Surviving

Standing Up to the Storm

The moments I’m most proud of in my life are the ones when I stood up for myself. Really stood tall and strong in my values, stood firm in my boundaries and centered in my truth. These were pivotal moments that changed my life.

I can think of many times—many more times, in fact—when I did not stand up for myself. Mostly that was out of fear of not being loved, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment. Fear of rocking the boat and changing the status quo. I was afraid, and so I took the abuse or the unfairness, I was a passive and silent accomplice, I bent myself to the other person’s will in order to keep the peace. I was a pushover in every sense. I wanted everything to just be OK, and I believed that by keeping my head down and letting the storm crash around me, I had a better chance of getting through unscathed.

There were other times when I maneuvered around standing up for myself—I didn’t curl up into a ball mouthing abject apologies, exactly, but I wasn’t centered or steadfast, either. I allowed myself to be pushed to my furthest limit—even beyond it—and then mustered up the courage to push back a little. Still out of fear, still letting the waves and water move me from where I knew I should be. It never worked all that well.

These situations have ranged from petty to profound. Being bullied by friends or in the schoolyard, cringing with shame and fear. Or acting as mute witness to someone else being bullied—not participating, but not stepping in. Allowing those I care about most to manipulate me with guilt trips and silent treatments, feeling mortification for disappointing them and panic at their chilly rejection of me when I didn’t meet their expectations. Having the man who claimed to love me make unreasonable demands, one after the other, caught off-balance in his cycles of manipulation, love-bombing, fury and emotional abuse. Allowing him to effectively control, punish and use me, invading my home, claiming things I had already said “no” to, diminishing me with his very presence in my life. I didn’t truly stand up to him, not until the very last days of our withering relationship, when I finally realized I had nothing to lose by not giving in.

I regret every moment I accepted the unacceptable, cowed and inactive and miserable. It was never the right choice. It never created less conflict, nor inspired greater intimacy and understanding, nor changed anything for the better.

However, there were a few, critical times when I stepped forward—right out into the stormy waters, the thunder and lightning crackling above, the ocean black and roaring below. I climbed onto my rock and refused to move from it. Refused to be buffeted off by the winds of blame and guilt, refused to be frozen off by silent treatments and withholding of affection, refused to be frightened off by the storm of words or threats crashing around me. I stood in the center of my own truth, my own values, in the very center of myself, and refused to look away.

And every single time, without exception, it was the storm that failed and died away. The ocean that calmed. And my rock that remained dug into the foundation of the earth.

These moments created positive, lasting change—for myself, my relationships, my happiness. Not only that, but they didn’t cause the sky to fall. I didn’t lose the love or security I’d so feared losing. Because standing up for yourself doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s values or truth. It only comes at the expense of their manipulations, bullying, boundary-crossing or other toxic behavior.

I’ve learned that there’s a huge difference between making reasonable compromises in friendship and partnership—compromises that respect both people’s needs, triggers and preferences—and compromising myself, my core values, my essence.

In one, I’m still standing in my own truth. No one is asking me to feel or be anything I’m not in order to satisfy their needs. There’s no angry or threatening push from either side. I can honor myself fully, and fully honor the other person, making choices and considerations that take both people’s comfort into account. No values are compromised. No one is giving up any truth.

In the other, I am asked or expected to compromise the very integrity of who I am, to relax, change or abandon my boundaries without regard for my comfort, to accept responsibilities and burdens that are not mine, or, at best, to find tricky ways to placate the situation that don’t exactly align with my truth—but hey, at least the boat stopped rocking.

You know something about that boat? Screw the boat. The boat can go to hell. I’ve spent enough time and effort carefully working to prevent that leaky little thing from shaking, failing miserably at every turn, frantically bailing water when the waves got restive and someone demanded more of me than I was willing to give.

The first time I ever leapt out of that useless boat, I found my rock there waiting for me.

I stuck myself in the boat again many times after that, imprisoned by the threat of loss or disgrace, felt myself being crushed against an unforgiving shore when even the boat failed me. And felt the weight of my fear holding me down.

I don’t allow that to happen anymore. I still get pushed at sometimes. I still find myself needing to find that center, seek out my rock, and stand there ready for the storm. I still have to separate my stories and triggers and fears from what’s really true and what really matters.

But these days, all it takes is remembering all those different moments. When I caved and crumbled and when I stood tall. When I honored another above myself, and when I couldn’t imagine doing so. When I chose fear over strength, and when I chose truth over keeping the peace.

I could continue to regret my choice to surrender, or I could celebrate my choice to fight.

And I will burn my damn boat rather than ever climb aboard again.

dating advice: the balance of power

Dear Stumbling Toward Truth,

I don’t know what shifts, or what happens, and suddenly my boyfriend is in a horrible mood. Whether he’s angry with me, or simply in a dark place, it’s difficult for me to tell. I feel defensive and strained, as if all the joy has been taken from our relationship, and that makes me afraid. I don’t know what to do.

We’ve been together almost two years. I met him just when I was starting the process of divorcing my husband of 9 years, but I’d been separated for about 10 months before that. I’d dated a couple of people, nobody seriously, and then I met this man. He was incredibly charming and sexy and so into me. He completely swept me off my feet. I was attached to him right away, and felt so thrilled about the relationship it seemed to make me more anxious. Like I was almost desperately afraid to lose him from the start. I don’t even remember how things got to this place. He asked if he could live with me part-time a few months after we started dating, and now it seems like we’re settled in this pattern. He says he hates living off of me, it causes a lot of tension between us, but he’s always borrowing money from me and never pays me back when he says he will, which I find upsetting but don’t know what to do about it. His two daughters, from different marriages, come and stay with us every weekend. I like them, but I don’t feel very close to them and something is stopping me from moving forward.

His moods are causing me to be constantly on edge, like I have to second-guess everything I say and do. Texts from him during the day make my stomach knot up because they mostly are asking for something and I know I’m going to have to carefully craft my response. I love him so much and he says he loves me. He tells me all the time how he couldn’t do without me, how much I mean to him. He usually says he’s sorry after we fight, if it’s gone to the extreme that I’m not responding to him. Most of our communication is through text and sometimes email. I’m afraid to talk to him in person because he’s blown up so many times. When I say something that upsets him, and even when I don’t and he senses how I feel, and sometimes for no reason at all. I also find I’m often paranoid about what he’s doing when he’s not with me, especially on late-night drives, but the few times I’ve questioned him he’s gotten very angry. It’s hard not to feel hijacked in my own home, but I’m not sure where he would go or what he would do if he wasn’t with me.

I’m so tired of feeling afraid all of the time. I feel like every move I make could be WRONG move and could lead to WRONG interpretations, but sometimes I’m just too tired to keep up a super-sensitive, super-positive front and make sure I don’t do anything wrong or say the wrong thing or give him the wrong impression. Because if I do, there’s fallout for days. I’m tired of it. I’m trying to be my authentic self and I keep getting tripped up in my own conditioning and also in his sensitivity. Between the two of us it can be a minefield, but I always end up being the one blown up emotionally while he gets to get righteous and angry and punish me.

I’m feeling so lost and strange, I don’t know how to describe it. I feel like I fell into a black hole. As if I’m not heard at all. I say things and make requests and they get swallowed up and ignored and eaten and turned to dust. It confuses and hurts me, and it makes me doubt my own strength and ability to assert my needs and feelings.

I don’t know how not to care about him. I don’t know how to let go. And I don’t know how to do this anymore.

-Lost in a Black Hole*

 

* This is a composite letter from myself. I wrote most of these things while I was in my last relationship with a toxic and abusive man. I put the broken fragments together and thought about the advice I really needed at that time. I might not have taken it, but it’s the best advice I can give to anyone in a similar situation with hindsight and perspective.


Dearest Lost,

Reading your letter, I feel such sadness and empathy for you. I’m so very sorry, Lost. I can relate to everything you’re going through, and my heart aches for the pain and anxiety you’re experiencing. It’s so real—all of it, the love you feel, the conflict, the fear, the frustration.

It sounds as though after many months of strain and very hard work on your part, you’re reaching a crisis point both internally and in your external relationship. The paradigms that were set when you started dating—and it’s extremely telling that you don’t remember exactly how these paradigms or boundaries were set, don’t really feel you agreed to all of these patterns, yet here you are, living with them—were not necessarily in your best interest.

From the viewpoint of someone on the outside looking in, they were entirely in your boyfriend’s best interest, and not in yours at all.

There are a lot of things you don’t talk about in your letter, like how the two of you interact, how intimate you are. But from everything you said about how he makes you feel, the answer is: unsafe. Something in you is telling you not to trust him, and you’re trying to convince that thing that it’s wrong.

But that thing is your intuition, and it’s never going to be wrong.

I wish I could tell you that if you just find a way to honestly communicate with him, everything would be fine. That’s what I’m sure you want to hear, what you keep telling yourself. If you can somehow push past these ongoing issues, solve your internal struggle, stop being so afraid, he’ll be the man you believe him capable of being. The man you wanted him to be when you met, when he swept you so completely off your feet. I’m guessing that you were feeling very vulnerable when you began dating. Ending a marriage is no small loss; the grief is real and intense, no matter the situation. It’s a process that can take many years to heal from.

Just as you were starting this process, you met a man who made you feel extraordinary. He was charming and attractive and—most appealing of all—very interested in you. In his intense courtship, you said you became quickly attached, to the point where you were “almost desperately afraid” of losing him, this person you barely knew. And now, two years later, you’re living in a black hole of confusion and hurt, feeling like you’re not heard or respected, deeply attached to someone who makes you feel unsafe. Between his rages and your distrust of him, you don’t feel like you can be yourself around him—no matter how hard you’ve tried, or how much you want to.

This feeling you describe is powerlessness. The dizzying swings between fear and frustration, gratification and longing. Always waiting for the other person to dictate how things will go, even though you don’t remember agreeing to that. Finding through painful experience that you can’t direct the conversation, change the dynamic, even ask for change at all—or if you do ask, you won’t be heard and honored. These are signs of a massive power imbalance, impossible to fix unless both people are wholly invested in balancing it. Most of the time that’s just not going to happen.

This man has all the power in your relationship. All of it. The only power you hold is financial, in that you’re supporting him. And yet even in that, he’s taken the power from you—he makes demands for money, you have to say “yes” or he becomes angry, and no matter what he doesn’t pay you back when he says he will. That’s a horrible position to be in with anyone. Giving a loan to someone with the understanding that they’ll pay you back, and then finding that they have no intention of doing so, leaves us all feeling powerless and angry and confused.

Your situation is not a happy or simple one, Lost. The way this man treats you is not OK, and you know it isn’t OK. I’m sure your friends and family tell you the same and you find it very hard to hear. His behavior certainly sounds emotionally abusive, not to mention exploitative and manipulative. You excuse it, you slip away from what you know is true, you don’t want to face it.

The problem is, even if you can rationalize away what others think, it’s very hard to do the same for our own inner voice, requiring exhaustive effort. Even then, it only works for a while before the internal conflict starts to take its toll on us. There’s a reason you haven’t connected with his daughters—your instincts are holding you back.

After two years of this, dear Lost, you’re at a breaking point. Nothing will be easy going forward, but I promise you: it will be worth it. The pain of stepping back from this relationship, though searing and seeming impossible, is nothing to the pain you are experiencing while in it.

I know it’s hard to hear, but I believe the only way you’ll be free of this pain, the only way you won’t feel lost anymore, is if you leave the relationship, temporarily or forever. At the very least, allow yourself a chance to take a breath and get some perspective. Maybe it could work with him in the future, if he’s able to own his abusive behavior, perhaps get help for it, and you’re able to redraw all boundaries and establish new agreements.

But those are big ifs, Lost. You know they are.

My advice to you is this: stage an intervention for yourself. Just as you would for anyone you care deeply about who’s stuck in an unhappy place, reach out and get help.

Tell your most trusted friends everything you’ve told me and more. Right now, as soon as possible. Whether it’s one person or three, parent, sibling or friend, choose the people who are the least judgmental and most supportive in your life and call them. Ask them to hear you out without judgment, then ask them to support you through the scene of telling this man you need him to leave your home immediately. Figure out with your friends exactly what you need to say to explain why you’re choosing this, and have them come over when you know he’s going to be there to support you as you say it.

There will be no right time for this. It will always feel like the most horrible and unimaginable thing to do, now or in the future. I say do it now.

Have your friends wait with you while your boyfriend packs a bag of essentials and you agree on a time when he’ll come to pick up the rest of his belongings—also with your friends present. It’s not up to you where he goes. He’s a grownup. He’ll have to figure that out without your help. Believe me when I say: you have done enough.

Ask him for his key, then and there, and ask him not to contact you. You can tell him your phone will be off—and then turn it off or block his number. If he wants to talk, and if you’re open to it, tell him you’ll consider scheduling a neutral lunch in the next few weeks, but that this is your decision for now and he needs to respect it.

Give yourself time to figure out what you really want and need without his presence clouding the issues. Give yourself a chance to see things from outside of the black hole.

It will hurt like hell, Lost. He may be very angry and sad, he may say he’s blindsided, he may be ready to promise you anything to stay. This is why your friend or friends being there will be crucial. You need them to stand beside you—not in another room, pretending not to listen, not inside while he pulls you outside to talk. But right there, having your back, listening and silently supporting you. The words and actions are yours, but they’ll be there to help, while you talk to him and after he leaves. They won’t let you be bullied or punished or sweet-talked into anything. They’re witnesses and deterrents to his behavior who will keep you strong and centered.

Once your friends go home, that night or any other, please don’t even consider opening the door if he knocks. You’ve asked him to leave your home. He needs to respect that. Period.

This may seem extreme to readers. It probably does to you as well, Lost, and I know you can talk yourself out of it if you try. But this man is not bringing you anything good. He has taken everything possible from you and left you feeling empty, lonely, hurt and totally powerless in the relationship. He doesn’t honor anything you ask for, or even allow you to feel like you can ask. You say his frequent rages take all the joy out of your relationship—and I assume that means that occasionally he puts joy into it, maybe just enough to keep you wanting more. Enough to keep reminding you of how exciting and wonderful and good it was at the beginning. But it isn’t that way now, and it isn’t making you happy or fulfilled. It’s making you desperately unhappy, exhausted and anxious.

He isn’t the man you want him to be or believe him to be. Whether or not he’s capable of respecting you, honoring your needs, living up to his promises and sharing the power is up to him—but in two years of accepting your loving and seemingly unconditional support, he doesn’t seem too interested in changing.

Lost, you know you deserve better than this.

If letting go feels impossible, if even talking openly to him is terrifying, don’t do it alone. It isn’t cowardly, it’s the bravest thing you can do to ask for support in this. You chose to say “yes” to him at the beginning, and “yes” to his continued presence in your life—and now you have the power to say “no.”

You deserve to feel at home in your own home, Lost, not hijacked. You deserve to feel safe and authentic in your own life. You deserve to feel empowered to make decisions and to feel that you’re respected, listened to and honored by those who you trust and love. You deserve to always have a choice.

Talk to your friends now. Make a plan with them for moving forward. And through it all, keep writing about it.

Write everything down—all the sadness and fear and upset you feel. All the unfairness and anger and resentment. Write letters to him, to yourself, to your ex-husband, letters that you won’t send. Write a letter or a paragraph or a poem a day, exploring how you feel in going through this hard and complicated thing.

There are wonderful books on breakups that will help ease you through this painful time, not to mention on emotional abuse and manipulation. Buy yourself one, ask your friends to recommend one, and start reading today.

I believe in you, and I believe you’re strong enough to let go. It’s time to come out of the black hole of loneliness and fear, to feel the warm sun and breathe free air again. It’s time to take your life back.

Love,
Stumbling Toward Truth

the opposite of survival

I still remind myself often of the stark, manifest differences between my life without my abusive ex-boyfriend and my life with him. The strain so overwhelming I had to numb myself against it. The gut-wrenching dread that I was going to lose him—and lose myself somehow in the process. The shrinking from his anger, his moods, his neglect, his icy rages, never knowing what emotional blow was coming next. The inner knowledge pushing against me all along, telling me any way it could that this man was BAD FOR ME, which I dismissed and fought. The ache to be loved and wanted, which he never managed to fulfill but always somehow promised to in a way that I believed. The thrill of being noticed and petted, and the emptiness of being dismissed, devalued and manipulated. The cycles I could feel myself spinning in, unable to step out.

It was every kind of wrong way to be in a relationship. To be asked so much, and to say yes to it. I know I was looking for more in him. I was looking for the kind of belonging I’d shared with my ex-husband, which I was still grieving so intensely when this man landed in my life. I was bereft and unable to determine what boundaries were worth enforcing, and so I basically had none. I applied my own good intentions and kindness and integrity to him, because I wanted him to have it. It was entirely projection, and entirely free will. Though he was very good at manipulating me, and very capable at being charming, and very perceptive and adaptable, none of his techniques would have worked had I not chosen to be prime for the plucking. I walked freely into that trap and helped him to shut it behind me.

I have to wonder sometimes if I’m being that misguided about anything else, walking shortsightedly and unconsciously into situations that don’t serve me or align with my values. It’s totally possible, it probably frightens me more than anything else. Probably the stressful and anxious and irritated moments I’ve experienced over the past few years have been due to something very similar, and probably they’ll happen again. Uninformed or inflated expectations, autopilot, ego-driven and lack-founded thinking, fear of abandonment and disappointment. They’re part of my makeup, part of my humanity. I can’t ever turn them off for good, or cease to be aware of the danger they present to my well-being.

I hope that the difference now is that I am much more aware of them. My triggers, my spirals of doubt, shame and fear, my lack, my story. I enter them as easily as I ever did, but I now have more tools and resources to STOP, think, listen and make different choices. I’ve empowered myself to consciously CHOOSE, and choose differently, rather than simply to carry on down the well-beaten paths. Each time I learn something new, gain new perspective and experience on how to live a more aligned and positive life.

The experience of being with my ex was mostly about survival, suffering through a wasteland and struggling to stay strong and whole while being invaded and exploited and torn apart from the inside. It taught me what I never want to feel or be or live again, and was valuable in its extremes of sadness, loneliness and pain. But since the day we broke up, each challenging emotional and mental episode has lifted me further along, given me greater access to my inner wisdom, empowered me to make the choices I want to make, shown me how to trust myself and emphasized the value in it, taught me the true meaning of thrive.

My thesaurus lists the antonym of “survival” as “death.” But I believe that the true opposite of survival is well-being, the experience of more than merely existing, of thriving. If the opposite of being alive is being dead, than the opposite of continuing to exist or staying alive with endurance, persistence and fortitude is living joyfully and consciously with light, love, health and happiness—flourishing, prospering, creating. The antonym to “thrive” should not be “fail.” If you’re not thriving, it may have nothing to do with failing or diminishing, but rather with sinking into numbness, negativity or grim determination. One can be ill physically and thrive in every other way—it’s a spiritual, emotional and mental state of abundance.

I know I didn’t thrive for one second once I’d twisted myself around the trunk of a narcissistic man, by my own free will. I made choices that were good for me, I protected some boundaries, I allowed myself whatever room I could find for healing and peace. But still, it was basic survival. My finances didn’t prosper—they didn’t unduly suffer, but they didn’t grow in wealth or abundance. My health didn’t suffer unduly either, and I did begin to improve my strength in boot camp—but I was sleep-deprived and anxious, constantly on the alert. It couldn’t have been called flourishing. My relationships with others didn’t change for the better or worse; they didn’t fail, but they didn’t become more loving or nourishing.

The moment I woke up the day after our relationship had really and truly ended—as far as I was concerned, since I knew I wasn’t going back—my entire body felt different. My mind was lighter and clearer, my anxiety was almost nonexistent, my soul felt peaceful, all for the first time in more than two years. I only cried once more, and very briefly, because even in my mourning for what I felt I’d lost, I sensed the breaking of a new, powerful, beautiful, revolutionary dawn in my life. I began to thrive that day, continuing into the weekend and following week, and on and on until today. My memories since that time have been filled with golden light—even the dark and embarrassing ones, even the cloudy days shine with subdued brilliance. I know what it means to be whole and aligned. To be free of self-doubt, to fall back into my own arms in loving trust. To be empowered and validating, to take back what was yanked out of me and restore what was lost. To detoxify, release, forgive and heal. To openly address, examine and learn from my patterns and failures of the past. To take risks when my instincts told me to, and to step back when they told me to.

I don’t know what the future holds. But while with my abusive ex I felt held hostage by the present, by the sheer act of getting through each day without losing my shit in a crunch of anxiety and overwhelm, today I feel opened and unafraid. Whatever the future holds for me, I’ll find a way to celebrate it, to grieve losses and to be grateful for everything I receive. I know I won’t ever have to live through self-imposed years of strain, suffering and worry again, whether caused by financial mismanagement, addict spouses, sociopathic boyfriends, codependency, disrespect or following shoulds and guilt trips over my instincts. I won’t choose to serve others over honoring myself. I won’t choose them over me, or doubt over trust, or fear over love, or survival over thriving.

It’s unthinkable now to imagine giving one second of my time or one joule of my energy into a man who treats me without consideration, care or thought. I don’t know how or why I put up with it. Why I chose to—felt I had no other choice than to—give up my needs, wants and feelings in order to sustain a relationship with a man who wasn’t good to me. I can’t imagine living in toxic sludge ever again, feeling unsafe or neglected or invaded in my home, accepting abuse as a matter of course, dealing with someone else’s drama and solving someone else’s problems. I can’t guarantee myself a future of only happiness and no challenges, failures, loss or sorrow, but I can guarantee that I will never, ever choose to compromise myself so pitilessly, or betray myself so brutally, or live in such lack and strain, or accept overwhelm and paranoia as my lot. Whatever I do from now on, I will do it out of self-love and self-respect, trusting my inner guide, honoring my needs, and giving and receiving in balance. It serves no one to give endlessly and receive nothing—even the taker loses in the end.

However and whyever I chose to suffer through the darkest parts of my past, I know better now. I will trust myself. I will never let a tortured, twisted soul into my innermost sanctuary of love and trust. I will never subjugate myself in order to earn someone’s love.

blasting a crater in the rut of life

My life is in the process of changing, as our lives constantly change, and at the same time I’m witnessing the major transitions of several close friends. I’ve started a new relationship for the first time in four years—an exciting, gratifying and slightly unsettling addition to my life, while a few of my friends are struggling through distressful challenges and facing some difficult decisions. We’re all supporting and encouraging each other through the good, bad, ugly, thrilling and impossible, and it’s reminding me how important times of upset and upheaval are.

I’m lucky that my transition is a positive one, but I’ve known the other side as well, and am convinced that those negative experiences were crucial to getting me where I am today. I believe the most disturbing and jarring events have a critical purpose for us, as we struggle our way through: to open up the very roots of our lives and reveal our true selves, who we really are, who we need to become.

Life transitions are never easy or particularly pretty—not even the ones we want to happen, much less the ones we don’t. And the ones we don’t want, the ones that we’ve been fearing and avoiding, are even more riddled with jagged parts, snags, pitfalls, shame and anxiety. We’ve been existing in the same paradigm for months or years, safe if not exactly happy in the known, barely daring to imagine what the unknown might sound, feel, smell and look like. We might long for another path, another kind of life—long to be truly aligned with ourselves and what’s most important to us, but we’re focused on surviving. We might want change, we just don’t necessarily know what change, or how to consciously make that choice.

And then something happens—something we were unconsciously calling in, or waiting for, or terrified of, something that knocks everything sideways. An explosion rocks our lives, whether one massive impact or a series of small yet life-altering earthquakes.

Because the hard truth is, there’s no climbing out of that rut without blowing a big gaping crater in it first. Otherwise we just keep trudging blindly along in our comfortable dissatisfaction, aware that there could and maybe should be more, but unable to see it for the high walls around us. Suddenly things blow up, and we’re thrown backwards and left flat and breathless. Once we can get back up, let the dust settle, dry our eyes—the world is all around us, strange, unfamiliar, full of possibilities. The light may be too bright, we might be more horrified than gratified at what we’re seeing, but it’s too late. There’s no going back into the rut.

I feel like that happened in both of my previous long-term relationships. I couldn’t see how unhappy and disconnected my ex-husband and I were or how unaligned I felt—I was secure, deep in my rut, even though it wasn’t the life I truly wanted, until a catastrophic eruption blew everything to hell. As for my last relationship… Who knows how long I would have stayed with a manipulative sociopath, convincing myself that I was OK, that it was worth it, had someone I loved not died and shaken my foundation to its core. Blasted a huge crater in my rut, allowing me to climb free.

Of course, what I’m experiencing now is a very different kind of life event, one that I consciously called in. But even this wanted, appreciated transition has shifted things, requiring me to work to keep my balance. As I and those I love experience the anxiety and disorientation caused by changing paradigms, it helps to remember that all transitions are complicated, all are challenging, all bring some measure of loss and fear along with the pain or pleasure. And all require us to bravely face the new life ahead of us, to step forward into the chance to live in greater alignment with who we truly want to be.

the extreme effort of autopilot

Looking back, I think the worst decisions I’ve ever made were because I was on autopilot.

I wasn’t paying attention. I was choosing not to.

Instead, I survived in a depressing, narrow rut day after day, using most of my energy to avoid facing the truth about myself. As if that truth would be so shameful and terrifying and horrible that anything was better than facing it, so I worked to tune it out. I flipped through every possible channel in a daze of noisy distractions, rather than simply turn off the TV and sit with whatever was going to come.

This was happening after I started practicing yoga, meditating and writing in a journal, even while I was in therapy. I was still switched off somehow, actively not noticing what my own inner guide was trying to tell me. Ironically, autopilot requires a whole lot more effort than facing whatever we’re avoiding. The truth is always grounding and centering, even when it’s challenging, and it’s often challenging. Even when it isn’t what we wanted it to be, it brings ease of mind, balance, and, ultimately, hope. The truth of who we are and what we need, what we’re experiencing, what we’re carrying around with us—that truth can only help us make the right choices. It can only lead us to deeper compassion, honesty, understanding and growth.

So why was I so afraid of facing it? Why do we go years on autopilot, why do we make decisions for ourselves in direct opposition to what our instinct is telling us to do?

I believe my answer is: because I didn’t trust myself.

I trusted what other people wanted and what my past told me I should be and do, I made what decisions I convinced myself were best. I knew my own truth all along, I just didn’t trust what I knew. So I survived, ignoring what I feared to face, making a lot of intention statements that left out the most important intentions, choosing poorly and then struggling with the consequences of those choices.

It seemed safer not to be aware of any of this. And yes, it does take a certain amount of bravery to face what we’ve been hiding from ourselves. We’re probably going to have to let go of things—preconceptions, habits, patterns, triggers, expectations. We might very well lose people we care about, and the selves and futures they represent to us. Things will change, and change is scary and full of unknowns. We’re afraid it’s going to be a lot harder and more painful than ignoring what’s clamoring to be noticed in ourselves.

But, as I once heard at a work seminar, You can either be brave or safe. You can’t be both.

I hid from my truths because it felt safe. The truth that I wasn’t honoring myself in my relationships, that I wasn’t taking care of myself, that I was compromising who I really am. That my quality of life was suffering from the choices I was making. That doing just barely enough to get by wasn’t what I want or deserve.

This last time I was on autopilot, I was jolted out of it by the death of someone I loved very much. My grief affected everything, and made it clear how much work it took to make my very un-OK situation seem OK. Things got real and dramatic and then, suddenly, it was over. I was free from fear—awake, in control, accountable, balanced and at peace. The truth I faced was a friendly one. I could feel ashamed and angry and sad without resistance. I could let go.

Maybe autopilot is necessary sometimes. But now I know, without any doubt, that it isn’t easier. That ignoring what’s really true doesn’t serve or honor me or anybody else. And that if I can keep paying attention, keep facing my truths no matter how challenging, keep trusting my inner guide to steer me, I won’t be in a position to make such poor choices again.