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This is the problem that I see myself, and most women I know, struggle with: tolerating what is in fact unworkable and ultimately, intolerable.
The job with the boss who asks that we come in late even after we’ve already said that coming in late has compromised our family life, too much. The partner who finally agrees to start communicating with you more respectfully, but who acts so sulky about it that you give up and stop trying to fight for a better relationship. The children who slowly siphon away every last ounce of energy, without meaning to, while mothers quietly pile more onto themselves, endlessly self-sacrificing.
The bigger problem becomes the culture that is bred from a conspiracy of silence: since everyone is over-working, and everyone is quietly pretending that their marriages don’t encounter serious bumps in the road, and everyone is buying into the idea that endless self-sacrifice for your children is how you show them love, it starts seeming like “that’s just the way it is.”
Everything that is unworkable will eventually become…intolerable. Sometimes, these things become intolerable in ways that don’t feel like a choice: your body totally shutting down, for instance, or you wake up and suddenly, all you see is white-hot rage or feel crippled by depression.
There’s a better option than that, however. You could decide that you’ll start paying attention to what you feel through accessing the body and deciding that the things that don’t feel great need to be examined.
And once you start to examine things, you’ll need to raise the bar for what you will allow .
“That’s just the way it is” is your red flag that something is amiss and you are under the spell of a limiting capital-s “Story,” an internal narrative that needs to be reframed. When we make assumptions about what’s possible, we limit ourselves.
This is not a rallying cry for reciting positive affirmations like a zombie and ignoring socially ingrained privilege. “That’s just the way it is” is a signal to pay attention to, because it points the way to where we need to take action to change the culture, starting by changing our very own lives (as the saying goes, you can’t draw water from an empty well; we don’t change the larger social issues at hand without first examining how we as individuals are limited by, or complicit in, the systems that have created those social issues).
And with women in particular, what I see are limiting Stories that are all about accommodation: accommodating unrealistic expectations, at work, at home, and from society.
I see women accommodating over-work because “this is what you do, to be a good employee.” I see women accommodating unsupportive partners because embedded in accommodation is “this is what it takes to be a good partner, myself.” I see women tolerating ridiculous behavior from their children because, “this is how a good mother behaves.”
Accommodation is tied to “this is just how it is.” We accommodate when we believe “this is just how it is.” We accommodate when someone has fooled us into believing that it is what you must do, to be “good.”
And I say…no.
And you can, too.
To raise the bar of what you will allow, you will need to question the limiting Story that “goodness” is tied to accommodation. Then you’ll need to start saying…no.
Truth: is difficult to say “no” after a lifetime of practicing accommodation. It requires courage, because the social consequences for not being accommodating in a society that expects accommodation from women are real (and for some women, and in some parts of the world, it’s deadly).
Nonetheless, I’m going to take a chance that you, the person reading this, might be willing to unhook from the culture of silence that surrounds accommodation, and start looking at your own life for where you will raise the bar of what you will allow, by not being quite so…accommodating.
Identify the top three areas that feel ridiculously stressful to you (I’ve might’ve already highlighted them, here: the job-partner-kids trifecta, anyone?).
Where are you lowering some basic standards, in order to be accommodating? Where is behavior that’s truly unworkable taking place, and where are you playing along?
Again, the work of saying “no” after a lifetime of accommodation—and especially in a culture that expects any answer but your “no”—is difficult (so hey, blame isn’t helpful, here).
The thing is, no one else is going to raise the bar for what you will allow , for you. No one else is going to hand you better standards.
Jobs who consistently demand too much from their employees don’t just say, one day, “Hey, let’s see if we can get Sally Sue Jones some more reasonable work-life balance.” Partners who are entrenched in dysfunctional relationship dynamics don’t typically wake up one day and offer to do things differently.
And your kids? Well, they are the ultimate boundary pushers, and without an adult willing to say “No” and stand firmly in it, they are unlikely to do anything different. So if you don’t like being a short-order cook, having no time to yourself in the evenings because the kids won’t go to bed, or being hit/kicked/yelled at, then it’s time to stop assuming that kids can’t understand not to do these things–because even two- and three-year-olds can understand, I promise you–and start saying “No,” over and over and as many times as it takes.
It takes two sides, to perpetuate the things that are unworkable: the side that makes demands and the side that accommodates the demands.
To live courageous lives will require asking ourselves where we have become conditioned and habituated to accommodate that which is unreasonable, unworkable, and intolerable—before these unworkable circumstances overwhelm us. Raise the bar for what you will allow .
Most people approach facing their fears as though it’s something they can logic their way through. They think things such as, “If I make a list of all the reasons why failure is unlikely, then I won’t be afraid, anymore!”
But fear doesn’t work that way. Fear isn’t logical; it’s primal. I’m not just talking about the fear you feel in your body as an elevator-dropping sensation when you’re watching a scary movie. Spend too much time ruminating in thoughts such as, It might not work out; everyone will see me fail; that’ll be embarrassing; I’d look ridiculous, and before you know it, you’ll feel your pulse rising, your palms might grow sweaty, and a tiny knot of anxiety will tighten your heart.
If you’re trying to change the old, habitual way of responding to fears, you need to identify the actual fear cues associated with a limiting fear pattern. This work begins in the body, where there’s that first sensory experience of fear. When you start to regularly access the body, you pick up on the first signs that fear is about to be triggered, and then you can use body-based practices to slow down, get clear on what’s really driving self-doubt in that moment, and make different choices.
Before I integrated such practices into my life, I never slowed down enough to feel anything. As a result, I was completely unaware that I had fear patterns of overwork and keeping myself busy as a tactic to avoid feeling insecure or emotionally vulnerable in my life. I was using fear patterns to push away insecurity or emotional vulnerabilities, instead of dealing with them squarely.
This coping strategy worked—until it didn’t. At least a few times a year, my harried pace of life would get so chaotic that I started to shut down. At those times, feelings rushed in like flood of water through a broken floodgate. There wasn’t enough logic in the world to cover over what I felt.
Bypassing your felt experience can only work for so long. Fear that runs in the background is still fear that’s controlling your life.
Taking time to access the body will help you to access your courage.
The process to access the body doesn’t need to be complicated, doesn’t need to involve setting up an altar or visiting a special temple every day, and doesn’t even need to be a ceremony of sorts.
Access the body starting with the breath. Notice what your breath is doing, and what you feel. In The Art of Somatic Coaching, people are asked to notice a number of sensations and somatic experiences, such as the temperature that they feel.
As you do this more and more, you’ll be developing somatic awareness, which is an understanding of what the sensations and feelings in your body actually translate to. It’s the realization that “that tense feeling in my shoulders means I feel like my boundaries are being pushed” or “that lightness I feel in my knees means that I like being around her.”
Slowing down enough to simply take inventory of the sensations that you feel, keeping a light, “No pressure, just curious” attitude about it is enough to engage your nervous system, differently. Remember: Fear isn’t logical; it’s primal. If we feel it in the body, we need to deal with it in the body. No cognitive-behavioral trick can subvert the body’s wisdom on this point, forever.
If you make it a regular practice to just slow down your impulses when nothing in particular is “up,” then it becomes easier to do in the midst of fearful circumstances (or a stressful or challenging situation, a moment of self-doubt or times when your inner Critic is raging).
Of course thirty minutes daily of meditation would be beneficial to you…but if you don’t have time for that, simply taking time to access the body on a regular basis is the next best thing.
For far too long, I was mostly consumed with how to “be a better person.” It was what I would have said to you if you sat with me for a long time over steaming cups of tea and we peeled back the layers, one after another: I just want to be a better person.
Better than what? someone was finally brave enough to ask me, and I said: Better than this.
What’s better than this? this brave person asked me, and that’s when I saw what they saw, and how I was feeding the hungry ghosts of “not enough.”
I thought I needed to be a better person because at my core, who I was, wasn’t enough.
* * *
“But wait,” many a client and workshop participant has asked. “If the point of this work is to accept myself, how can I accept myself, if I’m…trying to be a better person?”
I delight in this question, as I always delight in questions where embedded within the question, is the answer. “That’s right,” I say. “How can you accept yourself, if you’re trying to be a better person?”
“Well, I want to accept myself,” they say. “But, I also want to be a better person.”
“Interesting. Why?” I ask.
“Because…I’d be really sad, if this was, you know…it,” they say.
* * *
Lately I have been partial to describing my work as being about “the and.” I help people to be with both, with whatever is on both sides of “the and.”
Courage and fear.
Commitment and waffling.
Creation and destruction.
Resting and hustling.
I believe that being with “the and” is the only way that we ever arrive at wholeness. We do it through dismantling the logic that would prop up one way of being as the road to being a better person and dismissing the rest. We do it through practicing being with both, even when it’s uncomfortable.
* * *
The desire to be a better person is fundamentally predicated on the belief that something is wrong with you. That’s why it always fails. It’s not just semantics. The choice of “better” is at the heart of the disconnect.
Instead of asking ourselves how to be better people, I think this is a more helpful question: “How can I change the things in my life that I know aren’t working, while also accepting my imperfections?”
Here’s what I know about change: the paradox is that when we start to be fully with the things that we don’t like, the things that we don’t like start to change.
Let’s say that I have a habit of getting sarcastic and critical with someone. The “be a better person” approach might entail remembering the 1-2-3 rules for how to be at conflict resolution or trying to talk myself out of being annoyed by the person’s behavior. Chances are that with that approach, I’ll be successful half the time, and the other half of the time, I’ll end up biting my tongue long enough that I eventually can’t hold myself back anymore—and then I end up snapping at someone.
The approach of shifting while being with yourself, as you are, is about attention. When I am being fully with my sarcasm or the times when I offer someone biting criticism—and I do mean fully, truly, wholly with that experience—I’ll notice that it’s actually painful, for me, to be this way with another human being. It’s painful to be listening to someone and judging them. It’s painful to be thinking of angry comebacks.
If you’re always trying to be better, you put yourself in the position of striving for the courage while stamping out the fear, striving for the creation, stamping out the destruction. It’s exhausting. That’s where all your energy goes.
It becomes impossible to shift something from a place of genuine respect for the self when you’ve already set up the condition that only the “better” option is really acceptable.
Instead, we need to start being okay with “the and.” Yes, courage and fear live within you. Yes, commitment and waffling live within you.
In fact, it’s possible that they always will. This life, in all its imperfection, might be “it.” So then what?
Here’s where I arrived, and where you might arrive, as well: Well, if the things that are hard to be with might always be around, I might as well figure out how to live a good life, alongside them. Hopefully I can do that with some grace, because I have been the first person to meet my soul without conditions.