cleaning out the garbage

“The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.” Alice Miller

In my coaching practice, I use a model/metaphor for explaining the psyche that I adopted from my own coach—that within all of us there is an inner little kid, an adult, and a higher self. The easy, in a nutshell way to explain these three pieces is that the inner little kid governs emotions; the adult is functional, logical, rational; the higher self is that knowing beyond knowing feeling that descends when we are acutely in the present moment.

This model for understanding the personality is the most helpful one that I’ve seen when looking at my own life. For years I was in a beat-me-up spiral, not understanding how it was possible that I was so angry at my parents (because clearly I was, and it showed up in all sorts of little and unexpected ways), yet simultaneously aware that they had done the best they could with the resources they had, and were deserving of compassion. Now I understand that there is an unhealed inner kid, who is on a journey of letting go of stored up anger from when she was a little kid. To a child, it does not matter that anyone has done the best they could. And of course, any functional adult sees the larger picture, that we are all imperfect beings doing our very best.

I felt stretched between these two perspectives, or perhaps like a badminton birdie flying back and forth across a net. If I was getting along with my parents, if I was not feeling triggered by the things they were doing, I was fine. If I felt triggered by their behaviors, my inner little kid had a field day, reminding me of all the other times they’d done something “just like this.” Resentment ensued.

So how to heal this, if you recognize yourself in these words? Start feeling. At first this idea seemed dramatic. Cry? Get angry? Emote? What was the point? “It all happened; there’s nothing I can do about it now,” I remember saying bitterly. But Matthew reminded me that that was the point—there was nothing that one could do to change the past. And, in fact, there were things I could do about it now: Stay a victim because I was mired in those feelings, or start processing them out to get to the other side.

When explaining this to coaching clients, I often like to use the metaphor of a basement. If someone has been throwing their garbage in the basement instead of taking it out to the curb, the garbage might not be seen but you know it’s in there. It smells. Things start to get crowded. And one day, the basement is full, so perhaps you decide to take one or two bags of trash out to the curb, but that’s it, and then some more garbage gets thrown down there until it’s full again.

The body is presenting its bill. It’s time to look at this stuff.

So a few years ago, I began sifting through my own garbage. I began crying whenever the tears came, and screaming into a lot of towels and punching the air and pushing against walls and sometimes getting Andy’s help as witness. It was terrifying. I realized that I was a way more pissed off person than I had ever realized. Also, a way sadder person. I questioned why I was cleaning out this shitty mess, because it was seeming way stinkier and sadder than I’d bargained for.

But then some glimpses came, and I saw that without as much unneeded trash hanging around, there was something lighter, more powerful. It was something I liked. I liked how, instead of starting a fight with my partner when I felt tension, I took care of myself. I liked how, instead of letting things spiral when I was sad, I started looking around and wondering aloud about my options.

I am still doing this work (there’s a lot of garbage). And sometimes there are U-Turns, like when I tell myself that Oh, I could just throw a little garbage down there since I’ve done such a great job of cleaning it up so far, and then it can feel like two steps have been taken back. It’s a fantastically imperfect process, one that I have danced with and wrestled with and am starting to love in my own way, because I’m loving that little kid who is emerging. I’m seeing more sides of who she is, not just the angry stuff but also the super spunky parts. I’m digging how we are feeling just a bit more like a team.

What would you most like to clean out of your basement?

(P.S. Updated at The Wish Studio Blog: Living From the Neck Up)

when things fall apart

I often find myself at a loss for how to describe, how to put exactly into words, what it is that I want for myself or a Courageous Year participant or anyone that I work with. As much as I try to take care with how I put it, sometimes I’ll re-read something I’ve written and see the holes in it; I can see exactly where I might be coming across as believing in “self-improvement” when that’s not really exactly what I mean. I mean something more like “self-transformation,” something that strikes that beautiful balance between walking bravely in where we are right now while holding a vision for something that is more expansive. And–I think that one can have that acceptance + vision without hating one or the other.

While on my Staycation, I’ve been re-reading books that I have long loved. Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart has been captivating me. I didn’t realize why until last night, when I had this really difficult session with my Coach (in which I told him, quite frankly, that I’d been feeling pissed and resentful towards him lately, and in which he responded, quite frankly, that he viewed that as resistance and part of my process, and invited me to look more deeply. And I did. And dammit if he isn’t right. Again.) I realized this morning, after finishing breakfast and taking up Chodron again that I really do feel as though “things are falling apart,” because they are. And if I chose to take a larger view of things, that was actually good.

Things are falling apart, and I am in the midst of that, and without a doubt, I see opportunity in every shift, and I see lovely things on the other side of all of those shifts. When I get right down to it, there is absolutely nowhere else that I’d rather be! How could I have missed that? Things are falling apart in all of the loveliest ways; what’s slowly getting suffocated are habits and patterns that simply don’t work anymore. They are being exposed and exposed again and those patterns can’t hold up their weight anymore, they are “falling apart.”

Then I read this in WTFA this morning, and it so perfectly described what I hope for in myself or Courageous Year participants, and for you, and the world, as we are all on our collective journeys:

“It is said that we can’t attain enlightenment, let alone feel contentment and joy, without seeing who we are and what we do, without seeing our patterns and habits. This is called maitri–developing loving-kindness and an unconditional friendship with ourselves.

People sometimes confuse this process with self-improvement or building themselves up. We can get so caught up in being good to ourselves that we don’t pay any attention at all to the impact that we’re having on others. We might erroneously believe that maitri is a way to find happiness that lasts; as advertisements so seductively promise, we could feel great for the rest of our lives. It’s not that we pat ourselves on the back and say “You’re the greatest,” or “Don’t worry, sweetheart, everything is going to be fine.” Rather it’s a process by which self-deception becomes so skillfully and compassionately exposed that there’s no mask that can hide us any more.” — Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Oh. So beautiful. “It’s a process by which self-deception becomes so skillfully and compassionately exposed that there’s no mask that can hide us any more.”

That word–compassionately. YES. Exposing self-deception–with compassion. YES.

I was talking to a dear friend of mine a few weeks ago about some of the health choices that both she and I make, in particular in relationship to doing juice fasts once or twice a year, or giving our bodies a break from sugar, or wheat, at various times of the year. We were talking about how some people view us doing these things with horror–they simply don’t understand why we would want to deprive ourselves of sugar, or why we would do a cleanse. What’s the point?

My friend shared how she got so much out of doing those cleanses–they exposed pieces of her that were about so much more than just an eating choice. They exposed the places where she was triggered, the places where she ran Stories. “It’s like a trial by fire,” I said to her, and she said, “YES! In that moment when I really want that thing, that cookie or whatever, I see what I’m really made of.” This was how I felt about my thirty days of Bikram yoga–I wanted to see what I was made of. I wanted to see where I would try to wiggle out of a commitment or break down along the way. I was intensely curious about this place, and it taught me a lot.

“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors–people who have a certain hunger to know what is true–feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.” –Pema Chodron

In this moment, I am loving sitting with things as they “fall apart.” It feels like a kind of surrender, a letting go and allowing. I woke up this morning feeling this renewed commitment to diving in despite resistance, which for me is exactly as Chodron puts it: exposing self-deception, with compassion.

When things are falling apart for you, what’s the opportunity?

the right to fail

I mentioned a few months ago that I’d had some major A-ha moments around not taking responsibility for someone else’s experience in my personal life. This was a journey that I believe was first triggered and required work when I was a teacher. It took awhile to sink in.

I remember very clearly the day that I was sitting in my office after a class after having a particularly frustrating conversation with a student who had been a source of near-constant disruptions and behavioral problems all semester. The student was incredibly intelligent, but hell-bent on acting out some kind of authority issue with me in class. Worse, the student was failing. We’d read articles in preparation for an argumentative paper on whether it was self-defense or murder if a woman who was being abused by her husband killed her abuser. This student had written a paper with the thesis that the Constitution gives us all the right to “self-expression” and thus, someone who murders their partner is just exercising their right to “self-expression.” During a peer review, I’d pointed out this logical fallacy (while giving the student due credit for their willingness to at least try and think outside the box and come up with an original thesis).

I’d told the student in no uncertain terms that basing a paper on this kind of thesis was no paper I’d pass because its very premise was flawed. I wanted to give the student time to revise their work. Later, the student turned in the same paper they’d turned in during peer review, with no changes, and when the student failed this paper, this combined with a number of other things missing meant they  failed the class.

The student came to my office and complained. I got completely sucked into this. I think I had some idea back then that if I just tried hard enough, I’d be the next Freedom Writers chick or something. The student was laying it on thick, saying things like, “Maybe I’m not meant for college.” I spent nearly an hour trying to convince the student that s/he was an intelligent person who needed to do XYZ in the future if they were to pass classes. S/he left my office in total victim mode, grumbling something about how teachers were out to get people.

Once the student had left, I held my head in my hands. It was the end of the semester, I was exhausted and wasted and completely wrung out, as I always was at the end of a semester of teaching. A veteran teacher who shared an office with me had heard the whole thing. I was near tears, I was so tired and frustrated. I asked her what she’d thought of the conversation. How could I have convinced this student? How could I have motivated more? How could I have inspired more?

“I think s/he was manipulating you,” she said, “And I think that students have a right to fail.”

A what? A right to…fail? This hit me like cold water. Wasn’t my job to make students pass, not fail?

“No,” she said. “Your job is to teach your subject. You can’t ‘make’ someone pass. You lay out the guidelines in the clearest possible way, you give regular feedback so that people can course-correct, you share what else needs to happen to master a particular skill. But it’s not your job to ‘make’ students pass.”

She said all of this calmly and simply, in a soft voice devoid of angry energy. This was coming from someone who was beloved by her students, someone whose desk was covered with cards from thankful students at the end of each semester.

“You can’t be responsible for their choices,” she said. “Did you tell this student to change the premise of their paper?”

“Yes,” I said. “Once when s/he talked to me after class, and again at peer review.”

“So they knew. S/he was manipulating you. S/he knows what they need to do to pass. You outlined things clearly. You took time to talk to this student after class and at peer review. You just spent an hour talking to this student, convincing her/him to keep trying. And s/he leaves the conversation and says that ‘teachers don’t care’ and you take on that responsibility? That’s not your responsibility to take on. S/he has a right to fail. Let them choose.”

I let her words sink in. This was a teacher I respected, who I’d invited to observe me teaching during my first year. I had voluntarily asked for this because I wanted to be assessed and given feedback. She’d given me great feedback–both of a critical/constructive nature, as well as praise. She was not one to simply pump somebody up if they were having a bad day.

“Kate, you are a good teacher,” she said, as though the matter were now to be closed. “Let them make their choices.” Then she turned back to her work.

I was thinking of this today as I was musing about failure, and how long it has taken to embrace supposed “failures” and see the gold in them, to allow myself to make the choices I’m going to make, to trust the process. I was having this moment of fear and not enoughness, how I “should” be doing more, and then I was thinking about this student and all that their process taught me. I learned that I needed to just show up with love and acceptance for whatever a student’s process looked like.

Sometimes our processes will include failing English classes, or losing jobs, or botching relationships. Is any of it really failure, if we stay connected to a willingness to have some love and acceptance of the process? I think not.

I was thinking today that this is a handy thing to take with me, too–BEing my journey, showing up with love and acceptance for whatever my process looks like, even now.

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