I’ve experienced a lot of loss this year. Most of the loss has come as my own choice, which in some ways makes it even harder. I can’t even fall back on feelings of victimhood because I’ve brought all this loss upon myself, not because I’m a masochist, but because I’m being called to align with the integrity of my Inner Pilot Light in radical ways. It’s hard and scary and wildly uncomfortable. And it hurts. My heart feels heavy as big changes have uprooted me. I’ve had to really lean into my spiritual practice to stay grounded, avoid the downward spiral into fear, find peace with uncertainty, and allow loss to grow my soul, rather than shrink it.
Eckhart Tolle says that if you’re enlightened, there are three responses to what happens in life—acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm. In other words, even when you’re facing the worst life throws at you, peaceful acceptance can be your baseline. Clearly, I’m not enlightened, because today, a yard full of roots thrust me into despair. The house where I live just changed owners, and the new owner, very well intentioned I'm sure, just sent over gardeners who ripped up every plant in my entire yard, including my beloved rosemary and artichoke plants. I've experienced a great deal of loss this year, and I keep saying that all of my roots are getting pulled up so I'm free to flow to whatever is most aligned for me. But as I came home from dropping my daughter off at camp and looked at the piles of literal roots and the barren, vulnerable nakedness of my front yard, I burst into tears. It's all so . . . empty and ugly and dirty and lonely. I’m sure the new landscaping will be beautiful, but right now, I’m feeling a little tender. Not quite up to peaceful acceptance, much less enjoyment or enthusiasm.
I recently attended an event with a coach who challenged us to stop dreaming so much and start DOING something about our dreams. He likened our big dreams to an acorn that had the potential to become an oak tree, and in scenario after scenario, he gave us examples about how “law of attraction” based inaction could thwart the acorn’s potential to become the oak tree. Sure, we could visualize the acorn as an oak tree. We could affirm the oak tree’s potential. We could even adopt a gluten-free diet and drink more green juice, in hopes that our efforts will help the oak tree grow. But unless we plant the acorn in fertile soil, nurture it with water, sunlight, and patience, that acorn is never going to realize its potential.
To demonstrate his point, he challenged us to an unusual form of “meditation.” Instead of sitting still and trying to calm our thoughts, we were invited to lift our arms over our head and bring the mind into present time while scissoring our arms together until our arms and shoulders got so tired and sore that we were ready to scream. Then, when we were all in pain and yearning to quit, he pumped the music up louder and dared us to keep going. Giving us permission to modify our movement if needed, he pushed us to keep up the pace if at all possible, to grunt and growl and cheer each other on. By the end of the exercise, I’m sure many people felt a sense of accomplishment and patted themselves on the backs as an acknowledgment of their determination, commitment, and self-sacrifice in the face of pain. As I looked around the room, most people were grinning with the kind of relieved, endorphin-laden “We did it!” looks you see when people finish running marathons.
But that’s not how I felt. I may have been the only person in the room of pumped up people who felt…PISSED- not with the coach, but with myself.
No Pain, No Gain
Maybe it’s because I endured the pain of twenty years of self-sacrifice during medical school, residency, and my medical practice that I find myself resistant to anything that forces me to hurt myself, especially if it’s fueled by the kind of peer pressure you feel when a group is pushing each other to keep going, even when it hurts. After years of living by the “No pain, no gain” philosophy, these days, I’m much more inclined to feel attracted to Martha Beck’s mantra- “Play until it’s time to rest, then rest until it’s time to play.”
As research for my upcoming book The Fear Cure, I’m rereading Brené Brown’s ground-breaking book Daring Greatly. In it, she discusses the difference between how men and women experience shame. There's a lot of talk in our culture about how women have been oppressed by the patriarchy- and I'm not dismissing the validity of this conversation. But we spend less time talking about how women help perpetuate the shadow side of the patriarchy. The section in Brené's book about how women experience shame left me nodding my head. “Yup. Felt that. Done that. Seen that.” But the section about how women shame men left me gutted and feeling at risk of what Brené calls a “shame spiral.” As in, “Oh shit. I’ve left men feeling that way.” It inspired me to share what I read with you, in case you too are guilty of triggering shame in the men you love.
Apparently, according to the research, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not, under any circumstances, be perceived as weak.
The Shame Message
When Brené interviewed men of all ages about what shame messages they experience, one answer prevailed. “Don’t be a pussy.” She talks about how men are raised to hide behind a curtain of strength, like the great and powerful Wizard of Oz who turned out to be nothing more than a blustery old man. As women, we tend to keep them behind the curtain because we don’t want to witness their weaknesses.
Every relationship in your life is a sacred contract, and whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve made agreements with the people in your life, the ones who will be your greatest teachers. We often make these contracts without being mindful of what we’re agreeing to. For example, in my sacred contract with my husband, we made an unspoken deal. I had just gotten out of an abusive marriage, and what I needed from him was safety and the certainty that he’d never hurt me the way I had been hurt before. My hubby, on the other hand, had spent much of his life trying to please people he loves with achievements (the man has many graduate degrees and was about to get another one when I first met him.) I agreed to love him without expecting him to achieve anything. He agreed to keep me safe.
For ten years, that contract served us well. He held me safely in a cocoon so I could heal and embark upon the crazy wild journey I’ve been on for the past six years. In return, I did my best to hold up my end of the bargain. It’s worked well for us for a decade.
But contracts get stale. We evolve. Growth happens, and in time, most contracts need to be renegotiated. Lately, we’ve been doing just that in such a beautiful way and our relationship is all the richer because we’re willing to write a fresh contract aligned with our highest truth and the integrity of our love for each other and what our souls are now ready to learn together.
In fact, I’ve been renegotiating almost every sacred contract in my life since realizing that I had made agreements with many people that implied that they were supposed to read my mind, know what I desired and needed, and demonstrate their love to me by meeting my needs without me communicating what they are. In return, I was supposed to read their minds as well.
Needless to say, such agreements haven’t been going well. Turns out I suck as a mind-reader, and wouldn’t you know it, my loved ones aren’t so hot at reading mine. What ensues is unmet expectation and repetitive disappointment all around, which seriously sucks.
To expose our wounds to people we care about - the icky stuff, the ego stuff, the personal growth edges we're working on that we haven't yet mastered - is super vulnerable. Letting others see our "big ugly tails" (hat tip to my dear friend Amy Ahlers, who has seen my big ugly tail and trusted me enough to let me see hers) tends to trigger all our core fears of rejection and abandonment, of withdrawal of love. But to bear witness to someone's wound is a privilege and an opportunity to deepen the relationship beyond the idealistic views we might have of each other into the real truth of both our light and our shadows.
This doesn't mean it's anyone else's job to baby our "owies." But when we've exposed our vulnerable wounds to those we care about - and asked, but not expected them to tread gently around our wounds, we have a choice. We can poke needles into each other's wounds - because now we know them and dang it, it's their dark stuff to work on. Or we can choose to put salve on the wounds of those we love - not codependent salve that enables the wound, but more like a gentle touch with lavender oil to make something stinky smell a bit sweeter and to acknowledge the vulnerability and handle it gently.
Love Is Like A Jar Of Marbles
When we have been vulnerable enough to expose those wounds - and own them - and when we then ask those we love to be gentle with our wounds - and they choose to do so - it starts to feel like love. As Brené Brown writes about in her New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly, intimacy is like a jar of marbles. (I wrote about this analogy in more depth here).
The more we expose our vulnerabilities - and someone handles our sensitive spots gently, the more marbles we gather in the jar. Trust grows as the jar becomes more full of marbles. But when someone betrays that trust or chooses to stick needles in the wounds of our vulnerability, we lose marbles in the jar. If someone uses our vulnerability against us, we may feel like dumping out the whole jar of marbles. Over time, the strength of the relationship is based on how many marbles are in the jar.
(To listen in as Brené Brown and I dish on vulnerability and how it affects our health, sign up here to receive the recording of our FREE telejam.)