Unweaving the Mind

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.

Image of a person with a warm smile, surrounded by sparks.
Photo by Xan Griffin

 

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. 

Finding the Growing Edge

Recently a friend shared an article that I loved from Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” Coates discusses his experience of studying a foreign language, pushing through the despair, and experiencing moments of success while recognizing he will be back in struggle again:

There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.

His words on “giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things” particularly resonate. In many ways this blog post is largely agrees with him, so you might read that instead of this.

Some research on praising children suggests that giving too much praise discourages some kids from trying new, more challenging activities. Some of us learn there are certain tasks that easily garner praise and affirmation, while others feel more of a humiliating struggle, and focus instead on the tasks that are easier or already mastered.

I’ve experienced in my life—and talked with folks who have had similar experiences—internalizing an attitude that struggling is an intrinsic sign of failure. That either you’ve “got it”—an innate ability to do a thing—or you don’t, and if you don’t you should stop embarrassing yourself by trying.

An image of a small child at the bottom of an intimidating-looking flight of stairs.
Photo by Mikito Tateisi

This attitude sucks. It’s paralyzing, for one, and it causes people to think they are either “superior” or “inferior.” And while the “superior” folks may have some benefits in terms of entitlement and judgment, deep in their hearts they know they’re only a few public mistakes away from falling into the abyss of “inferiority.” It’s all a trap.

What I’ve come to learn is that the most rewarding and persistent experiences in my life have come from meeting and working through challenges. Defaulting only to what is easy or comes naturally means that my whole Being begins to warp.

When I was a kid, athleticism was my biggest weakness, but I was able to do the intellectual thing well. So I could cultivate a sharp mind in a body that wasn’t getting enough exercise or physical care. I’m fortunate that my father and friends around me continued to push me to find a physical activity that I could do for my health—though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

When I experienced challenges later in life, I could look back to those early periods of feeling completely overwhelmed and powerless. Moments when I’d hiked ten miles and felt I was at my limit, but knew the only way out of the situation was to hike the remaining ten miles.

In the past year I’ve experienced success in parts of my life after a long period of struggle, and parts of me would like to simply bask in the success. But instead, someone pointed out that I was exhibiting some signs of physical discomfort and suggested I see a physical therapist. Both of these showed me imbalances in my body. I’d gotten good at working out the “big” muscles, but some of the rotator and less obvious coordinating muscles in my shoulders and legs were very weak. My body had learned to compensate with other muscles, and that compensation began creating painful conditions.

Seeing this therapist plunged me back into all my childhood experiences of discomfort, overwhelm, embarrassment, and the urge to avoid. And I kept going back, and doing the exercises, and discovered new capacities for strength and resilience. I began to learn why my body had done what it had done, and how that compensation affected other activities. Instead of feeling helpless to this condition, suddenly there was something I could do to make gradual improvements.

We all have different capacities and potentials, but we have room to grow what we want to grow. We build self-esteem by looking at the things we want to be able to do and giving ourselves permission to work toward it, even when there’s struggle.

It helps when we have an encouraging circle of friends and family and resources to get whatever training, coaching, or support. For some of us, that’s what we long to grow.

The challenge is less to become successful and a master; the challenge is to move through the upset and difficulty without force and self-criticism. The challenge is to not agree with the stories about limitations but to continue returning to the growing edge.

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.

We Are All Capable of Evil

In a previous job, my primary work was with people who had been arrested, incarcerated, were on probation or Corrections supervision, or had accepted mental health and substance abuse counseling in lieu of other consequences.

As a case manager, my roles included supporting these folks in both getting the mental and emotional skills they needed to improve their lives and find better solutions to their problems, as well as helping them to find and apply for the resources they need to live a life within the bounds of law. It was my first job out of graduate school and I wasn’t great at it. Being a middle class person with a graduate degree didn’t help when I had no experience or expertise in navigating social service systems or surviving homelessness. Other clients were more adept, savvy, and familiar with the system that they knew where to apply and what to do.

As part of this work, I had a number of clients who were registered sex offenders. A few were in complete denial of their history and remained elusive to accountability, but others had done their time, followed their probation, engaged diligently in their mandated treatment and wanted to simply find a place where they could live and work and stay out of trouble. The highest level offenders were highly isolated, had few social and economic resources—even the folks who formerly made more money than I ever would struggled to find anywhere to live. Legally, the constraints were significant, and beyond that it was hard to find a landlord willing to rent a space. Forget about getting a job.

That’s an extreme example of the kind of problems my clients generally faced. Hopelessness was high, and in many cases the relative structure of incarceration seemed more tolerable than the freedom in which they received so little support.

I’ve reflected on this in the recent weeks since so many revelations of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and coercion continue to surface in the media. I have this sense that in the larger culture, we don’t do accountability well. The dominant cultural pattern is to underrespond and overreact.

  • We underrespond: In so many of the stories coming to light, we hear the theme that the perpetrator’s abuse was an “open secret” for years. Colleagues and employees colluded. Friends and peers justified or minimized the abuse to the assaulted people. So many victims of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault find their stories doubted or disbelieved because the perpetrator was respected in community, a friend and colleague, or else the perpetrator was so powerful and threatening that pushing back seemed worse than tolerating the abuse.
  • We overreact: Through some mysterious confluence of events, someone is believed and then all the stories come out. Or stories that have been out for years suddenly get taken seriously. That’s not the problem. The problem is that suddenly the perpetrator went from misunderstood person to complete evil demon who is a piece of shit. People, often seemingly male, make loud public declarations that “If anyone I knew did that to a friend of mine, I’d kill them,” without apparently contemplating the possibility that someone they know has done it, and it may well have been their best friend, their sibling, their religious leader. Or they may well have themself violated someone’s boundaries and consent at some point in life.

There are definitely exceptions, individuals and groups that are doing the work to protect each other while identifying and managing sources of harm. In the larger culture, however, the criminal bears the symbolic weight of the community’s evils, even after they’ve experienced the consequences of their behavior.

Image of a brown owl. A human hand is grabbing the owl from below.
Photo by Zachary Bedroisan

I think this tendency extends into communities where certain behavior and ideas are not legally criminalized but socially proscribed. When an accusation finally gets taken seriously, what follows could be the accused engaging in ritual confession and then seeking “treatment,” which typically is a way of avoiding accountability by reframing the problem as a personal struggle. When that is not possible, or the accused is not savvy or avoidant enough, they may instead be cast out.

What’s hard to do is engender effective consequences and accountability processes that keep the community together and recognize the personhood of victim and perpetrator. This is even harder to do when trying to interrupt patterns of abuse and harm before they escalate to tragedy and trauma.

There is no issue with prioritizing community safety, self-defense, and freedom of association. When someone is causing harm, the first task is to stop the harm, and then repair it. The wellbeing of those harmed comes before the comfort and success of those causing the harm. For those who use their positions of power to abuse and harass, I see the loss of that power and influence as a form of harm reduction. Rather than “ending their careers” it could be more like reducing the power they have to something safer for others.

What I take issue with is how collective outrage seems to allow the rest of us to ignore our own evil tendencies in a way to make us feel somehow safer. The sex offender we recognize—publicly known in community—is less of a threat than the one we don’t yet know about. The one who’s in our community. The one we like. The one “no one would expect” but sometimes people wonder about, quietly to each other.

When I say “evil tendencies” I don’t mean that all of us are going to directly commit violence in the course of our lives. But I suspect more of us than we want to acknowledge have either committed, contemplated, or colluded with some act, ideology, or bias we otherwise find morally repugnant.

Those of us who speak the loudest about others’ evil, who call for the greatest and most merciless violence against the people who they think embody evil—I don’t trust those people. No matter which ideology they espouse, which political party they vote for, whether they wrap it up in social justice language or speak with religious rhetoric. To me they’re as suspect as all of us who minimize evil, justify it, make excuses for it.

I’ve caused harm in my life, and I’ve suffered harm. I’ve taken the drug of self-righteousness and fueled vitriol against others. I’ve been silent when speaking could have aided others. I’ve failed to recognize what was happening and act when I could. People have confronted me with my harm and I’ve responded defensively, and sometimes I’ve responded with listening and accepted accountability.

When I consider that we’re all capable of evil, then I come to feel we need to confront each other with a compassionate heart. I want to offer good faith opportunities to the other person to hear the harm they’ve caused and give them an opportunity to redress. I also need to be ready for the other person not to show up in good faith, and know how I will protect myself and my community. I want to listen to my trust and mistrust alike, but seek with that synthesizing virtue named by Erik Eriksson, hope.

loving what limits

So many popular strains of spiritual healing and coaching, frequently referencing popular spiritual modes like The Secret, are revamped and de-Christianized forms of Evangelical prosperity teachings that wealth and success go to the spiritually adept, and those who experience pain or suffering in this world have manifested it through their own failings. Like many popularized teachings, I think there were one or two profoundly insightful truths that at some point got blended up and watered down to be accessible (and marketable) to a wide audience.

Nearly every religion and spiritual system has something in it that we can use to try to avoid, minimize, or rationalize our suffering, just as most or all of them also have teachings that we could use to deepen, strengthen, and bring more resolve to times of difficulty. Even in the same church or coven you might hear one person saying a chronic illness is a sign of poor practice and another saying this is the time when one most needs their practice.

United States culture is not particularly friendly to limitations, restrictions, restraints. Like the capitalist system we tout, success to us looks like a continuous upward path of constant growth. When we experience contractions and constrictions, we respond as though these are crises engendered by some bad actor and not something inevitable when living in mortal bodies in a finite planet.

Image of a green snake curled up upon a thin branch in a forest.
Photo by Chris Barton

We’re not here to grow upward and outward indefinitely. Sometimes we must move downward and inward. Sometimes we must experience those unpleasant, messy, painful feelings to discover the next path of growth. Contraction, grief, anger, resentment—none of these have to be anybody’s “fault”, but they can very well point out larger causes of suffering that need to be addressed for future health. Like pollution of our lands and water sources. Like cultures of sexual coercion and entitlement that elevate a narrow range of human experience and demean the rest.

Or, more personally, those experiences of grief, pain, and anger that have secretly ruled us for years, things which we’ve taught ourselves not to look at too closely. Those sources of envy and jealousy that show us our secret insecurities, the things we long to achieve but are too afraid to risk trying for.

Few people are excited to face unpleasant, toxic truths about ourselves and the cultures in which we live. Naming our poisons helps us to discover the antidotes. These “dark” emotions are connected to our deep needs, needs we have yet to know well enough to meet. These needs are not the face they wear—my envy won’t be satisfied by my neighbor being less, but rather by me becoming the more that I am afraid to be.

Sitting in meditation, some days I find myself lost in thoughts not matter how much I practice. Other days, when I sit I feel pain and discomfort in my body. The pain roots me in the moment, it calls me back to presence. Parts of me despise it, but this limitation is no longer allowing me to move through life like an automaton.

This does not mean I simply endure it, believing this suffering is warranted and I should just suck it up and not complain. This pain is something to work with, to learn about, to discover where it leads for healing. This pain is a wakening.

 

 

 

Are You Tired?

Are you tired?

It seems like everyone I know feels worn out and discouraged in some parts of their lives, though they may have other places where they feel enlivened and invigorated. Mostly what wears us out is the piece where we have to work together.

So often in organizations I hear people feeling resentful, drained, and burned out by meetings and efforts to move forward. Even when everyone nominally seems to want the same thing, the process of moving toward that thing is rife with conflict, doubts, betrayal, mistrust, ass-covering, politics, manipulation. We want this, but I don’t trust the way you want it.

We as humans inhabit a strange confluence of drives and desires that cause us to need each other while simultaneously resisting being absorbed in group consciousness. When we feel safe, we become more liberal, and when we feel vulnerable, we become more conservative. This world gives us ample opportunities to feel both scared and safe, and somehow to forget when we feel one how it feels to be in the other state.

Are you tired?

In groups there is also often a tension between leadership and membership. Those of us who are not actively leading, manifesting, creating have the best vantage to see how those leaders/creators/manifesters are screwing up, making mistakes, causing problems as much as they are generating new opportunities and structures. Sometimes, when our needs are being met, we can be at peace with this conflict and focus on what is good and working. Other times, when our needs are unmet, we focus on what’s going poorly and ponder strategies to get our leaders to meet our goals.

Are you tired?

So often I find anxiety comes with the unwillingness to be with. This may not be causal but co-arising. When I feel most anxious, I am afraid to hear what someone is about to say. I see the email sitting in my inbox but some part of me doesn’t want to know what it says. That anxious part of me seems to think that if I can simply not read the email then I can avoid the reality in which whatever the email says exists. Even when my rational brain knows that the email is already written and the person who wrote it already lives in the reality that’s happening—the reality where the email exists.

This creates tension. The tension of knowing my mind is not living in reality. The tension of attempting to navigate this Existential conflict between what I want to be true and what I know to be true—and the fear of having to face the unknown to enter reality. At some point I will need to risk reading the email and learning what’s there. Once it’s accomplished, I feel a sense of relief. I can finally respond to reality—although parts of me might ratchet it up a notch, respond with anger or denial and continue protecting the reality I want from the reality that is.

Are you tired?

What truths have you been avoiding? What experiences in your body do you find undesirable? What realities have you been trying not to accept? What grief have you been postponing?

What if turning toward and being with these things could offer you true ease? Not a comfortable ease, but the ease of no longer trying to control a world beyond your control. Not a reassuring ease, but the ease of finding what is actually within your power, what is meaningful to you, and finally investing yourself in that.

A woman in a white dress floating on her back in water.
Photo by Ryan Moreno

Voices on Boundaries and Compassion

My intention is to generally write weekly posts, but it’s also important for me to take in and learn from others. This post offers some links to articles from white women and people of color that I think help unpack and begin to work through the destructive, soul-killing effects of patriarchy and white supremacy. Please look through these and, if they speak to you, consider supporting the writers in whatever way you can.

“What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch'” – Jane Dykema

An essay by a writer and instructor about “who we believe and why.” Particular focus on how language, memory, and emotions, and the ways certain patriarchal norms make it harder to hear, understand, and believe women’s stories of abuse.

“#ExpressiveWriting Prompts to Use If You’ve Been Accused of #WhiteFragility #SpiritualBypass or #WhitePrivilege” – Leesa Renee Hall

Writing exercises to help white people in particular reflect upon our racial identity formation and how it informs the way we relate to the suffering of people of color. Includes an overview of reactions to someone else’s pain and responding as a white person to being called out.

 

“Setting boundaries as a white ally: Why its important, why its challenging and how to do it ethically” – Tada Hozumi

Tada Hozumi offers useful guides to emotional self-management and boundary setting for white people engaged in activism, so that we do not burden people of color with our needs for emotional care.

“How to Set Boundaries with Your Abuser in Mind” – Kellie Jo Holly

This is an excellent primer on boundary-setting in general, with a particular focus on boundary-setting in abusive relationships.

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”

Forming Solutions from the Center

When I began working with a therapist, I expressed that my problem was being indecisive. He looked up the definition of “to decide” and found its etymological origin of decidere, “to cut off.” What he suggested was that I was “indecisive” because every choice I could think of involved cutting off a piece of me, and none of my pieces wanted to be cut off. When I attempted to cut something away, it rebounded with greater intensity.

Developing a center creates a space in which these parts can speak and be heard, which enables us to find more creative, flexible, and creative choices. So often groups become toxic when people feel unheard and left out of choices that affect them, where those who are making the choices feel that they cannot possibly please everyone and want to push forward or avoid choosing anything.

Most of us understand that nothing can meet all of our needs, yet we long to be heard, seen, and included in the choices that affect us. It costs less, in the long run, to slow down and acknowledge the validity of each person’s perspective. The importance of each part of me, especially the ones that seem irreconcilable. To sit in the messiness of the problem. This allows for a richer solution to form.

In a solution, each part dissolves and integrates into a new whole. We could not separate out its parts without great effort. This person’s need meets this person’s fear and this person’s anger. One’s skills, longings, fears, and resources meld together.

So often we become attached to finding the “right” solution that we think we can decide what elements to exclude. Those exclusions become weaknesses to the solutions we enact. With this kind of solution, emerging from center, often people feel a sense of stillness, of rightness. They may not be able to say why this choice is right, and it may not be the choice they would make at another time, but this is the solution emerging from this confluence of time, place, and perspective.

There’s a lot of anger and fear in people’s’ hearts. Much of it comes from our experiences of being unheard, unseen, cut off, marginalized, deprived of an opportunity to have a say in the choices that affect our lives. Or from our fear that we’ll be put into that situation if someone else has their way. There’s risk that allowing one person a voice will mean someone else’s gets squelched. There’s also a risk that finally allowing someone to have a voice after ignoring them for a long time means learning some uncomfortable and painful truths that are hard to integrate. The avoidance of these fears and risks prevents us from finding solution.

More and more I’m coming to think that people and organizations that are run by rigid, legalistic systems with rules and processes for everything arise in part by avoidance of this conflict. When we are unable to tolerate honest sharing of our experiences, rigidity and tension arise.

People deeply want to be heard and seen. When we feel heard and seen, we feel more safety and trust with each other. Feeling scared, anxious, or afraid of being hurt, we might be inclined to avoid or attempt to control anything that makes us uncomfortable. We respond by not hearing, by invalidating, by mocking. We respond by controlling, threatening, coercing. All of these responses engender mistrust, powerlessness, and rage in the people being marginalized, ignored, and controlled.

Image of John F. Kennedy with the text: