Allow me 2 minutes to inspire you to do deep tough emotional work (or why opening up your unconscious can be good for you)
What's the point of looking deeper into your fears, your sadness, or your anger? Your life is full enough with work, relationships, responsibilities, kids, etc. that it sure appears there just isn't time to indulge your emotions, particularly the annoying ones we just don't want to deal with in the first place. So why do it? Why should you do deep tough emotional work?
Just as you have an automatic nervous system, or an automatic respiratory system, you also have an unconscious psychological system working hard inside of you. This system has tons of rules, self-beliefs, world views, and everyday strategies making meaning of your daily life and dictating your daily responses and actions. It's running 24/7 and has an imprint on every moment of every day.
This system has been built by parental influence, how your needs were met or not met particularly in childhood, by difficult experiences throughout your life, and by your own internal make-up. It's malleable but becomes fairly concrete as it grows unconsciously. It tells you how you feel in general, how you feel about yourself, and how you feel about people and the world around you.
Unfortunately, this mighty system has a major flaw. Imagine being a hammer. It's a great identity when you are dealing with nails but when the world turns to screws and you keep hammering, what do you think happens? What about if there is a fire, what are you going to do then? That's our unconscious psychological system and it got designed by and for a specific circumstance. On its own, it is not very good at being flexible. Left to its own devices, it can be fairly rigid.
Why am I talking about your unconscious psychological system when the title of this blog was inspiring you to do tough emotional work? Through my experience, it is our emotional experiences that lead us to be able to see the wiring of our psychological system. And once we see our wiring, we can rewire ourselves. We can heal. We can change. We can have agency and choice about who we want to be and how we want to see the world. We can learn to be a screwdriver, a bucket of water, or any other tool needed.
But we have to do deep tough emotional work to get there.
Here's where I try to inspire you. On the other side are so so so many wonderful things: greater freewill; greater ability to enjoy; more choice; more agency; greater capacity to truly live in the present; greater ability to get your needs met; greater ability to live your true and full potential; and greater ability to adapt to different circumstances.
And here's my pep talk. You can do this. You can have the life you truly desire. It's there for the taking... you just need to look inward, feel deeply, and brave the unknown. There is so much worth waiting on the other side for you. Do not fear your tough emotions, they are here for a reason. They don't want to make your life worse, they want to guide you towards yourself. They want to help you see your unconscious psychological system. They want to empower you. Do the deep tough emotional work, you won't regret it.
Hopefully, you have had the chance to love someone in your life, and if you have, I'm sorry to inform you but you probably have made a common mistake.
When I'm asked about my love for someone, I often look into my heart and search for a particular feeling there. Ah yes, there it is, my heart yearns for them and there is that indescribable yet totally known feeling. I love you.
And yet, you and I make a faulty assumption here: since I feel it, you must also feel it. Not that you must also love me, but you must know I love you since I know and feel it towards you.
Wrong. Sorry. Here's the rub in relationship. Although having love for someone is important, translating that love into their love language is equally important. What do I mean by this? My wife loves me but I really feel that love when she shows it to me in particular ways. And these ways often come from my childhood (and potentially innate desires). I was a second child in my particular family system and thus, I was the one to enter an already established environment. This meant I created a belief that I had to move towards others to connect and feel love instead of others moving towards me. Unconsciously, that was a hard rule to live by and thus it created a love language need where I truly FEEL love when someone moves towards me. Back to my wife, this means I only really feel her love when she: hugs me randomly, is truly curious about my day and life, when she seems to internally deal with her own needs while she addresses mine, etc. etc. etc.
She feels her love for me without doubts or qualifications, but I only feel it when it expresses itself through this particular love language desire (someone coming towards me). And of course, I married a person who is more independently minded and likes her space because that's what we do, we fall in love with people that mirror our childhoods. Therefore, expressing her love for me in my needed way is not necessarily natural for her. And I'm not picking on my wife here because I am just the same. She has a particular love language and I equally am unnatural in expressing love they way she needs it expressed so she can feel it for a host of reasons.
So what does loving someone really mean? We mistakenly think loving someone means having an internal feeling of love for them when in actually, it's the art of learning their love language and acting on it so they are the one's feeling the love. This is true for husbands, wives, children, friends, etc. You and I must take time to listen, understand, and practice their love language. Love is an active art-form, not an internal feeling.
In our daily lives, we often get caught in the "I vs. you" trap. We do this in our relationships, in politics, between communities, etc. If you are going to play the "us vs. them"/"I vs. you" game, you should at least know what you are actually choosing.
It is so easy for us all to play this game. "It's your fault..." "If only they or you didn't..." "I'd have no problems if it wasn't for you doing or being..."
I get it. It feels so good to be right and to win. It feels good to have power, opportunities, freedom, and control. I have real beliefs that I identify with and they make me who I am. The chains of oppression must be cast off. You don't get to hurt me and I need you to make amends. I don't want to be alone. Anger and outrage can make me feel strong. An opponent motivates me. I can act out everything I hate about myself on you. Instead of having to really feel the fear or hurt, I can stay focused on blame. The reasoning and value goes on and on.
And yet like a seesaw, I win, they lose, which motivates them until they win, I lose which motivates me, I win, they lose... and on... and on... and on.
I continue to think this time when I win, that will be the end of it. And maybe this will still be proven truth but I'm starting to fear just playing the game of "I vs. you" will not end well for any of us and will ultimately never end.
A rule of war is to dehumanize your opponent. In order to stop or destroy someone or their way of life or their actions or beliefs, its hard to fire the shot when remembering they feel just like me... they fear just like me... they want to belong just like me. I must turn away from how we are similar in order to maintain how we are different. My hand will get shakier simply in remembering the beating heart on the other side. In essence, I must cut myself off from my own heart to take action against you. This is not to say someone hurting you is not real, it is to say that to hate them back does cost you something. To "other" them, you have to stop your compassion and understanding.
Maybe that's the price you are willing to pay "to win." I think many people make this choice consciously and unconsciously and that's ok. However, it is a real price from my vantage point. Turning off your heart isn't something you get to just do and move on. If you think the loneliness, self-doubt, hurt, oppression, and insecurity you feel is only because of them, I'm here to let you know that's not the complete truth. Turning off your heart is also a villain that creates these things and deep levels of paranoia.
Probably because I do couple's therapy, I believe a different way can and does exist. Win/win is possible but it is hard work. I have to take time to really learn what makes you tick and is motivating your actions. I have to really take responsibility for my impact on you... the hurt I have caused. I have to struggle in finding solutions that satisfy both our needs, particularly in the places where it seems we are diametrically opposed. Just being against you is sooooo much easier. I get it.
The question then for all of us is do the pros of playing "I vs. you" outweigh the costs? When you see you must check your heart, your compassion, and your understanding at the door, do you still like how winning tastes? Are you willing to work hard, not because they are winning, but for a higher purpose that attempts to end the seesaw of suffering? Are you willing to risk "losing" with a full heart or do you prefer winning with a fractured one?
I wish I had the power to remove all suffering from the world. I wish I could convince people who looked differently, acted differently, believed differently to still connect with open hearts. I wish I could rid the world of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, islamophobia, anti-semitism, and other beliefs of mistrust and systems of oppression. I wish I could stop fear. I wish I could snap my fingers and have everyone exist as their highest and most beautiful selves. I wish I could eliminate poverty. I wish I could have each person relate to each other through the pain we share, not the stories we make up.
There is a lot of anger and hurt and division right now. I do not have the answers.
I try to stay in my heart. I try to listen deeply. I try to slow down. I try to honor my emotions but not be lead astray by them. I try to have hope. I try to learn. I try to remember that I can change the world and myself. I try to stay open. I try to stay focused on my beliefs and intentions. I try to motivate myself to continue to fight for what I believe is right. I try to cry for suffering that isn't mine. I try to take care of myself. I try to take each new day, each new challenge, each new success, and each new failure as they come and not get too ahead of myself.
I wish, I try, I feel, and I hope...
Thank you Chicago Cubs.
Thank you for teaching me:
...what hope and faith really mean.
...that community comes out of suffering.
...that there is always next year.
...and to keep fighting.
Thank you for giving me:
...yearly memories of going to Wrigley Field with my mom.
...sitting in the den watching WGN with my grandfather.
...heroes like Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Ryan Sandberg, and so many more incredible people (not just ballplayers) to look up to and admire.
Thank you for all the joy and for all the agony because life is really about both. And thank you for showing me a team that never quit, that lifted each other up, and achieved the unbelievable. I am indebted to you for all you have given me, so much more than a simple championship. Go Cubs Go! Go Cubs Go! Hey Chicago What Do You Say...
Offering two cows and five chickens for my wife seems strange to me today but not long ago (and still existing in many forms today) marriage was a business transaction to support the survival of two families and hopefully the increase of status.
How I actually chose my wife was formed in a newer paradigm. This one has me choosing a loving partner, who chooses me, that is a soulmate whom is my everything and will continue to be my everything: best friend, lover, partner, etc.
Many would argue there has been a positive development in moving from business to love; however, a major problem comes out of this shift. All you need is love. Love lifts us up where we belong. You had me at hello. Soulmate and love make it seem that once you find it, that's it, your enlightened all positive life has finally arrived.
I'm going to let you in on something you may already know, this just isn't true. When we chose to couple out of love, we usually end up with someone reflecting our first experiences with love: we really do tend to marry some form of our mothers or fathers. And this being the case means our partners will hurt us and drive us crazy just like how our parents were able. It's not all bed of roses.
Thus, I urge you to shift to an even newer paradigm. Partnership and marriage is finding someone you love enough to do the tough task of deep healing. I'm signing up to be a stand-in for your parents and you are standing in for mine... and both of us will learn to do things differently because of the ways they fucked up in the past (even the best ones). I will take time to learn that when you yell at me about the house being clean, there is a deep need to feel taken care of because of ways you didn't feel taken care of by your parents. You will learn that when I complain you focus too much on work, it is really my deep need to not be alone because I felt so alone as a kid.
But here's the thing, you aren't suppose to understand your partner, love does NOT give you understanding. You did not live their life or grow up in their family. It's a learning process. You got to ask questions. You got to teach each other. You both need to understand how the past shapes the present. You have to actively listen, take notes, and practice. It's why things like couple's therapy can help.
Love is only the glue to motivate the learning.
So rewrite that movie script:
You had me at, "hello... but can we also not solely believe love is enough, can you also teach me about your pain and needs so I may try to do things differently, which will be hard for me because it will stretch me, challenge me, and ask me to grow, but I know it will be worth it because it will help you heal, and I also know that you'll be doing the same for me, and anyways this is what a partnership really is, and we won't get this right away, and we'll have to keep trying, and we'll hurt each other like we were hurt in the past, and I'll feel bad about hurting you and angry about you hurting me, and it might take me a lifetime to really understand but I'll keep trying if you'll be patient with me and keep teaching and keep trying too, and..."
Fuck you. Sorry for my bluntness but I have to meet you with the same intensity that you meet me. See I'm onto your game now.
For too long you made me think my survival was dependent on you. That as long as I fear, I'll be safe... that you'll INSURE my safety.
Fear about money, and you'll make sure I have it. Fear about being alone and not meeting someone, and you'll make the opposite true. Fear about job security, my children's health, happiness, failure, disappointment, terrorism and a million other things and you'll make everything okay.
Once again, fuck you. I see through the illusion of what you are doing. The reality is you constrict me to someone you then control. I lose myself. I turn on my morality. I turn on my faith. I become my smallest self. Nothing great in my life has happened because I followed you. My greatest moments are when I have faced you and moved forward.
See here is what I have learned: your only job is to tell me what I deeply want. I fear being hurt or ill because I want to be alive and healthy. I fear being sad and alone because I want to be happy and share it with another. I want you to know fear that when I see you for what you truly are, you are a gift to me. You point me in a direction. It's here that I can learn to love you.
The problem is that unless I use my anger, you come at me too strongly. Instead of pointing me towards my wants and dreams, you make me hide out and turn on others and myself. You are too fierce to face so I take lesser paths because I'm scared.
So I have learned and continue to learn how to face you. I rely on people. I use countering strong emotions like courage and faith. I make sure to take good care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I also see the warning signs that when I start to feel tiny and tight or when I am strongly turning on others you are not only there but usually in control.
Today, I invite you to become my teacher and not my leader. Today, I ask you to stand down and allow me to grow to depths you can't imagine. Today, I ask you to start following me.
You already know what I'm about to tell you. The secret to a happier life isn't a secret at all. You just need to be reminded and it won't ask that much of you.
If you are anything like me, the day can get pretty filled up with lots of concrete things clamoring for your attention. What's on my agenda today? What items need to be checked off my list? Who needs this or that? Get here by this time and there by that time. Kids fed. Check. Emails answered. Check. Groceries. Check. Bills. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.
But what if instead of standing in the shower worrying about all that has to get done, you took one minute to feel each water drop hit you skin?
What if as you sit at your desk all day long doing things, you took a few minutes to look deeply and anew at the things that sit there all day with you?
What if for five minutes a day, you reminded yourself to stop and be in awe of the world around you?
How might your life change?
"You're not happy, you need to do this. No, not that. Try this. Better be worried about your work. It is all on your shoulders whether you succeed. Where is your next client gonna come from? Is your relationship going well? Try harder. Do more. You're freaking out. Stop freaking out. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah."
If you are like me, your mind doesn't shut up. Most days, my mind has big plans. Focus on this, be worried about that, and on it goes.
"What a beautiful sunny day. We're so lucky to live in California. Don't worry, you are destined to be a therapist and clients will come. You are surrounded by good friends and family. The world will help you and you are not alone in facing your struggles. (the sound of a violins playing)"
Guess who that is? My heart has so much more peace and trust. Even writing that, I feel better. Big difference, right? And yet for me, someone designed this human experience to continue to pull me to my head (BTW I want a word with them at some point... I'd like to give them a piece of my mind- pun intended). It is so much darker in my head. There is such a drastic change in how I feel about my life when I live there.
And so I have learned (and am learning) to do a daily practice of bringing myself back to my heart. My heart knows that short of starving and being homeless, there is a lot going right in my life. My heart knows how to truly live in the moment and not get lost in the fears of what might be lost or what has yet to come. My heart knows how not to think about my life but to feel and live it. When I tap into my heart, I can truly and deeply feel warmth, connection, and faith. I rarely want to punch my heart in the mouth.
And so I offer this insight from my life to you as I imagine we probably share some similarities. For me, taking a run in the sunshine and stopping at the ocean helps me reconnect to my heart. And reconnecting to my heart changes everything.
What's your practice?
Being an adult can kind of suck, right? All this responsibility crap: I have bills to pay, work to do, and chores around the house. And don't get me started on stress? Not only is there the daily stuff but then I worry about this and am exhausted by that.
Adding to my chaos is my three-year-old son Tobias. Yes, thank you for your sympathy. However, the more I watch my son, the more I realize that he has something really valuable to teach me. He has some real wisdom even as a young child. We all have such wisdom as kids. In youth, we knew something that we often forget as adults... the power of play.
When my son wakes up, one of the first things he says is, "come play with me." COME PLAY WITH ME. That's how he starts each and every day! That's how he manages the sadness of when I have to go to work. That's how he manages the chaos of not knowing a lot about what's happening around him. That's how he manages the things that scare him. Come play with me.
Pretty powerful words if you ask me. Think about how you feel when you play? Think about how you hold struggle or challenges? Think about where you heart, mind, and soul are when you are playing? Exactly. It changes the color of the day. It brings a lightness that is so readily available in children that seems to be harder to find as adults.
It often doesn't even matter to Tobias what play we do, just that we play. We can read books. We can build blocks. We can fly airplanes around the room. I've come to discover that "come play with me" is really more about a state of being than a specific event. It's about us being together. Enjoying ourselves and each other. Exploring the world. Trying on different roles and experiences. Not getting too attached to any one thing. It's really at its heart about connecting to a certain way of feeling about oneself and the world around us.
So my challenge to you is to bring play back into your life. Bring play to those chores. Bring play to your work. Bring play to therapy. You will be a happier human being for you will reconnect to a vital and deeply wired state of your soul... ask any child.
So come play with me. I currently have space available on Mondays and Thursdays in San Francisco and Wednesdays in El Cerrito.
Josh Stern is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #96003 located in the Bay Area