What Is Gender

What Is Gender

Gender is confusing. It’s often used and understood as a synonym for sexual genitalia. Consult any dictionary, and you’ll see. And while, in our culture, both terms are inextricably linked with one another, they are different. They’re associations with one another (and our staunch adherence to them) have proven oppressive and dangerously limiting.

For some, it’s never an issue; they’re born, they are raised as the sex they were assigned at birth, identify with that sex and its associated gender, and it’s all good. For many others, it’s not so easy. Some of us feel confined by the limits of our current conceptualization of gender upon which our society has agreed and enforced for generations.

Even in places where people self-describe as open-minded and accepting, a cis man wearing a dress is assumed to be in costume, and a femme or high femme woman with fully grown out leg hair is a spectacle.

Gender is a construct, and we have agreed that being masculine means one thing and being feminine means another. Many of us who disagree with this construct do so while following the rules. We feel that we are following these rules against our wills. When people do break free and live authentically, however outside the norm, they are mocked, isolated, bullied, attacked, and even killed.

For years, in the Trans community, “passing” has been a goal. Some want to pass in hopes of feeling in alignment with who they know themselves to be. Some want to pass to look and feel like and be accepted as a “real” man or woman. (Please note that I am absolutely simplifying this concept.) This is a testament to the generations of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, sexism, and misogyny that inform our culture. Men must “look like men, ” and women must “look like women.” To this day it’s still an issue of safety as MTF (male-to-female) people are the most targeted members of our community. (And MTF People of Color make up a substantial portion of that group.)

Obviously, this is not true for every Trans person. There are plenty of people in the Trans community for whom passing isn’t much of a goal, and there are many who’ve found more peace and happiness after transitioning. Happiness is a universal goal, and many eventually find it after they have transitioned. (Most people don’t find immediate fulfillment; transitioning is often a long and arduous process during which a person can face various types of rejection and self-doubt. Years of managing the stress brought on by denying oneself, living in fear of being rejected for living authentically compounded by the stress of letting go and allowing oneself to transition is an enormous undertaking.)

But there is a whole group of people who identify as Trans and don’t want HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) or surgeries. Some Trans people want HRT but not surgery. Some want some of the surgeries but not all and don’t want HRT. Some FTMs will never look the way we’ve been conditioned to identify as male, and some MTFs will never look the way we’ve been conditioned to identify as female. Most of us assume that when someone transitions they’ll start behaving and presenting in a way that our culture affirms as masculine enough or feminine enough.

We have decided what is masculine and feminine, which characteristics are ok to swap and which are definitely not ok. Straight men can have long hair, but they can’t wear makeup. Women can have buzz cuts and abstain from shaving body hair, but they’d better be Lesbian. Our culture puts an incredible amount of pressure on its members to conform to its rules and has assembled a loyal and persuasive army of militant enforcers who are always more than willing to defend these rules.

In response, so much dangerous adherence to these limits is the notion of being gender-fluid. Gender fluidity is gaining momentum. A lot of people don’t feel they should have to comply with a certain presentation based on their genitals. So they don’t. They identify and present however feels most authentic to them. They don’t ask for permission. They don’t appease. People who are gender-fluid have looked at the gender, and sexual constructs created by the dominant groups in our culture and have opted out. They are creating a safer, more inclusive culture where we are not defined by our presentations or ruled by binaries and either-or options.

I’m often asked about “detransitioning” and how common it is. This is a complicated subject and will take time and commitment to discuss. If you have any questions about what I’ve written or would like to discuss detransitioning, please contact me. I’d be more than happy to talk about this with you.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Can My Relationship Be Saved?

Can My Relationship Be Saved?

Most of us want security in our relationships. We’re wired to be social so, when we feel like our social standing is threatened or that our intimate connections are unreliable, our brains process it as actual danger, and we freak out.

Some of us crave security and validation of our places and safety in our relationships but can’t seem to find partners with whom we get that. We tend to find and are attracted to people who provide us with incredible highs (and incredible lows), drama and a push-pull style of interacting. When we’re in relationships with partners who help us to feel more secure and receive validation of being loved, respected and cared for, we often feel bored. We mistake the tension-relief cycle and the excitement of the highs and lows for love. This type of behavior is common in those of us who have an anxious attachment style. We think we want security (and we do but getting it also stresses us out) and then when we get it we’re not interested.

 

Look at this scenario. Let’s say you are in the middle of a pretty unstable intimate relationship with a partner. To friends and family, the relationship is fraught with various dramas and issues; everyone thinks it’s run its course and just needs to end. You acknowledge that there are problems, but think you can work through them. You might even believe that you can’t live without your partner or that there is no one you could ever love as much. Your partner is ambivalent about your future as a couple which is weird because when you first started dating, they came on strong and made you feel like you were the only person in the world. Now, you’re lucky if you get a text back. Much of the relationship consists of a good couple of months and then a breakup or the threat of a breakup. Even when things are good, there is a lot of discord because you don’t feel prioritized by your partner and they experience you as suffocating. When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad, you feel like you might lose your mind. When you’re at work or out with friends, you are often distracted and thinking of your partner, waiting for their text or call. If they do contact you, all of your attention is fixed on them. You often threaten to end the relationship, but when an actual breakup happens, it’s either initiated by your partner or because they are the one who follows through on your threat. You think the relationship would be perfect if you partner would make only a few changes to your dynamic. After all, you’ve sacrificed a lot of your expectations and some of your values in a desperate effort to make this relationship work. You often say you’ve never loved anyone so much until now. This is also one of the most unstable relationships you’ve ever had.

 

In this example, you are exhibiting anxious attachment behavior. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an anxious attachment style. During the course of our lives, we are in relationships with people who might connect us to various styles of attachment. If this relationship is representative of most of your intimate relationships, then it might be more likely that you have an anxious attachment style.

 

People with an anxious attachment style (or who have enough of a propensity for it) feel themselves pulled to people who have an avoidant attachment style. The partner above is a pretty good example of someone who might have an avoidant style of attachment or at the very least displays some features. This is usually pretty rough going because while one partner craves validation and is insecure about space in the relationship, the other partner is looking for more space and is insecure about giving validation.

 

This is a pretty crazy-making, taxing cycle. To add insult to injury, the more we engage in this cycle, the more insecure we become. I know it probably feels like there’s no winning here, that you can either be with someone you love but who can’t give you the security you need or be with someone who can give you that security but not a satisfying connection. I would love to talk with you more about this. Please contact me if you would like support.

 

I recommend reading the book Attached., by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. It’s a great resource for people struggling through these and similar patterns.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

How Do I Know If I Need Therapy?

How Do I Know If I Need Therapy?

“So about how long should it take until I feel better?” “How long do you think I’ll need therapy?” “How many sessions should I expect to attend before my problem is solved?” I have asked all of these questions during time spent on the other side of the couch. I know what it’s like to want concrete answers and expectations met. Everyone wants a sure thing in the face of so much uncertainty.

Therapy is not exactly a sure thing. Surely, it can and does help, but it’s not as simple as basic input of time and results yielded. Results depend on client honesty (with themselves and the therapist), right fit with a therapist, client’s commitment to the work both in and out of the therapy office, and right fit with whatever therapeutic modality is used.

Therapy is almost never a quick fix, but there are quicker-fix type/brief therapeutic modalities available. Whether or not these protocols are right for someone depends on a lot- personality, history, diagnosis, whether or not a person has experienced complex trauma. Even in the best of scenarios, it still requires the practice of skills through time to maintain results.

Under the psychotherapy umbrella, there are five really (really) broad categories we use to organize treatment strategies:

Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Therapy:

Makes the unconscious conscious, insight oriented. Emphasis on client-therapist relationship. Brief therapy model (20 session maximum) is not the rule, but is available for single-incident trauma like an attack, rape, catastrophic event, targeting a single life shift.

Examples of Psychodynamic Therapy: Jungian, Dream Work, Attachment-based

Often used for: Increasing self-compassion, improving self-concept, self-actualization, mood disorders, relational problems, trauma, developing insight to identify and manage internal conflict, shifting external locus of control to internal locus of control, couples, families,

*Psychoanalysis: Multiple times per week. The therapist is a blank slate onto which client projects their beliefs and experiences. Relies heavily on free association.

 

Behavior Therapy:

Focuses on conditioning new behavior. Uses brief therapy model.

Examples: Applied Behavioral Analysis, Aversion Therapy, System Desensitization

Often used for: Phobias, Addiction, Anger issues, Impulse control problems, self-injury

 

Cognitive Therapy:

Focuses on changing thought pattern. Uses brief therapy model.

Examples: Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Often used for: Phobias, Addiction, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Suicidal ideation, Anxiety disorders

 

Humanistic Therapy:

Focuses on cultivating personal accountability and reaching highest potential. Emphasis on free will. Uses both brief and long-term therapy models.  

Examples: Gestalt, Client-Centered, Transpersonal, Solution-Focused, Adlerian  

Often used for: Improving self-concept, self-actualization, improving communication with others, cultivating self-awareness, shifting external locus of control to internal locus of control, couples, families, existential crises  

 

Integrative or Holistic Therapy:

Often referred to as “Eclectic Therapy.” (Some practitioners will basically fight to the death in disagreement over whether or not Integrative is also Eclectic.) Uses various modalities depending on what is indicated for each client. One therapeutic modality combines various features of the previous four categories. Uses both brief and long-term therapy models.  

Examples: EMDR, Narrative, Cognitive Behavioral, Dialectical Behavior, Internal Family Systems, Gottman Method, Transactional Analysis

Often used for: All of the above

 

Some people prefer to see the same therapist for various issues they’d like to target while others seek out a different specialist to treat each issue. There’s no right way to do this, just whatever feels like it’s working for the client. Some clients come with an agenda and leave when their goals have been reached. Some stay for a while after because they like having a professional to talk to who’s all about them. Plenty of people try therapy and find it difficult to give themselves over to the process, take a more passive route to treatment, get frustrated and give up. Sometimes this is because traditional psychotherapy is not a good fit for them right now, maybe ever. There are so many other great therapeutic options. Traditional psychotherapy is not the only way to heal or feel better.

 

I know it’s overwhelming to look for a therapist and decide which kind of therapy would be best for you, especially when you’ve been dealing with a problem for years, and you’ve finally decided to take the plunge and ask for help.

 

If you describe the issue and a little bit about yourself, many of us will be able to direct you in the right direction. There are plenty of therapists who won’t do this because they are sure that they can handle it regardless of their training and orientation. While I would like to believe that this is mostly the exception rather than the rule, it happens. If you feel too overwhelmed or busy or exhausted to educate yourself on various therapeutic tools and modalities, remember that you can interview multiple therapists at a time to see who feels like the best fit for you. (You can also do this regardless of your stamina to self-educate.) Once you start seeing a therapist, you can audition us. If you’re not feelin’ it for some reason, you can switch. It’s ok not to like your therapist or to like them, but feel like they’re not actually helping you. Therapy is an investment, and you have the right to switch providers at any time for any reason. If you’re feeling like you need to discontinue treatment, I usually recommend addressing this with the therapist; sometimes it just takes a little direct communication to shift things. Even if you don’t plan on continuing your work with the therapist, honest feedback is good for both sides.

 

If you’d like to talk more about this, please email me or call and I would be happy to answer any questions. This is one of my favorite subjects!

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

If You Want to Be Heard, Start Listening

If You Want to Be Heard, Start Listening

A lot of couples seek therapy looking for help with their communication. They want to feel seen, heard, and understood. Pretty much all of us want to feel this.

 

Often, what ends up happening is a lot of talking and explaining and scrambling but not a lot of listening. We want to be heard before we hear. We want to be seen before we see. It becomes a rigid bartering system with the understanding that “If you listen to me and understand what I’m saying, I’ll listen to you and try to understand what you’re saying.”

 

And it’s understandable. When an intimate relationship is fraught with miscommunication and misunderstanding, there are wounds. There is pain. Most of us don’t know how to navigate our pain and the pain we’ve caused our loved ones. We are defensive when confronted and quick to point out what the other has done to hurt us. It’s hard to forge ahead together with this strategy.

 

If we’re unsure of how to navigate our hurt, we usually use anger as a secondary emotion. During an intense discussion or argument, we become angry enough that we forget we love the other person. Our stance becomes adversarial, and in a minute we say something deliberately hurtful. This kind of defense amplifies our communication problem and is a devastating hit to emotional intimacy.

 

In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to slow down. It goes against everything our nervous systems are telling us to try hear and see the other person’s experience. But if we want to deepen and maintain our bonds, we have to learn how.

 

When we’ve experienced trauma, hearing and seeing while regulating our emotions is especially hard. Fatigue, hunger, and loneliness also stack the odds against us.  There are a million reasons that contribute to the challenge of hearing and seeing. And there is one big reason to keep trying- increased peace and understanding within ourselves and our relationships.

 

To be proficient in inquiry of others’ experience, it’s helpful to start to with ourselves. It’s also helpful to start by being pretty basic about it. Initially, try it when you’re feeling relatively calm. Pause and see what you notice. What’s happening? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you notice in your body? Then, try it when you’re feeling slightly irritated. The more you practice it (or anything), the more available it will be to you when you need it. Eventually, you’ll try this when you are really struggling whether on your own or in relationship. If you’d like to talk more about this or have any questions, feel free to reach out.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Forget Self-Esteem

Forget Self-Esteem

The US went on a real self-esteem rampage starting in the mid to late ‘80s. How-To books were written for parents, leaders, educators, executives, and anyone else who wanted to know how to cultivate high self-esteem in themselves and others. After 30 years or so, we’ve seen the impact of this practice, and it hasn’t delivered what its supporters had hoped. As it turns out, the self-esteem movement helped people approach life with more entitlement and less personal accountability. I get the intention behind the self-esteem movement and support that intention, but based on what we now know about the human brain, the application was doomed from the start.

 

Self-esteem is about confidence in one’s abilities, feeling good about oneself. I might be the most confident about my driving skills but constantly get into fender benders, get pulled over for speeding, and be a general train wreck on the road. Someone else might believe that he is an ace baseball player and yet is consistently overlooked by even the least competitive teams. Anyone can have high self-esteem. It doesn’t mean they’ve earned it. It doesn’t even mean that it’s based in reality. This goes to show that someone might have great self-esteem and a poor self-concept.

 

Self-concept is how we view ourselves, the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and the feedback we get from our environment. We categorize ourselves, then interpret those categorizations.

Part of your self-concept might be that you handle failure well because you learn from it and use failure as a way to learn strategy and increase your drive to get what you want.

 

I’m not saying that plenty of us don’t have faulty self-concepts. Most of us have incommensurate negative or positive self-concepts somewhere in there. I’m saying it’s more skillful to assess self-concept as opposed to self-esteem because it’s not about how confident or insecure we are in our capabilities as it is about looking at the evidence.

 

In sixth grade, I struggled with math. I wasn’t crazy-struggling, but I wanted to enjoy the same confidence in the subject I saw my peers enjoying so, I came to my teacher for help. If she had been concerned about my self-esteem, she would have told me something like, “Oh, Natalie, you’re such a great student! You’re not struggling that badly. Besides, you’re great and look at all the other things you can do!” Luckily, she cared more about my long-term self-concept than my self-esteem and told me something like, “Ok, Natalie, if you want to be better at math let’s look at where your performance is weak. Here’s where you’re doing well and here’s where you need help. Let’s work on it.” (Thanks, Mrs. Roloffs. I owe you.)

 

So, if you’re struggling with insecurity, instead of working on raising your self-esteem, try looking at how you’ve structured your self-concept. You’ll find it’s a much more useful tool than glossing over your experience with an I’m-ok-you’re-ok message.

 

If you want to look more closely at your self-concept, be curious. What are your values? What do you believe about yourself? What is the evidence of how true or false those beliefs are? What are the stories you tell about yourself? How do they play out in your life?

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

What Does “Having It All” Mean?

What Does “Having It All” Mean?

For years, women have been told that we can or cannot have it all. We’ve been told what having it all means and either how we can get it or that it’s an unattainable myth. On the one hand, having it all means we’re worthy and successful. On another, wanting it all means we’re selfish and unrealistic. There are books, articles, workshops, and classes devoted to demystifying this subject.

Recently, though, there has been a directional shift. We’ve broached a new domain in the conversation and have started to ask ourselves and each other questions about the “having it all” mentality. Who decided what “having it all” means? On what cultural values does this mentality depend and do they align with our values? What narratives do we tell ourselves about what “having it all” looks like and do they work for us?

Having it all means choosing- choosing what it means to us to have it all, choosing our values, choosing how we think about our priorities, and choosing our own narrative. Choosing is not an easy task. For generations, we have had our choices and our consent removed from our view. The human rights movement has changed this and continues to bring our choice and consent into sight.

So, what does having it all mean to you? Does it mean being happily partnered, having children, working in a meaningful career? Does it mean being a stay-at-home parent? Does it mean working in a career that allows you to travel around the world eight months out of the year? Does it mean devoting your time to your career and volunteering? There are as many possibilities as there are people. It’s challenging to connect to a personalized definition of “having it all.” We’ve spent years reading from the scripts handed down to us and committing them to memory.

To me, “having it all” means connecting to my sense of purpose and my choices. It is not a fixed definition and it changes from year to year and throughout phases of my life. Sometimes having it all looks like a lot of intense work in my career. Sometimes it looks like more time spent in the domestic domain of my life.

To figure out what “having it all” means to you (and to see if you already do have it all but don’t realize it), try asking yourself these questions:

 

  • What feelings, thoughts, and images are evoked by the phrase “having it all?”
  • In what ways do I connect to those feelings, thoughts, and images? 
  • What are the values I was programmed to have and do they match my values now? 
  • What makes me valuable? Does that work for me? 
  • Do I believe that having it all makes me complete? Do I believe that not having it all makes me incomplete? How did I come to this conclusion? 
  • What are my priorities and how did they make the list? 
  • What are my capabilities? How do I know this? 
  • What beliefs, opinions, and narratives might I need to let go of to build the life I want? 
  • Can I see the choices available to me in how I think about things, how I respond to my feelings and situations, and how I identify and set my boundaries?

 

Life is full of struggle and things we want to change, but it’s also full of choices. It’s tough to recognize our choices when we’re feeling overwhelmed. If we haven’t been taught to identify and set our own boundaries, it’s even tougher. Self-awareness lends itself to the ability to identify our choices and boundaries. Identifying our choices and boundaries helps us connect to our sense of agency. When we are connected to our own agency, we can create our own meaning. We are free to define what it means to live a full life, have it all, and to do so wholeheartedly.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie                     

“I Love My Kid but Hate Parenthood.”

“I Love My Kid but Hate Parenthood.”

A while back, I wrote a post directed toward parents who regret parenthood. And I don’t just mean sometimes. I don’t mean that “Ugh, I hate this part,” feeling. I mean the whole thing, the conflict of loving their children but hating the entire process.

I’ve received a lot of feedback about it. Many people were grateful and expressed that they’d been feeling alone with their guilt and regret. Feelings are complicated, people are complex, and our culture is still learning how to accept and hold all of this. My message was that it’s ok to regret or hate parenthood, that it’s ok not to feel as though you were cut out to be a parent whether your kid is 3 months, 2 years old, 6, 10, 16, 22, or 27 years old. It seemed to resonate with a lot of people.

There’s a theory developed by Donald W. Winnicott called “The Good Enough Mother.” It was developed in the culture of the 1950s which is why it only refers to the mother. It’s more complicated than the title suggests, but basically, he tells us that parents should slowly titrate the soothing to their children’s frustration, that parents should slowly and methodically transition from immediately meeting a child’s needs to letting the child self-soothe and learn how to get their needs met. But that’s not all. Upon further study of his theory, we find that Winnicott talks about the dangers of chasing perfect parenting. He cautions that striving for perfect parenting does a real number on developing brains.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of parents, families, and children. I’ve seen parents who wanted children from the time they were children, parents who somehow found themselves suddenly parents, and parents who figured they’d want kids some day, so they had them. A significant amount of these parents realized that they didn’t like being parenthood. Not only was it different from what they’d envisioned; it turns out the whole thing (or much of the thing) felt completely contrary to everything they wanted.

These parents have struggled with regret, guilt over the regret, anger over what they feel they’ve missed, and angst over how this might impact their children. (Although, there have been some parents who swapped their angst and guilt for denial.)

These parents need to hear that they don’t have to love parenthood to love their kids.

There are a million reasons not to love parenthood- poverty, any and all of the –isms, trauma, lack of a support network, disliking our own children, resenting the responsibility and experiencing it as an unwanted burden.

If you are a parent who regrets or hates parenthood, you’re not alone. You deserve compassion and respect. I know it’s taboo to regret something society tells us is the pinnacle of love and value and meaning. If you would like therapeutic or referrals for adjunct support, please call or email me.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Know Your Demons

Know Your Demons

Have you ever watched a thriller about demon possession? Kind of off my usual beaten path, I know, but you’ll see where I’m going with this. I promise. Anyway, I like them sometimes. Every so often, I’ll check around for a good one to watch and see what piques my interest. I’ve found that sometimes I’m drawn to thrillers that make demonic possession of someone their central plot. (Which is surprising to me because I’m not usually interested in seeking out super dark stories about evil, especially when there’s more than enough of it to be found in the news). About once every three or four years, one of these dark plotlines pulls me in and I find myself watching an unsuspecting upstander begin the struggle of (and for) their life.

 

When I find a good possession thriller, I like almost everything about it. I like the journey the character takes from being ok (or pretty ok) to decompensating to being pretty possessed most of the time to being fully possessed all the time to finding progressive healing to being stronger and more conscious than when their story started. I like the tension over “will this character we’ve all come to love make it through this?” I like the research and deep inquiry that the other characters employ in an effort to find out more about the demon that is in possession of the victim.

 

What I am particularly drawn to, what I appreciate most is that there’s always ample time given to the journey taken by the characters in finding out the particular nature of the demon and its name. When the demon is called by name, its possession breaks. The demon always gives clues as to who they are, but they’re usually abstract and steeped in about a million layers of epic composition of poetry and require a doctorate in theology. At some point, to the rest of us, it pretty much seems like a lost cause. Just in the nick of time, someone puts all of the pieces together and discovers the name of the demon. Then we feel that surge of renewed hope.

 

What I’ve noticed is that, in all of the stories that I find most gripping, there are at least five commonalities:

 

  • There is a specific name of the demon, which when finally discovered and uttered face-to-face to the demon is the only defense against it.

 

  • The possessed or loved ones of the possessed enlist help.

 

  • The demon seems to have limitless ways of manifesting itself.

 

  • Someone, whether the possessed or loved ones of the possessed, experiences self-doubt, retreats, somehow finds the motivation to throw themselves into the metaphorical fire of terror and uncertainty, and contacts the demon for a head-on battle.

 

  • The demon never really goes away. It’s still there lurking around, but now the characters have more strength, courage, willingness, and awareness to deal with it.

 

I appreciate the symbolism because darned if that just isn’t that just how life is.

 

Whether it’s depression or anxiety or addiction or a particular pattern of behavior or thought pattern or chronic pain or the fear of fear or general dispiritedness, we all go through periods of life when we feel utterly possessed by pain and completely out of control. And many of us have found release through inquiry about the name of our experience or feeling and asking for help from loved ones, peer groups, and professionals.

 

Many of us have realized that our demons never completely go away, but that our relationship with them changes, and that with each bout with and experience of those demons, we learn to sit with whatever they bring. Through this long, uncomfortable process, we’re learning that our demons have many, many ways of manifesting themselves in our lives. We’re learning to coexist in a world where demons can’t be extinguished but instead faced with self-compassion, willingness, and courage. We’re learning to stop believing the bullshit they spew in an attempt to maintain their control over us. We’re becoming more connected with ourselves and with others, with life.

 

Keep on keepin’ on.

 

Love and Be Loved,

Natalie

Learning to Stay

Learning to Stay

As a species, we’re in for some challenges. Humans have both nervous systems and self-awareness, the awareness of change, loss, and of death. We are aware that situations change and it motivates us to hold onto the situations we like and try to force a shift in situations we don’t like. We’re aware of loss so; we go to great lengths in trying to avoid it. We’re aware of death and generally fear it so, we engage in all sorts of behaviors and thinking in an attempt to gain control over it. Since everything is temporary, all of our grasping and holding and forcing and avoiding is useless. There is no lasting way for us to ever really hold onto something or someone, force a shift, or avoid change, loss, or death. And this creates a pretty uneasy sense of being.

 

Look at some of your own fear-based beliefs for a second. What makes you nervous? What are you believing when you notice the nervousness? What do you dread? What are you believing when you notice the dread?

 

We have an extensive list of strategies that we employ to avoid feeling the discomfort of these beliefs, to avoid feeling our fear of life’s fluidity. We numb. We fight ourselves or others. We seek comfort in addiction.

 

Underneath all of this struggle is the fear that we are not ok.

 

In the mythology of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama’s final challenge before he reached enlightenment was doubt. Mara, the dark deity symbol of humanity’s shadow side, our challenging emotions, appeared to Siddhartha in the form many distractions some of which were fear, pain, and lust. Finally, Mara appeared to him as doubt. Siddhartha experienced the most difficulty and discomfort with this last challenge. Siddhartha put his hand to the ground and felt the earth, calling upon it to ground him and give him strength. He looked up at Mara and said, “I see you, Mara. Come, let’s have tea.”

 

I’m always struck by this story. I find it comforting that Siddhartha, someone who had practiced for years, received years of mentoring and training and support, someone who was so well-resourced still felt the challenge of Mara, of the hard-to-feel, painful human emotions. I also appreciate that working through his last challenge involved asking for help, that he didn’t try to do it alone. And to boot, he invited the damn thing to tea!!

 

Siddhartha didn’t gain freedom from Mara all at once. It took years of practice and training. Gradually, after reaching out for help and engaging his own presence, he extricated himself. He was free.

 

On this quest for our own freedom, we learn of at least two important resources available to us as suggested by the Buddha mythology: 1) to ask for help when dealing with a challenge and 2) to be present with our experience of our process.

 

It’s so hard to keep ourselves from being swept away by the runaway train of our limiting beliefs, beliefs about ourselves and others, about the nature of the world; our fears of unworthiness; our doubt of our own lovability. Sometimes we can see this train coming for us and we freeze, unable to fight it. Sometimes we don’t see it coming; we realize we’re on it and don’t know how it happened. Sometimes we try to outrun it or fight it. One way or another, it picks us up anyway. Most of us are familiar with this cycle. Most of us know exactly what it’s like to be caught in Mara’s grip and to feel utterly helpless.

 

Asking for help is hard enough. Sitting with the discomfort, bringing presence to it is even more challenging. It requires a willing attentiveness, a moment of pause, and gentle inquiry. The sheer thought of asking ourselves gentle, inquiring questions when we’re in the middle of some kind of freak out brings with it its own uncomfortable trials.

 

Something I’ve found helpful both personally and professionally is Byron Katie’s work. It is aptly named “The Work.” She gives us four questions to pose to ourselves when we are facing the underlying doubt of our ok-ness. In those moments, Katie recommends that we ask ourselves:

 

  1. Is it true? We know that the experience of the belief feels real, but is the belief true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? What is the indisputable evidence?
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? What happens for you? What is it like for you? What is the impact of this thought or belief on you? On others?
  4. Who would you be without the thought? Can you sense what life would be like, what you would be like if you no longer lived your life by this thought or belief?

 

These four questions get us off to a good start in dismantling maladaptive or limiting thoughts and beliefs, thoughts and beliefs that served us at one time in our lives, but that are now crippling us. If you find it difficult to ask yourself these questions, start with this one: Am I willing to pay attention to what this experience is like for me? We can’t always jump right in so, simply bringing the intention of presence if often a good place to start.

 

I recommend first trying these investigative questions with a shallow or midlevel fear-based belief. Since we are often floating around in the experience of these thoughts and beliefs, identified with them, bringing attention and presence can be really intense. Start slow. If you’d like to apply this approach to deeper fears and beliefs including trauma, I recommend doing so with the help and support of a therapist or healer.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

90 Second Eternity

90 Second Eternity

The natural lifespan for an emotion is 90 seconds. From the time the emotion is triggered until it passes through our nervous system, 90 seconds pass. Something special happens to turn those 90 seconds of emotion into a mood or a type of day- our thoughts. Most of us aren’t sad or angry or irritated or frustrated or anxious for 90 seconds until we feel better. No, we think some thoughts, feel unpleasant feelings, think some more thoughts, feel a few more unpleasant feelings. We’ll get our behavior involved and maybe yell at the car in front of us or brush hurriedly past someone. Then, we’ll think some more thoughts and feel some more feelings. This can last so much longer than 90 seconds.

 

You know how it goes. You wake up and realize you over slept. First thought of the day, “No!! Why?!!” As you grab your phone to shut off your alarm, you notice that people have already texted and emailed with questions and concerns about pressing issues. You walk the dog, but he takes his sweet time making any progress on his business. You start taking an inventory of all the things you have to do today, all the things that will need your attention until you can finally relax at home again. Your stomach tenses. A neighbor, retired, stops to say good morning and casually chat. You feel kind of bad for pulling your dog away from her and toward home. You take your dog back home and grab everything you’ll need for the day- almost. You forget your lunch. You run to the train stop relieved to see that it hasn’t come yet. You notice that there is an inordinate amount of people waiting at the stop. You can see on train stop display that the wait time is longer than usual. You’re pissed again. Eventually, your train comes, and it’s crowded beyond measure, but you manage to climb in and hang on. You’re glad that you’re moving in the right direction and allow yourself to think, “Maybe because it’s so crowded, the driver won’t make the usual stops, and I won’t actually be that late.” Thanks to the fact that neurons that fire together wire together, your brain is used to feeling anxious about getting to the next thing so, it fires off more thoughts about how much you have to do, how stressful it all is, and how infuriating it is that you are wedged in between what feels like the entire population of the city. You arrive to work, find that people are impatiently waiting for you. As you start to think, “At least I have my delicious lunch waiting for me at lunchtime,” until you remember that you left it sitting on the table in your haste to make the train.

 

Yikes. This morning sounds stressful. We’ve all had them. Sometimes we’re able to regroup and make the next half of the day better, other times we just don’t think we have it in us. We’ve all definitely blamed a bad mood, bad day, even a bad week on a morning like this. Together, the frustrating events and our thoughts created a perfect storm for continued feelings of unpleasantness. (And we all know that it doesn’t even necessarily take an event in tandem with thought to cause more uncomfortable feelings. We can do it all by ourselves armed with only our thoughts.)

 

The thing is, it’s pretty much always our thoughts that create the unpleasantness. Traffic jam got you upset? Thoughts. Colleague irritating you? Thoughts. Afraid you won’t get what you want at work? Thoughts. Resentful that your spouse hasn’t once thought to clean the baseboards? Thoughts. Tired and cranky and stressed and busy? Thoughts.

 

Don’t get me wrong, thinking is totally a part of the human experience, and there is no way to avoid it (unless we experience major cognitive decline). And I’m not saying thoughts are bad; they’re not. They can be really useful to us. It’s the meaning we make of them and the rumination that challenges us. We decide that an event means a certain thing so we think thoughts associated with that thing and they gain momentum. Ultimately, the fear is that we are not ok/will not be ok as a result of it.

 

When we experience and unpleasant feeling, think thoughts associated with it, fear is often at the heart of it; we are usually attuning to some kind of vulnerability of life.

 

We can’t and don’t need to avoid or thoughts, but we could learn how to guide them. We could learn how to use our thoughts instead of being used by our thoughts.

 

Some people are fine with this and don’t experience that much suffering with their thoughts, or they do, but they find purpose in their suffering. To those, people I say, great! Looks like you’ve figured out what works for you and you don’t need me to tell you anything. To everyone else, I feel you.

 

And some of you might say, “Whatever, dude, stuff is stressful!! I can’t just not be stressed. I’m not flakey enough. What, am I suddenly just not going to care about being on time, what my boss thinks of me, or if I’m doing life right?!” And the answer is… kind of. You can be less stressed though it certainly won’t happen suddenly. (And you will also see that you are doing life just fine, but we won’t get to that yet.)

 

When we care about how we feel, we are more deliberate with our thoughts. If we don’t care about how we feel, then we allow ourselves to fall down the rabbit hole of rumination or put our happiness in the hands of other people, places, and things. The trick is to remind ourselves that we care about how we feel. The other trick is to ask ourselves these questions:

 

1)Do I care about how I’m feeling?

2)What am I observing about my experience right now?

3)It’s hard to feel __________.

4)What can I do about the situation I’m in?

5)What can I do to make myself happier/more at peace/neutral (whatever feels doable for you) in this moment?

 

It’s natural to think about what we have next on the agenda, what we have yet to accomplish, the miles to go before we sleep. And feeling time-poor and responsibility-rich is challenging. I’m not saying that you have to get to a place of rapturous joy on that crowded train with your whole day in front of you, but maybe you can feel a little less dread and discomfort. You can feel a little more grounded.

Because we have nervous systems, we won’t always be able to respond like this. And that’s ok. It’s ok to be humans having human experiences.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie