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Stay.Right.Here.

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Life seems to be serving up the same lessons that I seem to either forget or think I will eventually master.  In this week’s servings there was nothing over the top out of the ordinary, but none-the-less the challenges of parenting and adulting and relationshiping drudged up old responses that I thought I had out grew.  Just like an old, familiar space my responses were filled with anxiety and worry and a nagging voice that I-am-just-not-doing-enough and that I-will-never-be-enough.

These are the ghosts of my past who somehow fill my present and urge me to problem solve a future that still has yet to become.  

And so I do the old patterns that I’ve learned do not serve me well and this is that I try to control for the circumstances in which I have no control.  Usually how this looks is I try to out do myself– be better– be perfect– be a perfect mom– present a competent, well-put-together adult self for co-workers, be the best listener to my friends, have the patience of a saint for my children, stave off exhaustion or weariness, appear brave, commit to being a giver and resist being a receiver…

I know this is usually a fruitless, soul draining endeavor for me.  I know that the more I live in my head to be perfect and to present perfection the less I live authentically.  Authentic for me is to be in the moment– open to whatever life offers so that I can learn and grow.  Authentic also means that I am where I am… I’m giving what I have… I’m receiving what I can hold and I’m listening in the here and now.

And I’ve learned in the four decades of my life that the efforts to control exhaust me and wear me thin yet, I found myself doing this by default– just easing into this old pattern without giving it a second thought.  In my 20’s and 30’s this likely would go on for a long time, but thanks-be to the development of skills like mindfulness and self-awareness I was able to eventually notice that this pattern had snuck back up.  I was able to evaluate myself and make some different decisions regarding the anxiety and stress I was bearing and the response I wanted to extend to myself.

When I got down to it I realized that the anxiety I was holding was about an uncertain future that I have very little to no control over.  I mean to get really honest with myself I had to realize that I cannot predict or control what is to come and that scares the shit out of me.

I mean…

I can pour every ounce of parenting energy and wisdom into my children, but what they do with that… how they actualize is not in my control.

I can love with every ounce of love my heart and body can muster and I can’t control the outcome and the return of love or of loss or of illness or of death.  (Loving my mother meant taking care of her body and her health toward the fruit of her returning to complete health– I could not control for how her illness was going to compromise her and ultimately take her)

I can make all the ‘smart’, future forward career investment decisions to ensure a future of bright opportunities and financial security, but I can’t guarantee that these opportunities will be extended toward me.

And this lesson presented to me what it always presents to me– that what I have is right now.  I have today.

A few years ago, I did some crazy stuff.  I left everything behind: a marriage, a career, a community, a belief system– on the notion that leaving the toxic aspects of my life would lead to more health and growth.  I had a certain kind of optimism or hope about that decision.

In terms of my mental and emotional health I can say that I’ve seen the fruits of that decision produce the capacity for me to think and to breathe and to live in peace.  It’s in part, why I can presently be more mindful, but in terms of what the future holds I have no certainties and I think that some days I’m still waiting and watching with bated breath– I’m peering into the future, anxieties rising, lungs full– wanting, longing to control the outcomes.  And then life (sometimes in gentle ways and sometimes in not so gentle ways) brings me right back to where I am and says stay.right.here.  Don’t get ahead of yourself.  You have today.  You have this moment.  Stay right here and listen– don’t lose this moment.  Don’t let it slip away.  Bask in it.  Let the sun shine on your face and breathe, because this is what you have and this is what you can be certain of– this- right- here.

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Maya, thank you

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I join the chorus in remembering and commemorating, our dear sister of soul, Maya Angelou.

A few years back I had the great fortune of hearing Maya read.  It was (I believe) to be her last reading tour– She was approximately 83 years old.  The experience was like no other.  It wasn’t really a reading it was a speaking, as words just seemed to fall from her mouth onto our expectant ears.  Here we were child-like perched at her feet– bright eyed and waiting with hopeful anticipation.  And boy did she deliver.

She made her way to the podium…

silence filled the room…

And then she spoke.

Her voice– like a bell rang so clear, so precise, so resonant– lodging into the fibers of our beings immediately.

Her voice– commanding.  It could have just been her and I there in that room for all I knew because her voice had the poise and ability to evoke that kind of intimacy.  And I felt loved.

She spoke that evening of the suffering and the tragedies, the longings and the hopes, the breaths bated and loves thwarted.

She spoke of broken childhood, the rising of a woman and the aching of her aging bones.

Her memory was clear and differentiated.  She held no ties to societies definitions of femininity or beauty.  She stood tall and on her own terms.  She gave the rest of the sense that we, too, could join in that resolution.

She welcomed us into the joys of conceiving and birthing our deepest dreams and yearnings.  She taught us that the sweat, pain and groans of birthing give way to authentic selves.  She called us to never lose hope and reminded us that self-preservation is a lie.

That evening she told us of the process of losing her sight– paying all dignity and honor to the gifts that her eyes gave her over the years and with grace releasing her eyes from the need to strain or maintain.

I know I was one of hundreds that night and yet, I felt like she knew me.  That is what Maya has been doing all these years teaching all of us that we are known, as she exposes her story and the rich tradition of giving voice to tragedy, fear, triumph and courage.

She’s led all of us on this feminine tradition of telling.  There is no need for secrets or hiding here… come as you are naked and open.  Maya along with many other female voices (Adrienne Rich, bell hooks, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem) have been modeling for us this woman tradition of rising up and taking our place and we will ache in her absence.

I was so lucky to participate in that evening.  I’ll never forget it nor her.

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Don’t want to make waves…

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Intimate relationships take a lot of work.  In partnerships there are always two sets of needs, desires, hopes, dreams, etc.  How does one balance one’s own needs, as well as their partner’s needs?

A problem that comes up often in figuring out a balance is when an individual hides her/his personal needs to meet the needs of their partner.  This gives off the feeling that the relationship is balanced.   However, what many find is that in hiding personal needs they realize their relationship is not balanced and this leads to resentment, frustration and loneliness.

It’s true there is no balance in a relationship where one is hiding his or her personal needs from the other.  This dynamic tilts the relationship toward one end of the relationship.

There are a variety of reasons why people hide their own needs:

1)    Trauma- one can’t identify personal needs because abuse and trauma have embedded a message that her/his needs are irrelevant, unimportant or non-existent.

2)    Family of origin issues- family of origin modeled a communication style that was restrictive and repressive.  The family did not communicate openly, authentically or honestly about their feelings, desires and thoughts.

3)    Belief systems—some believe that to have needs is to be selfish, self-centered or self-serving

4)    People realize that to have needs and to communicate those needs complicates the balance dynamic in a relationship.  Additionally, sharing one’s needs (especially when it’s not in alignment with the partner’s needs) can invite conflict.  It takes much more communication and work to identify one’s own needs, communicate them and listen and receive your partner’s needs.

I hear people say all the time, “I don’t share my needs because I don’t want to make waves”.  What if my partner gets upset with me or worse, yet, thinks I’m selfish.  As a therapist this tells me a few things:   1) It’s really scary to be vulnerable– even in the safest relationships.  2) it takes a lot of work to accept that as human beings we all have needs that are valid.  It’s not a selfish thing—it’s just a human thing.  Figuring out what those needs are and meeting them is complicated, but worth figuring out with your partner and 3) many folks do not feel that they have the skills needed to communicate in a way that honors both sets of needs.

Your needs are important.  It’s worth figuring out what they are and acknowledging them.  Part of the negotiating aspect will be to figure out how, when and where to meet those needs.  Your partner can be a supportive part of that process.  Identifying needs doesn’t necessarily mean that those needs get met immediately, but there is something relieving/kind/compassionate about taking time to figure out if, how and when they can be met.

Try it: take a moment to write down a need that you haven’t told anyone about.  Maybe it’s something you’ve been hiding for fear it would be interpreted as selfish.  You can write it down or draw it.  Give yourself the free space to completely explore this need.

–       What is your need?

–       Why is this important to you?

–       How can this need get met?

–       What resources can you identify to aid you in this process?  Is there a financial cost?  Will there be a sacrifice of time or energy?

–       What’s a timeline?

Remember this an exploratory process.  At this point, don’t get bogged down in logistics.  Just have fun with it.

I always encourage couples to identify their personal needs and learn skills to communicate those needs with one another and here is why:

Identifying needs bring greater clarity and empowerment in the individual’s life.  This exploration allows the individual to know her/himself more deeply.  This is a meaningful process as one becomes more aware of self.  I have seen nothing but liberation, freedom and acceptance in people who allow themselves to go through this process.

When people do the work of understanding themselves and they are transparent about who they are in their relationship it brings deeper intimacy in the relationship.  I really think that the reason why we couple up is because we desire to know and to be known.  Unfortunately, when we hide certain aspects of who we are our intimacy with our partner is cut short.

Yes, it is scary, vulnerable and hard work to live in a transparent relationship, but it is also beautifully satisfying to take the risk and find love on the basis of being known for who we really are. 

Book resources:

Couple Skills Making Your Relationship Work by Matthew McKay PhD, Patrick Fanning and Kim Paleg PhD

Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson