accurate intuition or something more misleading, my hopes and fears. As someone long drawn to the richness of the unconscious and the spiritual realms, I have learned to appreciate both the limitations and the necessity of reason.

A snowy landscape with a tiny party of human hikers. Photo by Marc Guellerin.
A snowy landscape with a tiny party of human hikers. Photo by Marc Guellerin.

The more we look inward and reflect on habits, compulsions, and automatic thoughts, the more we might begin to fear there is no underlying self. Perhaps we are simply a mess of competing drives and biological imperatives. Yet one wonders how we are capable of even recognizing this without the conscious capacity of self-reflection.

Yet apart from reason and intuition is the faculty of will: that ability to commit to and follow through on a course of action. This faculty is something we can grow through practice, starting with small steps and building upon successes. It is the faculty we draw upon when we have the thought, “I don’t feel like it,” but we go ahead and do “it” anyway.

Will has picked up unfortunate connotations from its widespread Victorian usage, in which it was used without an appreciation for compassion and used to shame people who struggle. We do not have to be wholly in control of our thoughts and feelings to exercise will effectively. Neither do we have to trample  vulnerability and pain and force an outcome. But cultivating will does require a bit of sternness, a certain nonattachment with the self.

Will is the faculty that says, “It is our duty to win,” and makes consistent effort toward winning. Hardship and defeat do not become invalidations of the duty; they become information and fuel to help continue the will’s journey toward victory.

By this time of year, most of us who have set New Year’s resolutions tend to realize that we’ve forgotten about them, or begun letting them slip. It’s easy to go into shame and feelings of failure. Both are awful, but they also let us off the hook. Thinking that I’m worthless means I don’t have to try again.

When I exercise will, reason and intuition are the wings that keep me steadily moving toward my goal. When the weather conditions change, as they do, reason and intuition help me to adapt. Without will, however—without a destination in mind—there is no reason to adapt, no particular place I’m trying to go, no need to coordinate these functions.

If you do not have a grand goal, or know what you desire, you still can begin developing will. Pick a small activity, something silly or unimportant, and commit to doing it regularly according to a schedule. Studies have shown improvement in will when people commit to brushing their teeth with their opposite hand for two weeks. The trick is to do what you say you’re going to do.