On finding the holy grail of self help (and why you need to ditch your dogma)

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Most people I’ve met who are doing some kind of self-help work will hit on something that for them, really resonates. Then they declare, “I tried so many other things—and THIS is what REALLY works!”

They think they’ve found the Holy Grail of self-help. They become evangelists for it. Sometimes, a shadow self emerges that starts to denigrate other forms of personal work, scoffing at it as being somehow behind-the-times or incomplete (many coaches have this attitude towards therapy).

And hey, I’ve done this, too. We all have. It’s sheer arrogance and Ego that has anyone think they’ve found The Thing that is the Best Thing that should be what Everyone Does…and Ego is always driven by an insecure need to reassert its specialness.

It’s only through time and wisdom that we come to learn that there is no Holy Grail of self-help. There is no Holy Grail of anything.

All paths lead to one, and each process was a stepping-stone to another. The years spent doing therapy, while you might not have had your official “breakthrough” at that time, probably gave you foundational ways of looking at yourself through a different lens, or receiving compassion differently than you ever did from your family of origin. And the time spent meditating with that group probably gave you tools for assessing your body or accessing your inner world. And the time spent doing somatic release probably helped you to, well, release some pent up stuff that was stuck—

and if you have your big A-ha while doing work that’s cognitive-behavioral, that doesn’t mean that cognitive-behavioral work is better.

Wherever you have the a-ha, it doesn’t mean that that work is “better.”

It means that all those roads fed together in the intricate dance of who you are as a human being, and nourished the different parts of you in different ways, and one day, all of it came together to be incredibly resonant for you.

As soon as you get caught up in having “found the answer” and evangelizing for it, you’ve officially become caught in dogma.

Dogma always enters your life pretending that you are its master, when really, it has just laid down the slickest little rule book for how you have to live your life.

No one flourishes under the influence of dogma. Dogma becomes stale, eventually, and the tracks that were set for growth end up leading nowhere.

Ditch your dogma. Whatever it is that you think is sacred, knock it off its pedestal a bit, and see it in the greater scheme of all things. There is no one coach, methodology, book, guru, teacher, workshop that is “The One.”

Everything is playing its part in the dance of your life.

when it’s ready, it transforms

Sometimes when I meet my own stuck places, I find that the mantra that comforts me the most when I’m still right here in the messy, yet-to-be-transformed place but I wish I was over there in the nice, happy, transformed place, is this: “When something is ready to transform, it transforms.”

This is about acceptance. We have all of these choices coming at us, moment to moment to moment as for how we’re going to hold something. I’ve wrung my hands any number of times, thinking, “If I know better, then why aren’t I doing better? Why aren’t I doing things differently?”

Answer: When we know better but don’t do better, it’s because we don’t really truly know better, yet. When something is ready to transform, it simply does. It’s that basic and elemental. Things that are still resistant to transforming aren’t yet ready.

Can we all just have some love and acceptance now, for the places in our hearts that are still not ready to transform, that are still waiting? Will we risk loving ourselves anyway?

I loved this from Pema Chodron (from the classic, When Things Fall Apart):

“Perhaps nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. Perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. Maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent to get away from an obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, and manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.”

Transformation is a process.

To whatever degree we can open up some spaciousness for ourselves around our process, the better we’ll be able to get a wider picture, a clearer view, and a more informed perspective.

Often we think the thing to do is clamp down and work harder on “getting it right.” I know that I go there, thinking that I can grit my teeth and work harder to self-help myself out of a tough time. We’ve all done this.

But that’s contracting. That’s running a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent to hope that we won’t have to go through the messy middle part.

Let’s open something up, here. Let’s claim the places where we still haven’t transformed something, where we still want to hide, and just sit in that. “Hi, my name’s __________. I still want to hide in the areas of ________, __________, ________.”

When I claim those places, I notice that it feels much the way I feel after finally making an apology. Sure, I might feel embarrassed about something I’ve done, but it is such a relief to just apologize, to do my best to clean up my part and create connection.

Take out a sheet of paper, a journal (or feel free to use the comments). Write out the areas where you still want to let yourself hide. Then ask yourself: “If I know that nothing ever goes away until it has taught me what it needs me to know, what is this messy stuff that I wish I could avoid actually teaching me?”

Are you willing to have some love and acceptance in your heart for the places that are not yet willing to transform?

The truth about caring what others think

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Truth? I care about what others think and it’s my preference to be liked.

I don’t need that approval to validate who I am, nor do I need it 100% of the time, but if I’m honest (and we might as well be) I like to be liked, and guess what?

So do you.

Why don’t we all just admit this, giving up the goat that makes for such popular internet blog posts, all about “giving no fucks” and “not caring what others think.”

You care, at least a little bit.
You want to be liked, at least a little bit.
Who wouldn’t? Being liked is comfortable and being disliked is profoundly uncomfortable.

I find incredible relief in just being honest about this business of being a human: Ah, yes, no more exhaustion in trying to not care what others think. I’ll just admit that I do care.

But even as I admit that I care what others think—that judgements and criticisms sting—it is equally as true that I do not let those things dictate my behavior.

You can acknowledge that it hurts when others don’t like you, while refusing to live under the illusion that pandering to what they expect will get you anywhere.

It won’t.

Critical people are critical people. They’re wounded, and they deserve our compassion, but they do not deserve our obedience.

The Courage Habit

For some time now, I’ve been geeking out on research about habit-formation, and if you’re interested in not letting what others think control you, I’ve got something for you.

Habits run on a loop of three parts: Cue, routine, reward. For instance, you smell warm brownies coming out of the oven, and you eat them, and experience the reward of a flush of opiate receptors in your body saying, “Yummmm!” If you get the cue of smelling warm brownies often enough, this might become a habit for you, nom-nom-noming on those brownies.

Habits control our actions more often than we like to admit, and it’s my hypothesis that when it comes to fear, we operate on a different cue-routine-reward system:

We feel the cue of fear and “I’m not good enough,” such as at those times when someone dislikes or criticizes our behavior.

We execute a routine—people-pleasing, for instance, or any other manner of fear patterns such as being a workaholic, alcoholic, lashing out in anger, procrastinating, and more.

We execute those routines to get to a reward—the temporary reward of alleviating the anxiety felt when that first cue was executed.

We form a habit when we keep responding to fear in the same way, over and over, in search of that decreased anxiety. Most habits run on auto-pilot, without our consciously thinking about them.

The problem is that executing a fear-based routine such as people-pleasing only gets temporary results. It’s only a temporary alleviation of the anxiety that you feel when someone is criticizing you.

What does the research indicate is a more permanent, effective way of working with fear? I’ve been thinking of it as “The Courage Habit.” There are four parts:

1. Access the body.
2. Listen without attachment.
3. Reframe limiting Stories.
4. Take action.

You access the body so that you can slow down in those moments when you’re caring what others think and you know that you don’t want to just default to, say, people-pleasing or perfectionism.

You listen without attachment—to them, to your inner critic. You just listen to what is being said, but without being attached to the idea that you have to respond in a certain way.

You reframe limiting Stories—as soon as something feels like a “have to,” or you realize that there’s a message of limitation such as “You can’t do this,” you start questioning the fallacy of it. Because no, you don’t ‘have to’ do anything, and actually, you can do something, if you really want to.

You take action—something small, simple, do-able.

Cue, (New) Routine, Reward

Habits form when there is a relatively chronic loop of cue-routine-reward.

The cue of feeling fear or judgement when someone doesn’t like what you do? That probably won’t go away. It’s the thing you have the least control over. You can’t insulate yourself from other people’s criticism or from the very natural feelings of hurt that arise from it.

The reward of feeling less anxiety? You’re only human. Who wouldn’t want to feel some relief when the feelings of “you’re not enough” as a result of someone else’s criticism are arising.

It’s the part in the middle—the routine—that you do have some control over. You could run the old fear pattern (people-pleasing, perfectionism, lashing out, etc.) or you could decide that you want to run a different routine, a courage habit routine, that consists of working with things differently when they arise.

What Others Think

We’ve heard it before: What others think of you is none of your business.

True. What is your business is how you react and respond.

It’ll always be a losing game to either pretend not to care or to pander to what others think.

It’ll always be a winning game to decide that you’ve got options beyond running an old fear pattern.

That’s just what I think. How about you?