Updated: Jul 27, 2020
March 2019 Soul Notes
I was inspired to write this piece by an interview with the Hungarian physician, teacher, writer and trauma expert, Dr. Gabor Maté. Across his career, Dr. Maté has identified that duty, responsibility and a heightened sense of caring for others, are significant risk factors for chronic illness. He cites a number of examples of people who were diagnosed and/or have died from such illnesses and the character traits they have in common. Often people who put others first. Family, friends, clients, patients or even a cause. People who live what we might describe as “honourable” lives. Perceived as kind, caring, devoted and ego free, never showing any negative emotions. He argues that people learn to behave this way as an adaptation to survive childhood stress. We learn early in life to put our parents’ or caregivers’ needs before our own in order to be cared for, and ultimately to survive. This continues into adult life involuntarily as it becomes a pattern of ingrained behaviour, driven by continuing (often unidentified) attachment needs. The late actor, Robin Williams, recognising it in himself, called it the “Please love me” syndrome. Alongside our need for love and connection however, is a competing survival need. This is the need for authenticity, the need to know and trust and be ourselves. Our gut feelings hold clues to survival too. If we feel angry toward someone, there is a clue that they are likely crossing a personal line and we feel scared or threatened. Anger is not “bad”. It is a healthy response. However, if we suppress that anger, don’t express what we want from the other, and let them continue to cross that line, the anger turns inwards. If we do this consistently to preserve the status quo in our relationships, then it is possible that it may lead to some form of illness. So the dilemma we often face is, do I act in a way that is true to myself, or do I act to keep my relationships safe? That's the question I'm sitting with as I type each word. What feels safe here? Will I be judged? How will I be judged? Similarly, I hear my clients wrestling with this dilemma all the time. The desire to connect and belong can be so strong that we become chameleons and abandon ourselves. I know I've made life-changing decisions simply to please others, even though they were not right for me. I also know I'm not alone. I have one young client pursuing her "successful" career, which she hates, so as not to upset her parents. I have another who is agonising about not challenging bullying behaviour by a senior leader in his organisation. I have many clients who are not asking for a well-deserved pay rise for fear of rejection. And others who recognise that there are difficult conversations to have with colleagues, friends and partners but fear disrupting the relationship. The list is endless. In all of these cases, people have a strong sense of what they want and need (the connection to self and their gut feeling) but they sacrifice this part in order to maintain what is often a tenuous connection. This is a stressful way to live and work and many of these people report disrupted eating patterns, feeling distracted/addicted to their emails or phones, heavy drinking and other symptoms that signal that something is not right. These are all ways to numb the pain of being disconnected from ourselves. They may also sleep poorly, find it difficult to concentrate, experience stomach cramps or back pain or some other physical discomfort that they have learned to ignore and/or treat as an inconvenience to be got rid of, rather than as a signal that something is out of whack. The other characteristic shared by these clients is that they judge themselves so harshly for everything. They self-flagellate and criticise themselves mercilessly to the point where it is extremely difficult to bear witness. I also recognise some of this in myself and wonder if this is why Soul Notes is so hard to write this month. Can I be authentic and write about something so close to my heart? Or do I bow to my incessant worry about what people (you) will think me and write something safer? I reckon this issue is pressing for many of us which makes me doubly uncomfortable. But I think my discomfort is a clue. Pain pointing the way to what’s important. Am I more interested in you approving of me? Or, am I interested in giving voice to what I’m learning and experiencing and in creating space for you to do the same so that we can both be authentic with each other? For this seems to be the work. How do we embrace our authenticity and build real connections that are based on an honest account of who and how we are in the moment? This requires that we engage with our judge. Psychologist and author, Tara Brach describes our judge as being like an “over-controller spacesuit”. We put it on when we were little and forgot to take it off when we outgrew it. If our judge tells us that people won’t like us if we say “no”, then that message dominates our adult behaviour and we find it impossible to refuse to do something even when we’re exhausted or unsure if it’s the right thing to do. If we don’t know that this is happening, then we feel like we don’t have a choice because we’re identified with the one who can’t say “no”. She says that the trick is to be able to step outside the spacesuit and relate “to” the judge rather than “from” it, bringing compassion and love to all of ourselves as we understand why we behave in this way. In the presence of these qualities, we begin to see the possibility for change. My judge is pretty determined that I should “fit into” this world by learning the rules of others and abiding by them really well. I used to say that I would have made a brilliant Communist in my days living in Russia, as I was so open to whatever I was told, no matter what my inner compass was telling me. My drive to belong means that I am open and willing to consider others’ views and feelings which is a real strength and helps me build deep and trusting relationships. However, it is also my Achilles heel as I can lean so far in the direction of the other that I feel like I have no anchor in my own thoughts and feelings. In this place, I’m unable to find my ground to lead, to shape, to assert and I focus solely on making sure our relationship is working. Much of my personal work centres on recovering that ground, trusting my own power and instinct and being able to reach for the things that I want. More recently, I’ve been learning more about bringing the compassion Tara Brach describes to myself and my judge. If I allow myself, in the words of my wise supervisor, to “give myself to myself as I am”, without needing to get anywhere, then a wholly different space opens up. Coaching, therapy, supervision - these are all places where this awareness can begin to emerge if you're curious and patient. As we get to know ourselves more fully, the “house of belonging” of David Whyte’s poem above is found within us and we begin to relate more honestly. Ultimately, in the words of Rupi Kaur:
“how you love yourself is how you teach others to love you”
So let's teach each other how to be both ourselves, and in relationship. Let's hold space for the honest conversations and invite each other to be right where we are, rather than always on the road to somewhere else. To a loving month ahead.