Elizabeth Gilbert is on Substack, and I follow her. Best known for her breakout novel, Eat, Pray, Love, she’s a journalist, speaker, and writer. Her Substack is called Letters From Love and more than ten thousand subscribe.
Letters From Love is the most uncomfortable Substack I read. I write that statement with wry humor. The premise is writing love letters to oneself.
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When I first came across it, I was equally horrified and attracted. I poked around, reading here and there, and realized quickly Elizabeth and I share certain experiences. I already knew this, because years ago I came across her brilliant piece on tribal shaming, which I immediately blogged about.
It takes one to know one.
When I found Gilbert on Substack I subscribed, so her newsletter comes regularly into my Inbox. Sometimes I ignore it for days, but sooner or later I open it and read. She posts love letters she’s written to herself. Publicly! She also has a podcast, does interviews, and posts love letters others have written to themselves.
I can’t help but notice my violent reactions. Me being me, I don’t choose to turn away and read something more comfortable. I have questions. What is my deal? I’ve been working for more than ten years on self-care and self-love, on reparenting myself and healing old trauma. Why am I not delighted with the idea of a practice of writing love letters to myself?
My first reaction is to crawl through the screen and beg her not to expose herself like this. Beg them all not to expose themselves. Don’t they understand how dangerous it is? Haven’t they learned that a display of this kind of vulnerability will attract destroyers with stones and blades and (worst of all), terrible, terrible words of contempt? Oh, and don’t forget lethal indifference.
(If you’re not paying attention, I’ve now told you everything you need to know about the way I grew up.)
Except clearly the sky is not falling. More than ten thousand people are reading Gilbert’s love letters, and she goes on writing and publishing. The discussions within her community are neither indifferent nor contemptuous. On the contrary, they’re supportive and tender.
Which leads me to conclude my red alert reaction is about me rather than the practice of writing love letters to oneself.
How can they do this? I wondered.
Could I do this?
No, no, no, not to publish! I reassured myself. Just for me. Like my journal. My eyes only. A delete key. No one ever needs to know.
But there was a problem. Elizabeth writes to herself with endearments. Creative, funny, quirky endearments, like “my glinting little piece of foil from a gum wrapper.”
OK, now that’s fun! Words are so much fun!
What kind of endearments would I address myself with?
I’ve had pet names for my kids and my animals. No one else, really. Certainly not myself. My tone with myself has mostly been the harsh, hectoring, contemptuous, cold voice I internalized from the adults around me as a child.
But, words … If I had a child just like the child I was, what endearments would make her giggle and feel loved and seen?
So I started a list of whimsical endearments. A very private list. So don’t ask! I was a little ashamed of myself, but no one else need ever know …
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The list was fun, because it was a creative exercise. I can do creative exercise. It occurred to me part of my resistance to love letters (either giving or receiving) has to do with my disbelief in words. (Ironic.) Words can say anything. People say anything. The proof is in action. The older I get, the less interested I am in words, and the less I believe them. Demonstrate. Act. Show me, don’t tell me. As I’ve worked to heal I’ve developed routines for self-care, for eating well, for exercise, for sleep, for writing. I’ve been successful, and take much better care of myself than I ever have before. I take better care of myself than anyone ever has before, in fact.
But I haven’t written love letters to myself. I would have told you I could do so, if I wanted to. If I thought they’d have value. If I thought I’d believe them …
I grew up with emotional withholding. I’ve believed I’ve broken that pattern with my own children and my loved ones, including my animals. But now I wonder. Isn’t demonstration of love with no words a little sterile? I know the mixed message of loving words and abusive actions is devastating. Is active demonstration of love without words also confusing? Am I withholding from myself? Obligation, responsibility, duty – all these I’m very good at. But those are stony words. Where is the tenderness, the humor, the generosity? How about compassion? I feel those for others. I’ve spoken them from the heart; written love poems, love letters, notes, and cards – for others. Could I learn to feel and express them for myself?
Then I got sick with COVID, the events of the last couple of years (traumatic, protracted move; my mother’s decline and death) caught up with me, and I felt miserable. At once, I began putting pressure on myself to get back to writing, get back to work, get back to exercise, take out the trash, do the shopping, and generally pull myself together, because, after all, the world is full of bleeding, suffering people and I have a good life, a privileged life, and don’t deserve to feel sorry for myself and be lazy.
Not a love letter, in other words.
In the middle of the week during which I sat on the couch, alternately shivering and burning and blowing my nose, I wrote myself a love letter.
Well, maybe a let’s-see-if-I-can-tolerate-you letter.
It was an extremely strange experience. In fact, it made me cry, which didn’t help my congestion. Or my cough. At the time I had no sense of taste or smell, and I reflected that it was like that. When I tried to turn toward myself with love, tenderness, affection, whatever you want to call it, there was nothing. Just … nothing. A thick, numb shell between me and myself.
It made me so sad. Immediately upon the heels of that, I was ashamed. Because, you know, self-pity.
Almost as bad as self-love.
Wait now, what?
It’s bad to love yourself … if you don’t deserve it.
And, readers, I thought I’d left that belief far behind in the dust.
Then I began to feel angry, and I told myself I was going to start practicing writing love letters to myself. Because I deserved and deserve love as much as anyone else. I’m not important enough to be the most loathsome person in the world.
How does the idea of this practice make you feel? Can you write a love letter to yourself? With endearments and everything?
If you could write a love letter to yourself, how would you feel about making it public?
What do you most need to hear from someone who loves you? Would it have power if you wrote it to yourself?
Leave a comment below!
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In this age of disinformation, misinformation, and connectivity, it’s ironic that some of the most emotionally intelligent among us are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Such people have a twisted mastery of emotional intelligence; enough to successfully manipulate and recruit others behind lies, postmodernism and ideology, but not enough to use constructively.
We are evolved to be emotional creatures, and the combination of our feelings and intellect is powerful, but we must maintain a balance of both. Feelings without the tempering effect of information will often lead us astray. Intellect without feelings abandons traits that make us human, such as intuition and compassion.
Belief is built on trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something, and once we establish a belief, we think of it as part of our identity. However, true identity is not defined by our beliefs, choices, style, or preferences. Those are merely toxic mimics for a healthy identity, which evolves, changes, and expands as we learn and grow.
When influencers encourage us to mistake our beliefs for our identities, they’re wielding a powerful social tool in order to glue together communities they can manipulate. Within such communities, to question or lose confidence in a belief results in severe social sanctions intended to stifle any such challenge. Influencers work hard to control and manage both our emotions and access to information that might threaten the belief they’re selling.
Fear of being outcast effectively disables our willingness to objectively examine the beliefs our community espouses.
If we are low in emotional intelligence, our lives don’t work well. Happiness eludes us. Relationships are problematic and frequently unhealthy. We’re ignorant of our needs and thus neglect them. We become estranged from ourselves (our true identities) and lose our flexibility and resilience. We take everything personally, and fiercely protect our beliefs, no matter how damaging and illogical they are.
We stop growing and learning. We murder our curiosity and become afraid to ask questions or seek new information.
Worst of all, we are blind to the emotional manipulations of others. An appeal to our desire to heal the planet, be kind and compassionate, be tolerant and generous, pushes us into enabling the agendas of others before we’ve thoroughly researched and explored those agendas. We react to the views and criticisms of others reflexively, fearful of appearing in a bad light.
We cannot identify our power and thus fail to protect it, making it easy for others to take it away.
Many well-meaning people are duped by predators who play on their fears and/or desire to make a positive contribution to the culture and conversation. If we identify as a good person, a peaceful person, we’re deeply distressed by the accusation that we’re hateful, and will accept any kind of ideological nonsense in order to maintain our social identity. We, in turn, pass on the pressure to others. If we must believe the moon is made of green cheese in order to be accepted, others must also believe it for us to accept them.
Our lack of emotional intelligence makes our current chaos of dis- and misinformation predictable. People interested in power and control have no problem lying, and our low emotional skills make us quite vulnerable to those lies, especially when they’re presented with high emotion.
We don’t have mastery of our emotions and thus become victims.
I’m reading a book titled Controlling People, by Patricia Evans. It’s an interesting look at why some people are so controlling of others. Here’s a quote I resonated with:
“What blinds people the most to controlling behavior is the belief that the person who consistently defines them truly loves them.”
We are so often manipulated by others because we believe they have something we need. Love. Wealth. A raise or promotion. Validation. Belonging. Something.
As long as we believe anyone has something we need, we’re open to manipulation. We’ve entered the ancient archetype of prostitution. We’ll make choices based on pleasing that person in order to earn what we need.
The minute we enter into that dynamic, we’ve become disempowered, and I assure you pleasing people never works. It always ends badly. Show me someone, no matter how beloved, who demands you please them in order to be rewarded, and I’ll show you a power predator incapable of love or being pleased.
Such people do not share power. Ever.
When you are no longer useful, you will be discarded.
Emotional intelligence empowers us to find an effective balance between feelings and information. It allows us to discard our pseudo selves and support a dynamic identity. It helps us discern the difference between someone seeking to control and disempower us with emotional appeals and someone committed to power-with and win-win, where disagreement and curiosity are not punished and we’re encouraged to think for ourselves.
This is my third post exploring happiness. The first and second posts are here and here.
We’ve defined happiness as a feeling of contentment and peace, which inadequately expresses its complexity. Positive psychology scientifically examines the human experience of peace and contentment more deeply, with surprising results.
In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., carefully differentiates between transient and enduring happiness. Transient happiness is what I call happy. It’s the joy I feel when dancing, swimming, sitting outside in the sun, or looking forward to something pleasurable. Enduring happiness, or our general level of happiness, is our baseline feeling of peace and contentment. Can we increase our enduring level of happiness, and if so, how?
Our genetics play a part in this, as I mentioned before, but circumstances do, too, and we have some power over our circumstances. It turns out there are three decades of research and data on external circumstances and how they affect our experience of happiness.
Now we are in territory heavily influenced by social politics and our consumer culture. Everyone knows more money and things make us happier. Anyone in doubt need only sit in front of a screen and absorb advertising for 30 minutes.
A cross-national survey of tens of thousands of adults does indicate life satisfaction and overall national purchasing power are closely correlated, but only to a certain numerical point. After that point, the correlation disappears. This means people in a comparatively wealthy country may generally have a higher overall experience of happiness than people in a country who live in life-threatening poverty, but there are many exceptions, and social scientists are not sure why. In addition, as purchasing power has increased in wealthy countries, life satisfaction has not.
It appears how important money is to us is a more powerful factor in our happiness than the amount of money we actually have. More materialistic people are less happy. In this, of course, we have power. If we rearrange our priorities and reduce the importance of money in our lives, perhaps we can intentionally increase our happiness.
Other factors that have been extensively studied as ingredients for happiness include marriage (or other long-term, committed bonds), education, social networks, health, age, biological sex, intelligence, and where we live.
As I think about happiness, I reflect on all the reasons I’ve heard people (including me) say they can’t achieve it. It’s interesting how we all make excuses for avoiding happiness. I wonder why that is. What are we up to? Are we afraid to be happy? Is the pain of “losing” happiness so terrible we reject the condition entirely?
Data invalidates many of our excuses. External circumstances such as moving to a sunnier climate or getting more education are not correlated with greater happiness. Race and biological sex are also neutral factors in happiness, as is intelligence.
It does appear living in a comparatively wealthy country; strong social networks, including a healthy primary relationship, as in marriage; and creating or participating in spiritual/faith practices are positive influences on happiness.
Interestingly, health is an influence much like money, in that how we feel about our health is more important than our objective health as a factor in happiness.
As I write this, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we are awaiting final results in the 2020 election and facing increasing COVID numbers. These external factors and the stress and anxiety I feel over them certainly seem barriers to anything like happy.
A couple of weeks ago I was part of a conversation in which someone asked me if I’d heard Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas were “cancelled.” He was angry, bitter, loud, and hostile. I exited the conversation after telling him quietly I hadn’t heard, but I’ve thought about it ever since.
Is happiness cancelled because of our current external circumstances?
Of course not. As many others have pointed out, family, love, tolerance, generosity, and the holiday season are not “cancelled.” Many of us will (or have) changed the way we approach these celebrations and expressions, but change doesn’t have to be an atomic bomb wiping out every tradition and good feeling, unless we make it so.
I, and I suspect many others, feel the fate of the world rests on the outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election. The endless political rhetoric certainly encourages us to believe that. When I really think about it, though, no matter who is in the White House we’ll still be a deeply and hatefully divided nation. We’ll still have a pandemic. We’ll still have climate change, broken healthcare and educational systems, and a faltering economy. We’ll still have to deal with immigration, racial injustice and violence.
The president, whoever he will be, will not have the power to destroy our individual happiness. He may be a fine scapegoat, along with a million other external circumstances, but in the end I believe our happiness is in our own hands and no one else’s.
I find this a particularly unpalatable realization right now. I spend a lot of time being a professional, being an adult, and striving to be positive and supportive with others, but deep inside I struggle with an ungodly mix of rage and despair. I have moments in which it’s all I can do to just walk away from the headlines, the ignorance, the selfishness, and the toxicity of others without screaming and tearing their throats out. I’m constantly fighting down tears. I feel unsafe, hypervigilant, and bone tired.
I know I’m not alone. I have the most superb self-control of anyone I know, so I will not relieve my feelings with public tantrums or assaults, but the feelings are there and these times are bringing them close to the surface for everyone.
To write about happiness or even think about it right now seems idiotic. Upon further reflection, though, I wonder if it isn’t the perfect time, after all. There’s so much going on that we can’t change; perhaps now it’s more important than ever before to pull our gaze away from those things and look at where we do have power. We have the power to intentionally choose happiness, even if only for a second. We have the power to choose between connection and division. We have the power to love, even in the midst of rage.
If I told you I’m happy this week it would be a lie. When the final votes are counted I won’t feel happy, either, no matter who wins. I’m hoping my sleep will be less broken and I can stop trying to crawl out of my skin with anxiety, but happy? No. Relieved would be good. Let’s aim for relieved.
But what if the truth is that happy is right here, sitting on my shoulder, or waiting patiently in the corner, and all I have to do is give it my attention and open my arms to it? What if I could feel happiness today? What if the most useful thing I could do for myself, for my loved ones, for the world, is choose happiness, no matter how fleeting?
As I sit in my attic space this afternoon, the wind roars in the bare trees. Last night it rained. This morning on the way to our weekly breakfast date at a neighborhood diner there were snowflakes in the air as we navigated the crumpled, buckling, pot-holed roads.
Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
I’m still listening to David Whyte, and he’s still inspiring me. Listening to him speak is similar to reading his poetry. Each repetition unfolds new layers and depths in my heart and mind.
Today I’ve been reading, sorting, paying bills, and taking care of the oddments we all accumulate on our work surfaces and in our technological tools while we’re out in the world working or doing other things.
Outside the wind rocks the trees, which are just beginning to swell with buds, and David Whyte talks to me of friendship with life, with others and with ourselves. He suggests healthy relationships are a continuous contest of necessary generosity in which we develop a discipline of forgiveness and allowing others to forgive us.
It occurs to me the more I forgive myself, the less I need the forgiveness of others. If I love my choices and decisions, I don’t need anyone else to do so.
Do we need forgiveness for who we are? Sometimes we need forgiveness for the boneheaded choices we make, but do we need forgiveness for who we are?
It seems to me the only reasonable answer is no, yet I’ve spent my life apologizing (and in latter years trying not to apologize) for who I am, what I need, and what works and doesn’t work for me in my life.
I have a friend who frequently apologizes for the way she expresses herself and interacts. I understand. We have that self-judgement in common. When she apologizes anxiously for something she said or wrote, or didn’t say or write, I smile to myself. It sounds like she’s apologizing for who she is, but I love her because she is who she is. I have more space for her than she does for herself.
Photo by Jenelle Ball on Unsplash
She has more space for me than I do for myself as well. I hope, with time, our friendship will help us both be less critical of ourselves.
I’m great at giving other people space to be who they are. It’s always been one of my strengths in relationship.
I’m so good at it, in fact, several people with whom I’ve been closely connected quickly took it for granted I would accommodate whatever they needed and/or wanted. Rather than a contest of generosity, such a relationship becomes an endless exercise in trying to please (on my part) and demand (on the part of the other).
The bad news is the only way I can see out of this loop is to learn to say no and enforce boundaries, two things guaranteed to send any person who expects to control my behavior and choices into meltdown.
I hate scenes.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Naturally, my history of allowing others to take control in any given situation positioned me to attract into my life people who insisted their own needs and desires trumped mine. They had no interest in the thoughts and feelings behind the choices I made and did everything they could to manipulate my compliance with their expectations.
The wind blows because that’s its nature. Does it ask forgiveness from the trees? As I gaze out the window, looking for nothing and trying to see everything, I glimpse the possibility of living in such a way that I give myself the space I’ve always given others. Wind blows. Water flows. Mice nibble holes in cushions. Woodchucks dig up the Echinacea roots and eat them. None of it is personal. All act according to their nature, and there’s a kind of inexorable beauty about that.
I want to be beautiful like that.
Yet I have often sought to limit and even hurt myself. The twin disciplines of self-forgiveness and giving myself space have been exceedingly difficult to undertake and maintain, especially in the context of relationships with loved ones. My generosity has been for others, not for myself.
When people come into our lives and force us to make a choice between their expectations and our needs, they’re playing to win at any price, and the only way for them to win is for us to lose.
Not a contest of generosity, but a competition for power.
I have no interest in playing power games, and even less interest in “winning,” particularly if it means someone else has to lose. I’ve never been competitive. On the other hand, I’m finally committed to extending generosity to myself, and I love the gentle persistence in David Whyte’s language: “a continuous contest of generosity.”
Can I enjoy my own thoughts, feelings and expressions as generously as I enjoy the boisterous spring wind, or my friend? Can I honor myself even when people around me tell me I’m bad and wrong? I fought as hard as I could to protect my children and give them a good start. Now, can I surround myself with that same fierce loyalty and generous love? Will I?
Once I lived with an avid outdoorsman who fished and hunted. He frequently spent his weekends camping during spring, summer and fall. I knew how much pleasure he took in this time away from the rest of his life, and always saw him off with some variation of “Have a great time.”
It never failed to make him mad.
He said it “put pressure” on him when people wished him well.
I felt both dumbfounded and amused by his attitude. I couldn’t imagine feeling insulted because someone who loves you wishes you a great time.
I’ve been remembering that man this week because I’ve been thinking about giving and receiving blessings.
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Traditionally a blessing was an important social exchange. If one was lucky enough to meet an incognito god or goddess on the flanks of Mount Olympus or in some other lonely place and received their blessing, they were broken open to receive it fully, their deepest and most private hopes, fears and pain exposed. It took courage, strength and humility to receive such a gift.
The poet David Whyte suggests we must make ourselves large for the exchange of blessings. To give such a favor is an act of generosity. To receive it is an act of growth. In the last several days I’ve thought a lot about making oneself big enough for blessings. I’ve remembered specific words and ways in which I’ve blessed others, including the simple blessing of my love.
Sometimes I’ve felt the love I gave another in words and actions was recognized, appreciated and fully received. Other times I have not, and I’ve always made that about me. My love was unwelcome and had no value. Now I wonder, though. Perhaps it wasn’t me at all. Perhaps they were not big enough in that moment to accept my blessing.
That thought leads me inexorably to wondering how many times I have not been big enough to receive a blessing from someone else. I’m forced to admit there have been plenty of times; probably many more than I’m aware of.
Am I big enough to be loved hugely, or receive a large sum of money or have my creative hopes realized?
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I’m not sure I am. I’m big enough to be loved moderately, but hugely? No, that feels like too much. I can feel myself tensing, rounding, drawing my knees up and wrapping my arms around my body as I imagine someone trying to give me huge love. I’m not worth that. I’ll be sure to disappoint. They’ve mistaken me for someone else.
I’m too small for such abundance. I choose to be too small. I’m afraid to stand up straight, open my arms and heart wide, and accept huge love. I choose to limit what comes in. I’m afraid of the pain of being broken open. I can make myself bigger in spite of my fear, but I usually don’t in order to accommodate a blessing.
Therefore, I impoverish myself. I have people around me who love me. Perhaps they love me as deeply as I love, and they long for me to receive it as I long for my love to be received, but my own inability to be large enough to allow their blessing into my life makes the energy of their love impotent and weakens our connection. My fear and choice to be small, hard and rigid, like a rolled-up porcupine, not only limit me; they limit others as well.
My most frequent prayer on behalf of others is that they might experience the greatest good. I use that specific language because I know I don’t know what the greatest good is for any of us. Sometimes what we want the most in life is not in our best interests. Sometimes the hardest experiences are the most useful to us. Sometimes what we long for is what we most need. I don’t know. I’m not big enough to know. I can’t see far enough down the road to judge the value in any experience. All I can say, along with everyone else, is what feels pleasant and what feels uncomfortable to me in the moment.
Oxford online dictionary defines blessing as “a beneficial thing for which one is grateful; something that brings well-being; a person’s sanction or support.” We all can make a list of crises in our lives that later turned out to be blessings in disguise. Maybe it’s all a blessing – each breath, each heartbeat, each tear, each drop of blood and sweat, each moment, each life and death. Gratitude is a practice encompassing all our experience.
Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash
To receive a blessing is to allow an expression of support, affection and maybe even love touch us. It’s an act of trust in the intention of the one who blesses us, as well as faith in our own worth. We need one another in this life, and healthy reciprocity makes connections stronger. It’s not enough to be the strong one who maintains safety by extending love and support while accepting none; we must also be willing to be down and out, to be lost and confused, and to receive help and encouragement in our turn.
Last weekend two friends and my partner helped me empty out my flooded storage unit, chip ice, sweep water, put down pallets (transported in my friends’ truck), and put everything back again. We were ankle-deep in mud, slipped and slid on ice and splashed around in water as we worked. It needed to be done and I wanted to do it. I know I needed help. Yet from the beginning I was blocking the support and caring around me. I fussed about my friends using their Saturday to undertake such a messy job. I felt bad about using their truck. I was worried somebody would hurt their back heaving my wet mattress and box springs around. At the same time, I was deeply touched and uncomfortable because I could feel their caring and concern and I didn’t know how to take it gracefully. I wanted to be big enough to accept friendship and love from these dear ones, but it was really hard. I know, however, I’m not good at receiving and I want to be better. I also know, had our positions been reversed, I would have greatly enjoyed helping out a friend on a windy spring Saturday morning.
I endured my discomfort. Now that it’s done, what I will remember is not what was damaged and lost, or even the mess. What I’ll remember is the four of us tackled a necessary job, worked together and had a good time doing it.
Photo by Juan Pablo Rodriguez on Unsplash
It was a blessing. I stretched as wide as I could to receive it.
I need more practice.
When I tell someone I love them, or wish them a great day, or the greatest good, I mean it. It’s not just words. My heart is in it. When I light a candle and reach out with all I am to a loved one who is far away, I’m offering the best I am as a blessing, a candle in dark times, a comfort in distress. I want the gift of my love and support to be received and used.
Probably the best place to start is to learn to receive with more grace myself, to expand, and to humbly accept whatever blessings come my way, whether plainly visible or in disguise.
Have a great day, readers. Greatest good to you. Blessings.