By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC
When Sue came to see me, she was under great stress. There were too many tasks to accomplish, places to go, and people who needed her, and nothing she did offered relief. Her approach to the situation was, Just Keep Working, and if she kept at it, one day all the work would be done, and she’d be okay. That day never came. In fact, she realized this had been going on for way longer than she cared to admit…most of her life. No amount of increased effort, time spent, or improved time management strategies were going to change the fact that she was not really living, but rather running on an exhausting treadmill and not enjoying her life. So we embarked on a journey to figure out what this was really about. Was it really that there were just too many tasks, or was it her approach to her life?
The Buddhists say, What we refuse to have, we’ll have more of. We run from pain, and then we have more of it. We chase after pleasure but never reach it. We grasp for things we want, and try to escape things we don’t. Was this busyness, perhaps, an attempt to avoid pain? Sue realized that indeed it was, that all her life, she struggled with a sense of deficiency, which she attempted to cover up by taking action, doing more and more to prove her worth. And never really facing the fear and despair that lie underneath.
If you’re human, then you probably spend much of your life struggling, deep down, with some sense of inadequacy, of not feeling good enough. One day, you’re a rock star in your own world, and other days, you think, Wow, I kinda suck. All it takes to shift from being that rock star to dissolving into a shame spiral is one wrong look or comment from someone, one criticism, one time noticing that someone has a skill you don’t have, or a nicer home or a kid with greater accomplishments, and off we go to the races, trying to prove our worth. Our sense of inadequacy causes us to not believe in ourselves, and we become fearful and afraid, convinced the world is about to fall apart unless we do something.
In her book Radical Acceptance, therapist and Buddhist spiritual advisor Tara Brach tells the story of a woman on her deathbed who says, “All my life I thought something was wrong with me…What a waste.” Rather than throwing away so much of our lives worrying about our worth, what if we could find it? The answer, Brach says, is in The Pause, taking time to accept absolutely everything about ourselves, by staying attentive to our experience in the present moment: by accepting our feelings, our struggle, our very discomfort, and embracing those feelings with warmth, kindness and compassion. It is the not allowing ourselves to feel that drives the busyness and stress, causing us to grasp for more, run from the pain…and never really live.
Of course, this is not what most of us do. When faced with feelings we don’t like, such as anger, fear, or hurt, we tend to judge ourselves negatively for having these feelings and try to make them go away by thinking more and more, going into a trance of problem solving and worry about the future, and losing the only life we have, the one that exists in the present moment.
So how do we Pause? When we’re feeling stressed or upset, or notice that we’re judging ourself negatively, we stop what we’re doing, close our eyes, and focus on what is happening in our body. Feelings, by the way, are in your body, not in your head. Ever detect that you’re angry by noticing a rising sensation in your chest, before you’ve even had time to think? Ever get goosebumps when overwhelmed with emotion? We notice the sensations and stay with them, allowing them to change, move, whatever they need to do. And while we’re noticing, we say yes to them, yes to the feeling we’re having, even if it’s a difficult feeling, and embrace that feeling with warmth, compassion, and acceptance. We can say to ourselves, “It’s hard to have this feeling,” thereby accepting and embracing the feeling, allowing it to move through us and guide us. All of this takes only a minute or even 30 seconds, and we can actually do this with our eyes open, and no one ever knows. And as we do this over and over each day, we slow down to the speed of life we actually need, and learn that we are a valuable human being, and not a human doing.