fear

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.

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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.

a place to start

“You seem embarrassed by loneliness, by being alone. It’s only a place to start.”
—”Sabrina,” 1995

The character who says this to Sabrina in the 90’s movie adaptation is a chic, successful Frenchwoman, speaking wistfully of her own experience in coming to Paris years before. I remember being struck by her tranquil confidence, and by the suggestion that being alone or lonely could be embraced, rather than feared. It stayed with me, though at the time I didn’t have the experience or the self-awareness to understand what it meant. Being on my own was unthinkable—loneliness was a worst-case scenario, something to be avoided at all costs.

One early marriage, one divorce and one toxic rebound relationship later, I’ve grown to love these words. They come back to me whenever I’m feeling the lack of something inside me—not just a loving partner or the companionship of others, but lack of worthiness, or validity, or visibility. I’ve come to understand that longing and loneliness are part of our journey as people. Our quest is not to eradicate any sense of lack within ourselves, or to never ever be lonely ever again, but to honor and embrace these feelings.

They will come, no matter how happily married we are, how successful, how busy, how fulfilled. Perhaps not often, or perhaps daily or weekly or hourly, we all experience some level of aloneness and the longing to connect. Spiritual practices are built to help us find that connection within ourselves, and can be very successful at doing so. But I don’t believe they stop the emotions, they only provide us with tools and methods for experiencing them in a healthy, healing way.

And so the feelings come, at some moments stronger than others. Ignoring them doesn’t work, they only grow bigger and wilder, until we’re desperate to assuage the craving to be made whole, grasping for it with insatiable need. My determination to avoid my yearnings and aloneness in any way possible catapulted me into the arms of a narcissistic manipulator, who was all too happy to use my vulnerability against me. And I can’t even blame him for taking advantage of it, I basically walked into the lion’s den, knelt down and bared my throat.

Only after that unhappy mess finally ended did I started to understand the power of honoring my loneliness. Of looking at each negative or difficult emotion—anger, grief, longing, fear, lack, disorientation—as a place to start.

This simple phrase carries such limitless hope for me. In my darkest moods, in my worst anxiety and deepest anguish, to come back to that place of calm, that still center in myself that loves me and knows me and will never abandon me. “It’s only a place to start.” More than that, it’s the best possible place to start. It’s everything I need it to be, right now, at this moment.

Here is where I love myself better, and am my own friend and ally.

Here, I start again to let go of my resentment and process my anger, to understand my own spirals of fear and denial.

Here, I wake up again from autopilot and am conscious of the beauty and joy and vibrancy and transience of my life.

Here, lost and alone, I embrace my suffering.

Here I begin and begin again, as many times as I need to.

I’m no longer embarrassed by my lonely moments, my longing to belong and to be needed and loved, my fears and resistance. These are all part of who I am, and part of what I have to go through to find my way to feeling whole, valid and fulfilled.

“It’s only a place to start.”