Frustrated, feeling small, annoyed before the conversation even starts, Claire is filled to the brim with the noise of her crying baby, the task of dinner and the weariness built up from a day of isolated motherhood. She yells to her husband upstairs “If I don’t get some help down here, I’m going to lose my mind!” This is the first he’s heard about her need for help, but he feels guilty, a failure, nonetheless. Another argument ensues.
When we become accustomed to not getting what we want, we begin asking from a place of “no.” Learned over a lifetime of being rejected, put down, or dismissed, this place of no becomes a way of seeing the world that is not a choice, but a fact of life. We are angry for not getting what we want before we’ve even put our request out there, and inadvertently lessen our chances of getting what we want through our ineffective asking style. We ask with frustrated tones that trigger defensiveness in those around us, confirming our assumption that people don’t actually care about us, and the world is a place of scarcity.
In order to move out of this place of no, and in to our Yes Mind, we have to take a look at what the assumption of rejection is protecting in us. Sometimes we avoid asking openly, clearly, and effectively for what we want because deep down we doubt that we deserve it. Maybe I don’t ask for that promotion assertively because I imagine the new role would expose me for the charlatan I am; I’m lucky to have gotten this far without being found out. We may also believe that the disappointment we brace for is somehow more manageable than disappointment that comes after our best effort is put forth with an open and hopeful heart. Regardless of the reason, in order to find our yes, we have to heal the wounds of no. We heal by acknowledging and accepting. In order to get yes from the world, I have to say yes to myself in my entirety. I see those places that need kindness in myself and offer love and acceptance to those places so that the world can follow suit.
If I recognize my fears and see how they manifest in the way I put my wants and needs out in to the world, I can then decide to take the risk of really transforming. Asking for change or for more becomes an exercise in abundance. I feel my value as a truth that goes deeper than my experience as a woman who is never taken seriously, a person of color who is denied access due to perceived dangerousness, a “poor” person who isn’t classy enough to belong. All of my experiences of no have within them the seeds of yes.
We can certainly learn skills for making effective requests, but if we don’t work with our no wounds, the success we get back will be limited—a mirror constantly pointed toward the space that needs nurturance. The path to your fullness, your success begins with healing the no and embracing your yes. I am a whole person, yes. I am an asset with a full purpose, yes. I am more than any no I have received, yes. What yes is waiting to be fully realized through your healing?
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in meditation has likely encountered discomfort-- the discomfort of sitting in a forced position, the discomfort of wishing we were doing something more entertaining, the discomfort of being with raw emotion. Many of my clients have bailed on meditation altogether in the face of some of these difficulties, which led me to look at strategies for helping them through those tough times.
I spend a lot of time talking to my clients about compassion. For some the idea resonates immediately, comes naturally, and manifests in all kinds of positive ways quickly. For others, maybe most, compassion is at best a lofty idea that is hard to put in to practice and at worst, an experience that seems completely unavailable to us for one reason or another. Compassion is essential for healing, and is an incredible tool for increasing our discomfort tolerance so that growth can happen. In an effort to make compassion more accessible, we need to understand what it is and how to get our minds in on the task of opening ourselves with kindness and curiosity.
Compassion is essentially empathetic acceptance. I get in someone's shoes (possibly my own), acknowledge their reality, their perspective, and then without any push for change, I say lovingly and with a full heart "I feel that with you." The key to compassion is acceptance. What we are often experiencing in an uncomfortable mediation sitting is an absence of acceptance. We are so used to acceptance being followed by negative judgment that the notion of allowing our thoughts and feelings to arise just as they are feels defeating, draining. When we take the next step from acceptance in to compassion, we not only allow what is, but we also allow the impact of what is to be relevant. We interact with ourselves more gently, with more kindness.
Rather than keep browbeating myself in to being compassionate (because that would surely defeat the purpose), I've started engaging compassion on the sly, using the phrase "of course." When a difficult emotion arises that I feel the urge to turn away from or push down, I say to myself "of course I feel this way, and of course I don't want to feel this feeling." "Of course" has the flavor of logic about it-- the phrase gives us the sense that we have rationally come to the conclusion that something is inevitable, which acknowledges a fundamental truth of the universe that nothing comes from nowhere, so if something is, it must be. "Of course" then gives us permission to be kind to ourselves and to connect more compassionately with whatever is showing up in meditation. If a feeling is unavoidable, which "of course" would suggest, then I don't have to struggle with myself over its existence, and can instead use my energy to nurture myself through the difficult experience. "Of course" allows us to interact with mental and emotional difficulty as we would a physical injury. If you cut your finger and cry out, it would be easy to say "of course you are in pain, you cut your finger! Let's get a Band aid."
We might also use "of course" to connect the dots between the experiences that have trained us to be avoidant, anxious, or judgmental and our current difficulty. Let's say I am struggling to sit with negative self-judgment. In meditation, I seem to constantly berate myself for not sitting long enough or for getting distracted. If I can make those judgments the object of my attention, I might create just enough room to ask "where is that coming from?" Maybe my early caregivers were very hard on me any time I made a mistake, or perhaps I grew up in a dangerous place where any misstep could end in violence. Regardless of the cause, if we open ourselves up enough, we get to the "of course." Of course I'm critical of myself, because I've been trained to be that way. We use this not to pass the buck of our suffering, but to allow for the reality of difficulty without writing ourselves off as failures.
Next time you are struggling to sit through something uncomfortable, try opening yourself to the power of compassion by telling yourself gently "of course."
Have you ever told yourself something along the lines of "it will definitely rain today since I just got my hair done," or "I'll probably hit every red light in town since I'm running late?" These seemingly benign thoughts are the seeds of defensive pessimism, and a major barrier to joy. Defensive pessimism is about predicting negativity as a protection against disappointment or pain. My husband is probably going to leave me some day, so I should probably think about how I would support myself. Going back to school would just leave me in the same cut-throat job market with more debt, so why bother? There are kernels of practicality in these statements, so we feel justified in our acceptance of them. But these negative narratives disempower us, separate us from joy, and can actually work against our goals.
We have our understanding of strength all backwards. There was actually an episode of Bones where Temperance Brennan (main character, forensic anthropologist, I watched a lot of TV while pregnant) says that her relationship with her partner has changed her from an impervious substance to a strong substance. Impervious substances are not responsive to the forces acting upon them, and as such remain separate and isolated. Strong substances are in flow, allowing for the natural processes of change, growth, decay. Personal strength requires this same allowing, built on the confidence that any negative feeling or experience can be tolerated without fear of coming apart. Defensive pessimism uses negative forecasting to protect us from future pain, but for it to "work" we have to also buy into the story of our weakness. Defensive pessimism insists that our ability to brush up against loss, rejection, disappointment is bounded. Our heart and mind, the space of our experience becomes smaller and smaller as we fill it with fear and doubt. The truth of our potential cannot be actualized when we quit before we start to avoid the pain of failure.
"I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist." That is the mind's way of acting on fear by convincing us that it is somehow more legitimate or accurate to live in worry and fear. When we imagine a negative future in the service of "realism" we aren't getting any closer to the truth, and are actually distancing ourselves from joy. To truly assess the future from a realistic standpoint, we would have to acknowledge that we have no idea how things are going to go down-- meaning that worry and hope are equal in their predictive uselessness. We would have to lean in to groundlessness, and often the pain of uncertainty seems far greater than the pain of a negative outcome. What we fail to see, because our fearful minds get in the way, is that we experience the story of loss the same way we experience actual loss. We can't feel our feelings in advance and get them over with, but we can double our dose of pain by imagining negative outcomes. The cost of this pain preparation is that we disconnect from presence, from our non-judgment, from our pure, unedited experience of right now. Eckhart Tolle has boldly said that there are no problems in the present moment, and while I initially bristled at this (well, he sure hasn't experienced my present moments then), eventually that truth worked it's way in. The stripped bare present moment has no goodness or badness attached to it like the calm still lake before the fish jumps or the moment before the gun goes off to start the race. Even if our defensive pessimism doesn't stop us from making changes or taking risks, it hijacks our peace of mind and limits our capacity for happiness in each moment.
Defensive pessimism does its worst work when disguised as flexibility. I recently asked a client what she wanted in a partner and she began her answer with "I would be ok with..." I stopped her right there and more forcefully told her not to tell me what she would be ok with, but to say out loud what she wants. I was feeling particularly stuck with another client who was struggling to find work with a disability and realized that we weren't getting anywhere because we didn't know where he wanted to go. Asking him to connect with what he truly wanted from his life felt like too great a risk because he was so used to being disappointed in his efforts toward any goal. What I have learned from clients and from my own experiences of lowering my standards to accommodate what I felt was possible or worse, what I felt I deserved, is that we will not embrace our best selves by settling. It's not always easy to know the difference between being openness and defensive pessimism. I know I'm being open when I change my expectations with a clear and non-judgmental mind. I know I'm being defensively pessimistic when I feel the air go out of me, my shoulders slump, and my mind starts to tell me stories about how I shouldn't have wanted so much anyway. We aren't going to always get what we want, and there's no object or experience out in the world that carries the full weight of our happiness. But we can connect with basic goodness by acknowledging our basic worthiness to ask for what we want. Defensive pessimism whispers "you may as well not even think about what you want because you are too broken, too undeserving, too unimportant to even ask for it."
Just for the next week, try noticing all the ways defensive pessimism shows up in your own life and you'll uncover important information about where your heart may need to soften to let go of some fear. The hardness of defensive pessimism does nothing to protect us from pain, and ends up protecting us from our own potential for joy and meaning.
Our American culture loves to set some goals. Television shows like The Biggest Loser encourage us to set (unrealistic) weight loss and fitness goals. Bosses set performance goals and our kids strive for academic success measured by standardized testing and graduation rate goals. This society is infatuated with achievement and progress, for better and worse. Many of my clients decide to start therapy because they are struggling to meet health, relationship, or general life goals and until recently I took the same approach to everyone-- define the goal, determine how the goal will be measured, identify barriers and resources, and set a deadline. When deadlines rolled around, the results were mixed. Some had done what they set out to do and felt a sense of mastery, while others had missed the mark and felt disappointed and ineffective. So I've changed my strategy. Rather than helping clients set concrete, rigid goals that require will-power to be met, I now focus on values-based goals that are inherently flexible and more manageable. Let's talk about rigidity, will-power, and values.
I was having a conversation with my husband about the most recent results of some swim meet at the Olympics. As we were discussing who won what, I realized that I was separating the contestants into those who won (got the gold) and those who lost (everyone else). If you've seen Talladega Nights, you're familiar with Ricky Bobby's mantra, "if you're not first, you're last." I realized how bought in I was to this all or nothing approach to goals. We decide on a specific outcome-- winning the gold, weighing a set amount, running a set distance in a specific amount of time-- and then any other outcome becomes unacceptable-- a failure. It's easy to see how this approach is ultimately setting us up for perceived failure most of the time and robs us of the opportunity to celebrate the process of change.
So what about will-power? The will-power delusion asserts that I just have to want something bad enough to make it happen. The self-defeating converse is where the problem lies-- if I didn't achieve a goal, it's because I didn't want it bad enough. I don't know anyone who set a weight loss goal or a substance use reduction goal who didn't want to be healthier with their whole selves. By insisting that the only barrier to success is a lack of will-power, we automatically short circuit problem solving efforts to manage the more likely barriers such as lack of skill, worry thoughts, emotions, indecision, or environmental challenges. Will-power is a useful element in the early stages of goal attainment, when motivation is running high, but it will not always be available to us in the same quantity. Will-power is essentially a combination of the emotions determination and motivation, but like all emotions, determination and motivation will wax and wane due to all sorts of other variables, many of which are out of our control.
"If I'm not using will-power to meet specific goals, then what am I supposed to do?" A values-based approach allows us to be realistically flexible in our goal setting, and avoid the will-power trap. Before committing to a goal, it's important do some introspection to identify the value driving that goal. For example, I have been less than happy with my weight since turning 30, and have typically tried to manage my weight by using food guilt and inflexible standards to motivate me to exercise and eat healthily. It wasn't until recently that I more deeply considered the "why"of this goal. When I checked it out, weight loss is about being strong, capable, and healthy (with a sizeable portion of acculturated beauty standards), but my rigid weight goal was conflicting with values of being compassionate and accepting of myself. So now I'm working toward weight loss (with help from Weight Watchers) as a function of my deeper values. If I plan to run 4 miles, but end up running 3, rather than berate myself for a failure, I view my 3 mile run as a success given that I made that choice out of compassion for my sore hamstrings or in recognition that it's 100 degrees outside. Instead of deciding that health is about exercising a certain amount everyday without exception, I act in the service of health and broaden the choices that are consistent with this goal. Flexibility helps us to honor the willfulness that shows up to let us know that a choice does not match the needs of the moment.
Ironically, the more flexible we are with ourselves, the more emotional, mental, and physical resources we make available for attaining our goals. We stop wasting precious energy on guilt, shame, and self-degradation, and can channel those resources toward our goal work. We stop trying to make the moment match our goals, and allow our goals to match the moment. Here are some tools for assessing your values, identifying meaningful goals, and using a flexible mindset to be your best self. Remember: more of our life is spent in the process than in the outcome, so learn find joy in the ride.