When you become who you are,
the stories you’ve told are leaves
browning and shriveling in fall
when your reverence withdraws.
In winter you stand exposed,
vulnerable, undecorated, cold,
bereft of those justifications
and names that shaded you,
equipped only with the truth
of your bark, your heartwood,
your roots interweaving among
those of your copse, yielding
nourishment according to need.
When returns the sun and heat,
your truth emerges anew, fresh
with green expressions of self,
boldly thrusting into weather
to feed, flower, fruit, and seed,
and spread your knowingness
to where it might flourish new.
Until, again, these bolder truths
desiccate in obligation, stories
told too often, ready to be shed.
Returning to silence, heartwood,
the winter source of the self.
To feel guilt about causing harm is a healthy and productive emotion that leads us into healthy, self-responsible relationships. Without guilt, we would have no sense of ethics, no concern for the harm done to another person, no capacity for intimacy. Guilt tells us when we’ve fallen out of integrity with our values, and it leads us back to self-respect.
Unfortunately, guilt sometimes also serves to bind us in automatic deference, to make ourselves smaller, to sacrifice our needs and deep values for the comfort and well-being of others. Guilt makes us vulnerable to control, and at its worst makes us controlling of others.
When we feel responsible for all of another persons’ feelings and needs, any action we take that makes them uncomfortable, upset, or inconvenienced begins to bring up feelings of guilt. One person’s disappointment in me feels like a direct assault on my sense of self. I have to avoid it at all costs. That is when guilt becomes toxic and oppressive.
Strategies of control and dominance
If I cannot differentiate others’ feelings from my own, it’s inevitable that I begin to figure out strategies to manage or avoid feeling guilt. Often this comes out as efforts of control. I must manage myself so that I never hurt, anger, disappoint, or grieve another person—which quickly becomes overwhelmingly stressful, surrounded by people with wildly different responses. I might also try to control those around me so they don’t have those feelings, through bullying, placating, flirting, lying, double-dealing, or exploding in response to any kind of accountability.
To be in a healthy relationship, I need a clear sense of my self, my edges, and the edges of the other person. I need enough distance from their feelings and behaviors to soothe and know myself, so that I can meet them authentically. When I fear disappointing someone, I lack the distance to think about on these expectations. Who appointed me the job of keeping them happy? Is this what I honestly want, or something I’m doing to avoid bad consequences? Is this a task I gave myself? Are the expectations to which I hold myself, or to which they hold me, ones that I can live with?
Perhaps their expectations, hopes, needs are fully valid but still not correct for us. In the early stages of a romantic relationship—okay, in nearly every stage of a romantic relationship—these differences in expectation become clear. Our partners get upset at us for behaviors that are innocuous to us. In Elisa’s family, you ate whatever was in the fridge, but in Jacob’s family you never eat the last of anything without asking. Both expect this behavior of their partners because it’s normal to them, not realizing that family cultures are different. Then they clash, because someone has to be right. Eventually, perhaps, they arrive at the point of seeing these as different and equally valid beliefs, and find a compromise that works for both.
But if Jacob reacts with intense anger and shaming every time Elisa finishes something without asking, and Elisa feels guilty and believes she’s in the wrong, both become smaller and disempowered in the relationship. Elisa starts walking on eggshells, not sure what will set Jacob off. Elisa feels uncomfortable even asking Jacob what he’s upset about, thinking with Jacob that she should simply know and understand and something must be wrong with her for not getting it.
Jacob’s anger might run from a deeper wound. Perhaps he expects that Elisa should be able to know his desires without him needing to ask for them. He feels embarrassed about having wants and needs and shy about asking for what he wants. When Elisa does not magically know what he’s thinking, he feels a deep, years-old disappointment that he is invisible and unseen. While Elisa could spare him from this by being accommodating, in the long run it might be necessary for Jacob to feel this disappointment as his own. Until he begins to face how much this pattern of expecting his needs to be known without him asking for it, he will continue to feel disappointed, disempowered, and heedless of how much he sets up his partners to fail.
Rather than accepting responsibility for others’ feelings, I can focus on cultivating my ability to respond. This is separation that enables connection. Rather than internalizing another’s opinion of me as something threatening and needing control, it behooves us to work on making our inner experience a safe place to experience all of our emotions and thoughts.
When it’s okay to feel disappointed, hurt, angry, fearful, joyous, it’s easier for me to realize that other people can have these feelings without dying. And, indeed, maybe these feelings are necessary. Nobody’s feelings are “wrong,” they are information. When a person feels betrayed by my actions, that’s important information for them in deciding what they need to make this relationship work. If I feel remorse for my actions, that’s important information for me about what I’m willing to do to repair the relationship. If I feel that I was acting in integrity, that is information too.
Without this differentiation, we feel as though we should and must control someone else’s emotional experience. We feel bound to their feelings, that any upset or anger they feel toward us is another binding that keeps us from being ourselves or doing what we want. We have to stop everything and fix them, even if we don’t feel we did anything wrong. We feel reluctant to share our perspectives and act.While this is primarily for our own comfort, to avoid the feelings that come up when there is anger or hurt directed toward us, it becomes a hook. This person’s disappointment, anger, or hurt develops its own power of control. Unconsciously or otherwise, the relationship becomes a struggle for dominance.
Liberation from guilt and oppression
Here is an important truth, emerging from social justice discourse: “You are responsible for your impact, regardless of your intent.”
Here is another important truth: “I can only be responsible for my experience.”
While paradoxical, both truths are valid. I like to joke and throw out random witticisms in conversation. When I’m lucky, people laugh. Other times people respond with irritation, upset, or anger. My intent was to have fun, my impact was that the person became upset. I might have made light of a topic that is sensitive and important for the person. I failed to meet them where they were, I took up space when they needed it, or I poked a sore spot. When I was younger and stupider, my humor had racist and sexist overtones. Even when I thought I was satirizing racism, the Black person who didn’t know me and didn’t need to hear that felt upset.
My impact did not line up with my intent. To know this is a gift. It helps me to think about what went wrong and how I can better align the two in the future. In the meantime, it is worth acknowledging that I caused harm and making amends.
Where privileged folk—white middle to upper class people in particular—get stuck is in toxic guilt. When we’re confronted or called out, we are in the dilemma discussed above. We do not fully understand the harm we caused and want to keep it at a distance
Being ruled by guilt is not healthy for anyone. It is stressful and narrowing. Marginalized people often experience pressure to contort themselves for the comfort of the socially, politically, and economically powerful, that the feelings of the powerful are more worthy of care and concern than their own. This reinforces fragility in the privileged, who do not have enough practice tolerating emotional stress. In these cases, the consequences of the marginalized not doing emotional labor for their oppressors tend to be more costly than feeling bad for disappointing someone.
In this writing, I speak of ”marginalized” versus “privileged” as relative positions rooted in how much social power one has. Young children are less powerful than their parents. Employees are less powerful than their bosses. In the United States, immigrants, Native people, and people of color are generally less powerful than white people.
The current moment of #metoo is rife with questions about guilt and expectation. As stories come into the light, we see more clearly how much the subjects of patriarchal violence have had to endure, swallow, and allow to poison themselves to get along. Now is a moment when the anger has broken this pattern of denial and minimization. Women and other victims of sexual assault, coercion, and harassment are sharing their stories and pursuing action.
This is the kind of behavior that a sense of toxic guilt would normally bind, and we see that guilt rising to meet the outpouring of anger. Repeated injunctions to think about the harm they may be doing to the men they are accusing. Redirecting the conversation to looking at how those who experienced the harm might have taken more responsibility to avoid it or stop it.
Privileged people struggle, I think, to step out of dominance relationship with regard to feelings. There is a sense that someone’s feelings have to be right and another’s wrong, so a white person working on being “woke” may look at being called out as a sign that they need to throw out all their feelings and perspective and wholly embrace the truth of whomever is calling them out. Complete submission, which is rarely asked for nor appreciated.
My observation is that part of this is that dominance in relationship is so ingrained that the privileged person is unable to see the difference between engaging in honest conflict versus defensiveness or stonewalling. A person early in interrogating their own perspective gets feedback on their defensiveness or stonewalling and then assumes that means any kind of disagreement or difference of opinion with a person of color is racist.
Men regularly told they are “mansplaining” are unable to fully understand the difference between that and having a conversation. This naturally engenders some frustration which then leads to demands for emotional labor from the marginalized person.
As a white man, I’ve gone through phases where I’ve been called out by a woman or a person of color and responded with a conciliatory, “Thank you, I’ll go think about it,” response that did not engage the critique and mostly seemed to leave the other person feeling grossed out.
These days I practice staying in the conversation, staying with the discomfort and trying to understand what is being said to me while also standing in my perspective and experiences. I am in a place where I do not automatically agree with every person who calls me out or challenges me—but neither do all women or people of color agree with each other. One thing that I do believe, however, is that these folk know about what it’s like to live their experience than I do. There is something I can take in from their perspective that would enrich mine, even if I don’t agree with everything they say. And as I want to move toward my liberation, I would prefer to support others in seeking their own liberation and not thinking I know what they need to do.
As I explore my relationship with guilt, I find there is not a clear maxim that will guide me through each interaction gracefully. Nor do I want a carcereal model in which acknowledging guilt results in exile or imprisonment. What I seek is a way of working with guilt that brings justice to those harmed, reconciliation when possible, and liberation for all involved.
The Restorative Justice movement employs strategies such as group sharing of stories and experiences to process the harm of a crime and lead both the perpetrator and victims of the crime to find a workable resolution. This model inspires me in its integration of healing and justice for both victim and perpetrator. I believe such a process would further help us to discern who is guilty but capable of returning to the community from those who lack conscience or remorse and will not respect community agreements. For such people, whether on a social or interpersonal level, we do need the capacity to set and defend our boundaries.
Working through hurt without someone being wrong
When I explore patterns of toxic guilt with clients, we often find deep wounds arising from childhood experiences in which disappointing, hurting, or angering one’s protectors and caregivers was experienced as a life-threatening risk. Children depend so much upon their caregivers for emotional regulation and basic needs of existence, and sometimes our experiences of learning are such that people internalize a belief that it’s literally dangerous for a person to be angry or hurt. This becomes a vulnerability in the psyche that activates even as adults when we are better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us.
Stepping on an emotional landmine or triggering a trauma response are circumstances in which the paradox of “I am only responsible for my experience” and “My impact is more important than my intent” come into play. The person who is experiencing the trigger or emotional upset may want to blame their partner, but this leaves them disempowered and dependent upon their partner. The partner who stirred up trouble may want to dismiss or blame their partner, but this would be unhelpful and make the problem worse.
It is a difficult dance, but understanding this is our partner’s personal struggle empowers us to be more compassionate and emotionally supportive. When I am not struggling with my guilt and shame, I have more room to be caring and understanding, to acknowledge how they experienced my actions. I don’t have to agree with their interpretation of reality, but I can understand it.
In relationships, these kinds of negotiations are frequent and necessary for a healthy system. Perhaps Jacob tells Elisa that she’s allowed to do whatever she likes on her date with Rhonda. Then, say, Elisa decides to spend the night at Rhonda’s since it’s getting late, and texts Jacob the information before turning off her phone to go to sleep.
Jacob suddenly feels betrayed and angry. On some level he expected Elisa to come home after her date, and maybe he was not fully conscious of that expectation until now. Perhaps he thinks it’s “obvious” and that Elisa deliberately crossed a line. When Elisa comes home, thinking she’s been abiding by the “do whatever you like” rule, she suddenly finds herself being angrily insulted or berated for breaking an agreement that was never overtly made.
If Elisa feels a sense of toxic guilt, she might then stop seeing anyone and resenting John, because he’s so inconsistent. Or she might start hiding, skirting rules, or demanding legalistic rules and insisting Jacob cannot be upset if she follows the letter of the law.
Jacob could have handled things differently. Perhaps her coming home is actually not that important to him, it’s that he felt taken off guard by her texting him right before going to bed. Perhaps it touched on some old pain of his, fears of abandonment. Perhaps this experience has caused him to realize he does have a need to have Elisa home at night, though he’s otherwise okay with her doing anything else.
A way he could communicate that would be to own his experience and share it. “When you did this, I felt angry, hurt, and scared. I think I need you to come home at night, or I would prefer if you had called me so we can talk about it and not you deciding and then turning off your phone.” Instead of internalizing guilt over his feelings, Elisa could acknowledge his experience and feelings and share her own. “We had not talked about it, so I assumed it would be okay. I didn’t think I was going to stay until we found out how icy the roads had gotten.”
In this conversation, harm happened but no one did anything “wrong.” Both partners find a solution through understanding what happened and their own feelings. If they create a rule now, it will be one that works for both—“I will call if I want to spend the night,” or Jacob will realize it isn’t that important to him after all, he mostly wanted some reassurance that she considered his needs.
Safety and mutual accountability are necessary in working through these situations of guilt. Each person involved needs to have the relational safety that it’s okay to discuss their experiences and feelings about the event without being judged, shut down, shamed, denied support, thrown out, assaulted, or otherwise attacked. Each person needs to have the inner safety that it’s okay to experience all of their feelings—especially the painful ones—and to be honest about what they understand of their motivations. Each person needs to be willing to hear and say things that might be difficult.
This accountability is deeply helped by speaking from and of our own subjective experiences. We cannot control our partners, but there are many ways we can talk of our feelings and needs that decrease the friction of the conversation.
It helps to set up rules, such as one person shares their experience while the other person simply listens, quietly, without making a noise, giving commentary, or making faces, only asking for clarification and understanding. Then the other participants get their turn.
Rules for talking are as important as rules for listening. One thing that seems to engender the most defensiveness and anxiety is when one person makes accusations of the other. “You did this, you made me do this.” We’re all walking around in our own subjective worlds, privy to our own inner thoughts, feelings, and motivations, but only able to at best make an informed guess about another person’s. Most of us hate being misrepresented, too, and feel an urge to defend ourselves against any kind of impugning of character.
One strategy to defuse this is to focus on naming your observed behavior and then speaking of my experience. “When you sent me a text saying you were spending the night, I felt angry and hurt. I tried to call you, and your phone went to voicemail, so I figured you’d turned it off. I wondered if you were upset with me. I had a hard time sleeping, and I felt scared.”
For those of us with toxic guilt, these conversations may bring us into a deeper level of affect, the part of us that fuels the patterns of guilt and social control. We may feel terrified, for example. Rage. Some primal emotion connected to a childhood wound, an experience we’ve been trying to avoid since. Scared of being punished. Scared of being abandoned. Rage that our needs were unmet, or ignored. Feeling that is an opportunity to plant our feet on the ground, feel the steadiness that meets them. Breathe deeply, imagining that you can give space to those big feelings, that you can become big enough to hold them with ease. And then we get through the conversation and find that the worst hasn’t happened. Or perhaps it did, and it wasn’t so bad. Something needs to change, but our adult selves are able to manage it. We learned something deeply important that we’ve needed to learn to keep growing. We showed up and were held to account, and now we can be more conscious, more effective.
The path of transformation
Here people begin to have some discomfort. “What if we make a rule, or set a boundary, and my partner continues to break it?” The discomfort connects with deeper fears around addressing toxic guilt. What if we are truly honest about ourselves, and our partner cannot accept it? What if we stop placating or accommodating? What if our partner feels betrayed by our actions, and we have to admit we caused harm? What if I stop doing everything for my community, and our event fails because no one else stepped up?
Essentially: “If I stop controlling others, how can I control them?”
To be empowered, we must accept responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, and let go of the idea that we can control others’. To stop saying “you made me angry” and start owning “I felt angry.” “You made me” feel a feeling binds you to me, and me to you. I have to make you different so I can feel differently.
I’ve noticed a backlash to this wisdom, but I believe the backlash is to the abuse of this wisdom. Too often folks conveniently twist this insight to dismiss and belittle others for daring to have feelings. “You need to be responsible for your feelings.” That truth needs to be balanced by the truth of “I am responsible for my impact.” Feelings are valid sources of information about my needs and values. Anger tells me that I have a boundary you’ve crossed, or a need going unmet, and that needs to be addressed. My responsibility is to explore the feeling, figure out what need it’s pointing toward, and communicate that to you in a respectful way. If you think my responsibility is to never feel or express anger or hurt, you are welcome to go fuck yourself.
If we set a boundary or express a need and our partner persists, then we’ve learned a lot about what they’re capable of and what kind of relationship this is. You get to decide what to do with that information. You get to decide if you are safe to stay, and what you need to create more safety for yourself. You might have to find resources and allies. You might have to make some hard decisions.
This is often scary, and feels unfair, but it is the cost of personal power and freedom. When we accept responsibility for ourselves, and stop trying to control, we have so much room for greater honesty, deeper intimacy, more authentic alliances. If another person’s guilt tells them they are out of integrity, then they have all the motivation they need to do the work of coming back to you, working with you to repair.
We are bound to unsustainable patterns out of a fear of death. Not the death of our bodies, but the death of a way of life that is familiar to us, reliable, known. We can fear it like we fear our mortality, for too often we prefer the known misery to the unknown. To change our relationship to guilt will lead to other changes. Maybe the event fails. Maybe the relationship ends. Maybe people do step up and we find the community is able to hold us. Maybe the relationship deepens and becomes better than we’d ever imagined. Maybe things end, but we find something even better.
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Initiated by women of color, “The #metoo Movement” has sparked collective self-reflection and accounting that continues to unfold new layers of complexity and discomfort. People, largely men, are being held to account for coercive, assaulting, and harassing sexual behavior. The rest of us are left to contemplate our own sexual histories and behavior at work, to think of the myriad examples of times when we were thoughtless, disrespectful, tried something and thought we got away with it.
My audience for this writing is men because I am a man and I see my work as helping men get free of the life-negating bullshit of our culture. In most studies, men are the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of sexual abuse, assault, coercion, and harassment, but we are not the only ones. We are, moreover, people who get abused, assaulted, coerced, and harassed—by other straight and queer men, by women in positions of power, by intimate partners, by bosses and caregivers, by friends and relatives, by people whom we needed to protect us.
(This same dynamic informs other power differences—when a child is exploited by a parent, family friend, teacher, religious leader, almost any adult—that child is emotionally and economically vulnerable, and cannot consent.)
Many men get uncomfortable and even angry to think about this. Many of us don’t experience ourselves as powerful, threatening beings. We may feel anxious, insecure, deeply sensitive to rejection, shame-filled about our sexual longings. As sex is a powerful inner drive and carries a lot of meaning around male identity, men may feel a kind of desperation attached to whether they’re found desirable. Our partners’ willingness to have sex is a kind of currency that determines our sense of self-worth. Therefore such men may think their partners have all the power, and deny sex out of a kind of cruelty.
And some of these men may well have experienced violation, abuse, coercion. They may not understand living as women and queer people with the constant threat of physical violence, but they understand their own experiences of feeling humiliated, taken advantage of, cruelly ignored. Repeated experiences of loneliness and rejection begin to sensitize the nervous system to future social interactions.
Unfortunately, chronic loneliness becomes self-perpetuating. According to John Cacioppo’s Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, too much loneliness begins to make us more desperate and mistrustful. We more quickly perceive even innocuous and friendly social interactions as hostile mockery or rejection. We settle for relationships with people who take advantage of us. Then we feel even lonelier, and solidify our view of humans (or our desired lovers, whomever they may be) as basically cruel and self-interested.
With this at stake, it makes sense that we’d also be impaired in our ability to engage in loving, passionate, hot sex. Everything is too personal, too meaningful, too laden with intense emotions that overwhelm better judgment. It’s not testosterone that’s the problem, it’s poor emotional self-regulation mixed with patriarchy.
Patriarchy and years of media have set us up poorly for having sex in-person with other humans. We imagine that sexual desire is automatic and instinctive, that really hot sex should just happen without any kind of planning, conversation, or preparation. We’re also taught to separate out sexual desire from emotional intimacy—this happens for straight and queer men. Because we feel shame about our sexual longings, because intimate sex often brings up feelings of shame, we learn that we can only access our sexual fantasies with someone we don’t care about. We objectify ourselves and our partners.
That shame, I think, is tremendous. Where we have shame, we have a reservoir of life force and desire that desperately wants expression and integration. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hot to find someone willing to share an act otherwise considered taboo or wrong: we really get to be seen and desired as we are. Some of our desires, however, would manifest as behaviors that are dangerous, unethical, illegal, or not wanted by the partner. These are the desires that could be worked through in therapy (to curb dangerous behaviors and sublimate the desire into something prosocial) or explored in fantasy, in role-playing with a consenting adult.
But at heart, I think, shame is about our longing for connection. So many of us long for and fear being seen in all our sexual wants and needs. As much as we crave full connection, we fear the devastation of full rejection. We split sex into an imaginative fantasy of perfection or an inadequate, unsatisfying reality of denial and poor communication. To include our messy feelings, to make space for them in sex, creates an opportunity to be seen and known with highly charged erotic intimacy. It is something to approach slowly, with patience for one’s self and one’s partners.
So now here it is. The one weird trick: emotional safety leads to hot sex.
What’s sexy is a partner with the confidence to notice what’s going on with his lover, stop what he’s doing, and check in. “Are you into this? What’s going on?”
What’s sexy is a man who is able to not take his partner’s response personally. A man who can wait patiently and listen. Who is able to hear anything partners want to share without lashing out in guilt or shame. Who communicates with his body, his actions, and his words that he expects nothing from his partner but is grateful for what they are willing to share with him. That he truly wants to enjoy sex together and is okay with stopping if that’s what needs to happen.
This safety communicates to your partners that there is no threat of rape or punishment in this encounter. You don’t have to tell them you’re not like that, you are demonstrating it. That frees up you and your partner to get access to your sexual longings and desires together, to truly see each other and connect. That leads to great sex. There’s no longer a need to worry about whether you have consent, because you’ve laid the foundations for true consent. If your partner is too emotionally distressed, too intoxicated, or frozen to have those conversations, then it’s time to stop.
What do we need to establish emotional safety for ourselves and our lovers? Emotional safety for our selves. We need practice recognizing, naming, and offering acceptance to our feelings. One practice that I like for emotional safety is offering okayness. In this, I notice the emotion and offer okayness to it. Take a moment to notice your breath, letting it slow down and deepen into your belly. Notice what’s going on in your mind, heart, and body. For everything that bothers you, acknowledge it one by one, saying, “It is okay that I feel _____.”
“It is okay that I feel rejected.” “It is okay that I feel scared that I’ll be alone.” “It’s okay that I feel guilty.”
This is not about surrendering to the bullshit stories I tell about myself. “I’m going to be alone forever, and that’s okay.” This is about getting beneath the story, letting it be there while also making room for the rest of me. “It’s okay that I’m afraid I’m going to be alone.” When I see these stories and feelings as something intolerable that must be fixed, that leads me to do rash things that I end up regretting. When I allow these stories and feelings to exist without needing to do anything about them, I begin to see they are not the entire truth about me. I see there is no “bad” feeling, nothing to be fixed.
Learning to recognize and accept emotions, moreover, helps us to stay in our bodies and access more of our capacity for intimacy and sensuality. Which also leads to better sex.
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The freshness and allure of a rainbow is, at least partly, due to their rarity. It’s a unique moment, one worthy of stopping to see and take in. If there was a rainbow every day, at nearly the same time every day, their colors would begin to gray in the mind and it would begin to fade into the background.
If you’ve ever stopped to truly watch a sunrise or sunset, you may have some awareness of this. It is a gorgeous event, awe-inspiring, and every day is different. Yet because of its dailiness, we lose interest. It becomes mundane.
So it is with much of life. For many of us, it is easier for the mind to fixate on problems, fears, and worries than it is to feel awe and gratitude at all the good, supportive experiences we have daily. We take things for granted.
There are two experiences that tend to wake us up from this taking for granted—grief, and gratitude. Losing what we took for granted really helps us to see how much we depended upon it, how important it was to us. Then we might feel regret at having not taken more time to appreciate it. Maybe the rest of life becomes more colorful and alive as we recognize that we could, and will, lose everything.
Fortunately, we can actively work on cultivating more gratitude and appreciation, before we lose something dear. We can practice gratitude in a way that activates gratefulness, and not waiting for gratitude or fixating on ingratitude.
Cultivating gratitude is a practice of connecting to that which feels supportive, nourishing, wonderful, or joy-inspiring. We can be grateful even when we feel suffering, when we feel guilt, when the things we feel grateful about are endangered or morally ambiguous. Gratitude does not eclipse harm, does not mean life is purely okay. It is more about widening the scope of vision. Instead of focusing narrowly on what is wrong, we widen the lens to also see what is beneficial about what is.
The practice of gratitude recorded in the following meditation engages with the often complex nature of gratitude. If I feel gratitude at the trees and plants for providing the oxygen that keeps me alive, a part of me recalls that these trees and plants may be endangered by certain economic and political practices. I feel a natural want to protect them, one that comes from love and not guilt and obligation.
The recorded meditation engages with cultivating gratitude for things about which we might feel guilt, shame, or hurt about. This is not about making excuses or minimizing harm. What has happened in the past, we cannot change, but we can change the meaning of that event. We can feel grateful for the ways we’ve learned to survive or thrive in spite of harm. We can feel grateful for what we’ve experienced since the harm. We can feel grateful for the strengths and supports that got us through those moments.
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As someone born in the earliest years of the Millennial generation with a lot of privilege, I’ve spent time mulling over the cultural message that I could do whatever I wanted with my life. During the Great Recession, as I coped with the loss of my last career and wondered what would be next for me, I realized I’d been given an incomplete truth. I might be able to do anything I wanted, given enough tenacity, support, and favorable life circumstances; but I definitely could not do everything.
The depth and richness I sought in life—the sense of meaning—meant I must commit to a course of action and give up other possibilities. And this is in some ways inescapable. Even refusing any kind of commitment to stay perpetually unattached requires sacrifice of the life I could have had if I’d stuck with a relationship, a career, a project.
When I was younger, I filled myself up with dreams about the life I imagined I wanted, ideas about how people should treat me and what would be my signs of success. The dreams inspired me and motivated me to move toward them, yet in the course of living I would begin to encounter ways these dreams and aspirations caused me suffering. My dreams of a different life tended to be attached to a deep longing that had yet to be met. Yet when I was stuck in longing for what I did not have in my life, I was caught between two worlds. I could not walk confidently in either.
Confronting this sense of limitation and the finite nature of my time, energy, and money brought me to a deeper confrontation of the relationship between dreaming and realizing. These dreams had become expectations, and life frequently fails to meet my expectations. My expectations were formed at a time when I had no real experience. By the time I met the real person who would be my partner, I already had these imaginations of what marriage was supposed to look like. Before I began working, I had these expectations of career.
Imagination and expectations, furthermore, are unchecked by any limitations except the ones shaping my mind. I can imagine that a lover will respond to my intimacy and vulnerability with completely intuitive, empathic accuracy—will say the exact right thing—will know just where to touch—will know how fast or slow to go without me needing to say a word.
But then I take the risk and share, and my lover has had a long day and their attention lapsed as I shared with them. They didn’t understand why what I said was a big deal. They go too fast, or too slow. Or, my lover actually does something I envisioned. They say the thing I’ve longed to hear for years. But something didn’t work about it. It didn’t touch me the way I imagined it would. It failed to heal the pain, lift the burden of my self-deprecation.
Disappointed expectations often foster resentment, ingratitude, and blame. My heart is too filled up with beliefs about how life is supposed to be and feelings about why it’s not that way. There is no room for joy, or love, or gratitude.
These dreams and expectations run the risk of becoming a hostile form of entitled resentment. We feel angry that the world didn’t give us what we wanted or needed. We demand what we want and refuse to acknowledge that, once we are adults, no one is responsible for giving it to us. We rail against and resent people for things that can never be undone. We stomp on others and take what we need because we’ve suffered enough and fuck all those happy people.
The misalignment between expectation and reality often spurs us to change on or the other. Which we choose is not easily answered, and pain awaits in either direction. If my real, living parents consistently disappoint my expectations, I am in a muddle. I can try to change them, but the efforts are rarely effective and usually make my relationships worse. I could look for people to fill the idealized roles of Mother, Father, Parent, Caregiver and give me the nurturing, mentorship, tough love, or whatever it is that I feel my life is missing. Perhaps I’m lucky and find people to do that, or perhaps I experience a string of disappointments where yet another person seems to fail me.
In his poem, “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He continues with a series of questions, rather than answers. The dream deferred does not disappear or stay safely frozen in time, waiting for us to be ready for it. His images suggest the dream as something organic that can become stale, putrid, crusted-over, burdensome, and concludes with the suggestion of a dream being more like a land mine, in danger of an unexpected and catastrophic explosion.
That the poem is a series of questions suggests a lack of conclusion. The speaker of the poem does not yet seem to know, but perhaps contemplates their own deferred dreams, wondering—how long can this go on? How long will this dream be unmet?
For some, the most vivid and compelling dreams remain with us, becoming toxic until we finally realize the effort of resisting the dream outdoes the potential struggle and pain of moving toward the dream, embodying the dream, bringing the dream out of the ethereal realms of imagination, through the transforming and refining efforts of making it real.
At some point, whether we make the dream manifest or we accept it will never be, we stand at the threshold of grief. Here, the grief is our mourning that that reality is not what I thought it should be. My childhood dreams were impractical, or did not taste as sweet as I believed they would. The story I wrote is not like the one I imagined. The person I thought should never disappointment me finally does, and does in a big way, and yet I still love them.
There is a deep relationship between acceptance and grief. Grieving is the step most people want to skip on the path to acceptance and freedom. In grief and acceptance, I see that that what I am living right now is my life, and all my expectations and dreams of what should be are not my life. No matter how hard I work to set things up for success, to make my experience perfect, there will be variables beyond my control.
There is grief in growing up with family expectations one suddenly discovers are impossible to meet because you discover you’re queer or transgender, because you’re unable to bear children, because you don’t actually love or understand the career expectations laid out for you. There is grief in living with an abuser and coming to realize that there is no way you can get them to love you the way—somewhere deep in your heart—you truly believe they could.
We can get stuck in this grief, as much as we can get stuck in our efforts to avoid this realization. When I was younger, people called this stuckness “self-pity.” Perhaps they still do, but that expression seems to be less common. Calling it such may motivate some folks to let go and work through it, but for others it feels contemptuous and adds more shame and self-judgment on top of the stuck grief. This experience is the underside of that angry, self-righteous entitlement spoken of earlier. It is still anchored to that entitlement—a sense of unfairness, a sense that somehow, someone should make this right. There is still blame—self-blame, blaming parents, blaming society, blaming a deity.
What I want to speak of when I say “blame” is the emotional hook, not the act of assessing a situation and understanding why it happened and how peoples’ behaviors caused it. Blame feels heavy. It spurs up intense responses ranging from deep sadness to rage. It leaves us feeling powerless over ourselves. Blame says that the person on the other end of the blame to be different in some way, so I can be different. This is not acceptance.
Moving out of blame doesn’t require we say everything was okay. It doesn’t mean I say what abusers have done is totally fine. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed, or I don’t live under a system of injustice. It doesn’t necessarily make any of these things go away. What it does is unhook ourselves from these sources of suffering. We get our power back so we can think creatively about how we want to be in the world we have.
To illustrate this in a concrete way: imagine having a parent who does not always act the way you think a parent should act.
Let’s say you have this idea that Fathers are supposed to be inspiring, firm but kind, impeccable in their word, attentive, and interested in their children’s lives. Let’s say your father instead was somewhat meek, often traveled a lot and came home too exhausted to play, rarely stood up for you or himself.
As you grow older, you may notice yourself having struggles—either being meek like him, or acting out ferociously when you feel disrespected, afraid of being in any way like him. You love him, but you feel embarrassed by him. You feel angry that he wasn’t more of a “man.” You think, “If only I had a real father, my life would be better.”
The relationship with this father would be complex in many ways. You might avoid him. You might confront him often, call him weak. You might hold him in quiet contempt. You might badger him to step up and be more “of a father.” At some point, this adherence to an idealized reality stops being useful. Certain things about your father are fixed, or he counters your efforts by withdrawing, fighting back, ignoring you. No matter what you both try, your relationship stays strained and distant. Eventually it becomes clear that it would be easier to mourn the father you never had, then figure out what kind of relationship you want with the one you do.
When you stop wanting or needing him to be different, suddenly different things become possible. It’s easier to be around him and appreciate the good things he does. When you see yourself acting like him, you have an easier time acknowledging this and figuring out if you want to act differently. Instead of wasting energy wishing your father would be different—something you cannot change—you can explore being the difference that you desire. Then you are free. You no longer need to blame your father for not being enough for you. You can begin to see the ways you can be enough for yourself, or find that enoughness through other relationships.
Grief immerses us in the pain of what we truly have no power over. Painful though this is, it is a healing bath that leaves us feeling lighter, cleaner with time.
Moving through the grief and disillusionment, shedding the blame and entitlement, is also a sacrifice of the beliefs that inspired optimism and hope. Afterward we might feel lost or cynical, lacking the compass that oriented us in life so far.
That optimism and hope, however, had become too rigid. It came from a place of externality, of imposition, of believing I am not okay because my life does not match these things. Moving through the mourning and the sense of emptiness, meaninglessness, is scary and painful. Eventually, however, we wake up to a deeper sense of our own values, a fresh way of being in the world. We see the dawning of a sense of hope that knows I can be okay and meaningfully engage in my life regardless of what happens.
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Since becoming a mental health counselor, I’ve had a number of conversations with people who aren’t my clients that vary around a particular theme. “I like my therapist, but …”
The “but” is often that the therapist is missing something important that’s going on for the client. “I realize I bullshit them for a whole hour.” “We talk about what’s going well but not [significant problem].”
In these conversations, I have hesitantly wondered whether they’ve discussed this with their therapist. I’m hesitant because the question seems so obvious as to be offensive, and I’m not wishing to come across as blaming the client. But I do find that, often, the answer is no.
The “no” is for many reasons, all of which are perfectly valid, and most of which are getting in the way of therapeutic progress. There is a power differential—the therapist is supposed to be the one who sees clearly, the one who knows what’s going on. A client may feel sheepish about correcting or challenging their therapists (not all, believe me, but it happens). A client may feel scared of what could happen, if the therapist will respond well or respond in a damaging way.
Often these inhibitions resemble our relationships with other authorities, or with our parents. It’s vulnerable to challenge an authority figure directly—far easier to go to a friend or acquaintance and complain.
A client may also be unfamiliar with how the psychotherapeutic conversation differs from an everyday conversation. They want to spare their clinicians’ feelings. They may want their therapist’s approval and respect, and feel reluctant to expose vulnerable or complicated emotions. They may not trust their therapists.
Another possibility is that the client, and perhaps the client and therapist both, are hesitant to broach a potentially explosive topic. Perhaps both sense intuitively that more time and trust building is needed before opening up these difficult experiences. Perhaps one, the other, or both are simply avoiding the topic. Perhaps one, the other, or both simply can’t see the topic.
A particular acquaintance of mine reflected that often after therapy they would realize they “bullshitted” their therapist for the full hour and felt concerned that the therapist didn’t notice. My question was, “When do you recognize that you’re bullshitting your therapist? How long will you let yourself continue to do so?”
Occasionally we hear of stories of that perfect therapeutic moment, where one’s therapist sees clearly and put words to something the client didn’t even know they felt until it was named. Those moments are really special, and I bet that same therapist has a good amount of hours under their belt where they missed the mark—possibly even with that same client.
Many of these patterns are our defensive social patterns playing out in the therapeutic room. They are the behaviors that keep our pain and struggles locked in place. We deeply want to be seen, and we deeply fear being seen. The therapeutic relationship is the perfect opportunity to try something different.
Say shit to your therapists. When you realize you’re avoiding, bullshitting, not talking about something important. Bring it up. Bring up the fact that there’s something to bring up and you’re afraid to bring it up. Whatever you feel able to do. It’s vulnerable, and there’s a risk, so be gentle with yourself. Your therapist ideally is creating with you a relationship that is safe enough for you to step out of your comfort zone. They can’t force you out of it.
These kinds of issues and conflicts are important, and having a conversation about it can help you and your therapist break through into a deeper and more effective working relationship.
Or you might discover that your therapist isn’t the right fit for you—they respond poorly, or they continue to engage in avoidance or denial. Then you might consider saying something like, “I’m going to find a better fit.”
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One of my growing edges this year has been practicing a martial art. One of the important practices, as I understand it, is learning to do backward and forward rolls with confidence and consistency, so that one may more easily practice the techniques with their partners.
Amidst the difficulties I’ve had learning the practice, I’ve watched more experienced students be thrown with apparent grace, rolling across the floor and standing up as though nothing particularly serious had happened. I decided my goal was to get to that point. In a conversation, I recently made an offhand observation that I realized went deeper than I thought: “I think I would be more courageous if falling wasn’t so scary.”
The basic techniques of the rolls is its own challenge—figuring out how to make my body do what they are teaching me to do, getting my muscles to consistently respond in ways that soften my fall and protect me from jarring, painful collapses.
What makes the learning harder is my moments of doubt. When about to fall or roll, something in me wants all the action to stop. My anxiety instinctively moves toward freeze. My mind wants to fully assess the situation and decide the correct response. It’s almost like that self-doubt is saying, “Are you SURE you’re going to get through this? Better not do anything until you’re SURE.”
That self-doubt wants to get a teacher and ask them to walk me through it again. It wants me to ask everyone to go easy on me, so I can get more practice before I really do it.
Recently I read through Steven Hayes’s Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, where he speaks of acceptance, daring, and commitment. He speaks to how “trying” to accept a painful reality is a half-measure that does not work. I can’t “try” to accept my sadness, because some part of me is hedging for safety, seeking an out if things get too hard. Similarly, I can’t “try” to jump off a diving board. I am either launching myself into the air or standing still. At worst, “trying” to jump off a diving board means I am more awkwardly slipping off.
What Hayes suggests is a full commitment to action. You can set limits—“I will accept my sadness for five minutes.” But you can’t accept your sadness in a conditional way. “I’ll accept my sadness unless I feel too sad.” The metaphor of jumping off a diving board is not incidental—acceptance is an act of daring that brings up anxiety.
The anxiety worries because it does not know what will happen when I accept. It fears something awful will happen, and wants to control every step of the way. Which comes back to trial. Though it feels more controlled, it is ultimately less effective and sometimes more dangerous than simply jumping.
That dance between down, trial, and commitment play out in my falling. When practicing with a partner who’s about to throw me, that moment of self-doubt is dangerous. It pulls me out of the moment and into my mind—but my mind’s not going to execute the fall. The throw happens too quickly for my mind to do anything but freak out and sprawl.
For the past few months, my efforts at forward rolls have been clumsy and awkward. I’d be about to go for it then feel stopped by that moment of self-doubt. When I tried anyway, I would suffer for my lack of commitment midway through the roll. Since I didn’t launch myself with the energy and speed I needed, I would collapse on one of my shoulders or thump my low back.
After reading Hayes’s work, I realized I needed to commit. So the next time I attempted the forward roll I bent down, noticed that moment of self-doubt, and decided to do it anyway. I put all the force and energy I could into the movement, and within seconds I felt myself smoothly flipping over my arms and rolling off my back to my feet. It was amazing. Then I tried again, and it was amazing again.
The third time, of course, I was starting to analyze what just happened, figure out what worked so I could replicate it consistently. Being back in that mental space of anxiety and control, my falls began to suffer and I had some back-thumping moments. I need more practice with this commitment, this daring.
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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.
Recently a friend shared an article that I loved from Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” Coates discusses his experience of studying a foreign language, pushing through the despair, and experiencing moments of success while recognizing he will be back in struggle again:
There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.
His words on “giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things” particularly resonate. In many ways this blog post is largely agrees with him, so you might read that instead of this.
I’ve experienced in my life—and talked with folks who have had similar experiences—internalizing an attitude that struggling is an intrinsic sign of failure. That either you’ve “got it”—an innate ability to do a thing—or you don’t, and if you don’t you should stop embarrassing yourself by trying.
This attitude sucks. It’s paralyzing, for one, and it causes people to think they are either “superior” or “inferior.” And while the “superior” folks may have some benefits in terms of entitlement and judgment, deep in their hearts they know they’re only a few public mistakes away from falling into the abyss of “inferiority.” It’s all a trap.
What I’ve come to learn is that the most rewarding and persistent experiences in my life have come from meeting and working through challenges. Defaulting only to what is easy or comes naturally means that my whole Being begins to warp.
When I was a kid, athleticism was my biggest weakness, but I was able to do the intellectual thing well. So I could cultivate a sharp mind in a body that wasn’t getting enough exercise or physical care. I’m fortunate that my father and friends around me continued to push me to find a physical activity that I could do for my health—though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.
When I experienced challenges later in life, I could look back to those early periods of feeling completely overwhelmed and powerless. Moments when I’d hiked ten miles and felt I was at my limit, but knew the only way out of the situation was to hike the remaining ten miles.
In the past year I’ve experienced success in parts of my life after a long period of struggle, and parts of me would like to simply bask in the success. But instead, someone pointed out that I was exhibiting some signs of physical discomfort and suggested I see a physical therapist. Both of these showed me imbalances in my body. I’d gotten good at working out the “big” muscles, but some of the rotator and less obvious coordinating muscles in my shoulders and legs were very weak. My body had learned to compensate with other muscles, and that compensation began creating painful conditions.
Seeing this therapist plunged me back into all my childhood experiences of discomfort, overwhelm, embarrassment, and the urge to avoid. And I kept going back, and doing the exercises, and discovered new capacities for strength and resilience. I began to learn why my body had done what it had done, and how that compensation affected other activities. Instead of feeling helpless to this condition, suddenly there was something I could do to make gradual improvements.
We all have different capacities and potentials, but we have room to grow what we want to grow. We build self-esteem by looking at the things we want to be able to do and giving ourselves permission to work toward it, even when there’s struggle.
It helps when we have an encouraging circle of friends and family and resources to get whatever training, coaching, or support. For some of us, that’s what we long to grow.
The challenge is less to become successful and a master; the challenge is to move through the upset and difficulty without force and self-criticism. The challenge is to not agree with the stories about limitations but to continue returning to the growing edge.
In Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, Sallie Nichols contemplated the tarot card The Wheel of Fortune in a way that has stayed with me for more than ten years. Nichols speaks of The Wheel as an image of human consciousness in various stages of evolution and Self-possession.
In the early stages of consciousness, we are at the edge of The Wheel. Our emotional reactions to life events “ride” us. We’re lifted high into the air and then slammed into the ground and run over. At the mercy of our emotions, we are even further at the mercy of life and the people around us who elicit the emotions. We cannot separate our awareness of self from the emotional reaction, we have no power, no choice in how we respond.
Nichols’s metaphor of spiritual growth is consciousness’s movement from edge to the center of the Wheel. In the center, we continue to spin, but the spinning is less violent. We are better able to watch the movements from a distance. We can watch ourselves spin around the Wheel but instead of lashing out or shutting down, we can try something different. In a sense, we see that we cannot control the Wheel of emotions and life circumstances but we can control how we engage with them.
Spiritual and contemplative practice help us to become more aware of this process. We see the cycle of emotion. We begin to see how we can take ownership of our emotional cycles, instead of blaming others for our feelings.
This is a spiritual growth that does not involve negating what is painful. It is a growth that teaches us how to move back into center when we find we’re at the edge of reactivity. Too many people have shame at having feelings at all, thinking that spiritual enlightenment means being an emotionless being that has transcended human vulnerability.
If that’s true, I’m not there yet. What my observation is, and what I have learned from the greatest Teachers of my life, is that spiritual growth means those emotions, passions, and reactions have more room to simply be themselves, to give their purest response, to alert me to their needs.
I can feel the emotional reaction, watch myself going through the old cycles of blame and defensiveness, and all the while some part of me sits quietly in the center, knowing that it’s all bullshit. The emotion is valid, but the stories of blame often aren’t. Some part of me may say, very urgently, “They’ll be so mad at me!” and feel all the terror and guilt of disappointing someone else, and meanwhile in that still center there is that knowing. Perhaps it’s, “No, they won’t.” Or sometimes it’s even, “If they are, it is okay. They have a right to be angry.”
To shift the metaphor slightly, I see the trajectory of psychospiritual growth as both moving consciousness to the center of the wheel and, ideally, putting that centered consciousness in the driver’s seat. That entire sentence looks straightforward but getting there could take years of work, with growth and setbacks.
Some days, the best I can do is to be in my emotional reaction and conscious of the part of me that knows it will be okay. That part of me might be able to blunt my most toxic responses or impulsive decisions. Some days I lose it entirely and make hurtful mistakes, but with practice and self-compassion those instances grow further and further apart.
Even still there is a part of me that feels a “should,” that I “should” be able to move out of the painful experience into joyful enthusiasm. And some days I can. Other days, I need to practice the best I can with what I’ve got.