The mind is skilled at building a latticework of ideology and worldview, something sturdy enough to help us move through the world but ideally flexible enough to help us adapt to changing circumstances. Unfortunately, when we become identified with that latticework—when we think the ideas are the reality—we lose that flexibility.
Worse, we root down into that certainty and argue things we certainly do not know and could not prove. Some of us are better than this, able to spin convincing-sounding rationalizations so quickly that you can’t see the seams showing. The mind generates worldviews off of our subjective experiences and the bits of information and ideas that come to us, and those worldviews form a prophylactic that keep out information and ideas that might threaten the worldview.
There is so much the mind thinks it knows that it does not. So much effort that goes into preparing for things that never happen.
Anxiety, I think, demonstrates the dangers of a mind that becomes too rigid and too enamored of its own certainty. For people whose anxiety is of a mental, ruminative nature—constant worry, thinking the same things over and over again, preparing for the worst—these ideas become a cage rather than a ladder. In my darkest days of anxiety, I might be unable to sleep for an entire night, playing over and over again the conversations I expected to have the next days—usually confrontational conversations, sometimes angry, sometimes being called upon to “prove myself” in some way. In my imagined conversations, I thought of all the ways I could be defeated, all the ways I could defend and overcome. I thought of all the dangers and secret desires to show my self-righteousness.
Not a single one of those conversations has ever transpired. Not because I was cowardly—though, at times, I was—but because I was making all that shit up in my head. Every conflict was internal, between parts of me that I dressed up with real peoples’ faces. When I met with the living people, they had their own subjective worlds. They weren’t upset about the things I worried they were upset by. They didn’t say the lines I’d planned for them. The times I did manage to break out a well-rehearsed comeback, it came out particularly clunky and confusing, inappropriate for the actual conversation that was happening.
The difficulties I experience in life are very rarely the ones I plan for. In part because that planning gave me enough preparation to weather the expected difficulties. But merely worrying about a feared event has never done much good. When I find myself worrying now, I try to watch it for a bit, figure out what practical steps I can take to address the worry, and then do them.
What is hard is how worrying and planning for feared outcomes gets in the way of life as it’s actually happening. Sometimes I need to get out the door to get to work on time, and sometimes I can stop for two minutes to ground and actually talk to my loved ones.
When I worry about what traffic will be, I am no longer in the situation. I’m not even accomplishing anything useful. My mind has no access to traffic data, it can only cycle through expectations and memories and create scenarios. If I want to know what the traffic situation is, it would be better to listen to the traffic report. Or simply go ahead and experience the traffic as it is—knowing about it won’t change it, necessarily, though it may help me to adapt my plans in a way that works more easily.
It takes practice to relax the controlling, fearful nature of mind and sink into my experience of reality. The more I practice, the more I find that even the unexpected surprises and chaos of reality is easier to endure than my mind feared. Serenity becomes possible—meeting life as it is with a calm, witnessing presence.
Note: Starting in December, I will be shifting my blog schedule to twice-monthly postings, every second and fourth Tuesday. I am still thinking through what this will look like, but my thought is to post one short article per month and then something that is either a longer article or guided meditation. I am also contemplating starting something like a Patreon that would give participants access to these works ahead of the publication schedule.
In Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, Sallie Nichols contemplated the tarot card The Wheel of Fortune in a way that has stayed with me for more than ten years. Nichols speaks of The Wheel as an image of human consciousness in various stages of evolution and Self-possession.
In the early stages of consciousness, we are at the edge of The Wheel. Our emotional reactions to life events “ride” us. We’re lifted high into the air and then slammed into the ground and run over. At the mercy of our emotions, we are even further at the mercy of life and the people around us who elicit the emotions. We cannot separate our awareness of self from the emotional reaction, we have no power, no choice in how we respond.
Nichols’s metaphor of spiritual growth is consciousness’s movement from edge to the center of the Wheel. In the center, we continue to spin, but the spinning is less violent. We are better able to watch the movements from a distance. We can watch ourselves spin around the Wheel but instead of lashing out or shutting down, we can try something different. In a sense, we see that we cannot control the Wheel of emotions and life circumstances but we can control how we engage with them.
Spiritual and contemplative practice help us to become more aware of this process. We see the cycle of emotion. We begin to see how we can take ownership of our emotional cycles, instead of blaming others for our feelings.
This is a spiritual growth that does not involve negating what is painful. It is a growth that teaches us how to move back into center when we find we’re at the edge of reactivity. Too many people have shame at having feelings at all, thinking that spiritual enlightenment means being an emotionless being that has transcended human vulnerability.
If that’s true, I’m not there yet. What my observation is, and what I have learned from the greatest Teachers of my life, is that spiritual growth means those emotions, passions, and reactions have more room to simply be themselves, to give their purest response, to alert me to their needs.
I can feel the emotional reaction, watch myself going through the old cycles of blame and defensiveness, and all the while some part of me sits quietly in the center, knowing that it’s all bullshit. The emotion is valid, but the stories of blame often aren’t. Some part of me may say, very urgently, “They’ll be so mad at me!” and feel all the terror and guilt of disappointing someone else, and meanwhile in that still center there is that knowing. Perhaps it’s, “No, they won’t.” Or sometimes it’s even, “If they are, it is okay. They have a right to be angry.”
To shift the metaphor slightly, I see the trajectory of psychospiritual growth as both moving consciousness to the center of the wheel and, ideally, putting that centered consciousness in the driver’s seat. That entire sentence looks straightforward but getting there could take years of work, with growth and setbacks.
Some days, the best I can do is to be in my emotional reaction and conscious of the part of me that knows it will be okay. That part of me might be able to blunt my most toxic responses or impulsive decisions. Some days I lose it entirely and make hurtful mistakes, but with practice and self-compassion those instances grow further and further apart.
Even still there is a part of me that feels a “should,” that I “should” be able to move out of the painful experience into joyful enthusiasm. And some days I can. Other days, I need to practice the best I can with what I’ve got.
One day, during meditation practice, I noticed how much I kept moving out of the practice into fantasies or arguments playing on the movie screen of my brain. When I returned to my breath and presence, I had an unexpected thought.
Ugh, now I’m stuck in here with myself.
That errant thought was a thread attached to a long pattern of ways I’d related to myself and my life for years. All the forms of escapism, fantasy, all the difficulties with investing in myself and taking responsibility for my life. All ways parts of me tried to do anything but be stuck “in here.” Like it was middle school and my consciousness got stuck at the uncool table.
The more I sat with that, the more I saw how allowing that distaste to run me contributed to my unhappiness. If I did not particularly like myself or want to be around myself then I was limited in my ability to develop myself. I was too busy envying other people and putting down my wants and needs. I was unable to see the gifts that I brought. I was unable to savor all the ways that my life was already giving me the things I desired.
Feelings of unworthiness, self-hatred, beliefs that I don’t matter—these are some of the most pernicious and hard to unroot weeds in the garden of the Self. They take up space, they choke down the things we want to grow, they come back again and again. For so many, they are so ingrained in a sense of identity that we think they’re “reality,” just facts, confirmed over and over.
Others work themselves to death trying to prove these beliefs are untrue, which is another kind of trap, as trying to disprove something is also a way of giving it credence. “I have to get this person to love me so I can prove I matter.” This implicitly agrees that I don’t matter now.
This doesn’t mean the effort is pointless. So many people grow up in cultures and circumstances that tell them, over and over again, that they don’t matter, such that building that inner certainty of worthiness is incredibly hard. Standing up for ourselves and making the effort to build whatever efficacy, power, and network of supportive relationships we need is all part of the work.
We all have our own journeys to becoming ourselves. For me, what that unexpected thought during meditation started was a process of realizing I needed to start taking interest in myself. I needed to begin to act like I mattered. I needed to recognize that, very literally, I matter. I am material, I take up space and resources, my very existence impacts the people around me, regardless of what my mind or people and systems in my life might say.
To believe I didn’t matter, then, was both self-destructive and an abdication of my responsibility to be in this world. I did a great many hurtful things to people believing I didn’t matter. I didn’t speak up when my voice would have helped. I didn’t reach out to people who cared about me. I didn’t develop my capacities to help, serve, and bring more joy into the world. My mind said I was doing it for others, but others did not want that of me. They wanted me to see I did matter.
My feelings matter. My wants and needs matter. Even when I don’t like them. Even when my mind, or advertising, or oppressive ideologies, or politicians, or spiritually bypassing religious teachers seem to tell me they don’t. Parts of me still don’t fully believe this, but the more I decide to act as if they matter, and take an interest in the Being I have and not what I think I’m supposed to have, the better life seems to go.
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.
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
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.
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.
A friend of mine recently made a Facebook post that went viral about checking in on your strong people, or your “rocks,” that resonated with a lot of people. I can’t speak for all “rocks” but I have some thoughts that might be useful for those unused to thinking of their strong people as needing support.
Your strong people need support.
They may not ask for it or show it. You may think they are inhuman or don’t have feelings. But they are human and they feel.
Often strong people have a deeply rooted instinct to put others’ needs ahead of their own, with a concurrent doubt that others will be available, able, or willing to support them. Strong people might have a long history of feeling failed, ignored, or humiliated by the people who cared for them, so they learned how to care for themselves.
It is a strange paradox that these very independent self-caring people are nevertheless often driven to be available and helpful to others, and struggle to say no. The unconscious belief might be something like, “Once everyone is okay, then I will take care of myself.” Which never happens.
For those who are not used to offering support to your strong people, I wanted to offer some suggestions:
Be assertive but not pushy.
Reach out and ask how they are, then after a few moments of small talk, ask how they really are. If they say they are fine and don’t need anything, or push you away, let them know you are available and willing to be there for them.
Avoid digging or asking a ton of leading questions, unless you know your rock well enough to ask what you know is the right question. The more you seem to want information or emotional revealing, the more suspicious and withdrawn your rock might become.
Be open to anything.
Sometimes when your strong person opens up, you won’t even realize it. “I didn’t have anything in my fridge today and had to miss lunch.” Okay? Not the end of the world?
But you may not understand the context—how important it is to them to eat regular meals, the sense of security they feel in opening the fridge and finding food. How this is an indicator that their routines of self-care have gotten lost, and how this symbolizes their sense of failure, overwhelm, inadequacy, and fears of slow decline. You don’t have to get all that right away. The takeaway is: keep in mind that the problem might feel a lot deeper than it seems at first.
On the other extreme, your rock might open up to you with some mind-blowing unexpected shit you couldn’t have predicted or even imagined they would be involved with.
And it is entirely possible that they would say either or both in the same tone. Like it’s not that big of a deal, maybe even kind of silly.
You might laugh. Laughing a bit is not a deal breaker. But once you get that this is important, try to compose yourself quickly and invite more information.
Do not, however, make fun of the problem, or imply that it’s not a big deal. In that case you might be confirming their secret fears that their problems are unimportant or no one they love can take care of them. You will lose the opportunity to support them and likely will not have another for a long time.
Once your strong person starts opening up, don’t check your phone or shift your focus on other priorities. That might be experienced as a sign that you are uninterested, overwhelmed, or think their problems don’t matter. They may quickly clam back up and continue pretending things are okay without telling you how you affected them.
If you do need to shift your focus, be really up front about it. “Hey, I need to use the restroom but I want to keep listening to you, so I’ll be right back okay?” “I really need to sleep, but can I call you tomorrow to keep talking about this?”
Be loving and supportive but don’t make a big deal about it.
It’s useful to try to keep your emotional level matching what they’re giving out. If your emotions get bigger than theirs, they will feel they have to take care of you. Examples include: apologizing excessively for some affront, expressing a lot of outrage on their behalf, or responding to vulnerability with huge expressions of feeling and care.
You may love to get big bear hugs when you’re crying, but your strong person might feel overwhelmed and smothered by it. Try starting smaller, like touching their hand or shoulder. Ask for permission to touch. Ask if they want a hug.
Let your strong person talk and try to listen with as little judgment and as much compassion as you can. Check in before giving advice to see if that’s what they want, and be okay if they say no. You might offer observations and opinions if they’re okay with it.
“Wow, that would really piss me off,” is helpful empathy. “What the hell is wrong with that person!” might be too big and might feel to your strong person like you are centering your feelings and not interested in theirs. After a few rounds of this, you might be able to have a more free exchange of feelings, but be cautious the first time.
Accept dark humor.
You and your rock can make liberal use of dark humor so long as it’s clear that you emotionally understand where your rock is coming from and aren’t judging or shaming them. Laughing with, and not at, is an important distinction.
If you’re not into dark humor, understand that you may hear some of it and you don’t have to laugh along but avoid criticizing it at the outset. Your strong person might be more sensitive to shame than you expect. Perhaps they hold themself to high standards and rarely give themself permission to be messy and ungracious.
Let them be messy for a while. Eventually you can bring in any needed accountability, and they will be more open to your opinion when they’ve processed.
Avoid talking about how much you admire their strength.
Strong people may feel like their strength is a burden, that those around expect them to be superhuman and it’s not okay to be weak and vulnerable. They might have been criticized in the past for being cold and “inhuman,” which is even more painful.
If they are showing you vulnerability, this is an opportunity to let them know it’s okay and you love them for being a whole person. Shifting the conversation back to how strong they are and how much you admire it may end up centering your feelings, minimizing their struggles, and communicating to them that their vulnerability is unacceptable.
Be strategic about saying, “You’re being too hard on yourself.”
I can almost guarantee you they’re being too hard on themself, they know it, they’ve been told it before, and probably feel a sense of embarrassment about it. Instead try fostering some curiosity about what in their life makes them feel like they have to be so hard on themself. What are they afraid will happen if they weren’t strong all the time? That’s where they need support.
Make suggestions about steps for more support.
Strong people might be so used to taking care of their needs that when you ask “What can I do for you?” they will struggle to come up with any kind of answer at all. Sometimes your caring, effort, and presence will be more than enough. Sometimes they don’t know how to assess their needs and name how others can support them.
You might ask some general questions about what they’re dealing with and make some suggestions. If you’re a person who is comfortable with receiving care and asking for what you want, this is an opportunity to use your experience to teach them. “Sometimes when I’m down it really makes me happy when people bring me a cooked meal. Could I do that for you?” Again, try not to personalize it if the person says no, defers, or doesn’t have an answer for you. It’s really not about how they feel about you, especially if you’ve made it to this point in the conversation.
Apologize if needed.
If things don’t go well and you realize you hurt their feelings, all is not lost. Your taking responsibility and offering a genuine apology may be quite healing for your strong person.
Knowing when to check in with your strong folks is a tricky thing. Think about what’s been going on in their lives and how you would feel about it, then factor in that they might have the same feelings but be worse at acknowledging them, and act accordingly. Pay attention to if they seem more tired, forgetful, less gracious, more irritable, less on their game.
If there have been a lot of crises lately but things are starting to settle down, that is a great time. Often strong people learn to postpone their crisis response. When they know everyone’s going to be okay or the worst is over, then they might allow themselves to have their crisis response, but struggle to acknowledge it since everyone else has moved on.
Thank you for taking the time to care for your strong people. They are more vulnerable than they want you to know.
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.
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.
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.
“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 Suzuki, Zen 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.
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.
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.
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.