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Vulnerability is Strength

transfiguration-tatiana-kiselyovaTrue strength is found in our vulnerability.

Of course, that’s hard to imagine when you’ve been hurt by those closest to you or made to believe power over others is the only way to gain traction in this world. When we’ve been raised in chaos, neglect or abuse, it’s most certainly impossible to imagine being vulnerable to anyone.

How do you acheive vulnerability when your family pattern growing up had been to divulge your secrets just to win an argument when they got mad at you?  What would it look like to be vulnerable as an adult when your childhood history had been a beating if you were truthful? Why bother being vulnerable, because you tried that as a child and still your needs were not met.

Instead, you entered the adult world through a different way of being. You grabbed your weapon of  anger, arrogance, addictions, compulsions, aggression, overachieving, under functioning, numbing out, depression, or anxiety. You clung to your strategy in whatever circumstance those defenses needed to work for you. You fought like hell to hold your ground. And now you’re tired. Your weapon of choice is battered. You’re exhausted. There must be a better way.

There is and it starts with self compassion. Try this little exercise I use with my clients: Write down the three worst things you tell yourself about yourself. Write them in “I am” statements. Say them aloud. Now go up to someone you respect and turn those three statements into “You are” sentences and say them to that person. Can’t? Of course not. You would never be that mean to someone else. So why are we so mean to ourselves? If we’re not careful our inner dialogue can be horrific and not fit for human ears. It guts us of any self esteem and tramples our sense of identity.

It takes courage to make a change toward self compassion and this is the root of vulnerability. This is where your strength lies – in opening to yourself. In treating yourself with love and tenderness. No one will ever treat you better than you will treat yourself. No one is treating you any better than you are treating yourself at this point in time. So, how are you being treated? How are you treating yourself?

Tara Brach writes in her book True Refuge: What if we could recognize our faults and look to see what is beyond them? What if we could see, with great tenderness, the painful unmet needs that have shaped our behaviors? For many of us, this process is the work of a lifetime, one that requires the active support of loved ones, therapists, spiritual teachers or healers. Yet it begins the moment that we are willing to look at ourselves through the eyes of compassion.

Opening our hearts to ourselves means we can drop our weapons. We can stop defending the invisible beast of self loathing. No battle is won until we can claim peace. Peace cannot be experienced until we surrender ourselves to the grace of self compassion.

Art- Transfiguration – Tatiana-Kiselyova

Empathy: the Connecting of Souls

images4 Empathy is the pinnacle of existence. It’s a full connection to others without attempting to alter their reality or have them change yours. Empathy requires being aware of and present to another’s reality. In order to do this, we must be “cracked open”. We must know ourselves through developing inner awareness. Our souls must lead and our egos shelved.

Empathy, by way of definition, is not sympathy. Sympathy distances us from others. When we sympathize with someone, we feel sorry for them. We’re damn glad we’re not in their suffering shoes. When we sympathize, we try to fix them or tell them what to do. Sympathy makes us feel better. There’s a judgment to sympathy that empathy doesn’t have. Which is why empathy takes a lot more work. Empathy takes being present without a verdict or opinion. It takes slowing down to listen.

One of the most majestic gifts in life is to hear and be heard. That’s the essence of love. Love Thy Neighbor means to accept those around you even when you disagree with them. As history has proven, this is probably one of the hardest acts to perform.

Unlike sympathy, empathy has boundaries to it. We don’t have to take people we would rather not be around into our home just to prove to ourselves – or others – that we’re kind. We don’t need to take on another person’s values or opinions to let them know we’ve heard them. We also don’t have to “fight back” and let them know they’re wrong for not seeing it our way. Then we’re pushing against their boundaries. Slowing down enough to understand doesn’t require loosening our psyches, changing our beliefs or allowing them to hurt us.

One of the hardest things for me to do was to move to a very conservative part of the country. I spent years internally rolling my eyes and judging those who didn’t seem to “get it”. Yet, when I took the time to listen – really listen – without enforcing my more progressive views, I found an interesting thing happening to me. I softened. I still didn’t agree with many people I talked to, but I realized people are going to believe what they want to believe and I found peace in that. After a while, I felt comfortable enough within my own self not to get upset. And miracle or all miracles, when opinions were labeled by us, we actually found some common ground. I learned to like people for who they were, not what they believed in. I learned that I could honor their beliefs and still maintain my own. If I was going to really be the person I saw myself being, I had to accept everyone as they are. I needed to stop judging. I needed to start accepting.

If I drew a linear scale that showed degrees of empathy, the least amount would be to tolerate others, the middle would be to affirm them, the most would be to honor them. Tolerating others is a good place to start. It’s acceptance with an effort not to judge.

Sometimes it’s hardest to apply empathy to family members or close friends. We have expectations of what our family members should do, be, act, or think. We know their foibles and vulnerabilities. The closer we are to someone, the higher our hopes are of them. Certainly the less tolerant we become when they don’t hit that raised bar we’ve imposed.

When we’re not careful, our egoic self sees family as a reflection of us. When we have unresolved issues, unaccomplished dreams, we place them on our children. Even our friends get the brunt of the shadow sides we would rather forget about. When we displace our discomfort onto them as blame we have lost our ability to be present and empathize.

Slowing down to listen to our children without inserting our own views can be our greatest challenge. It can also be our greatest gift to them. They will feel heard and they will learn the act of empathy through your modeling of it.

So, how do we become more empathetic?

Imagine being present for your wife without trying to tell her how to fix the relationship with her angry boss? When you listen to the words and notice her body language, you can develop a deeper connection with her. As you do this, you may see her emotions in a new way. Reflect back to her, “I see you are very hurt by what he said to you today” . Sounds pretty obvious. She might give you a big “duh” response at first, yet you might also see her soften and relax. You just indicated that you heard her. What you’ve just done is honor feelings that she felt have been dismissed by her boss

The second part of this is to also notice your feelings and reactions to seeing your wife upset. What does this bring up for you? An urge to rush to her side and stop the pain? An urge to rush to your man cave? It’s okay to sit in your own discomfort as you make yourself present to her. I promise, your anxiety won’t rupture your spleen. In fact, it may decrease as you stay open and present in the conversation.

What would listening to your child’s hopes and dreams look like without trying to enforce your own expectations onto him or her? How would you be if your husband came home and started to cry? What if, the next time a friend drives you crazy with what you perceive as one of her issues, you ask yourself, “what in them reflects my own unexamined problems?”.

Be present, be patient, be available to listen.

The Inner Boundaries of Emotion

Here  No matter how close we are physically or psychologically to someone, we have our own sense of what we feel and think. Our loved ones cannot feel what we feel, nor can we feel for them. Nor are we responsible for their feelings and what they choose to do with them.

This seems to surprise many of my clients when the subject comes up in our sessions. Who can blame them for the confusion when we’ve grown up with phrases like, “Two hearts become one”, or “Separate now whole”? We can buy necklaces with two halves of a heart that snap together to make a whole heart. Even in parenting, we tend to forget that this child we conceived and raised is actually a separate human being who’ll have his or her own worldview that might not reflect our own.

When we try to be “one person” in relationships, we’re decimating our wholeness. When we give up our beliefs, pleasures, emotions, likes and even dislikes to fit like a puzzle piece into another’s world, we don’t make us or the relationship stronger – we actually weaken it. When our children express an opinion that’s different from ours, this does not mean they’re rejecting us as people. We don’t have to hand over our identity to please someone and we don’t have to diminish another’s inner world to keep them close to us.

It’s our wholeness that creates true intimacy. It’s the engagement of sharing our own reality with another that’s fulfilling. It’s being present to understanding another’s reality that bonds people. Sharing what you feel and listening to what your loved one feels takes effort, intention and time. In order to be present for another, we must want to be present. This very act of slowing down validates your loved one. When we’re listening without judgment and without forcing our own views into the moment, what we’re saying through our actions is “You’re important to me”.

This simple process of being present and listening to another is true intimacy.