Is Your Relationship Evolving or Devolving?

Viv, a composite client, has been married for 25 years. For the past 10 years, she and her husband Alan have experienced intense conflict and emotional turbulence. Neither partner, however, has been willing to leave the marriage, and there are increasing signs that the relationship may indeed find its way back to goodness and peace.

And yet, despite glimmers of hope and movement in the direction of happiness, Alan continues to repeat certain comments to Viv. Specifically, “This marriage is a failure,” “I’ve totally failed at marriage,” or “I haven’t even been able to succeed at anything, including marriage.”

When Alan first started uttering these statements, Viv’s reaction was to become defensive and angry. She felt hurt and back-handedly insulted; his words felt like aggressions against her and the marriage. Her reaction would then be to defend the marriage or blame her husband for destroying it and them. Alan would then react and accuse Viv of being the one who was impossible to have a relationship with. One hundred percent of the time, when Viv engaged with defensiveness and aggression, the interaction went south and created more pain and disconnection within the couple.

After years spent defending herself and the marriage, blaming Alan for ruining things, and trying unsuccessfully to get him to see the marriage in a different way, Viv adopted a new strategy. She began pretending as if she didn’t notice her husband’s comments; she behaved as if he hadn’t said it, hadn’t hurt her. It was an attempt to stave off her shame at being wounded and show him (falsely) that his efforts to cause her harm were useless. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work either, because, underneath the nonchalance, she felt enraged and deeply hurt. Pretending in this way made her feel like she was tucking away and even betraying her true self, and this caused deep resentment and confusion in Viv.

Most recently, Viv’s and my work together has been focused on letting go of (or loosening) the controller in her—the part of her that feels it has to change or manage her husband’s behavior. When Viv is able to allow her husband to be the way he is, to let go of the idea that it’s her responsibility or duty to change him, she feels liberated and, unexpectedly, not resentful. She’s realized that there are a lot of things about her husband’s behavior that she doesn’t like, and that’s OK. When she’s not failing at getting him to be the way she wants him to be, and he’s not failing her by not being how she wants him to be, she can actually relax. She can hear his comments and not have to do anything with or about them. Viv has been learning to watch what happens when she lets everything be just exactly as it is, which may be the most important lesson we ever learn. The wise spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, calls this the practice of true meditation, a form of meditation that can happen everywhere not just on the cushion.

When Viv lets go of the controller and allows her husband to be as he is and also her experience of him to be how it is, she feels more separate from him, but also more aware of who he and she actually are, and paradoxically more in relationship with him, rather than the idea of the man she wants him to be. This doesn’t mean that she stops telling him when he says things that hurt her, but she no longer sees him as a piece of clay she has to mold. Alan transformed from being an object in her psyche, one that possessed the potential to make her happy, and became a separate human being with pleasing and not-pleasing parts.

There was a surrender that occurred within Viv; her 25-year effort to make Alan different (so that she could be happy) had given up. As a result, she was left with reality. Reality had always been there, but she had been in a battle with it, rejecting it and living in a state of chronic dissatisfaction and frustration.

The process of letting go is vastly liberating, but it also includes grief. When we surrender the controller, we surrender the hope that we will get to have the partner we wish we could have, that we will get to have the happiness we imagined our partner could bring us. We may discover a totally different kind of happiness, but our idea of how it was going to happen and who our partner was going to become must die.

When we stop betting our happiness on our partner changing, we discover a different kind of partnership, a bond without shackles, a union that’s both separate and together. When we step out of the role of manager, we start to see who our partner actually is rather than who they’re not, and hopefully, we can do all this with a bit of compassion.

This process, while painful in many ways, is a spiritual evolution. It involves shedding a central part of ourselves, a primary component and motivation in how we relate. Our relationship, with a loosened controller, is fundamentally different; our purpose is no longer fixing the project that is our partner. Without a controller, it’s a relationship without the hope of having exactly what we want, but with a new and undiscovered hope of meeting what we actually have, who our partner is, and who we are in this relationship as it is.

In letting go of the controller, we give ourselves the freedom to focus on our own behavior, our own happiness. We have permission to not have to be in charge of everyone else’s behavior. The more we practice this, the more we get the hang of letting others be who they are and moving on. In so doing, we also give ourselves the possibility of loving our partner now, not if and when we turn them into who we want them to be.

And remarkably, when we change our responses to our partner’s behavior, our partner’s behavior also changes. It has to, as we’re feeding it different food. One thing’s for sure: If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten. When we change, the people around us change, either through their own behavior or simply through how we see them.

Most recently, yet another shift has occurred; Viv has found a new clarity, a new wisdom that’s not about Alan or the marriage. Viv has discovered an authentic desire to move away from negativity and what hurts and move towards love and kindness, towards friends and family who have a positive experience of their relationship with her—who do not view their relationship with her as a failure. This desire in Viv stems from self-love, from letting things be as they are, and it allows her to disengage from her husband’s comments, to leave them alone in the interest of her own well-being. While she still finds Alan’s words hurtful in these situations, Viv has developed wisdom that, in the moment, tells her to let go and act in service of her greater happiness. Or, as the wonderful Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron puts it, to not bite the hook that’s dangling. When not responding is not just another response tactic, but rather a true act of self-love, we’ve discovered a most powerful tool.

Evolution and happiness in our self and our relationship is not about figuring out how to better control our partner, learning to not care, or swallowing behavior that’s hurtful. It is, however, about learning to allow everything to be as it is, letting go of control and responsibility for our partner’s behavior, and practicing self-love. Ultimately, it’s about learning to take what we want and leave the rest behind, moving away from what hurts and moving towards kindness.

A caveat: In the case of abuse of any kind, emotional or physical, we do not allow anything to be as it is. When abuse is present, we remove ourselves from the situation. When abuse is happening, we do not surrender control or wait for our partner’s behavior to change, we take ourselves out of harm’s way. This article is not applicable in cases of abuse.

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When It’s Always Someone Else’s Fault

Bill came to see me because his wife “never takes ownership of her own behavior.”  Bill is married to a blamer.  No matter what difficulty she experiences, there’s always someone or something else to blame for it, but not her.  As he put it (with exasperation), “She is never, ever, ever, but I mean ever the problem!”  Bill felt a lot of resentment and residual rage toward his wife as a result of this issue, but also felt unable to speak about it with her with any degree of honesty.  When he did try and point out, gently, where she might be part of the problem, she would accuse him of not being empathic, not supporting her, and not being a good husband.  “All I want from you is to know you’re on my team.”

The problem for Bill was that when he empathized with his wife’s problems, and she always had problems wherever she went. He felt like he was supporting a part of her he really didn’t like, and the very part that he believed was responsible for her being so unhappy and unsatisfied all the time.  When he validated her version of the truth, it felt like he was validating exactly the character issue in his wife that made her life stuck and their marriage difficult.  The same part of her that blamed everyone else also blamed Bill and refused to look at herself when problems arose in the relationship.

On a recent morning, Bill had asked his wife how she liked the people at her new job.  She then launched into a diatribe about how everyone at her office was so overly sensitive and that she couldn’t say anything that they wouldn’t find offensive.  She couldn’t relax and be herself because she had to be hyper-vigilant about not offending anyone about their race, gendersexuality, color, and everything else identity-related.  If she spoke naturally, she would be offending someone and there would be consequences.  The office wasn’t safe to make friends.  Identity politics were in the way.

As Bill explained it, she went on and on about the external problem that made it impossible for her to connect to anyone.  She didn’t talk about feeling lonely or awkward or disappointed, she just talked about the reasons friendship was impossible, and what was to blame for her not making friends and enjoying the new environment.

Bill’s wife had in fact rarely been able to make friends and had always felt isolated.  She’d been in many work situations and other environments, and there was always something wrong with the people or the conditions that made it impossible for her to be part of the community.  According to Bill, she was also very critical of others and awkward in her social skills.  She frequently said things that offended people or that she felt people took the wrong way.  For her whole life, she had felt misunderstood and misjudged.

After listening for a while and nodding supportively, Bill had asked if there might be a way to connect with her co-workers at a human level, around something everyone could relate to that didn’t have to do with their race, gender or identity.  Her answer was no, everything led back to identity issues in that office.  Trying to move the topic away from the blaming, he asked if it was lonely or frustrating to be in such an office.  There was no response on that either.  He also poked in a question about whether it was true that if she complimented a man on what he was wearing, she would be accused of being inappropriate.  But at that point, smelling the rat, Bill’s wife erupted and told him that she wasn’t looking for instructions on how to correct it, she was just looking for support.  Bill explained that he was trying to be helpful and suggest a way that she might create a community since she had said she wanted that.  She angrily responded that his help was always directed at changing who she was, correcting her in some way, and never aimed at validating that the situation was in fact difficult.  Bill then did what he often does, namely, go back to nodding empathically and listening to his wife’s newest target for blame, playing the docile part he’s supposed to play.  Meanwhile, on the inside, he was, as he always is, enraged and feeling utterly helpless, with no way to express his truth and also not be attacked and accused of being the enemy.

When he came in that morning, Bill was fed up and tired of feeling controlled, frustrated by not knowing how to deal with this particular situation.  How could he be empathic with his wife’s experience when he was sure the problems she was encountering were caused by her own behavior?  How could he validate the very part of her that made it nearly impossible to be in a relationship with her?

This is a tremendously challenging situation that many of us confront.  We have a strong theory about why someone is suffering or encountering a particular problem; we’re convinced that it’s their own behavior that’s causing it, and yet they want and need us to empathize with and validate their conviction that something or someone else is to blame, which we don’t believe is true.  They don’t want to and are not willing to look at their part in the situation or how they are contributing to their problem, but need us to confirm a reality that maintains them as the victim and repeating the same pattern.

Although Bill felt he had failed at the situation, in fact the strategies he came up with were incredibly wise, which I pointed out to him.  He did some empathizing and validating, nodding his head and responding supportively.  He also inserted some reality checks, as in his question about commenting on someone’s outfit as inappropriate.  And finally, he tried to move the conversation to her experience of loneliness, which could have been a place to join her and feel some real empathy.  His instincts were spot on, but unfortunately, none of his attempts succeeded at giving him a new role in the situation or changing his wife’s behavior for that matter.  He was either the un-supportive spouse or stuck validating his wife in an ignorant and unattractive behavior that he found abhorrent.

So, what’s left to do after all the strategies lead nowhere?  That is, after we  1. Legitimately empathize, because after all, the person is suffering even if we think they’re the cause of their own pain.  2. Reality check: Ask benign questions about the facts and assumptions the other is using to defend their argument.  3. Shift the topic from the object of blame to the other’s experience of the problem. What’s it like to work in a place that feels so unsafe?  (We do this so as to create a place we can connect and empathize authentically.)  What’s left, after all this has been tried, is a strategy of an entirely different sort.  We move our attention from the other into ourselves.

Depending on the kind of situation, the intensity of the other’s pain and our own inner state, we may try to express a bit of what we’re living through as well.  As in, “I want to support you and I feel how hard this is for you, and I really care about that—AND (not but)—I also have some thoughts about what might make the situation better that include you.  Are you interested in hearing that “take” from me or do you just want me to listen and support you that this is the way it is?”

When we can say something that implies or suggests we think the other may have a part in creating their own unhappiness, even if it’s not the actual contents of what we think the other is doing that’s causing their problem, it often feels much better than just behaving by listening or validating.  By asking if the other is open to our thoughts about alternative solutions, we feel less controlled and invisible, and more authentic and present in the conversation.  By acknowledging out loud that we will agree to tuck away our truth and do what they need us to do at that moment (even if we think something different), we’re actually, in a very clever way, giving our truth a place at the table, making ourselves heard and not allowing our truth, even if not named, to be bullied out of the conversation.

Furthermore, as the other is going on about who and what’s to blame for their problem, and asking us to empathize, we turn our attention inside.  We acknowledge, silently, that this situation is really hard—for us.  We remind ourselves, with kindness, that this is the place, the moment, the exact spot where there’s no right way to do it, no strategy to handle this person, this situation, this roadblock, that will make it comfortable or right.  We offer ourselves permission to not know how to do it.  We do the best we can without demanding that it feel okay or that we be able to make it okay.

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The Making of a Corporate Athlete

What skills are necessary for professional greatness? What makes someone able to perform successfully under high stress and constant change and to keep doing it over time without breaking down? As it turns out, we have lots of answers to this question, and most focus on the rewards necessary for greatness, the kind of culture that breeds success, and the particular skill sets necessary for peak performance.

But recently, Harvard Business School conducted a different kind of study, one that examined the strategies and habits of winning athletes and whether they could be transferred to apply to business—in essence, whether we could train high-level executives as corporate athletes. It appears that the answer is yes; we can indeed apply the wisdom of sport to help ourselves succeed in anything and everything that’s challenging.

As someone who competed as a top-level equestrian for over two decades, it has long been clear to me that the skills and mindset I learned as a competitive athlete are what allow me to succeed in every other pursuit in my life, both professionally and personally. It appears that now there’s proof.

Research in the field of sport demonstrates that top athletes succeed in large part because of their ability not just to perform under stress, but more importantly, to recover after stress has occurred. Recovery is the critical process in which the body and mind not only rest, but also rebuild new strengths and develop resilience, as a muscle does between workouts.

When comparing the careers of athletes and executives however, vast differences exist in the natural opportunities for recovery. Most of an athlete’s time is spent in practice with just a small percentage in actual competition. An executive, however, is in competition every day, all day. An athlete’s high-stress season is usually fairly short with lots of time to recover in the off- season, while a corporate athlete gets a few weeks off per year if she’s lucky (during which time she usually works). And finally, the average top-level athlete’s career lasts less than a decade while an executive’s career spans a lifetime.  All that said, an executive, if she is to reap the benefits of the recovery process must find alternative ways to rest and rebuild.

To consistently perform well in high-stress environments, executives must focus not just on the skills needed for their specific field, but more broadly, on creating a mindful and nourishing life, one that feeds them physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. To create excellence at work, a corporate athlete must ultimately create excellence in life.

The Physically, Emotionally, Mentally, Spiritually Fit Corporate Athlete

Although executives are primarily mentally-focused, the corporate athlete must, nonetheless, pay close attention to the wellbeing of her body, not just how it looks but how it being taken care of. A corporate athlete cannot function at a high level, not for long anyway, as just a head running around without a body attached. Corporate athletes are inclined to forget about their bodies, and yet, over time this dismissive attitude is a sure-fire recipe for burnout. Attention to diet and exercise, sleep, and a program of physical well-being cannot be excluded when excellence is the goal.

On an emotional level, the corporate athlete must pay close attention to her feeling state. She cannot wait for a strong emotion like anger or frustration to overwhelm her and thus land her on the bench. Just as an athlete might ask herself how she is feeling on a physical level, a corporate athlete must be aware of how she is on an emotional level and also be able to manage strong emotions when they arise. Mindfulness of emotion is thus a critical practice in the creation of excellence.

From a mental perspective, the ability to control our attention is the key ingredient in the ability to perform under and recover from stress. We must not only be able to focus our attention when it counts, but also to turn our attention away from negative and distracting thoughts. Meditation is the practice of observing and separating from our thoughts, which protects us from getting caught up and sidelined by the thoughts that destroy performance. As such, meditation is the practice of most importance, mentally, for creating peak performance.

And finally, on a spiritual level, a corporate athlete must discover meaning in her life—why she’s doing what she’s doing, what really matters to her, what values she’s serving. As unrelated as it may seem to the executive mindset, a top-level performer in any field, in order to sustain herself, must consciously contemplate what her life is about. A sense of meaning is, above all else, the antidote to burnout.

Top level executives are athletes—corporate athletes. Excellence is created not just by the obvious skills one’s profession demands, but by the building of a whole and well human being. To create and maintain high-level performance in stressful environments, we must pay attention to and nourish all areas of our life. As it turns out, self-care is in fact the recipe for greatness.

This article is based on the work of Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, the primary researchers and coiners of the term “corporate athlete.”

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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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