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.

Letting Resentment Guide Us to Intimacy

Resentment poisons love and relationships, and it is a feeling that some of us struggle to acknowledge. Since it’s a “bad” feeling or a sign that something’s wrong, some people may undergo all kinds of mental and emotional gymnastics to deny or suppress the feeling. So, often, resentment is one of many layers of feeling associated with a relationship.

I think of resentment as what happens when we’re carrying someone else’s burden. We exert ourselves on another’s behalf, clean up their messes, save them from distress, make their life easier. Perhaps we start doing this out of love and genuine affection for the people in our lives. Perhaps we do it because we grew up in families and cultures that told us to always put others’ needs before our own. Perhaps we do it because we’re strong people who are afraid to acknowledge our needs and weaknesses.

But after a while, the efforts begin to lose their joyousness. They no longer feel like voluntary acts of service, but things expected of us whether we have the energy to do them or not. We feel a lack of gratitude from the people we help. We feel taken for granted. We feel the pain of our unmet needs. We become brittle, irritable, critical, controlling. We become cold.

Worse, when our loved ones, coworkers, or general fellow-people point out how our behavior affects them, we explode. How dare they criticize me after all I do for them? I let them get away with that shit all the time, but the one time I make a mistake all of sudden I’m in trouble. Like everything good I’ve done doesn’t matter.

The last thing a person in the throes of resentment wants to hear is how we’re contributing to the problem. The thing is—this resentment might be totally justified. The problem is, we are unable or unwilling to stop carrying someone else’s burdens. We’d rather explode about an unrelated issue than acknowledge their painful difficulty with setting boundaries, saying no, disappointing others, giving up control.

For underneath the resentment and compulsive caretaking is often a deeper pain. Perhaps a chronic sense of guilt, a sense that “I’m not doing enough” and “I’m a disappointment.” Perhaps a fear that if they didn’t do everything all the time, no one would care about them. Perhaps a fear that if they stopped maintaining their reputation people would see something awful in their hearts.

Whatever the underlying cause is, so often we would rather keep shouldering burdens and swallowing resentment than actually feel the emotion. We can hardly tolerate leaving a job unfinished or leaving someone unhelped. We need the people in their lives to step up and learn to bear their own responsibilities, but we cannot tolerate watching those people engage in the effort, self-doubt, fear, anger, or lostness that is a necessary part of learning new skills. At the first sign of distress we swoop in and take care of things.

Photo of a lioness in nature.

Photo by Geran de Klerk

It’s easy to take us for granted. The worst part is, some of us insist on doing things for others even when they tell us they don’t want us to. Sometimes we’d rather leave the relationship entirely than deal with the emotions that arise when we decline to help, or ask for what we need, or are honest about how we feel, or let others take care of us, or let our loved ones struggle.

This is troubling for all involved. We don’t get to grow by having the freedom to say no and take care of our needs, and our loved ones don’t get to grow by exercising new skills and developing themselves.

To be free of resentment, we need to start by listening to it. Stop dismissing it, saying it’s unimportant, pretending it’s not happening. The little things matter. Listen to what bothers you, figure out what you don’t want to do anymore, and start figuring out your genuine boundaries.

Maybe you’re tired of sitting in traffic for an hour to pick up a friend who could have taken the bus to meet you. Be done. Let them know you still want to hang out but the effort is draining you. Let them figure out how to make it work. Let them know you have suggestions if they need it.

Then! You get to acquaint yourself with the feelings you’ve avoided. Know that they’re going to come—the parts of you that suddenly want to back down, say it’s okay. The embarrassment, guilt, fear… whatever comes up. It’s scary to try something different. You don’t know what will happen. The relationship will change. It needs to.

When we listen, resentment points us toward opportunities for greater intimacy with ourselves and our loved ones. Clarity about who and what we truly are. Opportunities to find our authentic boundaries and build honest relationships.

Just give up
And admit you’re as asshole
You would be
In some good company
and I think you’d find
That your friends would forgive you
Or maybe I
Am just speaking for me
Ani DiFranco, “As Is”

No Judging, Just Feeling

Begrudging the happiness of others when we feel bitter is normal. Indeed, many of the so-called “negative” experiences that we vilify but nevertheless experience are often experienced—jealousy, bitterness, envy, resentment, vindictiveness, narcissism, hatred, doubt, mistrust.

I know my sample set is skewed as I sit with people who voluntarily come to therapy, but when someone starts getting down on themselves for having these feelings, I often remind them that these feelings are so common in the human experience that we actually have to work to be free with them. Many of the major religions dedicate entire swaths of practice, meditation, and contemplation toward transforming these psychic poisons.

People on a spiritual path, or those exposed to enough spiritual speak that they know what they’re “supposed” to think, tend to minimize or feel shame about having these experiences. The difficulty is that any work on the self, including spiritual work, only makes us more aware of these tendencies and thus stuck in the ambivalence about them.

One person wants to be holy but hates being single and resents everyone they perceive to be in happy relationships. One person wants to be generous but gets resentful when someone volunteers them to do an onerous task.

The language of “higher” and “lower” falls too easily into dualistic traps of “good” and “bad,” but all of this is energy and information that we can harness and transform. As jealousy and resentment can dry up and murder the soul, so too can too much virtue damage us. We can be generous to a fault, hopeful to our own detriment, “positive” in a way that denies the humanity of those who are suffering in our lives.

Image of a couple in silhouette, backlit by the Milky Way.

Photo by Meireles Neto

This is not an easy world in which we’ve become incarnated. The bitter taste of disappointment and resentment has its lessons to offer, insights into the nature of our existence and the limitations of desire and intention. So, too, can the effervescent quality of joy and love show us other possibilities, enliven us and bring us closer to something we crave. Everything in the personality might be a necessary ingredient of the person, but when any one quality becomes stuck and dominant over the rest we are in trouble.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers the concept of “self-as-context,” a Self that is the container and space wherein experience happens. Rather than clinging tightly to one kind of experience and reactively pushing the rest away, we practice a spaciousness of being and a kind of self-observation that allows for the range of experience to happen. This creates a kind of freedom in which we can set aside judgments about experience and instead see them for what they are, learn from them what we can.

Whether we like our “faults” or not, we have them, and they point to our distinctive pattern of needs and desires. When jealousy arises and we are unwilling to be friendly with it, we must either repress it, attack it, dissociate from it, or blame our partners and loved ones for it. The jealousy has something to teach us, something it wants us to know about our needs and insecurities, but because we feel weak in its grip the temptation is to do whatever it takes to avoid it.

Perhaps jealousy simply wants to be felt and acknowledged. Perhaps jealousy is telling us that our partners are not being honest with us. Perhaps jealousy is telling us that we have limited ourselves unnecessarily in deference to something not asked of us. Perhaps jealousy simply wants us to ask our partners for reassurance that they love and prioritize us. Perhaps jealousy has a message for you that I cannot name because it is unique to you.

You can discover this through being in relationship with the feeling, differentiating your awareness of Self from your experience of the emotion. And a great first step is to stop judging the feelings as “good” or “bad,” to stop asking yourself “What should I feel?” and instead ask “What am I feeling? What is this feeling about?” And then, as best you can, to listen for the answer.

Supporting Your Strong People: Some Suggestions

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:

Photo of a Black man in a red striped shirt and ripped blue jeans standing in the middle of a scenic road.

Photo by Mohammed Faruque

  • 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. 

  • Stay focused.

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.

Find Your Dry Land: Cultivating Resilience Instead of Crisis

According to the American Psychological Association, “the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.” They further state that the following factors are associated with personal resilience:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

Link to Source.

One factor that I think is implicit but worth naming as an addition is curiosity, wonder, and an attitude of experimentation or problem-solving in response to challenges.

In contemplating my experience working with people in crisis, it occurred to me that a crisis could be characterized by the lack of these resilience factors. In my observation, a person in a crisis state often experiences some combination of the following:

  • Obstacles or stressors that seem inescapable, untenable, or impossible to cope with/overcome with current resources.
  • Overwhelming emotion—particularly the famous sympathetic nervous response called the “fight, flight, or freeze” reflex—or dissociation from that emotion.
  • Impulsivity in response, difficulty assessing available options and making decisions that are more beneficial than harmful in the long run.
  • Narrowing of perspective and fixation on challenges, setbacks, grievances, or fears.
  • Negative view of self and insecurity in strengths and abilities.
  • Feeling unsupported, alone, or actively opposed.

People in crisis are metaphorically drowning, and they bring up strong emotions in the people around them. When in crisis, we seem to invite others to freak out with us, join in our outrage or our terror, even though that’s not what we really want or need. We also start looking for a savior, anyone who can pull us out of this overwhelming situation and make the crisis end. We feel helpless, alone.

We are thus vulnerable to people who would exploit our crisis for their gain. We’re more likely to agree to harmful “solutions” that seem to fix the problem but get us stuck in worse. We’re more likely to give our power to people who promise us safety and security—two qualities guaranteed to no one in this world—only to learn later how much we’ve given up of our autonomy and values. When politicians and advertisers put out messages that stir up our crisis responses, we would do well to wonder what it is they’re trying to sell us.

People in crisis are like drowning victims. Those who want to help feel like we should get in the water to get them, but that runs a high risk of turning the would-be savior into the victim. (Link to source.) People who are drowning or in crisis want out as quickly as possible by any means necessary, so fixated on the existential threat that their brain’s capacity to evaluate outcomes and make reasoned decisions has been essentially turned off to focus resources on survival.

If you want to help someone who is drowning, the best way is to find your own stable ground, throw a line of some kind out to the person, and pull them back to stability. This is good advice for helping someone in crisis as well. Often what benefits folks in crisis the most is someone who can offer calm, grounding presence, who can listen while they process their distress and help them think through their options, find resources, and come up with a plan of what to do next. You might notice that this fosters resilience, as the supportive person is being that caring and encouraging relationship that helps the person reconnect with their strengths, manage the strong feelings, and think about the problem as something solvable.

If you want to find your stable ground, look to those resilience factors and figure out which ones you need to strengthen. Find someone who has experience and skill those factors, and build a relationship with them. You might start a sitting meditation practice to learn how to remain calm and observant in the midst of distressing emotions, but that is only one of many possible disciplines that can help with that. With practice, we can learn ways to move out into distress, surf its energies, and find our way back to calm.

Image of a man on a surfboard, cresting a wave, while another man watches.

Instead of drowning, we can learn to surf. Photo by Marcus Dall Col.

This post is a variation of a presentation I gave at a recent conference, which was followed by a discussion about community resilience. More on that discussion is written up in this post.

When will loses heart

Will is a beautiful, liberatory capacity and it can become a tyrant. This tendency is one of the reasons why will fell out of favor after the Victorian age—it was talked up as a kind of brutal self-mastery, dominating all the weakness within and crushing the body and heart beneath its achievements.

You might be doing too much. You might be doing things when you need to be resting. You might be trying to take care of everyone and please everyone but find that instead you are tense, distancing, and critical of the people you think you’re trying to care for, unable to hear what they’re actually saying to you.

So often I hear, and occasionally say, the phrase “I don’t know how to feel about this.” This is a way that the mind and will slip away from relationship with the heart and body and become oppressive. We convince ourselves there are right feelings and wrong feelings and try to select the feelings we think we should have. When the feelings we do have don’t line up, we’re not sure what to do.

Mental and emotional distress arises from this discord. Our animal bodies are wondrous organisms that have all these useful signals for when we need rest, food, water, emotional care, and sex. But too often we learn it’s not safe to listen to these signals, so we learn how to read the social cues that let us know when it’s okay to listen and when not. When our emotional and biological needs conflict with the social expectations of family and community, we have tension, and the greater the tension, the more this manifests as illness.

At its best, will bridges these two realms and brings deep desires into manifestation in our social relationships. It comes from the core, converses with the heart, chooses where to invest energy based on what is meaningful, responds to feedback.

At worst, will pushes help upon people who don’t want it, pushes us to work past the point of exhaustion, keeps us grinding forward until we feel resentment and draining obligation even toward the people and work we love. If we’re not careful, we start to blame them for our experience, struggling to accept that it is we who are unable to say no, who failed to set a clear boundary, who was not honest about our needs. Then the harm deepens.

When we start edging into that territory, it’s time to step back and think about what has heart and meaning. What kind of life do I want to lead? And perhaps reflecting deeper… what am I afraid will happen if I stop doing this? What would help me to take the step of cutting away, saying no, finding time to rest? Who can I ask for support? Who can I ask to witness while I acknowledge my needs?

This too is will work. We are unlikely to summit the mountain if we break our leg running up the base. Self-honesty helps us to set more realistic, achievable expectations. We can succeed while taking smaller steps.

A white person, facing away from the camera, standing upon a grassy ridge looking toward snowy mountain peaks.

Photo by Joshua Earle

Impossible to Control

“Even though you try to put people under control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in a wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good. That is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”
― Shunryu SuzukiZen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Control is exhausting.

Often the control is internal, in the realm of the mind, body, and heart. The rigid policing of thought, or the repeated quashing of an irascible longing, or impatience with pain and weakness.

Control also comes out in relationships and communities. The constant expressions of jealousy or insecurity and demands for reassurance. The urgency to “fix” every single problem or moment of discomfort that comes up in a relationship. Running to the boss to tell them about a conversation your coworkers had that made you uncomfortable, though you sat there quietly.

Picture of a silhouetted figure in the air, behind whom is a sunset.

Photo by Joshua Earle

We can spend so much time controlling things that are beyond our control that we lack the energy and will to do what is actually within our power. Control seduces us into believing that somehow we can arrange our lives and relationships to avoid suffering and maximize pleasure, but at great cost. For just as we might love to feel in control, very few of us actually enjoy being controlled. (Even those who want to be controlled might, upon reflection, consider that they have some particular thoughts and feelings about who controls you, under what circumstances, and what kind of control you want to experience.) When our sense of identity and self-worth is vested in how much control we can exert, any spontaneous or unfiltered experience is a threat, which keeps us experiencing a lot of what life has to offer.

Control is also an outside-in approach to the world. We feel, if only everything goes according to the way I think it should go, then I can relax and be myself. But for too long we avoid being ourselves, trying to get a handle on things that we have no power over.

Power, in contrast, could be a model of inside-out approach. Power influences the world based on who I am and what I want. Power is my capacity for influence and action—asking for what I need, telling you what I don’t like, saying no to a draining expectation, asking for appreciation instead of seething in quiet resentment. Power is vulnerable because it comes from the self and it could be denied, rejected, or ineffective. Yet expressing power helps us to learn what works, who in our life actually has our back, and who is not a person we need to be around.

Rather than trying to manage and control things, connecting with and mastering our sense of power helps us to be responsive to the world. We express something, observe the results, and then adapt. It is not a guarantee of safety or security, which is guaranteed to no one, but it takes far less energy.

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.

Unhooking

As a kid, I learned in First Aid not to pull out a fish hook if it got caught in my skin. The barb of the hook, designed to dig deeper with resistance, would cause more damage. Instead, the recommendation was to push the hook through until one could clip off the barb with pliers, then back it out.

This wisdom may well carry over into relationships and community interactions. We use the metaphor of “baiting” people into conflict and refer to sharp, cruel statements as “barbs.” They hook us into emotional reactivity, and the more we struggle against them, the deeper they get “under our skin.”

We see this in Internet trolling, how people looking to stir up trouble throw out barbs, and then their prey gets hooked into an argument or reactivity until the troll is able to find some evidence to vindicate themselves. No matter how cruel and stupid the troll has been, they win because they have the greatest emotional distance and outward appearance of self-control. The fact that others respond to them is seen to be proof that the others are in the wrong.

An image of a person holding a freshly caught fish.

“Catch of the Day,” by Sticker Mule

It’s classic bullying. It’s unfair. The fact that it’s unfair seems to make no difference.

It’s a challenge for people who value living authentic lives, too, for expressions of vulnerability and appeals to compassion are not always safe or effective. Indeed, sometimes this seems to intensify the attack as the bully finds delight in the pain they cause. Or one’s efforts to advocate for one’s self while upset and hooked end up too messy and unfocused to be effective.

One sure sign of being hooked is feeling convinced that you have to get the other person to change their mind or stop their behavior. There is a fine distinction here. I’m not saying the bullying is okay. What I am saying is that bullies are unlikely to stop what they’re doing when they’re getting what they want. There may be things you can do to advocate for yourself and change, but what helps all of this is to start by getting yourself unhooked.

Emotional hooks find purchase in the parts of us that are vulnerable to the attack. Some part of me that quietly worries that the attacker is right about me, or feels I deserve the treatment, or refuses to admit that I’m hooked because I don’t accept my vulnerability.

This is where the powerlessness comes in—I have, let’s say, a secret story about being selfish. That being selfish is bad and I worry I’m a selfish person. So here comes someone who can defeat me by implying or outright stating I’m being selfish. Now hooked, I do everything I can to convince this person and everyone around me that I’m not selfish—I’ve already lost because now I’ve agreed with the attacker that their claim has enough merit to be defended against. I am on their ground. And I am trying to convince people whose opinions do not matter because they are not coming from a place of good faith. The person who first needs to get it is me.

So unhooking is following this inward, finding the emotional vulnerability, and pushing it out to expose the barb. What in me worries about selfishness? What is “wrong” with being selfish anyway? Perhaps I check in with people whom I trust to care about me and give me accurate feedback about my selfishness. Overall, I want to befriend this part of me that is in pain and give it loving witness until it is able to release the barb.

In this way, being hooked leads me to my next phase of inner healing work. The difficult situation may persist while healing, and may linger for longer than I’d like. Whenever a person brings out reactivity in me, I see where I am still hooked and where there is more work to do.

With time, however, I’ve discovered more emotional freedom is possible, which can lead to surprising ways of standing up for myself and changing the situation. Those attempting to bait or bully find instead a disconcerting self-possession that does not feed their hunger for victimization.

Boundaries are about Self-Respect

Acknowledging and respecting boundaries and limits is healthy and gives us power, yet I notice often folks seem to set boundaries in ways that are ineffective and self-defeating. Or we set boundaries but then fail to support them. All of this leads to frustration and dissatisfaction in relationships.

What helps me think about boundaries is to start with the most immediate and tangible one: my skin. My skin is a boundary between my body and the external world. It keeps things together. It is somewhat permeable. It delimits that for which I have responsibility and authority. Violating this boundary has immediate consequences and causes me pain. Your skin is your boundary.

Subtler psychic and interpersonal boundaries are not the same but ideally arise similarly from our own center and experience. All I really have control or responsibility over is myself, and even that comes from a process of expanding in consciousness and capacity for responsibility.

Responsibility, power, and consequences all play a role in boundaries. A boundary is not about controlling other people’s behavior; it’s about communicating my expectations and enforcing the consequences. Here’s an example: “I appreciate when you invite me over, but I can’t eat certain foods. When you ignore that, I get sick. I’ve told you my food sensitivities a few times, and every time you ignore them, I feel less interested in having dinner with you.”

This describes a situation in which the person with food sensitivities has been disrespected and endangered. This boundary is communicating both the personal consequences—I get sick—the good faith efforts to work with the other person, and then the interpersonal consequences—I don’t want to come over for dinner. The latter are the consequences that often we find hardest to enforce, but from this frame, there’s actually nothing to “enforce.” I’m simply letting you know how your behavior affects me and listening to my feelings. You can decide what to do with that information.

Image of a person spinning rainbow-neon lights in circles in a dark background.

Photo by Tyler Lastovich

This isn’t an ultimatum or a threat, and doesn’t need to be stated that way. Ultimatums or threats come from the belief that I can coerce you to do what I really want, which is sometimes successful in the short-term but rarely in the long-term. It’s a statement of self-observation. It’s listening to and respecting your self and not enabling others to disrespect you.

“What if they keep making food I can’t eat?” Then you listen to yourself and stop going over for dinner, or if you absolutely cannot stop then you can unapologetically make accommodations for yourself. For some, setting and enforcing boundaries brings up guilt and shame. That happens, but if you’ve told this person what you need and they proved unwilling to listen or adjust their behavior, you’ve done due diligence. It is painful and sad to recognize that people we want to be important to us are not behaving with respect. We can’t control them or force them to change. It is quite vulnerable to decide we are going to behave as though we’re worthy of respect, even if parts of us don’t quite feel that way. But threatening consequences that never happen only diminishes the power of our words. 

Your primary responsibility to the other person is to communicate your expectations and the consequences. In many cases, once you actually begin to have and respect your own boundaries, the folks who are used to disrespecting you will act out and try to guilt, coerce, or force you to continue accommodating them. Yet you owe them no further explanations or compromise. You can reiterate your expectations, or tell them what you need to see to rebuild trust, but you don’t need to sacrifice your health or dignity.