Often our suffering comes because we have an idea of how things ought to be and they aren’t that way. The way we think things ought to be, our expectations and disappointments, they are like a rock we keep carrying around even though the rock weighs us down and keeps us stuck.
Sometimes we pick up the rock in our childhood when we get told that the way to a good life is this one particular way. Maybe the rock is our ideas about the career we want to have or the children we want to parent. We have this picture of how it has to be and that becomes our ideal, the rock that we carry into our Real Lives where things are more complicated and often uglier.
Maybe we don’t pick it up. Maybe it’s handed to us when someone tells us that we will be happier if we get prettier or smarter or nicer. Then the rock becomes the perfect self we want to be. We live under the heavy pressure of that flawless version of our imperfect selves.
So the way to happiness is easy, right? Just put down the rock.
But the thing about these rocks is that over the years we get used to carrying them. They may be heavy but we start to believe that they protect us. As long as we’re carrying them then we’re also carrying the hope that we can make them come true and that somehow keeps us safe. It’s scary to think things like, “I might never be as thin as I want to be.” or “I might never find the perfect partner.”
If we put the rock down, then what do we have to cling to? If we put it down, we have to confront the truth that we might need to learn to be happy without those things we so desperately want. And that’s scary.
I have put down rocks in my time and sometimes it’s a gradual thing. I’d try setting it down just for a minute — just around people who felt safe or just in certain situations. I’d keep that rock nearby just in case I needed its protection; it was proof that I wasn’t giving up or giving in, just taking a break.
Eventually I put it down for good and then I felt weightless, which sounds fun but can be scary. After all, if you’re weightless, how will you know if the earth is safely under you? What if you float off into space without a rock to weigh you down? What if you miss all of the people still crouching under their burdens, unable (or unwilling) to join you a few feet off the ground?
It gets better. Eventually you will realize that the rock wasn’t keeping you safe; it was keeping you trapped. You will straighten up and look around and see that right here in this minute, without your view being blocked by that big old boulder you were carrying, you can see the good things right in front of you.
That rock, it was lying. It was telling you that you couldn’t be happy until this or until that but when you put it down — put it down for good — you’ll see that your happiness is where you make it. You can find it wherever you like.
So go ahead. Put down the rock.
So many of us have internalized the idea that if we want something or if we need something it is, by definition, unnecessary. If we want it, it must be superfluous, right? Or maybe we are trying to win points (with who? our partner? our kids? the universe?) for denying ourselves so that we will be rewarded like some heroine in a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.
It’s this weird circular logic: I want it therefore I don’t deserve it. I need it, which means I should do without.
For women particularly there is such a strong message that we must be self-sacrificing. And for mothers, oh golly, it’s all about how much we give away without complaining.
This hit home for me when I was a kid and there was this Family Circus comic strip (I tried to find it to link to but I can’t find it). One of the big kids is holding an ice cream and standing by one of the younger kids. The youngest one is crying because his ice cream is upside down on the ground next to him. In the background the mom is standing with her ice cream. The big kid says to the little kid, “Don’t cry. Mommy will give you hers.”
I was probably eight or nine when I read this and I realized the joke was that the mom wanted her ice cream and the kids didn’t even realize it. And I was a kid and I didn’t realize it, which led to, “Hey, maybe my mom wants her ice cream cones!”
I see so many women and so many moms in my office who don’t know how to ask for what they want and need and they’re getting sadder and sadder or madder and madder and they don’t even know why. They don’t know that they’ve hit their limit in lost ice cream cones and sometimes that sad and mad is coming out sideways, making their relationships with loved ones harder. Or maybe it’s eating them up inside, making their relationships with themselves harder.
It’s easy to become passive-aggressive, communicating what we want by being angry at the people with the ice cream. Picture Thelma (the mom in Family Circus) handing her cone over and then as Jeffy settles in with it saying, “Isn’t that good? Yes, pralines and cream is my favorite. No, no, you enjoy it. It’s almost as satisfying watching you eat it and I’m sure we’ll go out for ice cream again eventually although this was mommy’s only afternoon off but really, no, I’m happy you have it.”
Would you want your loved ones to do without? Do you want your children to grow up and give everybody everything? Of course the answer is no, so why do we force ourselves into this self-sacrificing box?
It’s scary to ask for what you need because what if you don’t get it? What if your loved ones refuse to give it to you? Sometimes it feels easier to live in denial, to pretend we can do without. To pretend that the problem is not in the not-having but in the wanting.
We lie to ourselves, saying, “The issue is not that they won’t treat me with kindness; the issue is that kindness is something I need because I’m over-sensitive.”
Or, “The problem is not that the baby is getting up 67 times a night and no one will help me with the nighttime parenting, the problem is that I can’t seem to get used to functioning on 20 minutes of uninterrupted sleep.”
“It’s not you,” we say, “It’s me! I’m too needy! I’m overreacting! I am the problem, not this life full of denial and demands and way too little fun!”
Listen, you have got to take care of yourself for your sake and for the sake of your loved ones. They need our full, present, fulfilled selves more than they need our ice cream.
(By the way, the quote is from this video.)
The parental voice, it’s like the voice of God. It spoke to us with such power when we were small and so we carry it with us for good or for bad.
“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” And we learn that our sadness is not true sadness.
“How can you be hungry? You just ate dinner!” And we learn that we can’t trust our own appetites.
“Come on now, Santa’s not scary; sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas!” And we learn that we can’t believe our instinctive fear.
“You do not know yourself as well as I know you!” That’s what those things say to children. That’s what was said to many of us and so we don’t know. We don’t believe ourselves. We try not to cry because our problems are not worthy of our sorrow. We eat when the clock — not our bodies — say. We ignore that sinking feeling that something is very wrong and stay with the person who hurts us.
We parents, we sometimes have a hard time remembering that our children are fully their own people. It’s understandable because for such a very long time they do seem to be completely of us. The infants we carry, the babies we know, the toddlers who need tucked in to sleep even though they want to keep running — no wonder we have a hard time believing them when they insist that they’re full or that they are truly afraid of the bathtub drain. We know them best; we knew them before they knew themselves and those first breaks away are painful and hard.
It takes practice to separate on both sides. It takes practice to say, “I end here and there you begin.” We’ll make mistakes and insist on coats when they don’t want them and buy them gifts they don’t like because we’ve read them wrong. Generally, if there’s love and respect and (importantly) a willingness to acknowledge that we may be wrong our children will thrive in spite of those mistakes. But when we insist, when we tell them that our filters have to rule their worlds, we do real harm.
Some of us do that harm because harm was done to us. We grew up believing that we could not know anything because we were so small. We believe that our parents ignored our wants, wishes and needs for our own good. We repeat the damage because confronting our own losses is just too hard. To acknowledge that our children are separate if we were not allowed to be is to confront the loss of the self-awareness we were denied.
This is one reason parenting is so dang hard. We’re not just parenting our children; we are re-parenting ourselves.
About twenty years ago I went to a training at the Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland presented by CARES Northwest about interviewing children as part of a sexual abuse assessment. During the second half of our day we watched videos of the practitioners interviewing the kids. I remember one child’s story in particular because it was a very hard story and because at the end, for the first time, you see one of the interviewers crack. The boy, who was about ten, asked her about what would happen at the end of the day, what would happen to the interviewer. The woman conducting his assessment started to choke up. We could hear the tears in her voice as she told him that at the end of the day she opened up all of the windows in that room and let the wind blow away all of the fear and sadness so that the space could become peaceful again and ready for the other children who would come there and need to tell her their stories.
That’s stuck with me over the last two decades.
Once a client said something to me that wasn’t so bad but to her it felt very bad to say it and after she said it her eyes got wide and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
“I can’t believe I said that,” she said behind her hands.
“But you did,” I answered.
“I did,” she said. Then she put her hands in her lap and we spent some time talking about saying it before we talked about what she said. But she left it at the office that day. That’s where she left it to be considered and examined and she did not feel the need to pick it back up again in her everyday life.
I think of my office as sacred space and as safe space. I want my clients to know that they can say whatever they need to say — whatever they’re most afraid to say — and they can leave it there. If they need to, they can leave it there and pick it back up at our next session or they can leave it there and let it go. I will hold it safe for them until the fear and the shame and the sadness are no longer so powerful and then they can set it free and know this secret — whatever it is — is no longer more powerful than they are.
I was reading this post by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, about loneliness and how feeling lonely makes us more negative, less likely to engage with other people, and altogether less likeable. We become “more aggressive, more self-defeating or self-destructive, less cooperative and helpful, and less prone simply to do the hard work of thinking clearly.” (This last bit is a quote from the book Gretchen was referencing in her post, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.)
I remember that when I was going through secondary infertility that I was very sad and that this sadness made me very lonely. Going through a personal crisis is like living in a bubble. You can see the people outside and you can hear them, but there’s a barrier between you and everyone else. People’s voices seemed to be coming from a long distance away, someplace where there was happiness and sunshine but I was living in this muted bubble where I could see the sun but not feel it’s warmth. I felt self-conscious in my sadness and found myself withdrawing from friends and family.
This is why I sought counseling. I knew I was in danger of isolating myself in a way that would not be good for me or my son. I could show up for things, sure, but the hard work of being present with other people felt beyond me.
Some people tell me that they are uncomfortable with counseling because it feels weird to pay someone to talk with you. But for me, there was safety in knowing that she could not reject me. The structure of our relationship — that I would hand her a check at the beginning and get 50-minutes of her time — was reassuring. I could be my worst self, my most selfish self, and she would still listen. I could be vulnerable and sad and she wouldn’t try to change the subject. I could ask her to lead the conversation when I was too exhausted by sadness to carry my end and she would.
That safety, that space we built together, helped heal some of my loneliness so I could be with my friends again. And even though I was paying for her time, I know she genuinely cared for me. I know this because I genuinely care for my clients.
I want to write more about that, too, how the boundaries of therapy is what makes the therapeutic relationship possible. Stay tuned for that, same bat time, same bat channel.