Must We Always Be Striving For A Better Life?

Switching from the five-year plan to the right now plan…

The workshop started with a simple question: What do you want? That question was followed shortly with What is your deepest intention? And then, What do you want to create in your life? Out then came the magic markers, poster boards, glue sticks, glitter, and all sorts of other art supplies. We were to start drawing, mapping, and fleshing out a future life and future self, complete with the action steps that would lead us to our deepest wants and intentions.

From the time we’re very young, we are conditioned to be strivers. We are trained to want and keep wanting for more and better. Better versions of ourselves and better experiences for ourselves—this is where we are supposed to aim our attention.

Truth be told, when confronted with these kinds of broad, future-oriented questions, I often find myself blank, unable to identify what I want for my future in any real detail. I usually use the magic markers and glitter to make a picture for my daughter. It’s not to say there aren’t things I want to do and create: I want to spend more time in the desert, I want to build my speaking business and I want to do more silent retreats. But mostly what I feel in the face of these five-year-plan questions is a big fat “should” with a sprinkle of confusion and a splash of fogginess. The strong sense is that I should have a clear plan and an overarching vision of the future. And, that there’s something wrong if I don’t or don’t even want to participate in the exercise. 

But then I remember: We take our progress-oriented, more and better, capitalistic mindset and apply it to ourselves and our time on the planet. We relate to ourselves as an object in our model of unending progress. We focus on the future, where we want to get to, what else there could be, and what we are aiming for. At the end of the day, we assume that wanting means wanting for something, and specifically, something else, something external, and something new and different. 

After years of asking myself these sorts of well-intentioned questions, I discovered that they’re not the right questions for me or for many of my clients. The question, What do you want?, while wonderfully helpful in some ways, can become another demand on us, another thing we’re supposed to accomplish, another bar to reach. We are supposed to have a to-do list for our future and a plan to get there, and if we don’t, we are certain to miss out on that future of our dreams

After thousands of workshops and too many hours spent journaling, talking, meditating, singing, and every other ing, I realized that what I really want is to get to be here. That is, to experience this moment, this dare I say ordinary moment, and to experience it as enough. The intention I hold is to stop trying to get to somewhere else, stop becoming someone else, and stop figuring out a better reality. While there’s nothing wrong with any of that, for me, the work is in diving deeper into this present moment, and finding the wonder and awe in this. My five-year plan is to show up for all of the individual moments on the way to that moment in five years, which itself will then be just another now.

We are trained to think of time and our life as something that’s moving forward on a horizontal line, hurtling into the future. Progress is our north star. It gives us a place to move towards, and with it, a sense of purpose and meaning. At a deeper level, the idea of progress protects us from our existential fear of meaninglessness, from the vastness that comes with just being here, one now at a time. If we are not heading somewhere else, somewhere better, then we are left simply with this moment, heading nowhere in particular. If now is all we have, then what? Can we bear that existence?article continues after advertisement

But what’s remarkable is that when we enter this present moment fully, dive completely into now, with no next, and nowhere else to get to, we discover that time feels more like a vertical experience than a horizontal one. With each now, we drop into a kind of vertical infinity that is its own destination.

After diligently searching for an impressive “want” that would warrant a giant poster board and bright green sparkles, I discovered that what I want is far simpler than what I thought I should want. What I want is to be completely where I am, and to stop having to want something else all the time. I want for this moment to be everything, whatever it is. Furthermore, I want to feel a more consistent sense of awe for the fact that I get to be here at all. 

I offer my own experience here so that you may know of an alternative to the habitual striving and wanting that we are encouraged to participate in. But please, if these sorts of intentional inquiries are useful; if they help you gain clarity and move the dial forward in your life, then use them without hesitation. But, if you find yourself feeling blank or lacking when asked about what you want and want to make happen, about where you are headed, then perhaps you can give yourself permission to stop striving to get somewhere better, and instead, strive to just be here. 

Getting off the five-year-plan highway can feel like getting off the “normal” grid, opting out of the way we do life in this society. But that’s okay. Getting off the striving highway and turning your attention to where you are can lead you to a far better and richer life, which paradoxically, is exactly the kind of life you are supposed to be striving towards. article continues after advertisement

It is the ultimate challenge to just be in this moment, with no agenda and no need to improve it. To arrive here and stop trying to get somewhere else may be the most difficult and remarkable achievement of our lifetime. When we’re able to truly show up for this moment, whatever we create and wherever we find ourselves in five minutes or five years will be just that. That “there” will be our new “here” and that “then” will be our new “now.” In a society that values striving above all else, we can add “striving to be in our life (as it’s happening)” to our want list. We can add “here” to our list of sought-after destinations. At the end of the day (and the beginning and middle too), the journey to where we are is the most important journey we will ever embark on. What do I want? Truth be told, I want to be here.

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Why It’s So Hard to Be (Fully) Honest With Your Partner

Jill and her husband had attended a friend’s party, and Jill came home upset. Her husband’s friendliness—and what looked like flirtation—with another woman kept her awake all night, feeling hurt, angry, and threatened. She knew her husband loved her; she wasn’t worried that he would cheat. Still, the whole thing made her feel bad.

She tried to let it go, not wanting to create a conflict and upset the “good stretch” they were in. She was worried about how her husband would react to her insecurity. But after a few days, her hurt feelings were still weighing on her mind and heart. Worse, they were turning into resentment—a narrative about her husband that started with “How could he? How dare he?” She knew she had to say something when she found herself obsessively ruminating and snapping at him over small things.

A few days later, she decided to “risk it” and be honest. Over a nice dinner, Jill shared her feelings, saying that while she trusted that he wouldn’t cheat, nonetheless his being holed up with this other woman all evening in the corner of the room made her feel afraid and hurt. Most of all, it triggered her fear of abandonment and inadequacy, her sense of being “not pretty enough, not young enough, not cool enough, not anything enough.” Jill’s own father had left the family when she was young, something her husband was aware of and of which she reminded him. She spoke openly about how his choice to spend the evening enjoying this other woman triggered her deepest insecurity.

Sadly, her husband’s reaction wasn’t the warm reassurance she had hoped for and needed. Rather than saying the loving words she craved—that he cherished her and would never leave her—he angrily questioned her use of the terms “holed up,” “in the corner of the room,” and “enjoying this other woman.” He rejected her description of his actions and accused her of calling him unfaithful and assuming the worst about him. When she defended herself, he told her that she was “nuts.” He said she was overly sensitive and had to get her jealousy under control. Moreover, he said that he was sick and tired of being monitored.

The conversation (which was never really a conversation) ended with his saying, “Nothing I do is ever enough for you,” and the couple retreated to their separate rooms.

Some version of this scenario plays itself out in every relationship I’ve ever seen or experienced: One partner shares his or her experience, longing to feel less alone in his or her pain, to be reassured and comforted, and to move the relationship into something more real and connected. But the result is a further wounding experience. He or she ends up feeling misunderstood, and more alone. The other partner’s anger and criticism then obstruct and add to the original pain.

These kinds of tragic “misses” happen in every relationship. We open a conversation with the desire to feel understood and known. But before we know what’s happened, we’re in a huge fight, tangled up in a lifetime of suffering. Instead of feeling more connected, and we feel profoundly cut off. Instead of feeling understood, we feel rejected. We started out feeling hurt and ended up accused of doing the hurting. We are miles from the empathic embrace we were craving.

Emotional safety is a universal human longing. We yearn for someone with whom we can be completely open; we want to express our real thoughts and feelings without being criticized or blamed. Deep down, we ache to be known.

As a therapist, I hear this same longing from people of every age group, race, gender, and socioeconomic background. The longing is to not have to twist our truth into a pretzel so as to make it palatable, to not have to silence our experience to maintain the relationship and the other person’s ego. We long to be heard without judgment. And yet, even as we are denied this kind of openness, we also have difficulty offering it to our partner.

The Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing, and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” That’s it, exactly. And yet, despite our longing and effort, again and again we find ourselves in the loneliest of places, feeling unloved and unknown. Worse, we feel unknowable. We question whether there is anywhere we can be received wholly, without judgment, and without having to fight vigilantly to get there. What we know is that we’re failing to gain entry into that union we crave, where egos fall away and the love is big enough to hold all our separate stories.article continues after advertisement

We long for the kind of love that can include everything. And yet, we get caught again and again in our humanness. We want unconditional love, but seem relentlessly stuck in the conditional.

A part of this pain is simply failing to accept the basic reality of being a human being. As human beings, we are condemned to live in separate bodies and separate minds, which makes for different thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We live in different realities, with different relative truths. We expect something different, especially in our closest relationships. We expect our partners to have an expansive understanding and acceptance of us, and then we experience great suffering when that expectation isn’t fulfilled.

When we are truly open, we are often denied the understanding we need. Our truth ends up bumping into our partner’s ego, their protective armor. Our experience signals a threat to our partner. They, too, feel misunderstood, expecting us to also have an expansive understanding and acceptance. The result is that our experience sounds like an accusation because it doesn’t reflect what they expect us to already have understood. And so they respond with anger and defensiveness. We end up in a life-or-death battle with our partner’s “me,” their wounds and storylines. Simultaneously, we’re trapped inside the claustrophobic separateness of our own little “me.” 

It’s important to realize that all people suffer to some degree in this inevitable form of isolation; it’s a core aspect of the human experience and a consequence of the terrible inadequacy of words and gestures to convey who we truly are, even to those to whom we are closest.

When we share our experience, we are sending an invitation to our partner to meet us beyond the words, in that expansive field of truth. It’s an attempt to bridge the divide between two people. Our truth is a path out of the isolation we all face as separate human beings. We offer our truth to our partner in search of love.

This attempt is profound. Furthermore, the awareness of what’s really being attempted changes the experience itself. At the same time, there are certain things we can do, and ways we can communicate, that will improve our chances of receiving the kind of acceptance and love we crave.

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We Weren’t Always As Good As We Are Now, So What?

Why there’s no shame in crawling before we walk.

There’s something profoundly disturbing going on in our culture right now. Well, truth be told, there are a multitude of profoundly disturbing things going on. But at the center of our toxic culture is a rapidly metastasizing and malignant sense of entitlement—a righteousness. And specifically, the right to cast judgment.

As a society, we have become astoundingly judgmental. We feel entitled and emboldened to cast judgment on absolutely everything and everyone. We not only judge what everyone is saying, doing, and believing right now, but we judge what everyone said, did, and believed throughout history. We feel entitled to criticize and condemn those who came before us, specifically, for being less aware and evolved than we are now. We shame who we used to be, and at the same time, deny that that’s who we were.  

We do this judging not only on a public stage, to other people, but also personally—to ourselves. We are constantly attacking, shaming, and rejecting earlier versions of ourselves, judging and blaming who we used to be. But we judge and blame through the lens of who we are now—who we’ve become.

Oddly, we expect ourselves to have always known and understood what we now know and understand. We shame ourselves for being works in progress, for having to grow up and keep growing up, for not coming out of the womb fully formed and perfect. As we become more awake and aware beings, sadly, we look back at less mature incarnations of ourselves with disdain and contempt. 

Laura, a client, started to tell me about a recent, wonderful experience in which she did something profoundly kind for her neighbor. She felt really good about her choice, and about herself. But before she had gotten even a few sentences into her story, Laura veered off into a shaming and critical diatribe on herself—specifically, about a past experience from 20 years ago, when she had acted with less kindness and less generosity.

The opportunity to honor this lovely experience, and also fully inhabit the person she had become as a woman in her forties, was hijacked by her need to vilify and condemn who she had been in her twenties. In an instant, she had abandoned her present-day self and was back in self-loathing and shame, caught in an old narrative, and an ocean of regret about who she used to be.

It’s odd really. We don’t expect our children to be able to run the moment they’re born. We all understand that, as human beings, we need to roll around for 9 or 10 months, then slide along on our butts for another few months, then crawl, then stand up and fall down, then toddle for a while holding onto something, then take a couple of steps on our own, then fall down some more, then take more steps, then fall down, and then walk. 

We accept that we need to grow into ourselves on a physical level, to fail until we can succeed. And to some degree, we hold this same acceptance with regard to our mental evolution, recognizing our need for education. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to our emotional and spiritual evolution, the maturation of our character and awareness, we expect perfection right out of the gate. We deny ourselves the right to learn and evolve over a lifetime, and similarly, to change and grow over generations, as a species.  article continues after advertisement

Life is a process of endless becoming. We’re never fully done growing, never done becoming. We are works in progress, throughout life. Over time and through our lived experiences, we learn who we want to be, who we are capable of being.

The truth is, we don’t come out as our best self; we grow into and learn how to be our best self. Particularly if we didn’t have parents or caretakers that could serve as models for our best behavior. We become more evolved and aware, and hopefully more compassionate, through trial and error, good examples, failure, time, and experience; we become the people we can respect and be proud of. That’s precisely the journey of life, precisely the point of it. To deny this truth or demand that it should be otherwise is to deny reality. 

When we judge and condemn our past behaviors and level of awareness based on what we are capable of now; when we shame the toddler in our past for, well… being a toddler, we not only deny reality, but we reject and abandon our more evolved selves. We refuse ourselves the privilege to change, to become and be better versions of ourselves. We cling to our past failures in the face of our current successes as a way of holding onto an old identity, an outdated narrative on ourselves as bad or not who we should have been. 

Often, at the root of our judging is shame. We shame ourselves for having to spiritually and morally mature, as if there were some other way for our evolution to happen. We condemn ourselves for having to grow into our best self. And of course, for ever having been imperfect.

In the process, we turn our backs on who we actually are, now. We dishonor the ways we’ve evolved. Simultaneously, we block the self we’ve become from becoming even more, and from fulfilling its potential. By focusing on the missteps and failures of who we used to be, we prevent ourselves from stepping into the shoes of the person we’ve become. In so doing, we get in our own way and slow down our continuing evolution.  

As human beings, we are works in progress. We grow into who we are on a daily basis. There’s no point at which we reach our final destination, a completed self. Again and again, we realize that what we thought and believed before, maybe even yesterday, we no longer think and believe now. Again and again, we discover that how we want to behave and how we can behave has changed.article continues after advertisement

The same holds true for us as a species. Who we were at other times in history is not who we are now. There’s no shame in that; it’s just what is. But each minute we spend condemning and judging who we were; each present moment we waste expecting and demanding a past self to have known what a present self knows, is not only a complete rejection of reality, of the human condition, but it’s also a moment we’ve lost, one that could have been spent living our life from and as the more evolved self we are right now.  

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Preparing Your Partner to Listen: The Simple Change in Behavior That Can Radically Change Your Relationship

Ava wanted to tell her husband about a troubling and upsetting argument she’d had with her sister. She wanted to process the experience; she wanted his understanding and empathy; she wanted to be heard.

But when she tried to share her thoughts and feelings about the situation, her husband seemed irritated about having to listen. When she wanted to talk about the details of her life, things that didn’t involve him directly, it was as if he could barely stand to listen. She described having to wrestle his attention into the room, pull him away from his own thoughts, where he clearly wanted to remain. She was exhausted from having to get and keep his attention.

This kind of experience comes up frequently in my couples practice, for both men and women—a partner who makes you feel like your life is an annoyance or burden to have to focus on, whom you have to corral into paying attention.  

Usually, when a couples’ primary issue centers around listening, it suggests that serious work lies ahead. Listening is love in action. That said, when listening is the problem, chances are we’re heading into complex, painful, and often early childhood territory. But sometimes we get lucky and the listening issue has an easy and straightforward cause, and fix. 

In certain situations, we can correct a listening issue with a simple shift in behavior, which is timing: how and when we bring our important matters to our partner’s attention. It’s strange really, we overlook the importance of timing in communication; we consider timing a far too simplistic and obvious factor to consider. In addition, we are conditioned to believe that attention is something that should always be at-the-ready for and from our loved ones. But this is false or perhaps only true with an attuned and loving parent. In fact, attention is not always available, even in love.

When we want (or need) to share something important, often, we often share without any real awareness of the other person. We don’t consider what they’re doing or thinking about, or how they are in that moment. In a sense, we pounce on our partner, wanting our experience to be known and shared, to have immediate company in what we’re experiencing. (All of which is natural and normal.) While an important part of partnership is indeed being able to share our life, the problem is that we expect our partner to be ready to hear us, and specifically, to receive our experience at precisely the moment when we’re ready to share it.

We forget that our partner is not living the same reality as we are; they may be living in our external reality but they’re not living our internal reality. We assume, without knowing it, that we share an internal experience with our partner, but this is usually not the case. We forget that our partner may not be ready or able to receive our experience, to properly hold space for it. We imagine that because we’re ready, our partner will or should be ready. We then approach without asking if they can or want to give us their full attention in that moment.

At the core, we forget that asking someone to listen, really listen, is indeed a profound ask. When we listen, we literally gift someone with our attention, our most precious asset. When we listen, wholly, we do love. To ask someone to listen therefore is no small request, no matter how easily we discount its importance. article continues after advertisement

When we share our experience, it’s important that we do so with awareness, and with respect both for ourselves and our partner. And furthermore, that we include discernment and patience, and consider the reality of what’s possible in that moment, not just what we wish were possible. We need to remember that our partner is not us and we are not them; we are living in different internal worlds, no matter how intimate we are. 

While it may feel clunky and overly formulaic at first, checking on our partner’s availability before we share, even making a scheduled time to pay full attention to each other, is a way of giving ourselves and our experience the best chance of being received with the interest and attention that we so crave. 

When we bring our feelings and vulnerability to the table, it behooves us to prepare that table a bit ahead of time. To have to do so is not contradictory to intimacy. Our partner’s willingness and ability to listen whenever we’re ready to share is not the gauge of healthy partnership. Healthy partnership means being aware of our own needs and giving ourselves the best chance for those needs to be met. And simultaneously, respecting our partner’s needs, which are not the same as ours. 

It’s our responsibility to treat our experience, our truth, with the self-care and carefulness it not only deserves, but requires. It’s our job to make sure that the space we’re bringing our truth into is ready and able to meet it. And, ready and able to take good care of it.

We do this both for ourselves and our partner. article continues after advertisement

It’s a simple shift, but a powerful one. We ask our partner if they’re available to listen to us in the moment and we make that ask a habit. And, if they’re not, we ask when real listening will be possible.

It’s not to say that we have to schedule an appointment every time we want to have a conversation. But, if what we’re sharing is important to us, I suggest that we treat it as such, which is to do our part to ensure that it will be received with the care we desire and deserve.

I also suggest that we recognize the act of listening as the gift that it is. This simple shift in behavior has the potential to create profound change in our relationship, not only in how we listen to each other, but also in how we understand, respect, and love each other. 

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Freeing Yourself From Your Partner’s Behavior

I recently wrote an article about a client who enjoys her marriage and who also struggles with her partner’s angry outbursts. The article garnered some fierce criticism.

To recap: After many years of explaining to her partner how and why his anger (and denial of that anger) was hurtful and not okay, his behavior continued, barely impacted by her rigorous and persistent efforts to change it. My client, as I reported, eventually lost the willingness and interest to keep trying to change her partner. At the same time, she realized that her partner’s behavior was not in her control to change.

It was at this point that my client decided to turn her attention away from her partner and toward herself, to get curious about her own response, her own relationship with her husband’s bad behavior. Since changing her partner was clearly not possible and she still wanted to stay married, she began investigating her own narrative, the story she was telling herself about his behavior, and what kind of partner she “should” have, how she “should” be treated, and what her relationship “should” include.

A number of people were angered by this article and believed that my client’s choice to shift her attention away from her husband and his problematic behavior and toward herself and her own process was to demonize herself, make herself to blame. And furthermore, that I was encouraging her to accept what she positively “should not” accept, to find fault in herself. But in fact, it was nothing of the sort.

Turning her attention to her own process was not about trying to figure out how and where she was to blame, nor about denying or condoning her husband’s behavior. Rather, it was about finding a way to free herself from the anger, helplessness, and frustration that her current reaction to her husband’s anger was triggering in her.

What she wanted was to hand her husband’s bad behavior back to her husband, to not have to carry it around as her problem, and to not have to wait for it to change until she could be okay. In short, she wanted to be in charge of her own well-being.

It’s abjectly false and dangerous, in fact, to suggest that focusing our attention on our own response to difficulty, prioritizing self-awareness above fixing anyone else, is negative or self-defeating in any way. For my client, the decision to stop trying to change a behavior she couldn’t change felt immediately empowering and liberating, as if she were taking the reins back in her life. With the shift in focus, she was no longer waiting for her husband to change so that she could be happy. With a better understanding of her own narratives, her husband’s outbursts could be just that: her husband’s outbursts, his problem that he would or wouldn’t address in his own time.

But most importantly, his outbursts could be not about or against her, not something she had to be in charge of correcting. Turning the lens on her own response, and doing what she needed to do to maintain her own peace, was about taking care of herself in the reality she was in, as opposed to fighting with reality and continuing to demand that it be different. One thing we know for sure, when we fight with reality, reality wins, every time.

We hold firmly entrenched beliefs and internal narratives on the topic of relationship. They range from the micro to the macro, the subtle to the obvious. The most troublesome “should” of all, however, may be this idea that we “should” be able to change our partner, fix what we don’t like. And consequently, we can’t be happy or content until we do.

To stay in a relationship with a partner we can’t change, to accept what we don’t like, is seen as a surrender to failure, giving up on our partner and, to some degree, ourselves. When we stop trying to change the parts of our partner we don’t like, we are judged (and judge ourselves) as weak, dysfunctional, and lacking self-respect.

The idea of focusing on ourselves when the problem is our partners sends us into the fiercest of “should” minefields. We get tangled up in the narrative that we “should not” have to live with this problem, “should not” let the problem continue (as if we have a choice), “should not” have to change who we are to accommodate our partner’s problem, “should not” let our partner get away with the bad behavior, and countless other “shoulds.”

But these “shoulds,” while sensible and maybe even true in some perfect universe, do nothing to change the problem, the partner, or the relationship. And most importantly, they don’t bring us peace. These “shoulds” keep us fighting with reality, convinced of our rightness but suffering nonetheless. But worst of all, they keep our well-being hitched to someone else’s capacity or willingness for change, which is never where we want to be.

Contributing to these “shoulds” is the belief that the relationship is either good or bad. If the relationship contains difficulties we can’t fix, then the relationship must be all bad and we “should” leave. If we don’t, we’re agreeing to stay in a bad relationship.

The truth is, we abhor contradiction in this culture; we’re not trained to hold co-existing and contradictory truths. Contradiction, which paradoxically is the essence of a relationship, terrifies us. We can’t wrap up contradictory truths and put them neatly on a shelf. Nor can we categorize a relationship as either bad or good, worth staying in or not.

And yet, every relationship is both bad and good (except perhaps the newest ones). Accepting that good must coexist with bad, and being loving amid the contradiction, is the ground of a healthy relationship. Please note that those bad aspects of a relationship are not abuse. Your partner can have shortcomings that are difficult to bear without them being intentionally hurtful toward you.

A relationship requires an attitude of “and,” not “but.” “But” is an eraser word; it wipes out everything that came before it. Opposing truths can indeed be happy bedfellows.

It’s a healthy drive to want to fix what we don’t like in a relationship, to change what’s not working. And the period of figuring out and fighting with the problem and our partner, in other words, the period of suffering, can go on for a really long time, sometimes the duration of the relationship. For some people, the lucky ones, a moment arrives when we realize that we’ve done everything we know how to do to try to change our partner, and still the problem persists and the partner remains unchanged. We then have the option to take a new tack and examine whether there’s a way to find peace even with the problem. Our partner may keep doing what they’ve always done, but we can do things differently.

At any moment in a relationship, we can choose to get curious about ourselves, our history, our triggers, our stories, and our response to a problem we experience with our partner.

We can unpack our narratives and consider whether there’s anything we can let go of that will ease our suffering and bring us peace.

We do this not to blame or castigate ourselves, but to liberate ourselves from the fight. We do this so as not to be tangled up and victimized by the problem any longer, but to use it as an opportunity for self-awareness and expansion.

The act of turning the lens on ourselves is a victory, a setting ourselves free and handing the problem off to the one whose problem it is.

We unhitch our own well-being from the other person’s wagon.

Once unhitched, we discover that we can live with that same problem, but not experience it as problematic, our problem, or even a problem. This is freedom. This is autonomy.

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