So often in life we find ourselves in periods of reflection. Looking back, we contemplate our successes and failures in various aspects of our lives. When we do this, we open the door to the feeling that we’re coming up short; we’re not measuring up to our own standards.
Holiday time can often be a time of such reflection. As the year draws to a close, we often reflect on what we’ve accomplished in the past year, and what we haven’t. Birthdays are another time of year (particularly big, round numbered birthdays) when we may look back with a critical eye, tending to emphasize what hasn’t been done yet, instead of what has. We begin to measure our selves and our lives to discern: am I living up to my own standards?
Standards are so important. They weave their way through our lives in so many ways. We have standards of care and love in our intimate relationships, standards of professional conduct in the workplace and standards we set for ourselves in terms of life goals. When these standards aren’t achieved, evaluating what need has gone unmet and working toward resolution through effective communication, sharing expectations, and reevaluation of what may be possible are all ways to restore balance.
One question I love to ask when discussing the idea of personal standards is “What’s Your Metric?” What exactly are your expectations of yourself? In response, most people’s eyes widen and they smile a bit before they say “Hmmm, goooood question….”
What typically follows is a dialogue in which people realize that they’ve never really thought about this imaginary ruler they regularly use to “whip themselves into shape.” When we tease out the actual values that underlie their desires, we often find that they aren’t really so far off track, after all.
Once there is clarity about actual expectations, we can talk about the likelihood of accomplishing the task or living up to the ideal, and prioritize from there.
So, if you find yourself feeling deflated, berating yourself, or generally getting down about what hasn’t been done this year, I invite you to really consider what’s your metric? Are you regularly expecting to execute Herculean feats or reach perfection? If so, perhaps it’s time to reassess.
In my psychotherapy practice, I often hear clients express their deepest longings and fears:
“I’m afraid that I am incapable of creating meaningful connections in my life. I don’t want to have to say what I really feel.”
“I’m afraid if I try to express my true needs and hurts to my partner, I will lose her, and the grass will not be greener on the other side.”
“What if I ask for what I want in my relationship and he laughs at me or gets mad about my requests? Isn’t having needs selfish?”
Sometimes, I hear confessions about the heart of the matter:
“I’m afraid to be vulnerable. It’s scary.”
From my vantage point, my perch on my comfy blue therapist’s chair, I can easily see the beauty and possibility in what the world and these challenging relationships are offering my clients: an opportunity to be courageous, to transcend their fear and grow into a larger, more expanded version of themselves, to connect more intimately to the people they care about. The therapist in me occasionally even gets excited at the prospect. “Awesome! Let’s go! Let’s have that hard conversation! You got this!” Part of that optimistic perspective comes from the inspiration of great teachers, such as Brené Brown, and the author Anaïs Nin, one of my favorites, who said:
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Another piece of that mindset comes from having taken some of those risks myself in the past and finding myself supported, held and heard by generous, open-hearted souls who were willing to put their egos, assumptions, and self-righteousness aside to bear witness to my expressed needs, fears, or grief. Other life situations have found me with thoughtful, kind and understanding people who have taken my sensitivity into consideration and used diplomacy when offering important feedback about a possible blind-spot. These experiences have been some of the most profoundly healing and heartfelt experiences of my life. It is because of the tremendous gift of connection I received from them that I have become an advocate and defender of vulnerability. I champion its cause whenever I can.
But from my seat, I sometimes forget how different the subjective experience of vulnerability, especially vulnerability ‘gone wrong’ can be. I forget the fact that not every experience of vulnerability is of the Brené Brown variety: an expression of strength and courage in the service of connection and growth. I forget the more common definition of vulnerability:
Exposure to an attack. That’s the actual definition.
An emotional attack can be absolutely brutal, the wounds often lasting much longer than those received in a physical attack. Especially for individuals who have a history of emotional abuse or neglect, a criticism received in an emotional state of exposure can trigger a succession of negative memories and core beliefs and can very easily lead to feelings of worthlessness, self-blame and self-doubt. It can spiral into a loss of confidence, debilitating self-criticism and depression. In extreme cases, it may lead to self-harm or acts of aggression toward others.
Being vulnerable can be really painful.
As an adult, I have been able to create the best possible conditions in my life. I choose carefully the people and places that feel safe enough to express my vulnerability. But just like everyone, I am occasionally caught off guard. When I have an experience in my life now of feeling caught unprotected, subjected to someone else’s judgment, lack of care or outright personal attack, I am jolted into that pain of feeling deeply hurt. It can be a harsh reminder that those experiences do exist, and can happen quite often depending on how powerless, sensitive, or open an individual is. Being vulnerable can be scary, and therefore it’s not something that we always choose nor should we.
So how do we walk that line… wanting connection but fearing reproach…? Living in a way that is hyper-vigilant, always being on-guard for potential dangers and staying away from relationships altogether for fear that we may become re-wounded hardly makes for a life of joy, spontaneity or connection. Unfortunately, we can not plan for blind spots. Being caught-off guard by someone we thought would be safe will happen to us all.
So what’s a human who recognizes both the pain and power of vulnerability to do? Here are a few ideas:
When getting to know someone new: Use the Share/Check method in conversation.
Share some information, perhaps a more superficial bit of information about yourself or your experiences, and then pause, and check in with the other person: what did they hear of what you said? How closely were they listening? Do they seem considerate? Sensitive to your needs? Deepen the level of emotional intimacy and sharing only when you’ve come to trust that what you share will be held with kindness and respect.
Reduce your exposure to insensitive, offensive or otherwise unsafe people.
This sounds simple, but it isn’t always easy. Especially when the people who are closest to us, our family members, are those most guilty of these betrayals of the heart. If you are struggling with how to maintain a connection that feels toxic, unhealthy, or hurtful, reach out to a professional for help and explore for yourself where you can safely draw some boundary lines to prevent further hurts.
When you’re caught off guard by a real or perceived attack: Practice Self Compassion
When someone responds to your opening your doors to them, your sharing your world, with condemnation or judgment, remember your own inherent goodness. Repeating the mantra ‘I’m doing the best that I can” in a kind, gentle voice as you breathe can provide some soothing, some recollection that you are indeed worthwhile, your intentions are good, and that even through this tough experience, you are growing in kindness and compassion.
In my private psychotherapy practice I often hear from clients about their fears of being alone. From my vantage point, I can see how those fears keep them stuck in unfulfilling relationships, prevent them from speaking the truth of what they need or want, and can ultimately lead to the feelings of impotence, powerlessness, or depression that often accompany not being seen or honored in relationship.
Being alone has it’s own challenges, just like being stuck in unsatisfying relationships does. In this video I discovered several years back, the brave poet/singer/songwriter Tanya Davis addresses some of the realities of living alone and offers insight on how to navigate singelehood.
I saw this great 2 minute video of a talk by Ira Glass, host and producer of the NPR show This American Life, about doing creative work recently. It really hit home with me, and living in Asheville, where there is such an abundance of creative people, I thought I would share his words of wisdom with this community!
Personally, I feel that any work that you do that you feel passionately about is creative work. We can approach any craft with vigor and ambition, whether it is producing purely for artistic expression, or working on building skill at our chosen profession.
His normalizing of the ups, downs, and curves in the road on the journey of improvement is refreshing and reassuring, my favorite aspect of this talk is his promotion of self compassion along the way!
Social media has made its way into our lives over the past decade and is now an undeniable part of the lives of most people I know and the clients I see in my private practice. With the expressed intention of social media purveyors being to create connection, is never fails to amaze me how much disconnection these sites are actually perpetuating.
Facebook’s Mission Statement:
Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.
Twitter’s Mission Statement:
To instantly connect people everywhere to what’s most important to them.
While linking up with old school classmates, long lost friends and family members can initially feel exhilarating, what happens once we’ve reestablished those bonds? And how much weight do we then give to those people on a daily or weekly basis to sustain our sense of connection? For some, their usage of social media fits perfectly within their lifestyle, and they feel that these sites provide them with a service that meets their needs; no more, no less. Meanwhile, others can finds themselves consumed by the maintenance of their online personas, or dealing with the compulsion to share or over-share in an effort to create or maintain positive feelings of engagement.
Many of us have found ourselves turning to our social media accounts multiple times throughout the day as a space filler/time killer, which seems harmless… until… that thing that once gave us warm, yummy feelings of friendship and support, stops delivering those sensations. Maybe posts don’t get same number of ‘likes’ or comments they once did, and those positive feelings are soon replaced by their opposites: self-doubt and disconnection.
For some, another of the most damning aspects of social media can also kick in: comparison. When the majority of the stories or images we see on social media perpetuate the idea that our peers are always traveling to exotic and interesting places, consistently enjoying quality time in seemingly apparent perfect relationships with loved ones or succeeding at ever-more of their ambitious and courageous life-goals, we begin to question: why not me?
Little do we realize that what we are seeing online are personas: well edited, photoshopped, finely tuned and filtered moments of time in the lives of others. Oftentimes, a rift occurs between what we are seeing online, and what what we are experiencing in our own lives. Disunion, anxiety and loneliness ensue. Shimi Cohen created the following video “The Innovation of Loneliness” which explores how, contrary to the purported aims of the social media giants, social media actually encourages loneliness.
Another problem I have found is that things on social media are not always as they seem. When a Facebook user with a personal profile or business page posts a status update, all of their friends or followers see that update, giving equal opportunity for all to engage with the posting user about their shared content, right? Wrong. Derek Muller explains the “shrinking numbers phenomenon” and what really happens when you share content on Facebook.
Are you using social media in a way that serves your Whole Self?
When I started up my private psychotherapy practice a few years ago, my first office seemed to fall into my lap. It was a low-risk investment in a convenient location, and the big, north facing windows let in sunlight that instantly felt like home to me. With a multidisciplinary group of established holistic practitioners ranging from fellow psychotherapists to massage therapists, acupuncturists, herbalists, and Ayurvedic practitioners, it felt great to be sharing a space with like-minded professionals. So, naturally I was disappointed when, after just over a year of renting the space, I was informed that the building in which my office was housed had been sold, and that all tenants had 60 days to evacuate.
The news brought about an anxiety that was unfamiliar for me. Was I going to find another space for myself and my clients that we would all feel comfortable in? Was I going to have to resort to trying to convince another therapist to let me rent their office for a few days a week until something that I really wanted became available? How long would that have to last? Was I going to be without a space of my own for weeks or even months? Would I get stuck having to sign a lease for something that I didn’t really like? What if I had to start seeing clients in my home for lack of a better option!?
Luckily, within a few weeks, I found an office space in a desirable part of town, one which I had admired from afar for quite awhile. I felt so fortunate to have quickly located a new space, and once the move was over, the anxiety subsided and I got busy settling in to my new office and making it my own. So, you can imagine my surprise, when, less than 4 months after my move-in, I was informed that the building in which the new office was located, had just been put up for sale.
I quickly went through several emotional states: shock, disbelief and anger, to name a few… When I remembered one of the central tenets of Buddhism which I have always found comfort in: everything is constantly in a state of flux. This reminder allowed me to refocus my energies on letting go of my attachment to the office, to shift into a mental space of trust that the universe had something better in store for me, and enabled me to start planning for my next steps.
Again, I commenced the office-search, and within a few days found something that felt like an even-better fit than either of the other offices I’ve rented.
When the universe brings abrupt change into our lives that threatens our sense of stability and grounded-ness, I think it is easy to get stuck in emotions that may, ultimately, adversely affect our ability to move forward. I don’t mean to imply that I have never gotten hooked into hurts or negative emotions during times of big change, because I certainly have. Through my experiences, though, I have been working on arriving at acceptance in a slightly more expeditious manner than I would have, say, 15 years ago. We are all works in progress, after all, right?
Is there some area of your life that makes you feel stuck? What are the emotions you experience when you think about this life situation? Is there something you can do to shift into a new emotional space?