thriving

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, and 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. Which instead brings them pain and suffering—which they survive, like a post-apocalyptic Earth, scrambling for basic needs and hoping for a release. I lived through that with my ex-husband, who didn’t feel like he would ever measure up to thew 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.

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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.

 

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.

choosing my words

A few years ago, a friend told me about an end-of-year practice of choosing two words. One represented the year that was ending, one the year about to start. I’ve continued this practice since then, and found it a simple and surprisingly powerful way to realize my intentions about the new year. It doesn’t involve goal-setting or resolutions or month-by-month reviews of what happened in the past. All of those practices can be helpful, but this is a hell of a lot simpler. Just choose two words, or sets of words, that represent each year to you. (There aren’t any rules, you can choose nouns or adjectives or verbs, many words or just one.)

It’s been interesting doing this over the course of multiple years and keeping a record of the words, as I often find in December that the word I chose the previous year accurately described my experiences. Last year I chose thriving as my word for 2014, and I felt like it was truly a year of thriving. It was also a year of personal breakthroughs, so that’s the word I chose to describe it in hindsight. Other words I’ve chosen have been adventure, acceptance, grace, loss and freedom. My words have even switched midyear, when I felt like they needed to change.

The simple practice allows me to both look backwards and to set intentions in a positive, effortless way. It never feels like a chore—it’s just two words! I look at where I’ve been and where I want to go, finding a word that represents what I’d like to accomplish in the months ahead. At the same time, the word for the previous year gives me a gentle resolution for what has come and gone.

My coming-year word is open to all kinds of interpretations and uses. It could be a sort of mantra, or a theme for my journal. I could choose to write a poem a week on the topic of the word (or more realistically, maybe a poem a month), and/or try to embody the word in the choices I make. It’s up to me how much or little I want the word to stay with me.

And, if I look back next December and the year had nothing to do with my word, I just choose another one to describe what happened, feeling empowered to change my story as it unfolds.

My 2014-2015 words…
2014:  breakthroughs
2015:  love

UPDATED 1/13/2016:

My 2015-2016 words…
2015:  release
2016:  balance

the richest lessons can be found in the darkest moments

It’s awful. Falling apart is awful.

No two crises are the same, even for the same person, but there are common themes and feelings that arise when life as we know it falls apart. The sick, sad, anxious knotting of the stomach that can’t possibly consider food. The hot waves of shame that come and drench us with disabling embarrassment and regret and guilt and fear, leaving us chilled to the very marrow of our bones when they finally pass. The aching feeling of being separated from everyone around us, imprisoned within our misery, unable to be wholly comforted. The choking sensation of tears, never far away. The conviction that we did this, we deserve this, we don’t deserve help and nothing will ever be the same again. No matter who or what bears the blame, everything in a crisis is overwhelming and distorted into an oppressively negative perspective.

There’s no way around this, the only way to get through it is through it. Through all the anger and shame and fear. It took me two years to finally feel the rage I had built up from my first, and biggest, life crisis—for two years it lived in my stomach and heart and mind, poisoning me, hiding in shadows and affecting everything though I didn’t recognize it. Once I allowed myself to actually feel and express the pent-up rage against my ex-husband, it was only the start of my true healing—and unfortunately I was all caught up with another, and very toxic, relationship at that point, which slowed me down by another two years. Five years from my crisis, I started to feel fully healed and actualized from everything it took and gave and taught me, all the loss and anger and sadness.

I know the worst thing we can do is hide it away. Make things OK because we NEED them to be, by force of will and deliberately turning our backs on the hardest emotions and the most upsetting truths, because we know we’re to blame and it’s easier to take accountability than it is to feel anger, or because we’re too afraid of the emotions that might come out if we let them. I hid it away and turned my back for years. I don’t regret that time. I made some extremely bad decisions, but I also found peace and began to make friends with myself. The biggest benefit from running from my anger and not processing it was that I learned how important it is to never do so again. How vulnerable we are—without realizing it—when we’re wounded. How resilient and strong we are when we give ourselves a chance to repair. But the wounds have to be opened and cleaned, they have to have that stinging exposure to light and air before we can begin to cleanse them out and stitch them up. And it hurts. It hurts A LOT. A different kind of hurt than the aching festering soreness we’ve hidden from for so long. Much more immediate, impossible to ignore, impossible not to feel.

But that’s the start of healing. The sharpest pain, when felt fully, invited in, given space, even honored, will ease, and will leave behind a more wholesome wound that’s ready to start closing. Forgiveness is the final salve on those itching, healing wounds, helping seal them cleanly forever. They will leave behind scars, reminding us of the hard-fought wisdom we gained. We won’t make those same mistakes again.

I look back at myself five years ago, shaking and bruised and overwhelmed, and I see how far I’ve come. I also see the same person I always was, the person I will become through future troubles and grief. I gained so much insight about myself, yet there are whole continents left still to discover within me. So much more to learn, to heal, to release. And the crisis helped get me here—through all the terrible choices and pain and tears, through losing things I once thought I couldn’t live without. And I survived without them, I survived the loss of them. My husband, my best friend, my married identity and my marriage, my beloved pet, my self-respect and self-trust. The exterior things are gone for good. But I gained back my self-respect and self-trust. I gained a new identity, stronger and rooted in self, not in other. I learned what boundaries mean. I found my partnership with myself, found my faithful, wise inner guide, found a way to be alone without fear or lack.

I hate anyone has to go through such a sad and traumatic time. I hate that anyone has to bear a burden of shame and loneliness, and be afraid of what’s to come.

But in another sense, without in any way lessening my empathy for their pain, I’m excited for what could happen. I’m hopeful. If they can survive the pain and fire and grief and more bad decisions and upheaval and anxiety and overwhelm, they have a chance to rebuild on foundations stronger than they’ve ever imagined, out of the ruin of what was. It isn’t a quick process. Only recently am I finally feeling healed from my crises, five years from the first, a year from the second. I know I have more growing to do in just about every way—but I don’t think I have much more grieving to do. I feel at peace with what happened to me. Bubbles of anger or shame still rise occasionally, they did this week, but they’re much easier to let go of now. The deep contentment I feel at the truth of my life, the grace of having even a partial awareness of this truth, was worth every moment of heartbreak.

I wake up happy and hopeful, and I go to sleep the same. The superficial passing of emotions—boredom, dissatisfaction with work, frustration with others or myself, stress, irritation, resistance, greed, hurt, worry, embarrassment—these are nothing. They have no effect on the deeper satisfaction, gratitude and gladness I feel at my life. They come and go in ripples across a still, calm, silent lake. The depths of me is satisfied, is conscious of that satisfaction and grateful for it, is hopeful and yet detached. I used to feel as if I couldn’t possibly make sense of anything. I was caught up in an unhappy dream of myself, dissatisfied and lost, riddled with fear, beset by lack. Madly running from man to man and solution to solution, using anything to make the pain go away—except facing it.

I’m not afraid to face my pain. I’m not afraid of my darkest, most shameful secrets, my most reprehensible crimes against others, my most foolish choices, my most excruciating wounds. There will always be more rocks to turn over, more dark secrets to bring out, more behaviors to recognize and address. But for the first time, I feel whole. Wholesome and healthy, all the way through me, nourished and secure. I know I’m thriving—I can feel myself doing so, even as road rage or envy ruffles my surface. I would never have gotten here if it hadn’t been for the worst moments of my life.

So while I don’t wish that pain on anyone, I do wish on them what can happen after the pain. The freedom from dragging despair, from the cloud of dissatisfaction and negativity that never quite lifts, from autopilot and hiding from our own truths, fearing who we really are, unable to love ourselves with unconditional abandon like no one else ever can or will. The freedom to thrive.