“Will I ever get better?” can be a dangerous question

Will I be ever be able to get over my anxiety?

Will the back pain ever go away?

Will I beat this addiction once and for all?

Will not having a family ever stop hurting?

Will I ever get past this struggle?

Will I ever recover?

Will I ever be healed?

I think when we identify a problem–a struggle, an injury, a trauma–that moment we realize that a little thing has turned into a big thing, and it is taking its toll on us, and we just really want it to go away–all the way away–we immediately pose a question:

Will it ever get better?

Is there a cure?

Or am I stuck with this forever?

And I’m wondering now if that is a helpful question to answer, or even to ask.

Realistically, we won’t know the answer until we’re looking back on it.

Wondering, hoping, demanding, pleading for our lives or bodies or minds or hearts to “go back” to pre-struggle/pre-trauma . . . I actually think this gets us pretty stuck.

“[The Buddha’s teaching, ‘Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine,’] is saying that it is our attachment to the thoughts we have of who we are that may be the impediment to living life fully, and a stubborn obstacle to any realization of who and what we actually are, and of what is important, and possible. It may be that in clinging to our self-referential ways of seeing and being, to the parts of speech we call the personal pronouns, I, me, and mine, we sustain the unexamined habit of grasping and clinging to what is not fundamental, all the while missing or forgetting what is.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses

I’ve heard that anxiety is what happens when you can’t live in the present moment–can’t just be where you are–obsessing, instead, over the daunting future.

Will I ever feel better?

The problem is, we can’t really answer the “will-I-ever” questions. The future has a tendency to do its own thing.

When we subconsciously tie our happiness and identity to “getting over” a thing, “healing,” “getting past,” we map ourselves a depressing journey.

Life before healing, fixing, getting-back . . . the now life doesn’t really count. We’re not living for now. This now sucks. I’m not supposed to feel like this. This isn’t the real me.

The days fly by as we wish them away, insisting on a “better” future to restart our living.

And as that future doesn’t come, we sink deeper into the “why”s and “if”s.

Why isn’t it getting better?

Why am I stuck here?

If I were more committed, maybe I could heal this pain.

If I weren’t so sensitive, maybe I could get over that loss.

If I had more faith . . .

If I weren’t so negative . . .

Maybe it’s you.

Yeah, maybe this is on you.

Maybe you should be better by now.

Maybe a stronger person, a better person, a cooler person, one of “those” people would’ve healed. Probably.

It’s you.

After all these years, you’re still the you that you hate.

You clearly suck at healing.

You can’t.

You blame yourself.

You feel angry with yourself.

Or if not quite anger, something along the lines of “No, Self, I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.”

I think the question “will this ever go all the way away?”–a question that only life itself as it plays out can answer, not all the guessing or hoping in the world–I think it’s a question that isn’t fair to put on ourselves. It can get us stuck in self-hurt, self-rejection, self-blame–as we push pause on our self-love and aliveness, because we can’t accept this struggling or hurting version of ourselves.

I think dwelling on that big question tends to dizzily swing us back and forth between determination and depression. “I MUST beat this” means that as long as I haven’t, I’m not good enough. And who wants to show up for a not-good-enough life?

If you look up a definition for “depression,” only half of it talks about feeling sad. That’s the half everyone knows about. The other half has nothing to do with feeling sad. The other half is about losing interest. Losing interest in activities, your life, the things you love. It all sort of stops mattering. None of it works anymore. None of it helps. None of it feels. None of it is good anymore. Nothing. Just nothing.

Depression is a complicated world, one that can’t be summed up in a 1465-word blog post. But if this “Will I ever get better?” cycle sounds familiar, I’d encourage you to consider what it does to your interest in your own life. Like your now life, not the life you think you are supposed to get to someday. Now. The you with back pain. The you that relapses. The you that suffers panic attacks. Not your “will-I-ever” you, the today you.

If your core objective in life is to become so fixed and healed and rescued that you don’t struggle anymore with the stuff you’re struggling with now . . . then each today becomes very uninteresting as you live for next-year-(if-I’m-better-by-then).

You may start passing up on activities and opportunities you used to do, because they sort of hurt and that makes you think about your struggle and that is no fun, so you’ll get back to them once you’ve beaten this.

You may find yourself opting for bed instead, more and more frequently, because that thing doesn’t feel as good while you’re in pain.

And the emotional toll from repeatedly giving it a shot, hoping that this time it will be like it used to, and then realizing no, it’s not, and maybe never will be . . . it’s exhausting.

Exhausting.

Desperately needing to be a different person is exhausting.

Disappointing.

Depressing.

Paraphrasing Jon Kabat-Zinn’s explanation of the Buddha’s teaching: Clinging to our vision of who we’re supposed to be can frustrate and numb us–keep us from appreciating who we are today.

The good news is that it’s surprisingly helpful to finally admit: “Maybe this struggle is here to stay.” “Maybe I’ll always experience some pain.” “Maybe I’ll never fully be over this.” “Maybe there’s nothing I could do to fix it.”

First of all, when we stop fearfully trying to predict the permanence of something, we may find it’s grip will loosen a little. Like, not that it’s all in your head–but there’s nothing quite like “Maybe this will kill me!” to keep you hopelessly stuck in it, even when it could have improved.

But perhaps more importantly, if it really isn’t going to get better–and it really might not–admitting that this may be the rest of your life is quite freeing, in a strange way. Self-compassion starts making sense. It really is heart-breaking that you’re feeling this pain or struggling with this thing. Goodness knows you’ve tried to fix it, but it still hurts, and maybe it always will. Maybe it’s not all your fault. You don’t need blame here, you deserve support. Love. Self-care. Understanding. Acceptance. Maybe a little hug from yourself.

And as you accept today’s real you, you get to redirect your “I-can’t-do-this-life” energy into “how-can-I-do-this-life?” energy. Stop rejecting, start learning to live with, live through, live fully as the real you. Being present with yourself. Showing up for and as yourself.

What regular treatment would it take to keep doing things that I love?

Who do I need to have on my team so I can live a good life despite these impulses?

What do I want to experience in life while I carry this struggle by my side?

How often would I like to show up now even though I’m sad?

What could a beautiful, fulfilling life look like now?

Most things aren’t a death sentence–but if we decide that we absolutely can’t live with them, they sort of are.

I’m not saying that it won’t ever get better, get healed, get fixed, get corrected, that you’ll never move on, that the struggle will never be a thing of the past. Again–maybe step one in the possibility of healing is letting go of the fear and rejection. Maybe it will get better. Maybe. Maybe.

But real-big-maybe, it won’t.

So what if you gave yourself permission to be the you-with-the-thing? The you that feels that pain, that struggle?

What if you could just accept your today self, for today?

What if you stopped fighting who you are?

What if instead you loved and supported who you are?

Would that be better?

Could you give it a try?

Who knows what will happen tomorrow or next year . . .

So can you stop waiting for your life to count again?

Can you accept yourself and vibrantly be who you are now?

~

Thanks for reading! Wishing you all the self-acceptance and self-love in the world on your journey! If I can share the journey with you, throw your email below. :)

In your closest relationships, is the real you even there?

Driving home the other day, something struck me while I was listening to Nora McInerny’s (amazing) podcast (that you should listen to) Terrible, Thanks For Asking. In an episode called Don’t You Want Somebody to Take Care of You?, a woman named Gina recalled growing up with a depressed mother. Each morning her mom would retreat to her bedroom, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Then, shortly before dad returned from work, mom would appear, all made up and ready for the day. Looking back now, Gina realizes, her mom was “just trying to keep shit together, and not let my dad know how much she was struggling.”

That struck a nerve. It struck a nerve because I think I’ve lived both versions of that. The version where you hide your struggle and the version where you say “You know what? This is me.”

We hide things. It can be depression, as in the case of Gina’s mom. It can be addiction of all kinds. It can be insecurity. It can be anxiety. It can be compulsive spending on Amazon Prime. It can be our unfollowed preferences, desires, even dreams. It can be our anger or heartbreak. We hide things. Especially stuff we’re struggling with. Like loneliness, mental illness, guilt, and shame.

Why do we hide these things from our closest people? Gina’s mom didn’t need to advertise every detail of her depression to the whole world. (Some do find freedom in being an open book to the world–that’s not bad–nor is it wrong to want privacy.) But why did she need to hide from her spouse–the love of her life, her best, best friend? And why do you and I hide the stuff we’re struggling with from our closest friends? And especially our life partners?

We hide because we’re scared. Scared of being alone and scared of losing love. And we imagine scenarios like, “If only he knew, he would leave me,” or “If she found out, she would be so angry,” or “If I was honest about what I really want, we could never make this work.”

So we keep our struggles under wraps, desperately clinging to what love and acceptance and companionship we think we have.

Imagine you’re Gina’s mom. You never feel happy anymore, you never really feel much of anything–but your husband doesn’t see you as “a depressed person”–he doesn’t know. And you’re so afraid that if he finds out, you’ll lose the good you have, the love you have. Strangely, of all the people in the world, your life person is who you most need to hide the truth from. If the person ringing up your groceries finds out you’re depressed, no big deal. As long as my husband/wife/significant other/best friend/family doesn’t know!!!

The person who could be our biggest support is often the one we’re the most careful to hide our struggles from.

Why?

Last night on a Zoom double date, I told my wonderful psychologist friend Glenn that I quote a particular analogy of his all. the. time. It’s true. This concept sticks with me, because I think this analogy explains so much about our closest relationships: A close or intimate relationship (like marriage) is sort of like walking a plank over the Grand Canyon. Lay a narrow board on the ground in your backyard and you can stroll right across without skipping a beat. Place it over a canyon, and suddenly two things become true: Walking across it will be the most breathtaking, exhilarating, beautiful experience; And it will be the scariest, shakiest thing you’ll ever do. And that–in a nutshell–is a close relationship. The best and scariest thing in your life. When the board’s on flat ground, one misstep isn’t a big deal. Like when some person you barely know decides they don’t like you. With one misstep high above a beautiful canyon, however, there is so much to lose. Like when your spouse decides they don’t like you.

So shaking, white-knuckled, we grip the board and desperately try not to move, not to tip, not to misstep–we become paralyzed. There is too much to lose. This, unfortunately, is a fairly normal experience in our most intimate relationships. Protecting the bond we have feels so important that we can’t afford to show up as our real, messy, vulnerable, struggling selves. We have to keep it perfect. Too far to fall.

When I was a kid, I learned to hide everything. I hid everything because so constantly the things seen in me were corrected, condemned, and shamed. Choices, interests, activities, tastes, requests, dreams.

I actually don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I can probably count on my ten fingers the number of times I got up the courage, as a teenager, to ask permission to go hang out with friends. I knew that the reaction would almost always be about having something better to do with my time, not being around bad influences, or that I should love my family more than my friends. About to head overseas to work with a missionary for the better part of a year, 18-year-old me asked, “Hey, can I go spend an afternoon with Ben? I really want to see him before I leave.” The response was a mixture of anger and despair: “How could you ask that when I’m busy cleaning floors? Your family clearly doesn’t matter to you at all!” It was confusing.

I’d venture to say most of the people you and I come in contact with don’t leave us with scars and dysfunctions. All it really takes is a few important people to teach you those yucky lessons. Like that you are bad, or that you need to be perfect.

When we heard footsteps in the hall, my siblings and I would jump up from whatever innocent, carefree games we were playing and quickly start “cleaning” or “reading a good book” or something to show we were “redeeming the time.” Because most of the “enjoy” type stuff would be met with disapproval. To this day, I don’t think my parents know that I finally got to watch Beauty and the Beast on YouTube as a 17-year-old. The kind of stuff I had to keep to myself.

Those lessons don’t just go away when you “grow up.” The urge to hide all my stuff worked its way deep inside me. I don’t think I really noticed as an adult how much the urge to hide controlled me day to day. The assumption that real-me-stuff would make people hate me or judge me or disapprove of me.

I remember one time I heard my wife’s keys in the door and quickly turned the TV off and picked up a book instead. I didn’t want her to see me nerding out to a Marvel documentary. What if she didn’t like that about me? Better to just hide it. And more than a few times I made sure to hop out of the luxurious eucalyptus bath and dry off before she got home so that she wouldn’t think I was . . . . . taking a bath?

I know this sounds silly. But it was a lesson I learned as a kid: People will disapprove of the stuff you do. People will not like the real you. Hide your stuff.

The funny thing is what happens when we hide. It was a sort of subconscious way to keep my wife from disapproving of me. But slowly it made me feel like . . . she must not approve of me. After all, if I can’t be myself around her. . . . Spoiler alert–my wife doesn’t give a shit if I enjoy a bath or a yummy drink or make a spreadsheet of the MCU timeline. She’s not a bully. She wants me to be happy. But in my fear of rejection, hiding my happy stuff, I kept writing the same old story in my head: She wouldn’t like you.

Instead of keeping me safe, hiding my most basic self made me lonelier and lonelier and more afraid and more afraid.

I bet a few of you grew up learning that it was safer to not be your real self, too. I bet that just about all of you grew up learning that it was at least safer to not be your real struggling self.

Maybe feeling like you have to hide the innocent little personality-stuff doesn’t resonate at all with you. But I bet you do feel the need to hide the yucky stuff. The struggle. The dark, sad, scary, exhausting, hurtful, “bad” stuff. The stuff you’re afraid “could change everything.”

Back to Gina’s mom. She and this guy loved each other so much that they decided they’d be lifelong buddies, best friends: Marriage. And this friendship mattered so much to her that she couldn’t risk admitting, as time went by, that she was struggling. If I tell him how depressed I am, will he be angry, disappointed, unsatisfied? Will he want to leave? Will he think he’s better than me? Will he regret being with me? Will he get tired of me? So she kept it under wraps. Played her part. A façade.

Hiding the struggle keeps you . . . “safe.” Sort of. Safe from the chance that someone will reject you for it. And, as you hide, the struggle slowly pulls you down and holds you under. Ashamed. Alone.

What is your deep struggle that you can’t share with your most important person?

If you’re in a relationship, think about what sparked that interest, that desire–for you and your life person to belong to each other? Why do we attach to someone and share our deepest soul with someone in the first place? It has something to do with needing to be seen and loved. Something to do with being accepted. Something to do with having someone on our team. Someone by our side. Someone who says, “I see you and I love you.”

We need this so badly.

We finally get it.

And then we guard it. At all costs.

So when we struggle, we can’t let our struggle threaten that love we found. So we keep it to ourselves.

And all of a sudden, we’re alone. No longer seen and loved for who we are.

Listening to that story recently, it struck me just how relatable that story was to so, so, so many people: Slowly falling apart, but not being able to tell your life person just how broken you are.

I have something really special with my wife. Something I haven’t always had and may cycle in and out of in the future, but right now it’s pretty special. I’d say that I’m not sharing this to brag, but I guess after admitting to the Marvel spreadsheet thing you know I’m not here to impress. . . . So the special thing: Listening to that podcast, it also struck me just how opposite my experience has been with my own wife during some really, really, really deep struggle times. Resting my chin on the couch pillows, feeling every muscle weakened by this weird sort of gravity, I answered Lyssi’s “I want to know how you’re really doing” question: “Honestly, I’m not okay these days. I’m not happy. I feel hopeless. I don’t even care about the stuff I usually care about. I don’t want to run, I don’t want to write, I don’t even like watching movies or playing the piano. I’m so lonely and I don’t think anyone likes me. I don’t want to do anything anymore. I just want to lay in bed.”

A few powerful things could have happened just then:

She could have rejected me: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

She could have desperately tried to fix me: You have so much to be happy about! Don’t be hopeless! I need you to feel better, okay? Which really translates to: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

Or she could have unconditionally accepted me: I hear you. It’s okay that you’re feeling that way. I love you and I’m here for you.

And in that moment, she picked the unconditional love route. And it made depression so, so, so okay. Like, still not all better, but at least I had her. I wasn’t alone. She wasn’t mad at me, she wasn’t threatened by me, she didn’t need me to stop being me, she just . . . was going to be with me. Okay. Maybe I can do this.

Like I said, my own life hasn’t always been–still isn’t always–marked by such open vulnerability met with perfect acceptance. But when it has been, that has been life-giving. Life-saving.

Struggling alone doesn’t work.

When we finally learn to share our struggles, we can discover that . . . our life people get it. And they love us. And . . . our struggles aren’t going to take away our most important relationships.

Sharing our struggles with our people opens up a world of safety, security, dignity, understanding, support–maybe the only conditions in which we can heal, or make it through at all. A space where we discover that struggling-Peter is no less valuable and loved than doing-great-Peter. A place where maybe we can go ahead and love our struggling selves, too.

So an invitation: What do you need to stop hiding? What is your struggle? And who could you tell?

If this sounds terrifying and panicky, that totally makes sense. The whole Grand Canyon thing. What if you share your struggle and it doesn’t go well? What if you lose that friend? That life person? At this terrified-point I’d encourage you to think back, again, to why you needed that relationship in the first place. Why the closeness? Because you needed to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved. So my question to you is: If you are not letting yourself be seen, accepted, and loved–is that relationship still even there? Like . . . the relationship you needed in the first place? Sure, you may live together or text each other every day, and it may get awkward in a worst-case-scenario where they walk away from you. But . . . if you can’t show up as yourself to be accepted and loved, then maybe the relationship you think you’re protecting is already gone. So do you really stand to lose by giving that relationship a chance to be real?

Not to downplay how crushing it will be if you give the openness a shot and it doesn’t go well. That would be terrible. Heart-breaking. And it may leave you with bigger scars. Of course, the alternative is to just keep your real-self hidden. Alone. Unloved. Both options suck.

The only route with any hope is saying “Yeah, this is the real me” and inviting someone to see and love that real you. And if that is a relationship they can’t handle, maybe it wasn’t there all along. And maybe it’s time to go find a person or two or three who want to know and support real-you.

(Hey, truth moment here. If you’re trying to share your real self with your closest people–spouse, parents, best friends–and it’s going badly, you’re being met with rejection, losing your most important relationships–that’s the start of an incredibly scary and fragile journey, one you probably need to take, and the absolutely number one biggest one hundred percentest thing I can tell you right right now is: Go ask a therapist for help. Don’t think twice, just go. This is not a journey you should take alone.)

When I started therapy I bought a beautiful handmade Italian journal to accompany me on what I knew was going to be a momentous journey. Opening it now to its first page, I find the very first entry quite fitting. A life-changing principle my therapist offered me: “Friday, October 26: Openness brings you closer together, no matter what the feeling you have to be open about. Not being open pushes you apart, no matter what the feeling–positive or negative–that you are keeping to yourself.

You know the stereotype of the dad that can’t express emotions? He loves his kid so so much but can’t really say it. Keeps the sloppy, choked-up love feelings to himself. And the kid grows up never hearing that dad loves them. And they drift apart. When we can’t express something–whether it’s a thing that makes us mad at our person or even our good feelings about our person–we drift apart. On the other hand, when we do share the stuff, then and only then can we grow closer. Even when it’s tough stuff, like “Hey, it really upsets me when you-” or “I’m not doing okay these days.”

Our closest relationships–the epic ones that can be as beautiful as the view walking above the Grand Canyon–they need vulnerability. They need us to show up, our real, messy selves. We can take the shaky steps and experience the beauty, the love, the acceptance. Or we can close our eyes and hold on for dear life, unable to take a step, and completely miss out on the love. In reality, alone.

So here’s your invitation to say your stuff–no matter how messy. Your life person is your life person. You need them to know YOU. So share.

And, just as importantly, another invitation–or maybe a plea: You and I are going to have people who finally take the risk of exposing their struggling insides to us. And in those moments, we can respond in a few different ways. We can reject. We can panic and try to make them change. Or we can say “Oh my goodness, thank you for telling me, I love you so much!” And your reaction in that moment just might change their life forever.

So please be the person someone can be real with. Especially for your best friend, your life person.

It’s not easy. But it’s vital.

Remember that each time our loved ones bare their hearts to us, we can make them feel safer, or we can make them feel like they need to keep it to themselves next time.

A girl I know finally opened up to her mom: She, their star child, their smart, confident girl, was depressed. She was even thinking about suicide. How would you respond if your kid blindsided you with “I’m thinking about killing myself”? The reply this girl got from her mom went something like this: “I had no idea! I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. I want to commend you for how good a job you’ve done not being negative, not burdening others with these awful feelings. I encourage you to keep pressing on with being strong and not making others take care of you.” . . . what?! . . .

In those moments, you and I can prove to someone that they’re not alone, or we can prove to them that they are alone. And when we tell them they’re alone, that is a lesson they learn deep. All it takes is one experience to keep someone from ever sharing their real self again.

In other words: Those moments matter.

We need our loved ones to be a safe place for us to show up with our struggles. And they need the same from us.

So invitations all around: Say your stuff to your person; and unconditionally listen and love when your person tells you their stuff.

I should note that unconditional love doesn’t mean enabling–and expressing your deep down feelings doesn’t always mean acting on them. In other words sometimes unconditional love–sometimes being a safe space–means looking your loved one in the eyes and saying, “I understand this addiction. I get that you are struggling and I love you to death. And I can’t let you or me continue stuck in this. You need to get some help.” Like, it’s messy. And when he cheats on you, you don’t owe him “Oh honey, I get it, I’m not going anywhere.” Right?

But when your person is trying to hold on, barely able to keep their head above water, and finally says “Hey, I’m not okay”–that may be their last hope at finding support, and your reaction can break them or give them hope.

I think we’re all so scared of rejection that these vulnerable interactions don’t come naturally to us. Which means if we want to be good at asking for support and giving support when things are dark and scary, it might help to practice the deep openness right now. To get intentional, to get maybe even a little dorky about it. Like, “Should we schedule times to just tell each other all about how we’re feeling?”

Nurturing a safe space before you’re at rock bottom makes all the difference.

One little thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space is to notice each time I feel, for whatever reason, “Oooh, I’d better keep this to myself,”–reminding myself that’s an old story of rejection, of the need to be perfect, creeping up–softening into the thing I’m afraid of, and saying, “Hey, I think I need to share this thing, because I’m feeling scared of you knowing it, and I don’t like that feeling.”

Another thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space, I’ve learned just from observing my own best friend. People seem to share their stuff with her. A lot. When someone shares their stuff with me, I tend to automatically start calculating and fixing and offering and rescuing, and for whatever reason it only seems to make things worse. She, on the other hand, just listens. She listens. She just . . . . . is there with the struggling person. Just there to listen. To accept. Just being proof to them that they’re not alone, and that it’s okay that they’re struggling.

When you and I have to hide our deepest selves–especially the struggles–in our closest relationships, we slowly fall apart and we lose the love we thought we had. When you and I show up in these relationships by sharing our deepest, messy selves, and by showing up with love when they share their deepest, messy selves, we create a safe place to make it through this weird adventure called life together. We find hope. We fine healing. We find magic. We find love.

If you’re struggling deeply right now, why add hiding your struggle to the weight you’re already carrying? Why add wondering if you’re alone? What if you told someone? Imagine how good it would feel to get it off your chest. You may be surprised to learn that your people are okay with you being human. In fact, maybe they’ll just love you more.

And remember the life-changing gift you can give someone the next time they open up to you about something they’re scared to share.

We’re all a little weird. Let’s give each other some hugs about it.

Didn’t I tell you I hear what you say?
Never look back as you’re walking away.
Carry the music, the memories, and keep them inside you.
Laugh every day.
Don’t stop those tears from falling down.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
With courage and kindness hold onto your faith.
You get what you give and it’s never too late
to reach for the branch and climb up leaving sadness behind you.
Fight hard for love.
We can never give enough.
This is who I am inside
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
Riding the storms that come raging towards us we dive,
holding our breath as we break through the surface
with arms open wide.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.

Jordan Smith

P.S . Sometimes the things you’re afraid to let people see because you think they’ll judge you end up being the very things they really love about you.

If my weird-human-stuff complements your weird-human-stuff, throw your email below and we can keep thinking through this weird life together. :)

Letting the waves do their thing

Think back. Remember vulnerable-you. At your weakest, your most drained, your most crushed.

What did it?

“Trauma” is a universal experience. Your life may not have been dominated by it, but you’ve had your days.

Younger me found refuge in my bedroom closet. I’d spend hours in there. It felt a little safer.

Have you ever heard yourself say “I just want to hide under a rock” or “I just want to crawl under my blanket and never come out”?

What drove those big yucky feelings way back when you felt them and learned to fear them?

And–and here’s the fun part–do you ever still relive them now?

What brings you suddenly and helplessly back?

It’s human to have triggers.

Reliving trauma can turn the strongest person to mush. Sometimes with little warning.

And here’s the difficult part, but maybe the hopeful part . . .

What do you do when that happens?

When it hits you like a ton of bricks.

When you’re thrown right back into the saddest and most helpless feelings.

When you’re 12-years-old again getting screamed at or hit again.

When you’re suddenly friendless and unwantable again.

When someone’s looking at you that yucky way again.

When you hear that voice again that you really, really needed to never hear again.

When you have that old nightmare again.

When everything feels dangerous again.

When you need to go hide in your closet again.

What then?

I think sometimes we try to say, “I beat this then, I can beat this now.” And we get tough. Flex our I-don’t-cry muscles. Manufacture positivity.

And yes, there is some hope in a soft and encouraging reminder, “I made it through this before.”

But I don’t think the tough way through works in those darkest times.

Surfing is used frequently as an analogy for the ups and downs of life. When the waves come, you ride them, right?

But surfers also have to learn a life-saving lesson: When the water is too strong, trying to pull you under and away–which, absolutely, 100% it will be sometimes–you cannot fight it.

When the current is too strong, fighting against it will kill you.

You have to acknowledge and allow the power of water.

It is too strong to beat.

And when you stop fighting, embrace the overwhelming power of the water, let it do its massive thing with you, and even swim with it (or at least sort-of-with-it–like not against it) . . . it eventually spits you out into safety.

And I think life is the same way.

Like a sunny day on the beach, life is beautiful.

And like the surfing analogy goes, we can learn to ride its waves.

But when you wipe out (and you will), and find that the waves are just too damn big today (and you will), and that they’re pulling you down into the darkest darkness (and they will)–the only way out is through.

So what would happen if, when the trauma suddenly shows back up with a vengeance, and you’re suddenly a powerless, paralyzed kid again . . . what would happen if you just let the waves crash over you, let the overwhelming power of grief or fear or anger do its thing?

What if you stopped struggling, stopped denying, stopped “at-least”-ing, stopped numbing . . . and just fully accepted the overwhelming, crushing force of deep trauma?

Maybe you’d stop living in a cycle of exhaustion, fighting to keep your head above an angry ocean surface.

Maybe all the feelings would wash over you, envelop you, and fill you up.

And then, like a current in the sea, they could carry you through the darkness back to safety.

Emotions are designed to be felt.

Not fought.

Grief.

Fear.

Anger.

When fought, they will win. They’ll hold you down.

When acknowledged as overwhelmingly powerful . . . they’re “designed” to spit you out on the other side.

A psychologist friend of mine shares that a lot of his clients try desperately to run the other way when deep sadness shows up, distracting themselves, denying their feelings, and even avoiding big, beautiful life things so that reminders won’t trigger sadness again. They explain to him that they’re afraid if they let themselves feel the sadness all the way, it will never stop. It will be too powerful. It will crush them and hold them under for the rest of their lives. And he gets to give them a shot of hope that he’s learned as a professional who studies the human mind: No. It won’t. It will feel AWFUL. And then, once it’s done its thing, it will recede.

When old trauma and grief show up, do you get stuck in a cycle of “not listening, not listening” with your fingers plugging your ears, as if somehow, as long as you don’t cry, it will get better?

It doesn’t, does it?

What if you just let the feelings do what they’re designed to do?

Maybe you even go hide in your closet again and sob for a while, like when you were 15.

Then maybe, once its done its thing, it will let you back up for air, and you’ll see that the sun is shining.

And yes, the same wave will pull you under again sometime. But it doesn’t own you. You will come back up for air and surf the beautiful ocean of life again.

I’m free now

When I was a kid, I did have happy times. In fact a lot of my childhood memories feel happy. Even some of the stuff that, as an independent-minded adult, I now look back at as creepy or dysfunctional.

I wish people understood that just because someone has some happiness, or feels like things are also good, or has some of what they need (like food or clothes), or smiles sometimes–that doesn’t mean that their situation is okay.

All the dysfunction finally bubbled over. And now, as an adult, a pretty strong person, who has been on my own for years–the effects of my dysfunctional childhood leave me struggling some every day.

Even while I was finding some happiness as a teenager–listening to Ne-Yo and Fergie, watching Modern Family in my closet where my parents couldn’t know, playing out mental fantasies where I actually had friends I got to hang out and spend time with–even when finding my own happiness, I was simultaneously drowning in stress and fear and anger and hopelessness. And all the happiness volume in the world doesn’t somehow balance out toxicity.

It’s good to remind myself that I’ve come a long way.

Now, day to day stresses get to me. I feel frustrated when I can’t slow down and breathe or think, like when my phone rings fifty times in a day. It makes my heart beat harder. Or when I see yucky things on the news. Or can’t see friends face-to-face for the duration of a pandemic. Or keep having to take breaks from running with leg and back pain.

But.

And here’s where I want to sit today:

Now, I come home to someone who loves me. Someone who will hold my hands when things feel too big. Someone who lets me have feelings and needs and wants and dreams, and who encourages me to chase them all, even if they’re not her own. Someone who wants to hear me speak from my heart. Someone who deeply values me. And when I walk in the door from a long workday, I have a furry buddy who tells me, with all the whines and jumps and wags and licks, that I am so good and so important. And now I do have those beautiful, wonderful, amazing, fun friends in my life to hang out with that I wished I was allowed to have as a teenager. And now I have all these things in my life and about myself that don’t have a good-or-bad, wise-or-foolish, acceptable-or-unacceptable label to them. Now, I don’t feel like the most important people in my life are ashamed of me for watching my shows or staying up late with my friends or not-still-wanting-to-be-a-preacher-when-I-grow-up, and I never really have anyone raise their voice at me anymore (except, of course, the occasional experience in the any service industry). And nobody snaps at me when I’ve played the same piano piece too many times in a row. And nobody hits me anymore.

The people who don’t love me–I don’t have to be with them. I don’t have to take the phone calls, play the games, suffer through the holidays, bite my tongue at the cruel conversations.

Now, I’m free.

It’s easy to forget how free I am, because nobody graduates from all stress and hurt and struggle, and those things will probably always feel big. It’s easy to forget just how dark things were. Just how NOT free I have been.

Now, life–no matter how lifey it gets, is better. Now, I live with LOVE.

I am thankful for freedom.

I am proud of the courage to step out of toxicity, out into freedom. Proud when I see that courage in myself and proud when I see it in others.

And I am thankful for the life that freedom brings, that courage brings. It’s not too perfect, too fancy. It just has kindness and peace and boundaries and love.

That’s better.

Despite the day-to-day struggles that are a fact of life–has your life gotten better? Have you found some more freedom? Chosen more love? Grown? It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. And it helps to remember it. Feels hopeful.

What about you?

~

P.S. I know navigating unhealthy family situations is a hard, scary, and misunderstood thing in our world. So much pressure. So many expectations. If it’s something you’re struggling with, I’m happy to listen. And if not me–there is someone else in your life, ready to talk, who has had to step out into freedom. Say your stuff, no matter how messy. Find your freedom and love. Rooting for you!

Can you love humans AND cut people off?

How do you feel about these two “truths?”

  • Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.
  • Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

I bet most of us would agree at least in some sense with each of these statements taken separately.

But. When we put them side by side–these two ideas feel like they don’t fit together: If So-and-so is so toxic and hurts me so much, how come other people can love them? And if I admit that, deep down, they’re still lovable–how can I cut them off?

So which truth will you hang on to, and which one will you let go of?

Think about what happens when you hold onto just one of these truths, and let go of the other.

Rejecting the first truth–that everyone is lovable:

We learn to set boundaries. Some of us have to learn to set pretty big boundaries–tough ones. My own long story very short, I no longer have a relationship with my parents. It took years of therapy and soul-searching and trying and crying. And it wasn’t a clean break–for years and years, I walked away to varying degrees, a number of times, from the family and friends I grew up around. Honestly, it was the way I could be healthy. I was surviving. In the end, walking away brought freedom. But it also taught me a dangerous lesson. See, if the trauma is bad enough to permanently end a family relationship, it probably hurt you more than words can describe. That probably results in extreme emotional reactions when you think about those people who hurt you so badly. It probably means you have a hard time thinking clearly or calmly or kindly about them. Out of self-protection, I learned to label those people in my life “monsters,” totally “bad.” “Toxic.” Never to be trusted, absolutely the worst. And, depending on what you mean by those labels, I wasn’t wrong. So I left that relationship. And it has been incredibly freeing. It feels healthy. My life has become livable and full of hope. But in the end, through this deeply emotional and significant, drawn-out experience, I learned a really loud lesson: People who hurt you badly ARE NOT SAFE and must be cut off. They’re Bad.

So what do you think that did to me? I began to see the world as totally black and white. In his novel, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote, “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” And that’s what happened to me. When I felt the sort of deep hurt, rejection, or betrayal that I had learned to walk away from once or twice, I began having to walk away from it every time. I began to assume that anyone who hurt me deeply must not be a safe person. And as I discovered that deep hurt is a pretty common and inescapable part of relationships–intimate, personal, professional, all kinds–I found myself walking away from relationships every time the hurt showed up, or even threatened to show up. If people that deeply hurt me are unlovable “monsters,” then I need to watch out for those people. I need to protect myself. When I see “toxic,” I need to turn and run. It hurts me too badly. Since I rejected the truth that even the hurtful people are lovable, I learned to walk away quickly from any hint of “toxic.” Problem is, of course, just about everyone in my life will feel a little “toxic” from time to time. I developed a protective habit of immediately giving up on anyone that hurt me. I couldn’t see that everyone is on a spectrum of kindness and unkindness. And that unless I accepted that people who have “bad” in them also have “good” and “humanity” somewhere inside them, I was going to live a pretty lonely life. (Oh, and–I hurt people, too–so . . . what do I do with that?)

So rejecting the truth that deep down, everyone is human and lovable, left me very much alone. But where does it leave others when we reject their humanity? Well, imagine that you’re the abuser-character. You’re the one that’s been labeled “toxic.” And maybe you really did do a number on someone. Maybe you were an absolutely terrible parent. Maybe you are really arrogant or really disagreeable. Maybe you rub a lot of people the wrong way. But when you wake up in the morning, you don’t think, “Muahahaha, let’s be an asshole today!” You think, “Oh man . . . I hope this day goes better.” Somewhere inside, you’re trying. You want good. You wish you weren’t mean, that you could control your words. You need another chance. Maybe it took you fifty years to see your immaturity for what it is. Maybe it took losing a bunch of relationships. So what will it take to change? To recover? To grow? Well, among other things, you need support. You need friendship. You need someone to give you a chance to do humanness the right way. You need hope. You need good examples. You need people to practice with. You need a shoulder to cry on when you have to face the damage you’ve done in the past. But–we’ve already decided you are “toxic.” So if everyone else rejects that first truth–that everyone is human and lovable–and clings to the idea that every hurtful or bad person must be written off, shunned, shamed, and “cancelled” into oblivion . . . you will never have a chance. Let’s be honest–we all know what regret feels like. We all know the feeling of hoping for another chance, because we screwed up with someone–maybe with a lot of people. We’ve had ours lows. So when you feel tempted to sentence every “toxic,” mean, negative, obnoxious, or immature person to a permanent identity as a hopeless “Bad” person–remember your lows. Remember when you needed people to give you another chance and show you a “love” that they could have said you didn’t deserve. It is wonderful to show up for broken people.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

Rejecting the second truth–that you need to completely walk away from some relationships:

We also learn not to set boundaries. We learn to accept bullying or abuse or mistreatment or disrespect. Some of us learn to accept it from many people, always afraid to stick up for ourselves. Some of us learn to accept it from just a few special people. Case in point, “but they’re still your family” is one of the most dangerous phrases that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Cultural expectations pressure us to patiently, silently accept behavior from family members that we’d never accept from non-family. A parent’s passive aggressive commentary on every single one of our life choices or preferences. A sibling repeatedly guilting us into “lending” money we’ll never get back. A spouse’s constant berating. Sticking up for yourself in the face of abusive treatment from family is not a life skill we talk about. When we do finally stick up for ourselves, we discover whether or not they’re going to listen and accept our boundaries. If they won’t, maybe the relationship is too unhealthy. Maybe it’s too damaging. Maybe it was never really a relationship at all. So can you take care of yourself by walking away? The general cultural expectation is: No. “They’re still your family.” “You only have one set of parents.” Etc. Families aren’t the only area where we can learn not to set boundaries. We can feel too guilty to stick up for ourselves when a friend starts taking advantage of us or hurting us–we don’t want to hurt them. We learn to grin and bear it when co-workers make mean jokes or take their mood out on us–need to be a “team player.” I think deep down we each know that some relationships need to end, but we can’t do it. We’re afraid. We don’t know what others will think. We care about the person we need to walk away from. We worry for them. We want to “be the bigger person,” and give them another chance, and another, and another. So we tell ourselves and each other that Love says that you shouldn’t cut someone off, that you should be there for them, no matter how yucky it gets–after all, maybe one day they’ll hit rock bottom, and if you’re not there for them, who knows what might happen. So “cutting off” a family member, a friend, even a co-worker–establishing such a final boundary–is not cool.

So where does this leave you? It leaves you being abused, mistreated, disrespected, bullied, hurt, taken advantage of, pushed around, made fun of. It leaves you exhausted, crying, fragile, insecure, powerless, hopeless, lifeless, stuck. It leaves you, year after year after year, holding your breath when you show up for a family reunion, and then flying back home in tears, disappointed and crushed and re-traumatized again and again and again. It leaves you stripped bare of energy. Maybe stripped bare financially. It makes your life a living hell. This is not the life you want. This is not a life of love or of purpose or of hope or of beauty or of peace. This is miserable. . . . Please, please, please, please, please hear this: You are worth more than that. . . . You do NOT matter LESS than the people who are systematically hurting you. . . . You are a precious human being. Pretend like you’re your friend–looking at mistreated-You from the outside. You know that the You you’re looking at through a friend’s eyes MATTERS. You matter. You matter. You matter. Your heart matters. Your life matters. Your happiness matters. Your peace matters. Your human dignity matters. Your dreams matter. You absolutely, 100% do not have to put up with abuse. So if someone refuses to have a healthy, functional relationship with you–you absolutely can walk away. Yes, even from your parents. As someone who’s lived this, I can tell you, despite what 99% of the voices around you are saying, it IS better when you end the relationships that are too far broken and damaging to you. Whether it’s because the person you love refuses to stop mistreating you, or because even if they would try there has already been too much trauma–or both or either or–who knows, honestly? If any relationship is suffocating your heart and is not able or willing to be fixed–you can let it go. Rejecting boundaries–really big, final boundaries–can keep you a prisoner of abuse and bullying for your entire life.

Rejecting the idea that some relationships need to be ended doesn’t just hurt you. It’s also not good for anyone around you. There’s a reason on the plane they say you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you put the mask on your kid. A stuck, abused, lifeless, hopeless you isn’t going to be any help to anyone else. A drained, bullied, broken you won’t have much left over to offer your friends, your job, your hobbies, your life, your loved ones. And it actually, really, truly, honestly, for real won’t be any help to the abusers you love too much to walk away from. My therapist put it this way when I was wrestling with whether to travel down to my family’s Thanksgiving–to be there for my siblings in their own stressed and disappointed and anxious journey with what it means to be in our family–to be there for my parents, to spare them some sadness and feelings of rejection–my therapist put it this way, and it’s stuck with me: When you see someone thrashing around, drowning in a raging river, jumping in next to them won’t help. You’ll just get pulled down with them, in their thrashing panic, and besides, you can’t beat the river’s current either. Instead, you throw them the life saver tied onto the dock, and tell them that if they’ll grab on you can help pull them out of the river. The tough part is, your unwillingness to jump back into a toxic river you once lived in and drown right next to them will absolutely feel like a betrayal to them. But jumping back into a place where you’re going to get knocked in the head by the flailing limbs and pulled away in the dangerous current is NOT going to help them. It will only cause you to drown. The only chance at helping those people that have hurt you so deeply and traumatically, or insist on living in that world, might be by standing on the shore, ready to help when they finally decide to hop out of the raging river into a healthy, functional world of freedom. Being, if nothing else, an example–proof for them–that if they want to find love and freedom, it’s out there. A drowning you helps nobody. Let’s be real about this urge to stick around and rescue our abusers: Has our sticking around, trying to please, them, ever made them happy and fulfilled? Nope. And it won’t, as long as we’re in their toxic world. The only chance you have at being there for the world is putting your own mask on first. No matter how “selfish” it feels. It’s just the way it works.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

So how do you hold these truths together?

Well, first, don’t go crazy with either one of them. Don’t take either one to a mindless extreme. Don’t be in a rush to throw a salvageable relationship of love away. But also don’t cling to a relationship that’s not there and drown yourself in the process.

Second, notice that we probably have a tendency to reject each one of these truths in different contexts. In what parts of your world do you champion love and acceptance, but forget to set boundaries? Maybe with family? Work? Politics? And in what parts of your world do you champion boundary-setting and forget that people are all still lovable humans deep down? Social settings? Friends? Social media? See, I think we know each of these truths, and forget each of these truths, and it may all just be an arbitrary tangle. Can we hold them, balance them, mindfully?

Third–and I think this is sort of the kicker: Who you LOVINGLY ACCEPT vs who you HEALTHILY WALK AWAY FROM has EVERYTHING to do with that specific relationship, its dynamic, what it is for, what needs it is fulfilling, and what it is intended to be. I can very healthily and compassionately put up with a kind of immature negativity and judgmentalism from a co-worker that would be devastating coming from a parent. I can put up with some hardcore manipulation from a friend who has very little control over me, whereas if this person were my significant other, I’d have to walk away. What is your relationship with this person who’s showing their “toxic” edges? As my friend Luke suggests asking, “Is your putting up with the mistreatment actually truly helping the other person or the situation, and therefore maybe worth it?” You can also ask, is the level of their immaturity one that you can deal with healthily? Or are they harming your well-being? Can I handle it when a high school friend expects me to solve all their emotional distress for them? Maybe. Can I handle it when my mom expects me to solve all her emotional distress for her? No. One size does not fit all. Re-framing the hurtful behavior around the dynamics and purpose of the specific relationship really helps. What is a parent? What is a child? What is a sibling? What is a friend? What is a co-worker? What is a random stranger? Each relationship has different needs when it comes to support, fulfillment, love, and boundaries.

Fourth, it helps to just acknowledge what is going to be, I think, the hardest part of all this, emotionally: Trusting that there will be other people there to give the “love” your parent or spouse or sibling or friend or co-worker needs to experience–the person you had to call it quits with. In holding that first truth–that every human is lovable–it is so hard to let go of people that are hurting us, because we may truly love them and wish them the best and hope hope hope that they will find and feel some love. It is so hard to trust this, but we have to trust, to remind ourselves, that there are 7.8 billion people in the world who they have not abused and traumatized, and among those 7.8 billion people they will absolutely find the love they need when they are ready. They will have other people there to help them change, other people there to give them hugs and a shoulder to cry on if and when they change and regret their abusive behavior. You do NOT have to stick around to help your abusers recover and grow. So let them be lovable humans that others will show up for. You can’t help them anymore. Let them go, and then trust that there is still a world there to love them when they need it.

And fifth, focus on the flip side. There are far, far, far more people who are still safe for you to show up in love for, to be there for, to make a difference for. Who do you get to show up for? Let your energy live THERE.

A few words to meditate on:

~

“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Truth: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

~

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~ attributed to Buddha

Truth: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

~

Good luck, my friends. I know that trying to live a life of love for others and love for self, holding these two truths together, can be hard and can include lots of tears shed. Hang in there. You’ve got this. Sending you love and energy.

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