Negative Thinking: A Most Dangerous Addiction

Have you ever noticed how much time you spend thinking about negative or painful situations, ruminating and replaying what’s not working in your life? It’s not just you. The last statistic I read claimed 80 percent of our thoughts are negative, and 95 percent repetitive. Strangely, the more negative an experience, the more we return to it. Like vultures to a carcass, we’re drawn to what hurts. As the Buddhist saying goes, we want happiness, and yet we chase our suffering. Why? What’s at the root of our mind’s addiction to suffering, why do we compulsively cling to our pain, and how can we shift this unwise and unhelpful habit of ours?

We return to our suffering, because fundamentally we’re trying to make the negative experience come out a different way. Our mental replays are attempts to re-script what we don’t want into a new reality. If we can just understand our pain more clearly, spend more time with it, we’ll be able to figure it out—in other words, make it go away. If we can know the cause, who’s to blame and what needs to be done about it, we’ll be okay.

We hold on to our pain, paradoxically, in an effort to figure out how to let it go.

With pain, or any sort of negative experience, comes a host of uncomfortable feelings. In response to the feelings we don’t want to feel, our mind takes control and steers us in a more familiar direction. Over and over again, the mind restructures and reframes the contents of our pain in an effort to avoid directly feeling it. The mind will always choose thinking about pain over experiencing it directly.

So, too, we counterintuitively cling to suffering as a way of taking care of ourselves. Continually thinking about what hurts helps us feel that our pain matters, that it didn’t happen for no reason, and that it won’t be forgotten. Our ruminations award our suffering importance and value, which it doesn’t always receive from those it wants it from. To stop revisiting our pain can feel like abandoning it, moving on before it’s been truly heard or taken care of.

Pain is also profoundly intertwined with our sense of identity. We remind ourselves of our pain as a way of keeping alive our personal narrative, our story of me, what’s happened to me, and my life. We’re deeply attached to our stories of suffering; you could say we love our pain. As a result, we’re reluctant to let it go, to stop bringing it back into the present moment, even when it’s no longer useful or active. To do so would be to lose touch with who we believe we fundamentally are, what makes us us.

If we didn’t keep reminding ourselves of our story, we might forget who we are in our minds, and then what? Who would we be, and what would life look like if we didn’t relate from an already formed idea of who we are?

At an existential level, returning to our suffering allows us to feel a primal sense of I-ness, to feel that we exist. We experience ourselves as a distinct self when we’re thinking about a problem. With a problem in its craw, the mind can feel alive and working, and because we imagine ourselves to be synonymous with mind, our sense of self is also alive and strong in this process. It is actually through the process of thinking that we create a sense of self; we literally think ourselves into existence.

To give up ruminating over problems feels threatening at a primal level. How would we know that we were here if we didn’t keep engaging the mind in problems, the very activity that allows the mind to feel itself? How would we know who we are if not through the mind by which we know ourselves to be? What would happen if we stopped remembering and reestablishing who we are all the time? Without an agenda of what needs to be fixed, we literally lose our separateness from life.

Our addiction to suffering is at some level driven by a desire to feel better. But regardless, the result is that it makes us feel worse and causes us to suffer more than we actually need to. What can be done, then, to break this addiction to pain?

Solutions

1. Develop awareness. The key to breaking any habit is awareness. Start noticing those moments when you’re actively choosing to revisit your pain, to literally direct your attention back to what could bother you. Become conscious of your tendency to insert moments of peace with morsels of suffering. Notice that you are doing this to yourself.

2. Acknowledge that you’re caught. When you notice that you’re down the rabbit hole in your story of suffering, velcro-ed to it, take a moment and acknowledge that you’re there, that you’re caught. Say it out loud: “Wow, I’m really caught”; “I’m really doing this to myself right now”; or whatever words fit. Stop for a moment, and with kindness, be with yourself exactly where you are, acknowledge the truth of feeling powerless or stuck inside your pain story.

3. Inquire. Ask your mind (without judgment) what it’s hoping to accomplish in luring your attention back to your suffering. Is it to figure out your problem, make it come out a different way, make your pain feel heard? Do you need to remember the pain to protect yourself from it happening again? Is it scary to just feel good? Does remembering your problem ground you?

Get curious about your mind’s intentions: Does the rehashing and ruminating lead you to peace? Does it make you feel better? Eventually, you will discover that trying to get to peace with the mind is like trying to open a lock with a banana; it’s simply the wrong tool. The next time you return to the scene of your pain, you can remind yourself that more thinking doesn’t actually work, and you will know this from your own experience, your own inquiry. Failure is a great teacher here.

4. Shift your focus from thinking about the problem to actually feeling it. Sense where and how in your body, in what sensations you are experiencing this pain story. You can place your hand on your heart as you do this and offer yourself some sweet words, perhaps even a prayer of healing for this suffering. Unhook from your head story and drop into a body-felt experience.

5. Say “no” or “stop” out loud. We can learn to say “no” to our mind’s inclinations, just as we say no to a child who’s doing something that will harm her. Sometimes a wiser and more evolved part of us has to step in and put a stop to the harmful behavior the mind is engaged in. Say “no” or “stop” out loud, so you can hear and experience it directly through your senses, rather than as just another thought inside the negative-addicted mind.

6. Ask yourself, what’s at risk if you let go of your pain? Investigate what feels dangerous about living without reminding yourself of what’s happened to you and what’s still wrong. Make the active choice to not fill your now with the past. Be bold: Create a new identity that’s not pieced together from your personal narrative, but always fresh and endlessly changing.

In the process, you will discover that you can be entirely well and happy at this moment without having to go back and make anything that came before it different.

 

 

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Choice Includes Loss: Why “Having It All” Is a Big Fat Lie

“I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.”  These were the words of a television jingle I heard this weekend, just as I was contemplating a piece on the pressure we (both women and men) face to have it all.

Working with Jane, a mom/physician, I was struck by how tortured she was because she couldn’t spend as much time as she wanted to with her young child.  I was not struck by the fact that time away from her child was painful, but rather by what seemed to be the real source of her suffering.  Specifically, she felt that she was supposed to be able to have the great career she wanted as a doctor and also be able to be the loving and present mom to her child.  As she saw it, she was doing something wrong because she couldn’t have both.

Another client, Rachel, told me that she wanted to have a more intimate relationship with her husband, to feel more connected.  She talked about their less-than-juicy date-night dinners.  She shared that her husband was upset because she left her phone on during their dinners in case the kids called (healthy teenagers).  Apparently, as is usually the case, the tech interruptions were breaking the connection between them.  She was in my office because she wanted me to design a strategy or digital program that would make it possible for her to be on call all the time to her family, and also intimately connected to her husband in their private time.

On another front, in just the same week, Peter was telling me about his romantic relationship of nine years.  He shared that he was deeply nourished by the unconditional love and stability of their bond and how much he loved his life with his partner.  Simultaneously, he was unable to tolerate the fact that when he went to parties or was surrounded by new women, he couldn’t behave like a single person.  He was at war internally with the idea that being in a monogamous and committed relationship would mean that his life felt constrained in certain other ways.  But underlying his despair, the real suffering was once again coming from his belief that he shouldn’t have to give up anything he wanted.

And then there’s MK, a college student who is obsessively angry because of the deep confidence his friends have earned through their mastery in sport or other passions and academic pursuits.  MK acknowledges that he loves to socialize and party and that he’s chosen to spend his time doing just that, as opposed to achieving excellence.  And yet again, this young man is confused and frustrated by my inability to devise a plan to give him the social life he wants and also the self-confidence that comes with focused hard work, time, and effort.

We’re conditioned to believe that we should have it all—everything we want.  Having it all in this society also means not have to give anything up.  Technology encourages this belief.  With the touch of a button, we can, in fact, get a lot of things we want without a heck of a lot of effort. Media too supports our belief that everything is possible, and, that if we don’t have everything we want, we need to try harder.  The powers that be want us to believe that we can have it all because it keeps us chasing the dream, a dream of endless acquiring and achieving.  Ultimately, having it all (as an idea) is good for business while accepting not having it all is bad for the bottom line.  If we stop chasing it all, the profit margin shrinks.

When I told Rachel that being available 24/7 to her kids might mean not being as available to her husband, and perhaps not enjoying the intimacy she desired, she was disappointed and seemingly not convinced.  Similarly, when I advised Peter that his choice to be in a committed relationship and enjoy the jewels of such a choice, would mean that his experience of socializing would have to change and be perhaps less exciting than if he were single, it seemed as if he had never considered such a concept.  So too, when I laid out the hours that Jane’s career in New York required and juxtaposed that against her young daughter’s wake-and-sleep schedule, she seemed to be seeing the information for the first time, as a scientist almost, recognizing the math of her reality, and thus the real truth of her choices.

Life has limitations, which we are oddly not taught.  Accepting this truth, however, frees us from the fantasy that keeps us chasing and suffering.  When we believe that we can and should have it all, we end up paralyzed, perpetually on the fence, stuck between choices, unable to pull the trigger or settle into any path. We’re unwilling to accept the reality that, like it or not, choice involves loss, not occasionally, but always.  When we stick with our storyline that we are the problem, we’re why we can’t have everything we want, we actually end up with nothing, no path at all.

Furthermore, when we reject the fact that we have to give up something we want in order to get something we want, we deny ourselves the opportunity for self-compassion. Accepting the loss that comes with choice means also accepting the feelings that come with that loss. It means offering a place for the sadness or disappointment that comes as a result of not being able to enjoy that other path.  With every choice, one door opens and another closes, and there is an experience of that door closing, which also needs to be included and treated with empathy.

I often find myself simply saying “yes” to people who come to see me with such dilemmas of choice.  Yes, it’s true that if you choose this you will not get to have that.  The fact that you can’t figure out a way to have both doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you; it means you’re living with the reality of being human. There is only time, energy, motivation, and attention for some of what we want, but not all of it, and some wants by their very nature eliminate the possibility of other wants.  When I lay it out matter-of-factly in this way, people sometimes look at me as if I have three horns, as if they had never considered such a basic truth.

When we’re willing to accept that life includes non-negotiable limitations, then, the value of the choices we make, the meaning in the path we dochoose, increases exponentially.  Recognizing and being honest about what we get, and with that, what we choose to give up, profoundly intensifies how much what we get actually matters to us.

It’s not your fault if you can’t have it all; it’s not a failing on your part. The idea that we should be able to get everything we want, have every experience we desire, is false.  It’s an idea that keeps us handcuffed, stuck, and suffering.  Time, energy and attention are malleable at one level, in that they feel like they can expand and contract, but they’re also finite at another level.  When we give something our time and attention, it means that we cannot give as much time and attention to something else we may also value.  These are the hard choices that come with life.  Approaching our choices with a mature and sober sense of reality, one that takes into account the losses that all choices include, allows us to live a life of deeper intention and meaning—and to feel even more grateful for what we do choose to experience.  When we stop busying ourselves with what we should have and what’s wrong with us that we can’t have it, we get on with the business of determining what we really want, what’s most important to us.  Accepting the reality of choice and its partner, loss, encourages us to get clear about what we really want our life to be about and then to get on with the act of living it.

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How to Protect Yourself From Passive Aggression

Mary told her husband (respectfully) that his comment felt hurtful. She suggested that he could have spoken to her differently and offered a response that would have felt supportive and kind.  Her husband erupted with anger.  Who was she to be judge and jury of him?  He wasn’t interested in being controlled by her with her scripts and the words she needed to hear.  Mary, who is normally mild-mannered and compromising, exploded with rage.  She accused her husband of being defensive and fragile, so fragile as to not even be able to hear or care about her feeling hurt.  She was yelling, demanding to know how, when given the opportunity to be supportive, complimentary and essentially, her fan, he could and would make the choice to be unsupportive, uncomplimentary and cutting.  She was sick and tired of his unkindness.

Her husband didn’t miss a beat and accused her of being too sensitive, twisting his words to mean something they didn’t.  Mary, becoming even more furious, shouted that it wasn’t about him and him and more him, but rather about the fact that his words had hurt her. And it went on… her husband, deaf to her pain, accused her of judging him, to which she again responded that this was not about him, not about who was right or wrong, but rather about his being able to simply hear the fact that she was hurt.

Later that day, Mary called to tell me that her husband had approached her about an hour after the session and acknowledged that maybe his words could have come off as a bit insensitive.  While she was still brimming with anger and hurt, Mary had offered a simple thank you for your apology.  It was the first time he had owned any of his own behavior in twenty years of marriage.  And so, while his “apology” felt light on empathy, she made the choice to acknowledge his attempt at kindness and leave it at that, and not risk doing or saying anything that could discourage him from this new, positive behavior.

But the following week, Mary reported that her husband had become withdrawn, sullen and unfriendly.  He was playing the part of the one hurt and angry, while she had stepped into the role of the one trying to win back his affection and regain a sense of peace in the couple.

This was the standard trajectory of their disagreements.  Mary would be hurt by something her husband said or did; she would then bring it to his attention. Upon hearing what he perceived (only) as criticism, he would immediately attack her emotionally (which I had witnessed), and then withdraw into his role as the victim in the relationship. As a victim, he would become silent, non-responsive, and backhandedly unkind towards her over the next several days.  He would, in essence, fall into full-blown episodes of passive aggression.

Mary and I had both felt hopeful the previous week when her husband was able to take a baby step forward in acknowledging his own behavior and considering how it might have affected her.  And yet, it seemed that his old pattern of reverting to passive aggression after hearing he had done something she didn’t like, was still firmly intact.

Mary confessed that she was completely lost as to how to deal with her husband’s behavior.  She still wanted to stay in the marriage (and still loved her husband) but his passive aggression, which appeared each time she shared that he had upset her, felt unbearable and maddening.  She was utterly unable to find her ground or feel at ease when he was in this mode.  She couldn’t get okay until the couple was again okay.

Mary felt that she had always been stuck in the same place with regard to her husband’s passive aggression.  Unable to speak her truth, she felt that her only recourse was to wait for him to get over it after which time she could get back to her own center.  But of course, when he did get over it, she then was left to deal with her own anger and hurt.  Regardless, her well-being was dependent on his behavior, which she hated.

But while she felt stuck, I reminded Mary that something profound had in fact transformed within her.  When we first started working together, Mary would actually feel guilty when her husband punished her in this way.  She would identify with his projections of blame and try to make up for the hurt she imagined she had caused him.  She would play the perpetrator (having told him he hurt her after all) to his imagined victim; she stepped into his projections and took on the role of the bad one. I was happy to remind Mary that she no longer felt guilty in any way despite his playing the part of the one abused.  This was an enormous change in her and a huge relief.

While Mary could acknowledge that she was no longer suffering from this most insidious consequence of passive aggression (imagining oneself as deserving of the punishment), she was however still frustrated that she felt so anxious and de-stabilized, that she couldn’t get comfortable inside herself when her husband was acting out in this way.  No matter what she did for herself, how much mediation and awareness she practiced, or how she tried to separate herself from it, she still felt afraid and off-kilter living with his punishing behavior.  She was angry and disappointed with herself that she couldn’t get a grip on her experience.  She couldn’t will herself into well-being, but she strongly believed that she should be able to control her inner-experience regardless of what was going on in her environment.

Simultaneously, Mary was bottling a lot of rages about the fact that she couldn’t speak her truth to her husband.  In the past, when she had tried to call him out on his behavior, he had attacked her more directly and denied all responsibility and intention for his behavior.  Her trying to talk about it had always made things worse and so she felt resigned to acting as if nothing was happening.  Pretending he wasn’t affecting her was the way she had learned to protect herself.  The truth was, he was getting to her; she felt manipulated, controlled, and humiliated by his behavior. Enraged in fact.

However, this pretending to not notice, to save face if you will, was breaking down as a defense strategy; it felt impossible to maintain this level of falseness, and also, more and more like an abandonment of herself.  It was making her angrier and more anxious to know that he was (as she experienced it) cornering her into being inauthentic.  Mary felt stuck in this either-or scenario.  Either she confronted someone angry, reactive and not self-aware and faced the consequences of that scary choice, which also included acknowledging that he was hurting her (and therefore winning in her mind), or, she pretended nothing was happening, pretended to be Teflon to his aggression, and in the meanwhile, went on living in an anxious, disconnected and angry state of being.  Neither felt doable for much longer.

When I asked Mary what she wanted to scream from the rooftops, she said this (without hesitation): I did nothing f***ing wrong.  I’m the one who was hurt!  And now, I’m the one being punished.  What the f*ck!  But instead, she went on smiling, asking if he wanted milk with his coffee, and being the person she wished he could be with her.

The first thing I wanted Mary to know was that there was nothing wrong with feeling anxious and angry.  Living with someone acting out in this way is bloody awful.  Her expectation that she should be able to feel well in an environment that was so un-well was absurd.  She was not made of Teflon and as humans, we are relational and porous beings; we are affected and impacted by our environment.  So right out of the gate, I insisted Mary stop blaming herself for feeling anxious and off-center.  If she didn’t I’d think something was wrong!

With regard to her desire to stop pretending she wasn’t being affected, I asked her a simple question: What was it was like to be with her husband when he was treating her this way?  She erupted with tears upon hearing the question.  After some time, she was able to share that it felt painful, unfair, unkind, hurtful and just terrible in every way.  I asked her if she could stay with these feelings and maybe see if there was also any sense of I don’t want to be treated this way, or maybe just I don’t want this.  I asked her if she could step outside the whole narrative and history attached this situation and just feel the direct, bodily-felt experience of I don’t want to be treated this way.  And indeed, Mary could feel this, without any help from her mind.  It was right there in her heart and gut.  It was true now.

I then asked her if she could remember this I don’t want this, I don’t want to be treated like this feeling in the moments when she felt herself putting on the Teflon suit.  This refuge of self and self-compassion could then be home for Mary, a destination she could go instead of having to step outside herself and into the pretender.  Her self-caring truth was safe ground for her in the present moment, when the unkindness was happening, and this is what she had been missing.

What we need in these situations, when we’re really struggling, is self-compassion.  We don’t need more judgment or more strategies for figuring out the situation.  Yes, we need to address the other person and their behavior, and yes, we need to decide if and how we can live with this situation if it’s not going to change.  But in the moments of triage, when we’re really suffering, what we need most is our own loving kindness.  In offering Mary permission to let herself have the experience she was having and also, pointing her towards her own self-loving experience of I don’t want this, Mary was able to return home to herself and to her ground.  While the situation on the outside might have been the same, her inner world had profoundly transformed.  She had somewhere to go inside herself now, a refuge in which she could live in the truth in the midst of whatever was happening in her outer environment.

Furthermore, I knew that Mary’s body-knowing of I don’t want to be treated this way would prove to be a far more powerful guide and motivator than anything our minds could come up with.  I trust and know (from experience) that when we let things be as they are, feel what we’re actually feeling, without judgment, and simultaneously, allow ourselves to feel the heart’s authentic I don’t want this, the process itself reveals our next right step; we are led to know what we need to know.  How and why this happens remains for me the great mystery and magic that is this thing we call truth.

4 Tips for Dealing with Passive Aggression

1. Don’t fall into guilt.  The passive aggressive character will play the part of the victim.  Be mindful not to step into the role of the perpetrator, the bad one.  Remind yourself, you are not that.

2. Give yourself permission to have the experience you’re having, to be affected by their behavior.  When we’re around aggression (regardless of whether it’s direct or buried), we feel it.  Don’t judge yourself for having a response; it comes with being human!

3.  Tap into self-compassion.  Feel your heart’s genuine I don’t want to be treated this way.  Drop into this feeling on your own and when their behavior is unkind.  It’s your refuge; let it guide you in how to respond.

4.  Prayer.  Regardless of whether or not you have a higher power, ask the universe for help.  Silently or aloud, ask for guidance: You can say something like, I don’t know how to do this, show me how to be okay in this not okay, lead me to where I need to go.  No matter what you believe, the act of asking for help always helps.

(All names are changed and permission was granted for use of all material.)

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How to Protect Yourself From Passive Aggression

Mary told her husband (respectfully) that his comment felt hurtful. She suggested that he could have spoken to her differently and offered a response that would have felt supportive and kind.  Her husband erupted with anger.  Who was she to be judge and jury of him.  He wasn’t interested in being controlled by her with her scripts and the words she needed to hear.  Mary, who is normally mild-mannered and compromising, exploded with rage.  She accused her husband of being defensive and fragile, so fragile as to not even be able to hear or care about her feeling hurt.  She was yelling, demanding to know how, when given the opportunity to be supportive, complimentary and essentially, her fan, he could and would make the choice to be unsupportive, uncomplimentary and cutting.  She was sick and tired of his unkindness.

Her husband didn’t miss a beat and accused her of being too sensitive, twisting his words to mean something they didn’t.  Mary, becoming even more furious, shouted that it wasn’t about what him and him and more him, but rather about the fact that his words had hurt her. And it went on… her husband, deaf to her pain, accused her of judging him, to which she again responded that this was not about him, not about who was right or wrong, but rather about his being able to simply hear the fact that she was hurt.

Later that day, Mary called to tell me that her husband had approached her about an hour after the session and acknowledged that maybe his words could have come off as a bit insensitive.  While she was still brimming with anger and hurt, Mary had offered a simple thank you for your apology.  It was the first time he had owned any of his own behavior in twenty years of marriage.  And so, while his “apology” felt light on empathy, she made the choice to acknowledge his attempt at kindness and leave it at that, and not risk doing or saying anything that could discourage him from this new, positive behavior.

But the following week, Mary reported that her husband had become withdrawn, sullen and unfriendly.  He was playing the part of the one hurt and angry, while she had stepped into the role of the one trying to win back his affection and regain a sense of peace in the couple.

This was the standard trajectory of their disagreements.  Mary would be hurt by something her husband said or did; she would then bring it to his attention. Upon hearing what he perceived (only) as criticism, he would immediately attack her emotionally (which I had witnessed), and then withdraw into his role as the victim in the relationship. As victim, he would become silent, non-responsive, and backhandedly unkind towards her over the next several days.  He would, in essence, fall into full-blown episodes of passive aggression.

Mary and I had both felt hopeful the previous week when her husband was able to take a baby step forward in acknowledging his own behavior and considering how it might have affected her.  And yet, it seemed that his old pattern of reverting to passive aggression after hearing he had done something she didn’t like, was still firmly intact.

Mary confessed that she was completely lost as to how to deal with her husband’s behavior.  She still wanted to stay in the marriage (and still loved her husband) but his passive aggression, which appeared each time she shared that he had upset her, felt upsetting and unmanageable.  She was utterly unable to find her ground or feel at ease when he was in this mode.  She couldn’t get okay until the couple was again okay.

Mary felt that she had always been stuck in the same place with regard to her husband’s passive aggression.  Unable to speak her truth, she felt that her only recourse was to wait for him to get over it after which she could get back to her own center.  But of course, when he did get over it, she would then have to deal with her own anger at having been controlled and mistreated.  Regardless, her well-being was dependent on his behavior, which she hated.

But while she felt stuck, I reminded Mary that something profound had in fact transformed within her.  When we first started working together, Mary would actually feel guilty when her husband punished her in this way.  She would identify with his projections of blame and try to make up for the hurt she imagined she had caused him.  She would play the perpetrator (having told him he hurt her after all) to his imagined victim; she stepped into his projections and took on the role of the bad one. I was happy to remind Mary that she no longer felt guilty in any way despite his playing the part of the one abused.  This was an enormous change in her and a huge relief.

While Mary could acknowledge that she was no longer suffering with this most insidious consequence of passive aggression (imagining oneself as deserving of the punishment), she was however still frustrated that she felt so anxious and de-stabilized, that she couldn’t get comfortable inside herself when her husband was acting out in this way.  No matter what she did for herself, how much mediation and awareness she practiced, or how she tried to separate herself from it, she still felt afraid and off-kilter living with his punishing behavior.  She was angry and disappointed with herself that she couldn’t get a grip on her experience.  She couldn’t will herself into well-being, but she strongly believed that she should be able to control her own inner-experience regardless of what was going on in her environment.

Simultaneously, Mary was bottling a lot of rage about the fact that she couldn’t speak her truth to her husband.  In the past, when she had tried to call him out on his behavior, he had attacked her more directly and denied all responsibility and intention for his behavior.  Her trying to talk about it had always made things worse and so she felt resigned to acting as if nothing was happening.  Pretending he wasn’t affecting her was the way she had learned to protect herself.  The truth was, he was getting to her; she felt manipulated, controlled, and humiliated by his behavior. Enraged in fact.

However, this pretending to not notice, to save face if you will, was breaking down as a defense strategy; it felt impossible to maintain this level of falseness, and also, more and more like an abandonment of herself.  It was making her angrier and more anxious to know that he was (as she experienced it) cornering her into being inauthentic.  Mary felt stuck in this either-or scenario.  Either she confronted someone angry, reactive and not self-aware and faced the consequences of that scary choice, which also included acknowledging that he was hurting her (and therefore winning in her mind), or, she pretended nothing was happening, that became Teflon to his control and aggression, and in the meanwhile went on living in an anxious, disconnected and angry state of being.  Neither felt doable for much longer.

When I asked Mary what she wanted to scream from the rooftops, she said this (without hesitation): I did nothing f***ing wrong.  I’m the one who was hurt!  And now, I’m the one being punished.  What the f*ck!  But instead, she went on smiling, asking if he wanted milk with his coffee, and being the person she wished he could be with her.

The first thing I wanted Mary to know was that there was nothing wrong with feeling anxious and angry.  Living with someone acting out in this way is bloody awful.  Her expectation that she should be able to feel well in an environment that was so un-well was absurd.  She was not made of Teflon and as humans we are relational and porous beings; we are affected and impacted by our environment.  So right out of the gate, I insisted Mary stop blaming herself for feeling anxious and off-center.  If she didn’t I’d think something was wrong!

With regard to her desire to stop pretending she wasn’t being affected, I asked her a simple question: What was it was like to be with her husband when he was treating her this way?  She erupted with tears upon hearing the question.  After some time, she was able to share that it felt painful, unfair, unkind, hurtful and just terrible in every way.  I asked her if she could stay with these feelings and maybe see if there was also any sense of I don’t want to be treated this way, or maybe just I don’t want this.  I asked her if she could step outside the whole narrative and history attached this situation and just feel the direct, bodily-felt experience of I don’t want to be treated this way.  And indeed, Mary could feel this, without any help from her mind.  It was right there in her heart and gut.  It was true now.

I then asked her if she could remember this I don’t want this, I don’t want to be treated like this feeling in the moments when she felt herself putting on the Teflon suit.  This refuge of self and self-compassion, could then be a home for Mary, a destination she could go instead of having to step outside herself and into the pretender.  Her self-caring truth was safe ground for her in the present moment, when the unkindness was happening, and this is what she had been missing.

What we need in these situations, when we’re really struggling, is self-compassion.  We don’t need more judgment or more strategies for figuring out the situation.  Yes, we need to address the other person and their behavior, and yes, we need to decide if and how we can live with this situation if it’s not going to change.  But in the moments of triage, when we’re really suffering, what we need most is our own loving kindness.  In offering Mary permission to let herself have the experience she was having and also, pointing her towards her own self-loving experience of I don’t want this, Mary was able to return home to herself and to her ground.  While the situation on the outside might have been the same, her inner world had profoundly transformed.  She had somewhere to go inside herself now, a refuge in which she could live in the truth in the midst of whatever was happening in her outer environment.

Furthermore, I knew that Mary’s body-knowing of I don’t want to be treated this way would prove to be a far more powerful guide and motivator than anything our minds could come up with.  I trust and know (from experience) that when we let things be as they are, feel what we’re actually feeling, without judgment, and simultaneously, allow ourselves to feel the heart’s authentic I don’t want this, the process itself reveals our next right step; we are led to know what we need to know.  How and why this happens remains for me the great mystery and magic that is this thing we call truth.

4 Tips for Dealing with Passive Aggression

1.  Don’t fall into guilt.  The passive aggressive character will play the part of the victim.  Be mindful not to step into the role of the perpetrator, the bad one.  Remind yourself, you are not that.

2.  Give yourself permission to have the experience you’re having, to be affected by their behavior.  When we’re around aggression (regardless of whether it’s direct or buried), we feel it.  Don’t judge yourself for having a response; it comes with being human!

3.  Tap into self-compassion.  Feel your heart’s genuine I don’t want to be treated this way.  Drop into this feeling on your own and when their behavior is unkind.  It’s your refuge; let it guide you in how to respond.

4.  Prayer.  Regardless of whether or not you have a higher power, ask the universe for help.  Silently or aloud, ask for guidance: You can say something like, I don’t know how to do this, show me how to be okay in this not okay, lead me to where I need to go.  No matter what you believe, the act of asking for help always helps.

(All names are changed and permission was granted for use of all material.)

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Why You Can’t “Figure Out” Your Way to Happiness

We spend our early years learning how to do stuff; we learn to walk, talk, read, play sports, have conversations and everything in between.  Early on, we’re indoctrinated into the belief that knowing things holds weight and is important for our happiness and even survival.  Knowing makes us valid, valuable, powerful, sought after, and many other positive things.  Knowing makes us belong, which is fundamental to our safety and happiness.  Knowing is good for our identityand our survival, both.

Knowing also gives us a sense of control.  If we can know something, we believe we can control it.  If we can control it, we feel less vulnerable, and less at the mercy of our ever-changing (uncontrollable) life.  And of course, if we can control life, we can be happy.

When we’re young, we’re taught most of what we need to know in order to function well.  We’re schooled in the process of living.  As we get older, however, we’re no longer taught what we need to know and seem to know less and less.  And yet the belief persists: we have to know in order to stay safe and be okay. Great anxiety thus forms within us, in the space of this gap.  As a result, we start desperately trying to figure out life.

In our modern world, we know through our mind.  We make sense of things, organize ideas into rational patterns and linear progressions.  Causes and effects. Knowing involves stringing together our thoughts about what’s happening, why it’s happening and what we need to do about it.  Whatever we want, whatever problem we think we have, we’re convinced that thinking more about it will lead us to the answer we need.  We think we can think our way out of and into everywhere, everyone, and everything.

Simultaneously, we all crave a sense of serenity that can withstand the ever-changing ups and downs of life. We want to trust in something that can hold steady in the midst of the unknowable and often difficult reality that is life.  And so, we bring this same figure it out/knowing paradigm to how we view the attainment of the peace we desire.  We imagine that we can mentally muscle our way to serenity, that more thinking about life will ultimately lead us to peace.

One of the inherent problems with this belief system, our great faith in and reverence for figuring it out, is that it relies on the premise that our thoughts (the building blocks of figuring it out) are not just our thoughts, but rather, the truth. We think that our subjective experience is an objective reality, simply what is.  And it follows then that everything that’s built from our thoughts, every narrative we construct from our thoughts should also be absolute truth.

If I have a fight with a friend then start figuring out what happened and what needs to happen going forward, I’m basing that interpretation, that entire storyline of thought, on my subjective experience, my particular mind with its particular wounds, conditioning, history, thoughts, core beliefs, and everything else I’ve ever lived. I believe that my thoughts about what this other person was doing is what they were doing and therefore, what I think they need to stop or start doing in order for me to feel better is also an inarguable fact.

But the problem is, what I think this friend is doing may have nothing to do with what they think they’re doing or what I’m doing for that matter.  Their intentions and inner reality may and probably does exist on another planet than mine.  The whole narrative I’ve constructed, the way I’ve figured this situation out, is irrelevant and useless then.  I’m operating in a universe (my mind) with rules and systems that make sense inside this particular mind, but which have little or nothing to do with what’s happening in other minds.  What makes the dots connect in my thought system is of little use when applied to someone or something else’s reality. That said, figuring out life, based on our personal narrative, is an exercise in futility and to some degree, absurdity.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand our experience.  But rather, that we need to be aware that our knowledge, our version of what makes sense lives only in our own mind.  Our truth exists within us, and only within us.  And, it co-exists with billions of other truths that exist in other people’s minds.  We can still present our version of reality or our truth to another person but we can stop assuming that our subjective experience, our thoughts of what makes sense, are also true in some absolute way.  We don’t have to work ourselves up into a lather believing that we have the keys to the castle, we know exactly what’s happening and the way it all needs to go. And, we don’t need to worry that if it doesn’t go the way we’ve scripted it, the way our mind tells us it must, that something is wrong and we are being wronged.

It’s profoundly liberating to realize that our version of the truth, which not coincidentally always places us at the center of what’s driving everyone and everything else, may not and probably is not the truth for anyone else.  When we believe this, we suffer alone (and we really suffer), trapped inside the certainty of our own figured-out and usually unwanted reality.

There is yet another flaw in our assumption that we can figure out our way to happiness. The belief that bringing more thoughts and mental understanding of a challenging situation or relationship will automatically benefit that situation or relationship is false. We believe that the mind is the proper tool for every situation, but it’s not.  It’s often the worst tool we can pull out of the shed in fact.  In many cases, what’s needed for actual improvement, growth or change, is something else entirely.

Sometimes, if we’re dealing with a difficult person, the best thing we can do is nothing—not try and understand their behavior or what we need to do about it. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to just let it be what it is.

Often, when we stop trying to figure out what’s wrong with and how to fix everyone and everything (which we know as masters of the universe), and just let it be the way it is, for now, our whole experience changes. We discover that in all the trying to understand and fix, we actually exacerbate the problem, not just on the outside but on the inside too, scratching at the wrongs, fomenting anger and resentment, which always intensifies our own suffering.

Sometimes, when confronting a problematic person, it’s wise to simply offer it the generosity of compassion, the serenity of not trying to control it, and the wisdom of not trying to figure it out.  It can be helpful to realize that the other person’s behavior probably comes out of their own suffering or ignorance, and also remind yourself that they also want the same things you want—happiness, safety, and peace—even if the way they’re going about it may not seem wise to you.  Keeping our attention focused in kindness, while resisting the urge to go up into our sense-making mind, frequently serves to improve the situation far more than any mental gymnastics could.  The felt experience of wishing this person well, even if we cannot or choose not to try and understand their behavior, is the choice that brings the most change—and relief.  And most importantly, whether or not we can find compassion for this other, it is an act of profound compassion–for ourselves–to stop trying to figure it all out.  Nothing ultimately feels better.

Knowing feels fundamental to our safety and control.  But in the end, surrendering to not knowing, realizing that if what we really want is for the situation to change or us to change in relation to the situation; if what we really want is peace, then understanding it more is not the wisest choice.

In place of figuring it all out (which I spent umpteen years doing) I now like to turn difficult people and situations into opportunities.  In place of trying to make sense, I focus on being the person I want to be in the situation.  I turn my attention away from figuring out what’s making the other do what they’re doing and how to get them to change (according to my reality), and towards how I am being in the midst of this reality.  This profound turn from something I can’t control something I can gives me back my power and more importantly, my freedom.

What’s ironic too is that if my underlying desire is for my external world to change with regard to this difficult situation, I’ve had far more success when my focus is on my own behavior and not the others.  Taking my eye off the self-diagnosed problem and putting it on myself, how I’m being in this difficulty, just plain works better.  But even when the situation doesn’t change on the outside, my experience of the situation on the inside radically changes when I shift my attention in this way.  Challenges become opportunities to grow and evolve; in moments I actually even look forward to them.  I get to practice being who I want to be, my best self; I get to choose what my own participation in life will look like.

The process of taking care of my own side of the street has never failed to be a nourishing and rewarding choice.  It always changes my experience even when it doesn’t change a single thing on the outside.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say (something like) “When I don’t try and figure it out, I’m happier and things go better,” I’d be a very wealthy woman. I sure know that’s it’s been true for me. Figuring it out may give us a pseudo sense of control and safety, but it doesn’t make us feel better, which at the end of the day is what we really want.

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