When We Can No Longer Silence Our Truth

This week something remarkable happened—change happened. When a long-present way of feeling or behaving transforms, I view it as a miracle, a gift of grace.

Two months ago, a dear friend, someone I consider family, asked to borrow money.  I’m working a lot these days (thankfully) and therefore could provide the help. My friend told me that she would pay me back by the end of February. Before writing her the check, I asked her three questions:

1. Could she, realistically, commit to refunding me by the end of February?

2. Could she repay it without my asking for it?

3. Would she inform me if she was not able to, again, without my having to ask?

Essentially, would she take ownership of the loan she was requesting? Her answers were yes, yes and yes.

Just to know, this is not the first time this friend has asked me for a loan. And, she has not, ever, paid me back when promised. But she does pay me back… eventually. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I do know the problem with doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  But here’s the thing, I didn’t expect a different result, and for many reasons not relevant to this post, I decided to lend her the money anyway.

On the last day of February, I awoke to radio silence: no text, email, phone call or other communication. My friend had not repaid the loan nor contacted me to let me know it wouldn’t happen.

In the past, when confronted with this same situation I would say nothing, at least not for several days, weeks or months. I would sit in resentment, anger, and make-believe okay-ness. Or, find some backhanded way to allude to the unpaid loan but without directly addressing it. Because of my intense fear of what I faced in expressing it—defensiveness, aggression, anger, and attack, a rage on why I was despicable and spiritually bankrupt for wanting and expecting to be re-payed, I would tuck away my truth, my experience of being unpaid, unappreciated, unacknowledged and uninformed. I would disappear, paradoxically, to save myself.

But on this recent occasion, I knew that no matter how frightening the situation, I was being presented with a great opportunity—to practice living from my truth and actually being on my own side. And indeed, I chose to take the opportunity the universe offered, or maybe more appropriately, the universe chose to take me, and lead me somewhere new. It was as if I were extending my hand into the handshake of forward-movement that grace provided.

On that very day, I asked my friend directly if she was going to pay me back and honor the promise she had made—to me.

As expected, she was not going to pay me back, not yet anyway. But the contents of this story are irrelevant. What matters is that I asked my friend for the loan back, on the day it was due. And, that at the moment when my friend would have ordinarily launched into her attack, I stayed still and faced her, eye to eye, to remind her of her promises, and ask her when exactly she would be able to take care of this loan I’d offered. I stood in my own shoes inside the actual moment.

I’m so grateful that my friend didn’t pay me back. It gave me the chance to change, the opportunity to speak up in the face of fear—to choose myself and the truth over the certain conflict it would create and even the possible loss of the relationship altogether. It gave me the chance to practice planting my feet in the truth and trusting that no matter how bumpy the ride, the solid ground of the truth is a place that I will be (and already am) okay.

I write a lot about playing on our own team, expressing and supporting the truth of our experience. In this particular relationship, I would have argued (until recently), that saying nothing and letting it go was taking my own side, because it resulted in keeping the relationship intact, which is what I really wanted and thought I needed.  But as time passed, I grew and my heart broke, for itself. It became clear that being on my side, in this way, also required abandoning myself, not speaking up for myself, and even joining my friend’s blaming of me.

Even though I knew, intellectually, that I had rights, nonetheless, after years of being blamed, something in my gut had lost its conviction that I had the right to ask for the money back because I didn’t need it financially. Or, that I had the right to be informed or upset that something I’d been promised was not going to happen.  Or, for that matter, the right to be able to trust my friend’s word. I was not on my own side in this relationship, not only because of my fear of the aggression that would come at me in response, but also because of my own handshake with blame, both hers and mine.

Taking the step that is joining our own side, finding the courage to face whatever comes when we speak our truth, is a profound shift in a human being.  It doesn’t happen in one fell swoop but rather in little moments and small challenges (that can feel gigantic). In order for this change to happen, we have to have had enough of the suffering that comes with not being on our own side, remaining silent, abandoning ourselves, or accepting blame for having a truth that another person doesn’t like. Our own heart has to break—for ourselves—for what we’ve actually been living, and believing. We have to stop self-blaming and forgive ourselves for needing what we need—for our truth. When this happens, it’s no longer possible to turn our back on ourselves, disappear, in order to keep the peace or status quo.

The moment comes when we say enough, not from our head, but from our deepest guts. We are done, not as an idea but as a profound knowledge.

This process can feel like an act of grace, like something far larger than just our personal self has intervened, offering us the strength and clarity to change how we’re living and who we are. At last, we find ourselves holding our own heart.

Furthermore, the courage to speak our truth involves a shift in allegiance or purpose. Our goal transforms from maintaining the situation/relationship—at all cost—to living from the truth—at all cost. But in order to find this courage, this reverence for and trust in the truth, we have to get okay with anyoutcome that might transpire, including the one we’ve most feared.  We must be willing to let it all burn up in the fire of the truth.

To do this, we have to release the belief that the only way to keep ourselves safe, keep our life proceeding as it needs to, is to control our experience and thereby create a certain outcome. It’s a process, really, of turning it over, truth’s will not my will, trusting (or at least being willing to try trusting) that the truth will take us where we need to go, even if it’s not where we think we should be going. At the deepest level, what I’m describing is an experience of awakening and surrender—knowing that we can’t keep abandoning ourselves in the service of taking care of ourselves.  And, that it’s safe to let go of the reins, that the truth will take care of us. And ultimately, that the truth is the only real safety we have.

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Choosing Love Over Fear: Responding From Love Not Reacting From Fear

Reject fear, choose love. This is a popular refrain and wonderful advice. Many believe that there are only two primal emotions in the human being, love and fear, and that we cannot feel both at once. And, that in the same way that light removes darkness, love can remove fear.

The choice to reject fear and choose love can feel like something that only applies to moments of crisis, when we’re leaving a marriage, starting a new business, preparing to climb Mount Everest. But in truth, the opportunity to choose love and reject fear presents itself in the smallest moments of life, and specifically, in relationships with those closest to us. Love over fear is a choice every time someone tells us something about ourselves or has an experience of us that we don’t want to hear.

We hurt each other in intimate relationships—intentionally and unintentionally—that’s a fact. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we discover that we have hurt the other person when they come to us and share their pain, express their experience, and verbalize what we said or did that upset them. But often we discover that we have hurt the person through a different avenue, that is, when they criticize us or tell us what (they think) is wrong with us. In these cases, we generally feel blamed or attacked, and as a result, it can be more challenging to listen, imagine the situation through their eyes, and often impossible to empathize with their pain. We have a tendency in these situations to strike back (the best defense is a good offense) or alternatively, defend ourselves and prove the other person wrong. It’s a survival instinct and indeed, it can feel as if our very survival is at stake.

What’s at stake is not our physical survival, but the survival of our version of ourselves. The person we are being characterized or experienced as is not the person we think or believe ourselves to be. And so, we try to protect the identity of the good self, the self who is innocent, not to blame for what is being accused.

It’s a healthy instinct to question accusations that feel unfair or unwarranted. It’s also important to be able to set boundaries that prevent others’ projections and deflections from landing on us. If you are being assigned intentions that don’t belong to you, it’s important to be clear about your truth. It’s also healthy and necessary to protect yourself from pain that takes the form of emotional attack.  Emotional attacks and insults, meant to harm, are not okay, and need to be stopped. This is not an article about learning to be a doormat in service of some false spiritual goal.

And yet, there is an enormous opportunity in these relational moments, when someone we care about is hurt, and when (whether we understand it or not) we seem to be a part of their pain. There is an opportunity in these situations to choose to respond from love rather than react from fear.

When we feel emotionally attacked, blamed, or criticized in some way, we experience fear, even if we are not consciously aware of it. Our ego is threatened.  Our identity is threatened. Our narrative on our self is threatened. Conflict feels dangerous to the survival of the ego organism.  As a result, we react from the place of fear, which means defending our ego or attacking back, attempting to disable the threat. Fear, as a primal emotion, can sweep over us like a tsunami and cause us to react without thinking or consulting our more evolved and loving self. Our reaction is often out of alignment with how we feel, in our heart, about this other person.

If we want to choose love over fear as a life practice, we don’t have to wait for a crisis situation. We can simply use the opportunity presented in these tiny moments that happen every day, at all different levels—when the person we imagine ourselves to be, see ourselves as, doesn’t align with how we are being seen in that moment.

To choose love in these situations is to first, pause and take a full breath before doing anything. It is to stop and get quiet, to do our best to actually hear what the other person is saying without defending our version of who we are or what we think happened. It also means refraining from attacking back with a criticism of the other, or with something that they did or said (related or unrelated) that hurt us equally. It is to just listen—without conditions.

Operating from love is to set our own ego aside long enough to listen to the experience of the other, to be courageous enough to be willing to try and understand what the other person is experiencing, no matter how radically different it is from what we intended to happen, think happened, or believe was the cause of what happened. It is to have the strength of heart to understand and open our heart to what the pain is that the other is skillfully or unskillfully trying to express. A response (not reaction) that comes from love is listening to the other’s upset as if we were just ears hearing, ears alone, not ears attached to a head, attached to an ego, attached to an identity, attached to a person intent on remaining intact and unchanged.

To live from love not fear, on a practical level, is to shift from a goal of protecting our ego, being right, winning the argument, being not to blame, and move into actually being kind, being loving—in our actions. It is to be willing to stop proving that we’re a good person and actually be that good person—to be courageous enough to open our heart and be love even when our ego is screaming in fear.

And amazingly, in the moments when we have the strength to choose love over fear, we are rewarded not only with the knowledge and confidence that we have done something incredibly challenging and beautiful, but also, with the gift of experiencing ourselves as love, and something infinitely more than just the small, fragile ego we thought we were and so desperately needed to protect.  We are rewarded with a freedom that surpasses all other freedoms.  Ultimately, it is through our willingness to stop defending our idea of ourselves that we discover our true and indestructible self.

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When Feeling Guilty is Your Natural State

Do you ever feel like you’re inclined to accept the blame when things go wrong?  The truth is, some of us are more prone to feeling guilty, as if a background sense of guilt is just wired into our system.  Even if we don’t know specifically what we did wrong, we’re convinced that we did something we shouldn’t have, something bad, which then created whatever problem now exists.  Sometimes it’s a feeling of being wrong on a more fundamental level, not for anything specific, but wrong in our core, as if our very nature is at fault.  When we’re accustomed to feeling guilty, we also tend to end up in loverelationships with people who agree with us; we find partners who share and encourage our belief that we’re to blame, which then further strengthens it.

How does this happen?

Some people are raised in homes where they are perpetually blamed for whatever goes wrong, whether or not they had a part in it.  Usually, for a time, they fight back and continue to know themselves as innocent.  They feel the injustice of the wrongful accusations.  But as time goes on and the blaming continues, but the knowing of their innocence remains irrelevant or worse, an exacerbating factor, two things happen.  First, these people learn to accept the blame for what they haven’t done, even when they know they’re innocent—because it actually feels helpful to take the blame and it often pleases those they need to keep happy, even if at the cost of their own rightness.  But eventually, sadly, they come to experience themselves as guilty; the knowing of their innocence actually gets buried and the blame projected onto them becomes their truth.  They become the bad one on the inside as well as the outside.

In other situations, when a child is neglected, abused, or abandoned, her way of explaining this mistreatment to herself is to blame herself for what happened.  Mommy left because I was wrong and there is something fundamentally wrong about me.  Mommy isn’t guilty, I am.  I am to blame for daddy’s anger, even if I can’t know what I did to make it happen.  Daddy isn’t guilty, I am.  When we take the blame for mistreatment, we do what we most need to do, which is keep and hold mommy and daddy, internally, as the good ones.  As painful and destructive as the system is, it has a wise purpose.

As young ones, it is less painful to make ourselves the bad one rather than to allow our parent (whom we desperately need) to be bad.  More even than our own goodness, we rely on the belief in our parent’s goodness.  So too, we rely on the world making sense.  And so, heartbreakingly, we join our caretakers in believing our guilt, which then, ironically, puts the world back in order and sensibly explains their treatment of us.  The cognitive dissonance that would arise from knowing our own goodness and at the same time being mistreated by those who are supposed to love and care for us, is too overwhelming to bear.  And so we become internally wrong, which, paradoxically, makes the world understandable once again.

There are many varieties of early experiences that can create an instinct to assume blame, but in the interests of space, I will elaborate on only one other.  Some of us grew up in families in which apologies or ownership for bad behavior never happened.  When we expressed our upset, we were either informed of our crime, in other words, what we did that caused them to do what they did to us, thereby legitimizing their behavior and turning empathy for us into a moot point.  Or, we were told how we had done or were wrong, in a more global sense, which then made us undeserving of any kind of treatment other than the kind we received.

For those of us raised in this environment, empathy for our experience was simply not available; we did not know the experience of someone hearing our upset and simply caring about it, taking responsibility for and validating it, without blaming us for it.  We did not have the safety of knowing that our experience mattered no matter what it contained.  All expressions of upset were met with a lesson in our own culpability in our suffering.  The mantra in families like this is “Look at your own behavior…that’s what you never do!”  As the recipient of this kind of blame we then come to believe the mantra, to think that we are somehow responsible, not just for the situation and our own suffering, but also for not being willing to take responsibility for our deserved guilt.

How to Heal?

So, how do we stop the cycle and heal the core belief that we are to blame?  Can we free ourselves from the deep sense of fundamental guilt?  How do we remove the Velcro inside ourselves to which any wrongness seeking a home will stick?

In my experience as a therapist and also as someone who has struggled with guilt, and who was trained early to look to myself for the cause of my own or another’s suffering, I can offer a few thoughts, which I hope are helpful.

To begin with, we have to unpack the original source and conditions for our assumption of blame, to navigate through the who, what, where, how, and why (carefully) of our being blamed, and also see what that created in us.  Secondly, we need to bring compassion to our own experience, to open our heart to the suffering that comes with feeling always to blame, with having to play the role, and worse, believe the role of the bad one.  So too, we need to notice where we started to agree with our accusers, and understand and forgivewhy we needed to do that to be okay, how the system of blame worked. This involves spending time unraveling our relationship with blame and guilt, and looking deep into our conditioning, and the making of our identity as the one who’s wrong.  We do this with another human being: a therapist, counselor, spiritual teacher, friend, or anyone else who is fundamentally on our side, and can keep our eyes and heart open when we’re inclined to slip back into the darkness and pain of self-blame.

We also, in this process, need to separate outcome from intention.  That is, we need to look through our lives and notice where we blamed ourselves or were blamed by others for an unwanted result, but without considering what we were trying to make happen—our intentions.  Most of the time we’re doing our very best to make something good happen, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  We can’t control outcomes, only intentions.  Most of the time, blame is about having created a wrong outcome and yet it utterly ignores the intention that was mother to the process. In turning the light from results to our intentions, we re-train ourselves to connect with our goodness (which lives in intention).  We befriend the part of ourselves that’s ignored when we’re being blamed or self-blaming.

As we go through this process, it’s also profoundly important that we examine our life now and identify the areas where we ourselves are adding to and creating our sense of blame and shame.  Often, we engage in behaviors that initially alleviate our sense of guilt, but then end up fueling and justifying that guilt.  For example, I recently worked with a woman who started drinking casually, in part to ease her sense of unshakeable (although non-specific) guilt.  But over time, her drinking had become more secretive and frequent, which then gave her ever more reason to feel guilty and bad.  The coping mechanism for our guilt becomes its cause.  We need to be fierce and rigorous in our self-inventory, and most importantly, to terminate all those behaviors that in any way strengthen our underlying sense of being blame-worthy, or in any way contribute to a sense of self that forms a handshake with our earliest blamers.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, breaking free from the assumption of blame relies upon having a different experience of ourselves in the world.  When we put ourselves in the company of people who are kind and reliably on our side, who start (and end) from the belief that we’re good and our intentions are positive, who are willing to listen and care about how we are, even when it might not be what they want to hear… then, we learn to see ourselves through the lens of kindness and support we see in their eyes when they look at us.  Miraculously, we come to know ourselves as innocent.  When we consistently put ourselves in an environment of acceptance and love—the opposite of blame— surround ourselves with people who are fundamentally for and not against us, we then awaken to our truth, the one we knew a very long time ago, before it had to go away.  We awaken and discover that our acceptance of guilt, of badness, is inherently unkind and unfair—to ourselves.  We see ourselves, at last, as good.

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Can I Let My Child Be Bored?

Perhaps the most common question I get in all my talks to parents and families around the country is What should I do when my kid says he’s bored and I don’t want to give him the device? 

Just this week, a mom told me that her son is always asking her What’s next? I’m bored, what should I do next? This mom, like most parents these days, feels a tremendous pressure to occupy her son’s every moment, to urgently get rid of his boredom and provide him with activities to quell his what’s next? plea.

Children these days have remarkably busy schedules; their time is filled up to the last second of their day.  Our kids’ attention is unceasingly attended to and for.  Afterschool classes, sports, tutors, playdates, the list goes on.  Even at birthday parties, when a dozen kids are gathered together in the same room, the parents feel responsible for accounting for every moment of the children’s attention.  Fifteen minutes for arrival gift-placing, juice boxing, greeting… next the magician and balloon artist, (attention occupied, 45 mins)… next pizza, cake, and candles (20 mins)… next some kind of “freestyle” dance or art period led by an adult (10-15 mins)…next swag bag (5 mins) followed by shoes and coat retrieval (10 mins)… next, it’s time for the children to go (and someone else to occupy their attention).

Being bored has become this frightening and dreaded experience to which we parents must respond immediately.  Boredom is not up to a kid to figure out anymore, it’s a parent’s issue and a parent’s problem.  Boredom is a state that our children shouldn’t have to endure, and allowing our kids to experience it, not taking it seriously, might even be a sign of parental neglect. As we mistakenly imagine it, boredom is a case of a moment not fully lived, a moment deprived of interest.

In addition, we relate to boredom as an absence, something missing.  We experience it as a state of nothingness: nothing to do, nothing to think about, nothing to learn, nothing to be with, nothing to play with, nothing to experience.  Boredom, as we see it, is emptiness, a void.

As a result of our fear of boredom, we’re encouraging our children to be hyperfocused (not unfocused as we hear), with their attention perpetually focused down on some object of attention. At the same time, technology has created a new normal, namely, constant engagement. With tech has come the expectation that our kids (and even us adults) should be able to live in a state of uninterrupted entertainment and pleasurable busyness, 24/7. Tech makes it possible to meet this expectation by offering a forever-stocked refrigerator of free and interesting food for our attention.  We even get to congratulate ourselves for eating around the clock from this fridge, under the guise of learning more, doing more, communicating more, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is the definition of living more.

Sadly, we no longer trust our kids’ ability to tolerate or even survive open, unfilled time.  We’ve stopped seeing the value in time without a focus, the profound possibility and potential in the cry I’m bored.  Instead, we’ve learned to relate to time without an object of attention as nothing—as opposed to—nothing, yet. The truth is we’ve lost faith in our kids’ imaginations, and the power of human creativity—to generate something when it needs to.

Two things of great value (and more that I don’t have space for here) happen when we’re bored.  First, we have to use our imagination; we have to invent food for our attention.  This is a skill whose importance cannot be underestimated.  Some people say, but Nancy, our kids no longer need this skill of being able to engage themselves because they can just use tech to stay entertained and occupied.  It’s an obsolete skill.  While it might be possible to stay attached to the IV that is technology for the rest of our lives, to agree with this premise would be like saying that as human beings, we should no longer learn to walk because we have cars now, or no longer attempt to discover peace, because after all, there’s always wine.  Regardless of how available and rich the opportunities have become for avoiding boredom, the ability to self-play, create, generate, self-engage is still a profoundly important skill in the development of a healthy human being.

It’s our responsibility as parents to build the skills of imagination and creativity. The way we do it, in large part, is by giving these skills (that are in seed form when our children are young), the chance to play, evolve, do their work, and become. Boredom is water for these seeds.  When we’re supplying all the goods for our kids’ attention, we’re actually encouraging our children’s imaginations and creative capacities to atrophy and die.

Secondly, when a child says I’m bored, it’s because he can’t find anything that interests him.  But where is he looking?  Usually, he’s looking outside himself.  When we say we’re bored, it’s because, in essence, we have nothing to distract ourselves from ourselves. We’re stuck with just ourselves and our own attention to pay attention to.  Unfortunately, we’re being conditioned to experience ourselves, our own company, as nothing interesting, or simply nothing.  When we frantically shove a next activity in front of our child because he’s bored, we’re creating (and supporting) his belief that without something added to himself, he’s nothing.

The remarkable invitation that boredom offers is the invitation to spend time with, take interest in, or at the very least, learn to tolerate our own company.  It’s in the gaps between focused activities that we can turn our attention to our own thoughts and feelings, and maybe even to the experience of boredom itself. We can ask, Is paying attention to boredom, boring?  When we don’t have an object for our attention to chew on, something else to engage us, we’re left to play with just ourselves.  Even if technology now makes it possible for our children to outrun themselves all the way to the grave, to never have to be alone in a room with just themselves, nonetheless, the ability to be with themselves, to not fear or dread their own company, is the most valuable skill our children will ever learn.  In boredom lies the possibility that we ourselves can become a worthy destination for our own attention.

In answer to the question my title poses, it’s not only okay to let your child be bored, it’s paramount that you do so.  When your child complains that he’s bored, you can simply say, it’s okay to be bored now and then, it won’t hurt you and it will help you, in ways you can’t yet know. And just before they leave the room, just whisper, if only to yourself, Your boredom just means I’m doing my job as a parent.

Read more Nancy Colier on Psychology Today:



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How Long Should You Wait For Your Partner to Commit?

Commitment is a topic that brings a lot of couples into therapy. The word has a single definition, but it holds infinite meanings. For many people, commitment includes an emotional acknowledgment of a we, in that we are with each other and choose to be part of a couple. And on a practical level, it means the possibility of planning for a future—even if it’s just the weekend—and a sense of continuity.

For others, commitment is about living together or getting married and sharing a home life. And for still others, a child expresses the commitment desired. But wherever we fall on the spectrum, when our partner cannot provide the commitment we want and need, we are left to live in a difficult limbo: There’s something we want, that we want more of and more from, and yet we don’t know if we’ll ever get it.

How do we know when to stay or leave this type of relationship?

There are no hard fast rules, ever. Each time we make the choice to stay or go is unique, and sometimes we make it again and again within the same relationship.

At the most concrete level, we can always ask our partner if and when he or she will be willing to meet us at the level of commitment we desire. Sometimes the answer we get is comforting and gives us the sense that we are heading in the direction we want. But more often the answer is unsatisfying and leaves us not knowing if what we want in the relationship will ever happen, usually because our partner doesn’t know. Living with such uncertainty can cause pain and anxiety, and lead to insecurity and resentment.

What’s most important is that we own our truth, which is our desire for more commitment.

We must stop judging and blaming ourselves for needing what we desire. For years I have heard women condemn themselves for being too demanding or not being able to figure out how to be OK without what they fundamentally want. I have heard every possible rationalization for why it makes sense to do without something we fundamentally want. In the context of a relationship, there is nothing “Buddhist” about not being able to make plans for the future, or with someone who is not sure about us. Even if everything is impermanent in the absolute sense, we still need to create places of security in our lives, where the ground is solid—or at least, as solid as it can be.

We get certain things in relationships and give up others. When we’re not getting the commitment we want, we must ask ourselves if the balance is workable, that is: Am I receiving enough to give up what I’m giving up?

We can only answer this one moment at a time, and the answer changes over time. We know we must leave when we can no longer tolerate or bear the situation we are in, when the equation shifts and it’s too painful to do without what we really want. We leave when the unrealized desire for commitment becomes resentment, and we can no longer enjoy or appreciate what our partner offers.

Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Flickr Creative Commons

No one can answer the question of whether to stay or leave for us. But when we stop judging ourselves for wanting what we want, and dive deep into our own truth, we will find the answer we’re looking for.

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