Thriving

the benefit of remembering

“We forget things we try to remember. We remember things we’d rather forget. The most frightening thing about memory is that it leaves no choice. It has mastered an incomprehensible art of forgetting. It erases, it smudges, it fills in blank spaces with details that don’t exist. But however we remember it—or choose to remember it—the past is the foundation that holds our lives in place. Without its support, we’d have nothing for guidance.” –Brigid Gorry-Hines

This morning I was thinking about how easy it is to get so caught up with the now, with the struggles and pressures and distractions of now, that we lose all perspective. We forget how it feels and what it means to be any other way.

When we have a cold, we forget what it feels like to be well, and when we’re well, we forget what it feels like to be dragged down by a cold, congested and miserable with a raw nose and sore throat, sucking cough drops and chugging DayQuil. When we’re exhausted, we forget what it feels like to have energy, and when we’re energized we don’t particularly think about what it feels like to be dropping and sick with exhaustion. When we’re not angry, we don’t think about being angry, and when we’re not lonely, we don’t think about being lonely, and when we’re not grieving, we don’t think about grieving. And when we’re sad and discouraged, we don’t spend much time remembering how it feels in mind or body to be thrilled and uplifted. We just feel sad.

In some ways, this amnesia is blissfully beneficial and helps us move through moments as they arise. It means we aren’t caught up in loops and emotions of the past—we felt them, they happened, now we can move on to what we’re feeling now. But in other ways, it doesn’t serve us to forget. In other ways, forgetting means we tell a different story and lose the perspective that remembering can give us.

To me, this is the same as the difference between forgiving and forgetting. We can forgive other people as the need and desire and opportunity to forgive arises. But that doesn’t mean we forget what the person did that required forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we should dismiss how what they did affected us. By the same token, it often benefits us just as much to remember and honor how we felt at a given moment, even if we don’t continue to live in that emotion any longer.

I often think in passing of how miserable and trapped and desperate I felt with my last partner—and also how gorgeously light and free and joyful I felt when that toxic relationship ended. I like to remember this when something inspires it; I like to remind myself of both the horror and the glory, because I know what I lived through and why it matters so much to make different choices now and in the future. I don’t relive it, I don’t re-feel the emotions, but I reach a calm, exultant, and grateful plane where I stand firm in what I survived, and the new reality that misery ultimately produced.

Within my new partnership, I sometimes reflect on the different things I felt as a single person. The sense of complete freedom and independence, balanced by a sense of loneliness and yearning. Now I no longer feel the loneliness or yearning as my partner is my life companion and constant friend, nor do I feel the same freedom or independence as I’ve tied my life to his. In both cases, I had and have a clear understanding of the choices that led me to this place, and I sit with that until I begin to experience deep, centering gratitude for what the moment offers me, knowing that it’s rich in lessons and opportunities for growth. Without a partner, I was able to learn to fully partner myself—and I continue to do so even with a partner. With a partner, I continue to learn to assert myself and prioritize my needs and boundaries. Neither is better, both experiences offer me much to learn from, especially when balanced with the other.

It’s helpful to remember that the loneliest I’ve ever been, I was in a monogamous relationship. First with my ex-husband, during his drug addiction (codependency is incredibly lonely and isolating) and after our physical separation. Then with my ex-boyfriend, a toxic and abusive narcissist, who was always physically surrounding and stifling me, but never emotionally present or accessible. After that relationship ended, I spent a lot of time taking stock of where I was and where I’d been. I remembered every emotion I’d felt in both relationships. The rage I felt at my husband when he duped and abandoned me. The feelings of utter helplessness and confusion when my boyfriend dismissed, betrayed and manipulated me. The anger and remorse I felt at myself for allowing all of it to happen.

Without those memories, without the hours I spent recording how I felt in my journal and rereading it and pulling it apart, I couldn’t have found my way to centered alignment. Balance would have been impossible, not merely challenging, without a deep understanding of my own passage and growth.

The morning after I met my new partner, I woke up hung over and full of shame for what I might have said the night before. I was only mildly drunk, but buzzed enough to feel the pain of both my social anxiety and the alcohol. After I struggled with feeling miserable for a while, I stumbled into the bathroom and, while there, suddenly reminded myself that two years before, on that same day, I’d been with my ex-boyfriend, and been utterly anxious and unhappy and exhausted with the strain of that relationship. I remembered every holiday with him (it was MLK Day), and I felt my spirit lifting immediately in response to the memories. I didn’t have to feel everything again to remember how awful it felt, nor to understand how far I’d come. Though nothing had changed—I was still nauseous and mildly embarrassed at something I’d said the night before (which my partner didn’t even remember), I felt completely different about everything. I could step into my day with a light, positive perspective.

I remember enjoyable times as well, of course, both when I’ve been in relationships and single. Those times and the emotions they inspired also bring me greater understanding. I don’t think of them when I’m unhappy to remind me of how happy I could be. But I do think of them, and they do remind me of how glad and satisfied I’m capable of being, even in difficult or inauthentic circumstances. Just as I don’t re-feel the sadness or anger or loneliness, I don’t re-feel the gladness or joy, but I think of what caused that emotion, and I know that the sources of joy, gratitude, laughter, love, excitement, anticipation, fellowship, compassion, pride, fulfillment and peace are all just as available to me now as they were in the past, if not more so.

This is the benefit of remembering, with clarity and intention. We don’t glorify the past or the present, but we understand that we have the power to make choices in our circumstances, whatever they are, to tap into what fills us and lights us up, and reject what brings us down and makes us miserable. We know that the lonely times don’t equal loneliness forever, and the successes don’t keep us on a high forever. We know that feeling intense grief, or intense love, or intense anxiety, or loneliness or fear or excitement, is only a place to start, with everything possible beyond what those experiences offer us.

We don’t have a cold forever. Now and then when we’re feeling great and probably not even noticing how healthy we are, it might benefit us to remember how awful it is to be sick, feel grateful that we’re not, and take some extra Vitamin C.

 

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january blues

Where I live in Northern California, January shows up with fog, rain and cold. We’re lucky not to have to deal with winter storms of ice and snow or negative temperatures, but it isn’t warm and balmy, either. Here and there we might catch a sunny day, usually with a biting chilly wind—not the best weather for being outside, but still more livening than fog or a thick layer of clouds. The holidays are over, but winter has only just begun, with springtime still months away and summer a far-off glimmer in the distance.

This is the time of year when I often experience a low. I’m in it before I really understand what’s happening. And then I see friends and family going through something similar, reminding me that I’m not alone in this.

It helps to remember that it isn’t unusual to feel an emotional lull in January. Finances can be tight because of holiday spending, outdoor activities limited, and social plans suddenly dwindling—which in my case doesn’t help counter my tendency to curl up under thick blankets in my softest, most forgiving pants. From being invited to an almost overwhelming number of holiday gatherings with a long list of presents to buy and wrap and travel plans to make, suddenly nothing seems to be happening.

Of course we can make new plans, start new projects and think about trips we want to take in the coming year (even if we can’t afford them yet), but it’s not the same when you feel a little down. It’s more work, and harder work, to get excited about things, and even though the payoff would be bigger, knowing that doesn’t seem to increase my motivation. Anything extra, even the fun of organizing and anticipating a trip or a party or an outing, feels like too much to take on.

As with most funks, the very things that would probably make us feel better are the same things we feel most like avoiding.

So that’s where we are. Kind of stuck.

Stuck between the bright rush of the holidays, however stressful, and the bright warmth and energy of spring. Wedged oddly in a place where we feel sort of bleh and lousy because we have nothing to look forward to, and feel too bleh and lousy to start actively planning things to look forward to.

Dampened by the weather, weighed down by internal baggage (not to mention all the celebratory food and drink I consumed in December), I don’t feel inclined to start a new writing project, book my summer travels or commit to more than a sporadic evening out in the coming weeks.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. We don’t need to feel lousy about feeling lousy and make the whole thing worse by rampant self-judgment and even more intense cycles of sloth, shoulds and guilt—but we also don’t need to aggressively push ourselves out of it.

We’re feeling this way for a reason. It’s the fallow of the year, and while it isn’t something we’re required to enjoy, we also don’t have to reject it. We can find a way through it that allows us to have the experience it but not wallow in it.

After I’ve acknowledged that this is happening, and that it’s OK that it’s happening, what helps during these doldrums is just to give myself a little more room. I consciously try to loosen my expectations and open my mind.

I allow myself more space to feel vulnerable and weird and loose-endish, if I need it. It isn’t comfortable to feel those things, but not allowing the space to feel them doesn’t help, either. I allow for more time in my sweats on the couch—especially if I’ve managed to jump on the treadmill for a walk or quick jog first, but even if I haven’t. More room to imagine what might be next, without having to do one damn thing about it. More quiet to call in what I want, even if I’m not ready for it to arrive.

I don’t make long lists of every chore I want to do or everything I want to accomplish this year. Not unless I feel inspired to do that, which, let’s face it, I probably won’t. I spent 10 minutes looking at flight and hotel deals the other day, was quickly overwhelmed and immediately closed the browser. There’s time to decide later on. I’ve thought about my next book, even scribbled a few notes for it—and that’s it. When I’m ready to start writing, I will.

Our emotions, minds and bodies have cycles for a reason. We need the fallow, subdued, empty times, whatever season they happen to fall in, in order to have the creative, exciting, dynamic times when we stuff our calendars and achieve goals right and left. It also makes so much sense that a lot of us would experience an emotional down after the holidays, which can be such an emotional high, or just heightened emotionally, or both.

Added to that are also the physical repercussions of a lack of vitamin D, a nasty flu season and the possibility of winter-onset seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can hit hard in these darker, colder months.

So let’s give ourselves a little more room. Prioritize the basic things we need to care for ourselves like drink water and walk and sleep and eat well, and not worry about anything too ambitious over that—not unless it feels good. Ignore the pressure of resolutions and instead set authentic intentions. Allow ourselves space to dream, to journal, to call in, to go to the movies, to binge watch Stranger Things again, to doze over a book. Feed ourselves good things, mind and body: healthy food and funny shows and compelling stories, and avoid junk as much as we can.

And if we need a little moderate junk here and there, an Its It or “The Bachelor” or a glass of wine? That’s OK, too. I feel better when I indulge myself right along with jogging and cooking vegetables, and it keeps me from swerving into any exhausting extremes.

If we can acknowledge and honor this letdown feeling, we can use it as a time of finding our balance again, of consciously slowing down, becoming more mindful of ourselves, and looking forward to what the year can bring. We don’t have to rush through the low, or judge ourselves for our desire to hide, or worry over our lack of plans to look forward to. We can let ourselves be in it and see what it can offer us.

It starts with giving ourselves a lot of extra compassion, reaching out to people we trust (who are probably feeling the same, if we only knew it), and taking the extra space we need to re-align with what bring us joy, fulfillment and gratitude.

And, if nothing else, remembering that spring will be here soon.

 

the reality of this moment

Yesterday I had one of those days that chews you up and spits you out. I got all caught up in multitasking on a bunch of complex and somewhat frustrating projects at work, as well as reading the news, as well as trying to get everything ready for my upcoming vacation. By the end of the day, I could tell that my fuse was much shorter than usual. I went home and sat down with some marinated mozzarella and a small tot of bourbon, all riled up but still aware that in order to be OK, I needed to recharge my batteries. After 10 minutes, I felt calmer and more at ease. I could laugh at my reaction to the day’s events. But I needed enough self-awareness to pamper myself first.

Now is the only reality we know. If it’s stressful, if it’s blissful, it’s all we’re capable of being fully aware of. It’s distracting and all-encompassing—even while it’s utterly transient. Now never lasts for long. Even hours of jury duty, even the worst date, the worst relationship, ends eventually. It might take time, months or even years, but ultimately the state we’re living in will change, end, transform and bring us to another state. More often than not, states last less than a day, to the point where we could look back in five days, five weeks, five months or five years and not remember what happened.

When I look back at the worst times in my life, drenching and awful as they were, I clearly see how they were also transient. They passed, though I couldn’t see the future at the time of their passing—they did pass. Most of my early adulthood was worst times and all-right times. There weren’t a lot of best times. Now that I’m in a better place, I can look back on the last four years as really, really good times. I don’t see it in terms of bad and OK. I see it as my life, with temporary periods, mostly days or partial days, when I’m not at my best, when I fight with my partner or fight a cold, when I’m cranky at work or things just aren’t going my way. But the baseline is good. The status quo, the reality of now, is good. I feel at home with myself, I feel free to create my life as I need to, I feel aligned with what matters to me.

This wasn’t always the case. And I have endless empathy for anyone struggling with a baseline, with a whole series of days or weeks, which doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t bring them joy, doesn’t open them up to greater understanding or compassion or gratitude. Instead life brings them confusion, pain and suffering—which they survive, as if living in post-apocalyptic Earth, scrambling for basic needs, hoping for a release. I lived through that with my ex-husband, who didn’t feel like he would ever measure up to the world and decided not to try, eventually embracing the soothing torture of Oxycontin addiction to ease his pain. I lived it even more with my ex-boyfriend, a manipulative ex-addict who created drama for drama’s sake, stole from me and used me mercilessly to achieve his own ends. I lived it within myself, a person confined and smothered by the expectations and approval of others, unable to truly see or acknowledge myself.

Life will never be perfectly easy or purely delightful. No matter what we do, how much money we have, who we love, what we value, life challenges and irritates and surprises us. But we can live aligned with our values, and feel centered in that.

We can stand in our own truth, surrounded by those who support us, keeping at an emotional or physical difference those who don’t, and feel strong.

We can ride the news of each day with a balance of attachment and distance, recognizing that change is possible, that hope is not foolish, that united we are stronger, and each small step is valid—and now is not forever.

Now is our reality. Our consciousness only exists in this moment, for better or worse. We can’t go back, we can’t fast forward. Life is now, as we build it, as we create it, as we submit to it.

We can’t control it. But we can control the self we bring to it. We can determine how we act in it—not our reaction, necessarily, but the choices we make, what we say, what action we take.

The only way to thrive is to see, feel, and honor yourself in this now. Not to live only for now, because now leads to an endless series of nows, and one now’s impulse can create a lifetime of consequences. But to live within the now. To understand that it’s both transient and forever. To be self-aware enough to recognize the options and actions we’re presented with, to give ourselves the time and space to think through the consequences and sit with our inner wisdom.

It isn’t always possible, but there’s always another opportunity coming, another now, to practice in.

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.

relationships and the space around us

“Sorry, babe, but I need some space.”

“Needing space” has become a clichéd reason for stepping back from a relationship, a generic phrase that basically equates to: “I want to give you less time and/or intimacy,” and possibly even “you have too many demands/expectations.” It lives right alongside the classic lines “it’s not you, it’s me” (=”I don’t want to be with you”) and “I’m just not ready” (=”I’m not interested in continuing this or moving forward”). Another glib excuse to break up that really means nothing at all.

But the more time I spend thinking about conscious dating, it’s become clear that space has actually mattered a lot in my relationships. Not just a safe and comfortable physical space, but a safe, comfortable and expansive mental and emotional space. Like having healthy boundaries, having healthy space just wasn’t anything I valued or even really noticed before.

A depressingly apt is example is that during the two-plus years I was involved with a toxic and manipulative partner, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for space. I was heavily attached to him, while most of the time he was distant and withdrawn from me, even if he was sitting in bed beside me. It was a very lonely feeling. As far as I was concerned, I needed more from him, not less—more quality time, more affection, more everything.

I was wrong, though. Because the truth is, I had absolutely no emotional space with him. He crowded that from the moment he began love-bombing me, overwhelming my better instincts, zoning in on my vulnerability and kindness to achieve his own ends. And I allowed it. My gut told me that things were moving too fast, but I couldn’t seem to say no, even though nothing felt right. When I was able to take some kind of stock, I was already unbelievably entangled and had few boundaries left standing.

Added to that, my home wasn’t a safe space when we were dating. He moved in “temporarily” two months after we met, and temporarily turned into two years. Even when he wasn’t present, my apartment wasn’t mine. When he was there, I never knew what sort of mood he’d be in, if I’d find him in an icy rage or self-pitying funk, or if I’d accidentally set off the cycles of emotional abuse, crisis and seduction he excelled at. Home just wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

I was always uneasy, always watchful, always struggling against tides that I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize that I was being crowded, suffocated and besieged, even though that’s exactly how I felt. Finally the tides shifted, circumstances began to change, I started to pay some attention to that strangled feeling and push back in small ways, and he cut his losses and agreed that it wasn’t going to work.

The day he moved out, I felt utterly, wildly free. I felt like myself. Suddenly there was space around me, all the space I could ever want. Emotional space to feel everything I needed without the exhausting burden of attachment or anxiety over his moods and drama. Mental space to clearly understand what had been going on, identify, process, evaluate. My home was a place of comfort and safety again, where I had full control over the emotional climate. I couldn’t imagine how I’d been surviving for all those unhappy months, or why I’d believed that he was worth everything I gave.

I relished my space. I dove into it and found peace. I was giddy with the freedom it offered. Space to grieve, to think through, to repair. To forgive myself. To imagine new possibilities.

Only when mine was restored did I start to understand how important space is, and begin to really notice and value it. It’s central to personal freedom and self-empowerment. It allows for true intimacy, creativity, growth, mental clarity and emotional well-being. It doesn’t stop us from being close to others, but does stop us from getting entangled with them in unhealthy ways.

Any relationship can push into our space if we allow it. When we feel like we just don’t quite have enough psychological “room” for ourselves, enough time to consider each choice, enough detachment from emotional burdens or expectations, or a safe enough environment, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to live an authentic life and be aligned to what matters most to us. We can feel trapped and smothered, anxious and exhausted, painfully aware that something just isn’t right.

Whether the crowding is innocent or intentional, whether we allowed it or inherited it, it’s not an easy thing to change. Recognizing the issue is probably the hardest part, since we almost never seem to value our space until it’s opened back up around us. Like all challenges in relationships and life, nothing changes until we do, until we’re ready to make the hard choices and take the hard steps.

Space matters more than I ever imagined it could, especially space between us and those we hold most dear. If we feel as though we’re emotionally stifled and entangled and have no room to breathe, desperate for some time alone or away to recharge and reset, that’s a pretty glaring red flag that our space has been compromised and we probably need to step back from the person or relationship, even just internally. It doesn’t have to mean the relationship is doomed or the person isn’t good for us, but only that we don’t have the space we need to thrive.

One of the most positive, empowering things about my current relationship is all the space I continue to feel around me. From the start I had unlimited room to react, analyze, process and make decisions that were right for me. It was beyond reassuring to feel that we could take our time and explore the possibilities freely and joyfully. Not once have I felt rushed or invalidated or anxious. I’m deeply attached to my partner, but that attachment has never put pressure on my emotional space.

I believe successful relationships have their foundations in profound respect: respecting the other person as a whole, unique being separate from us. Respecting their time, privacy, belongings and money, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, perspective, experience and opinions. I respect my partner’s emotions and feel empathy without taking on his feelings or worries as my own. When we disagree or muddy the waters, there’s always space to communicate, listen, forgive and compromise.

Space to ourselves is also one of the biggest benefits of singlehood, something I took for granted in the past. As I’ve written about previously, consciously being single is incredibly empowering and revealing, giving us one of the best chances we’ll ever have to recognize and prioritize the things that matter most to us, the places we need to grow and wounds we need to heal. Having no romantic entanglements, or only casual ones, allows us to fully appreciate the space we need and ensure that we keep it in every new relationship.

Right up there with healthy boundaries and knowing what you want, noticing and valuing our need for space makes it possible for us to develop stronger, deeper connections with others and a more empowered, authentic self. And that’s definitely worth paying attention to.