I found a brief offering in my Inbox from Seth Godin recently about bitterness being a wall we can lean against. The image caught my imagination. Since then, I’ve been thinking about walls … boundaries … supports … prisons … and the desperate, destructive choices we make to survive.
By Marc Pell on Unsplash
Walls. On the one hand, I like walls. I invariably position myself with my back against a wall when I’m in crowds or unfamiliar places. Nothing malignant can sneak up on me from behind. All my hypervigilance can go into watching my sides and front. I feel safe(er).
A corner is even better. Now two sides are covered.
A third wall, as in a blind alley or cul-de-sac, begins to feel more like a trap than a place of protection. What if I want to run away? I’m blocked on three sides.
A fourth wall? Now I’m in prison.
The thing about walls is they may keep danger out, but they keep everything else out, too. The good stuff. Love. Sunshine. Wandering children and butterflies. Inviting paths and trails. Possibility. Exploration. Views. Perspective. Wonderful surprises.
Walls, like everything else in life, can be taken too far. Built too wide and thick. Impenetrable. Too high to climb.
Shelter or dungeon?
What about metaphorical walls? What do we lean against because it’s familiar and we believe it keeps us safe from failure, from disappointment, from heartbreak?
Bitterness, certainly. We’ve risked. We’ve been vulnerable. It ended badly. We feel angry, disappointed, resentful. Never again, we tell ourselves. Things don’t work out for us. The world is against us. People suck. Life sucks. It’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. We’ve found a wall to lean on, a wall protecting us from trying again, risking again, feeling unpleasant feelings again.
By Hector J Rivas on Unsplash
But the wall is made of unpleasant feelings, isn’t it? Bitterness is the result of unresolved unpleasant feelings. So it’s really not protection. It’s reinforcement. It’s the thing closest to us pulling our focus from happier thoughts and feelings. It’s a constant negative reminder. It locks us in place with it, and it blocks any kind of relief.
As I’ve lived my life the last couple of weeks, interacting with and observing others, listening to the inside of my own head, I’ve made a list of walls we lean against:
Victimhood (closely allied with bitterness.)
Blame (oooh, this is a juicy one. “It’s not my fault. I have no responsibility, and therefore no power.”)
Denial (leaning on the wall, eyes squinched shut: “No, I won’t believe that! No, it’s not true! No, it’s not happening! It’s too scary! I’ll only accept what makes me feel good and in control!”)
Chronic health problems (“I would _________, but I can’t because I’m sick.” Sigh. Moan. Groan. Someone once said to me, “I don’t know what I’d do without my pain!” as though pain was her lover.)
Lack of money (“I can’t be happy. I can’t have/do what I want. I can’t experience abundance. I have no power.”)
Perfectionism (a personal favorite. “I would, but I’m afraid to because I won’t do it perfectly! So, no point in trying. I’m imperfect and therefore can contribute nothing of value, not even myself. Expect nothing from me. ‘Cause I’m so imperfect.”)
I don’t suggest we’re never victims, never have health problems, never experience financial scarcity. I don’t minimize the challenges of perfectionism or fear or the seduction of blame. However, constructing a wall out of such experiences and feelings and deciding to spend the rest of our lives leaning against it seems like a dubious choice. It may feel like it props us up and allows us to survive, but is survival the best we can hope for? Is leaning against a wall to stay on our feet the best we can do?
By Christina Botelho on Unsplash
Can a wall made of bitterness stand by itself? If we choose to step away from it, support ourselves, will the wall crumble? I wonder. What if the wall needs our support more than we need its support? It takes a lot of energy to maintain a wall.
What would happen if we just fell down instead of constructing walls to lean against? Better yet, what if we choose to lie down now and then, take a break, look at the sky, feel the world on our skin and beneath us? What if, when we feel hurt or despairing or sick or broken, we lay still and whispered, “Help!” and rested and waited for something or someone to come along and give us a hand back to our feet? If we’re not leaning (cowering) against walls, we’re in full view. Life can find us. Friends can find us. Help can find us. Hope, inspiration, and comfort can find us.
Walls can be useful. But they can also imprison us. They can be strong and organic and lovely, as in healthy boundaries. They can be poorly built and inadequate, too. Or just old and tired. Crumbling. Falling down. Gnawed away by Time’s tooth.
I ask myself, with all the world before me, why do I choose to lean against walls that separate me from it? Is that what I mean by safety?
What walls do you lean against?
Do you think of a wall as protection or prison?
How have your walls let you down?
Leave a comment below!
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One of my favorite minimalist bloggers gave me something to think about last weekend with this piece. In it, she proposes we work on doing things real rather than doing them right.
As a reforming perfectionist, she got my attention. When I imagined approaching my life with the ultimate goal of authenticity, the relief was stunning. On the heels of the relief, though, I felt appalled.
How can doing things real ever be good enough?
As I’ve thought about this the last couple of days, I’ve realized this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Maybe the most effective goal in most cases is to be authentic and do things right, whatever that means. Surely balance between the two is possible?
The difficulty lies in defining the word “right.” Who decides what’s right? How do I know when I’ve done things “right?”
I hate the answer. The answer is I know I’ve done things right if people are pleased. Back on that cursed slippery slope!
A dear married friend said to me recently, “My life would look very different if I was on my own.” My friend’s honesty and the quiet sadness with which the words were spoken touched me to the heart.
How do we recognize ourselves, our real selves, in the confusion of our lives and relationships? How do we balance authenticity and cooperation? How do we mitigate the damage to our connections when we choose to be right (what the other wants) rather than real for the sake of those same connections?
It hurts me to ask these questions. I can’t begin to answer them.
I admire authenticity when it doesn’t trample over the needs of others, but what about when it does? What about people who appear to have no regard for those around them, who are unwilling to hold space for any authenticity but their own?
I don’t want to be one of those people.
Doing it right, which is to say making choices based on what others view as appropriate, seems at first glance to be an excellent way to stay safe. The truth is, such a practice tears one apart in very short order, because there are too many onlookers and we can’t please every one of them.
Here’s an example. When I’m teaching a private swim lesson, do I work effectively and appropriately with the student; please the onlooking parent or adult (in the case of a child); please my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom are very fine teachers and at least one of whom watches from the lifeguard stand; please other staff, patients and patrons who might be present; or do I forget everything but the connection between the student and myself for those 30 minutes in the pool and just be real and please myself?
Teaching, for me, is like swimming or writing or dancing. It’s a place where I don’t try to do it right. I do it real. Real is a long way from perfect. Right seems closer to perfect than real. Real is intuitive, experimental, frequently messy, uninhibited. When I choose to be real, I choose joy. I try not to think about what that looks like to others. I try not to care. I rest in it and feed myself with it and feel fully present and alive when I’m being real.
But then, so often, out of nothing and nowhere, comes the message:
“You didn’t do that right.”
No. Of course not. I almost never do. But I did it real, and for a few minutes I was happy there.
This is not about an inability to accept feedback or instruction. People close to me will tell you I frequently ask for feedback, for someone to teach me a new skill, for someone to help me improve. Feedback is not the same as being told I’m doing it wrong. I’m always interested in doing it better.
What’s curious about right vs. real is so often I run into this with trivial things, things like ironing, or washing dishes, or opening a can. They way I organize my stuff. The way I store my clothes. The way I live in my space. As I live my life, when someone tells me I keep the broom in the wrong place, what I hear is I’m wrong. I’m broken. I’m Failing To Please (again. Yawn.) Why can’t I store the broom in the right place?
Usually, I acquiesce. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the relationship. Because it doesn’t really matter, after all. I can be flexible and adaptive.
The difficulty is living inauthentically is an unbelievable amount of work. Everything is effortful, because I don’t do anything naturally. I repress my authentic impulses and desires. I feel numb, apathetic, and cut off from myself.
It’s entirely disempowering.
But it keeps things peaceful. It pleases others. It’s cooperative. I comfort myself with the fact that my willingness to do it right (according to them) makes others happy.
I don’t believe my realness will ever make anyone happy, except me.
I’m willing to hope for a balance, though. I have no idea how to find it, or even if I can find it. Maybe my real is too wrong to ever balance out?
I’d love to be one of those serene, appropriately disciplined (as opposed to compulsive or utterly feckless) people who achieve an effective, useful, consistent morning routine.
Even during what I think of as “normal” times when my life was structured predictably by work and other obligations and activities, my morning schedule varied. Now, during weeks of unstructured time, I’m realizing how important it is for me to take responsibility for creating the shape of my life, rather than passively allowing work and other extrinsic forces to do it for me.
On the other hand, spontaneity is good, right? Going with the flow? Following my bliss?
I’m better at routine than I am at spontaneity. I’m better at working than relaxing. I get an A+ in productivity and a D at simply being.
I watch people who spend hours a day in front of a screen, reading, or otherwise appearing to do nothing but laze around with a mixture of envy, fury and contempt. How can they do that? I wish I could do that and still live with myself. I hate myself if I reach the end of the day with nothing to show for it. (Show who?) The shame and guilt of just being and not doing is annihilating.
Doing is also my favorite remedy for anxiety, and that’s when the dark tentacles of compulsivity wrap around my ankles and start crawling up my body.
I’ve written before about my tendency to speed, back in the old days before coronavirus. My life was familiar to me then. I knew how to use my time and energy. I felt effective without being compulsive. I thought I’d defeated my old self-destructive patterns. I felt balanced and healthy most of the time.
Then I discovered, to my chagrin, I was still speeding unconsciously in some parts of my life. It troubled me, and I resolved to bring that behavior into consciousness and change it, which is why I wrote about it. I discovered a great way to pull the plug on unconscious speeding is to develop a practice of sitting in silence daily.
I’m avoiding using the term “meditation” because it’s so loaded, for me at least. I’ve no interest in a guru, a chant or a sacred sound. I don’t have a special cushion or adopt a particular position. That’s all just in my way. What does work for me is sitting comfortably with my eyes closed, concentrating on the natural flow of my breathing. The world doesn’t have to be quiet. The room doesn’t need to be light or dark or smell of incense. I don’t need a special timer. The only thing required is the most difficult, boring part: Stop. Sit my ass down. Breathe.
I call this my Be Still Now time, and I’m annoyed by how powerful it is. I’m annoyed because it can’t be right that sitting, doing nothing but being, is more powerful and peaceful than doing and doing and doing. Everyone knows how important it is to be productive!
The problem with all this pressure to do is that sometimes I can’t stop. It’s a hard thing to explain to anyone who’s not compulsive.
I start out feeling focused, energetic and excited about a project or task, looking forward to the satisfaction of completing it and looking back on a day in which I didn’t “waste” time. I begin working. I think about the task in front of me, but my mind also wanders as I work, sometimes into dark, fearful places. Pretty soon I’m working a little harder, a little faster, trying not to feel uncomfortable feelings, trying not to remember, trying not to worry.
Time ceases to exist, but vaguely, through my mental and emotional chaos, I realize I’m tired. I’m overheated and my shirt is sticking to my back. I’m filthy. The bugs are feasting on me. I’m thirsty. I feel all those things, but they’re not nearly as important as the noise in my head and my momentum. Doing the project or task (as perfectly as possible) becomes far more important than my state of being. I’m no longer in control of my day or my activity. I’m not pacing myself. I don’t give a damn about taking care of myself. I’m not having fun or feeling satisfied, and I don’t care about finishing. In fact, I hope I never finish. I want to go on and on until I’m beyond thought or feeling. If I stop, something just behind me, hard on my heels, will tear me to pieces.
I absolutely know if I work hard enough and long enough I’ll find peace, my uncomfortable feelings will resolve, and I’ll be safe and happy and able to rest.
In that state of mind, just stopping is unthinkable. The very suggestion makes me want to tear out someone’s throat. Part of me realizes I’m out of control, speeding again, and it’s dangerous and self-destructive, but I feel unable to make a different choice.
I do, of course, eventually stop. I tell myself I was productive and did good work. I search for that feeling of gratification over a hard job well done, but I can’t find it. I feel more like I’ve been beaten up than anything else. I’m physically exhausted but my thoughts and feelings are churning and I’m pacing the floor, trying to crawl out of my skin, searching desperately for another project to throw myself into.
I’ve acted out this pattern my whole life, and until very recently it didn’t stop until I got sick or physical pain disabled me. I rarely get sick now, and I no longer have physical pain, thanks to my diet. I’ve gotten much better at using my support system and dealing with my feelings more appropriately. Still, the right kind of stressors over a long period of time, combined with not paying close attention to how I’m doing, reactivates my compulsivity.
The best way to pay attention to how I’m doing is to sit for a few minutes every day and just breathe. I’m not sure how, or why, but I’m quite sure it helps. The funny thing is, I don’t inquire within during that time, I just watch thoughts rise in my mind and let them go. Now and then I get a creative inspiration, which I jot down before going back to breathing. I’m not trying to process feelings or figure anything out. I’m not, in fact, doing or producing anything. I’m just sitting and breathing, and it’s so quiet!
I realize, in that timeless space, peace and safety, both of which I’ve searched for my whole life, are fully present and always have been. I can’t chase them down or earn them. They’re not elsewhere. We have not become separated or severed. I am not lost. Neither peace nor safety can be found in compulsive doing. All I need to do is be still, be quiet, for just a few minutes, and they are there.
I’d love to say I’ll Be Still Now every morning for the rest of my life and never be compulsive again, but it’s probably not true. I’ll get distracted, or bored, or lazy. My routine will change. I’ll make something else more important than my sit time. I’ll self-sabotage in all the ways we do self-sabotage. Fortunately, life will continue to be challenging and provide plenty of things to feel anxious and fearful about, and I will continue to work for growth and health, which means I’ll hold myself accountable and return home, to that quiet daily space in which compulsivity cannot live or take root and peace can find me.
Be. Still. Now.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.
Tarot cards appeared in the fourteenth century, when they were used primarily for play. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the cards began to be used for cartomancy. Tarot cards are archetypal (they illustrate recurrent symbols), and countless modern decks are available, some of which are beautiful works of art.
When I work with the Tarot, I use a common classic 10-card spread called the Celtic cross. One of the richest and most enigmatic parts of the Celtic cross spread are the seventh and eighth cards, representing the querent as he/she sees him/herself and the querent as others see him/her.
I’ve learned, after decades of working with the cards, to pay close attention to what lands in those two places. If the cards have similarities, I know I’m living with reasonable authenticity. I’m staying grounded in who I am, and I’m showing up in the world and in my relationships honestly. I have a sense of being at home, of belonging in my own life. My connections feel solid and healthy.
If the cards are wildly opposing, however, I think carefully about what’s going on. In emotional intelligence coaching, this gap is key. Whatever is hidden between our own authentic experience and how others see us can be excavated, examined, healed, released, and/or renewed. The most effective coaches coach to the gaps.
In psychology, this idea is expressed with the Johari window, a model used to illustrate the relationship between ourselves and others.
What’s in that square of the Johari window that nobody knows, not us, and not others? What lies in the cleft between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us? What possibility or potential sleeps or hibernates there, waiting to wake up or be discovered? What insight and information are we missing as we look at others and ourselves?
Here are some possibilities:
We have crafted a highly-polished and highly-defended pseudo self and our authenticity is buried underneath it.
We are keeping too many secrets out of shame or fear; our authenticity is blocked. We are trying to stay safe.
We are low in our ability to emotionally express ourselves.
We have no idea who we really are; we accept the expectations of others about what we should or must be and try to fit those definitions.
Our closest connections are not healthy; those around us are employing abusive tactics like gaslighting, projection, smear campaigns and chronic blaming. We know who we are, but we’re overwhelmed by what they say about who we are. We’re in the wrong place, connected to the wrong people.
We ourselves are a Cluster B disordered person; we are unable to have insight into why we do what we do or the ways our behavior and choices affect those around us. We think of ourselves as victims and blame others.
We are too fearful to explore ourselves or others or ask or answer questions.
It doesn’t matter if we approach these kinds of questions via a mystical route or a more science-based path, to be human is to ponder about who we are and what we are for; to strive to make meaning out of our lives and experience.
We believe we know what we know, and we spend a lot of time defending that knowledge. We’re much less comfortable with what we don’t know, and some people refuse to explore that terrain at all.
For me, however, that uncharted territory, both within and without, is where all the good stuff is. The cracks and crevices, the blind and blank spots, are filled with the possibility and potential of insight and clarity. Healing is there, though it may come about through cautery or amputation. Growth is there, though it might mean our bones ache and we must alter our lives to accommodate that growth.
As humans, we are social, and we need others in order to survive and thrive. When I consider the rift between how I see myself and how others see me, I remember the power we each have in the lives around us, and the power those around us have on us. We can’t change other people, or save them (especially from themselves), but we can and do have influence on others. When we believe in the good things in others, we are making a difference. When we choose to manipulate or tear down others, we are making another kind of difference. This is the line between friends and frenemies.
It makes me squirm to understand the people around me know things about me I’m blind to, and see me in ways I can never access. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Yet the same is true for everyone. If my friends feel the same kind of affection and willingness to allow me to be who I am that I feel for them, I’m both humbled and grateful, but I’m still squirming — just a little!
I learned long ago the people I want to be closely connected to are willing to live with some degree of authenticity. My best friends have been those who told me the truth; the ones who let me know when I’m off the rails, or otherwise acting like an idiot. If we can’t tolerate feedback from others, we lose a quarter of the Johari window; a quarter of our available experience, potential, strength and growth.
Likewise, if we are unable or unwilling to give honest feedback to others, they lose a quarter of their Johari Window.
It’s only in the tension of connection we become greater than the sum of our parts, greater than we could ever be on our own. The powerful friction and shaping that occurs in relationships forces us to explore, discover, question, learn, unlearn, adapt and adjust more than we would ever do in isolation.
In the last 24 hours I’ve had an Aha! moment representing one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life.
I’ve always defined myself as a failure. This morning, before 7:00 a.m., I became a success. Just like that, in one blinding moment of epiphany. I lay there giggling to myself like an idiot. I’ve been doing that all day, in fact.
Standing in the shower, I had another staggering revelation. I suddenly realized when and why I created the identity of being a failure in the first place. It happened when I was very young, before I had the language or ability to understand or explain what I was up to. All I had at that age was my heart, intuition and empathy.
We had a troubled family system. Bad and scary things happened that I could not understand. My childish reasoning was failing to please was Bad. Pleasing was Good. If I chose failing to please, if I flaunted it, if I accepted it, I would be Bad and others could be Good, and therefore loved and safe.
Of course, I didn’t think of it in any kind of logical or adult sense. What I did have, however, was a great ability to love that even then was unconditional, deep and tender. I loved, do you understand? Only that. Just love and the willingness to do whatever it took to protect my loved ones.
In those dim years of childhood I embraced being a failure and forged the bars that were to keep me in that prison for 50 years. Failing to please was Bad and terribly painful, but I was comforted by the abilities of others to please and therefore be loved. I believed becoming a lightning rod for displeasure shielded them.
As an adult, I had two children of my own and made exactly the same choice. I endeavored to shield and protect them from physical and psychological harm, no matter what it took. They could not understand, and I could not explain my choices to onlookers because I was protecting so many different people on different levels. I could not tell the truth. There was too much at risk and the truth was too damaging to all of us. I was afraid of the repercussions on those I was trying to shield.
My sense of failure was reinforced at every turn. I was told in words how disappointing and inadequate I was, but far more powerfully, I understood it from nonverbal communication and from the choices of those around me. Once again, I comforted myself with the knowledge I was doing the best thing for those I loved with my whole heart. I didn’t much care what happened to me if my loved ones could only be protected and happy. One day they would understand not only my choices, but the depth of my love.
The years rolled by. The children grew up and suddenly were adults. They expressed confusion and a sense of loss because of some of my parenting choices. I explained, confident of their understanding.
I realize now my explanations sounded ridiculous, but not because I failed.
I had a lifelong reputation for being dramatic and hypersensitive, which effectively erased my credibility within the family. I had no intention of burdening my sons with old family dynamics and problems existing long before they were born. I didn’t want to hurt or betray anyone. I didn’t want the boys to have torn loyalties or make them feel they had to choose sides.
Anything I could say, calmly, neutrally and without emotion, wasn’t even loud enough to get their attention. Trying to convey the real truth of my experience would have sounded (I imagined) hysterical and unhinged or, even worse, made them feel they had to take care of me. Come what may, I was never going to ask my children to parent me.
They could intellectually understand my explanation about the choices I made as a parent, but they couldn’t emotionally understand, exactly the outcome I worked for all those years! To them, it just sounded like Mom, talking too much, being embarrassingly emotional and making a big deal about nothing. (She does that.)
Do you see the exquisite irony? My explanations sounded ridiculous because I had succeeded in shielding them so well they had no idea what I was talking about. That was the flip. I didn’t fail at all. I succeeded.
Can you hear the Gods laughing? I can.
When I realized the unintended consequences of my maternal protection, it certainly caught my attention, along with changing my relationship with my kids in deeply painful (for all of us), and, I fear, permanent ways. I have never known such grief, but privately I chalked it all up to another failure of mine and a grief I deserved.
My failure label stayed firmly in place, as solid a part of my identity as my blue eyes or wild hair. It never occurred to me I could take it off.
Until yesterday. Yesterday, another loved one I have protected made it clear to me how successful I’ve been in protecting him as well. My stoicism, my unrelenting commitment to healing and understanding, my fierce independence, and most of all my love and unwillingness to be disloyal or reveal unwelcome truths that might upset others have been so successful the truth of my experience sounds like hysterical, made-up, unkind, exaggerated nonsense.
It was the kids all over again.
This time, though, I finally got it. I finally understood I have succeeded, not failed, in everything I wanted to do out of love for others. Every single thing! I have failed to please, yes. I’ve failed the expectations of others. I’ve failed to be perfect. I’ve failed to keep the family glued together. I’ve failed in trying to force others to be happy and healthy. I’ve failed, most miserably of all, at protecting others from themselves. But none of those failures are real. None of those things were my job or within my power in the first place. They were impossibilities, not failures.
On the other hand, I have succeeded at failing! I did manage to attract negative attention so others were at less risk. I did carry and sometimes express the emotional burdens of those around me who couldn’t deal with their emotions. The role I chose as a scapegoat did, in a fucked-up kind of way, help keep the family functional enough that we all survived. My “failures” made others look more successful by contrast. My willingness to be the problem child, the dramatic one, helped keep my loved ones out of the line of fire, at least a little bit.
As a parent, I succeeded. I raised two sons. They are not perfect. I made mistakes. They have baggage to unpack like all the rest of us. Their wounds, however, are different than mine. They were not hurt in the same ways I was. I successfully shielded them from the bombs and grenades that shattered me. I believe they know they are loved and worthy, and that I am proud of them.
What I’m most proud of is my success at loving. Just that. Loving myself and loving others. Nowhere along the way have I lost my ability and willingness to love, absolutely, completely and unconditionally. I love my family of origin. I love my children. I see now we don’t always get it back, the unconditional love, respect and loyalty we lavish on others. That’s okay. Invisible love, refused love, unrecognized love and unreciprocated love is still love. It’s The Right Thing To Do. It’s the only thing to do. It’s the best I have to give.
As for myself, I feel reborn. I am not a failure. I have never been a failure. I have succeeded in loving and doing my best against all odds. I accept others may not understand my actions and choices or believe in my love, but that’s their failure, not mine.
This day has revealed to me every ten minutes or so I call myself a failure, no matter what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’ve paused to examine all those so-called failures and discovered . . . nothing. My identity as a failure is nothing more than a mindless habit. It’s my automatic apologetic response when I cook the bacon too long, don’t properly anticipate my partner’s wishes, want to go to bed early, am standing in the way (nobody ever stands in my way — it’s always me in the wrong place!) or blow off doing an hour of exercise.
I have successfully mastered the art of failure. Bored now. I’m going to go be successful.