This is an article I wrote for a series on “How to Heal A Broken Heart.” on the website Love, Evolve, and Thrive. For anyone suffering, this piece was entitled: Watch for Ways Your Mind Re-Writes the Past:
The human mind is so creative that we have come to rule the planet so-to-speak. However, there are two tendencies of our minds that often cause us a lot of trouble.
1. We tend to focus on the negative in the present moment and in our speculations about the future.
2. We tend to remember the past with rose-colored glasses.
Usually, I write about the ways that the first point affects us. But here I want to focus on the second point and the ways that it skews our reality during a breakup.
Think about physical pain and how quickly we forget how much it hurt. People joke about how our world’s population would be much smaller if women didn’t so quickly forget the pain of childbirth.
Think about how many people like to tell the exasperated parents of young children how “it goes so quickly” and “enjoy every minute because they grow up so fast!” These people have forgotten how frustrating and exhausting it was to change diaper after diaper or handle tantrums and spoon applesauce.
It’s good, in some ways, to let go of the negative in our past and move forward into the future. But in a painful breakup, this tendency can really hurt us. We feel the immediacy of the pain and look back longingly at the moments our lover held us in the night…the ways we laughed together…the ways he or she made us great spaghetti or traveled with us to New York or Paris.
There’s nothing wrong with mucking about in the longing for a lost love—for a limited period of time. It soothes something inside to go over those sweet memories and release the tears of loss. But then, come back. Remember that the sweet times were true, but no human, no relationship is only sweet.
Ponder, too, the farts. Remember the times he was late. The way she always used up the last of the juice and didn’t buy more. Remember that he or she didn’t always understand you. Didn’t always respect your needs. Didn’t always listen. Not necessarily because he was unkind (though maybe he was) but because he was human. This is a human loss. Keep it at human scale. It hurts and it will heal. Remembering to remove the rose-colored glasses of romantic loss helps.
69% of a couple’s problems or challenges are perpetual. A.k.a., they’re not going to change much over the course of the relationship. This is what couples researcher John Gottman has observed over his 20+ years of studying couple’s behavior. Whatever subject you and your partner have conflict about today, you’re likely to still be having conflict over in 5 or 10 years. Gottman, scientist that he is, probably would take issue with my generalization, but I think that in addition to our relationship problems being perpetual, probably the majority of our individual challenges and issues aren’t going to drastically shift either.
But before you go crawl back under the covers, let me say I think this is actually good news for us.
Why good news? Because that fact gives us permission–no, actually encourages most of us (myself included) to stop banging our heads against walls that aren’t going to move. And just because the walls might not move, doesn’t mean that our experience of bumping up against the walls can’t change drastically.
Now, I’m not saying to assume that you can’t change or resolve anything in your life. Even IF 69% of problems were perpetual, that still leaves 31% which can change or end. I think, however, that we can all probably make a list right now of issues in our lives that we feel we have a good chance of tackling and another list of issues we’ve been wrestling around with for the better part of our lives.
For me, for instance, a tendency towards anxiety and over-analysis or stress during transitions are some challenges I’ve had for most of my life. I have invested considerable time and energy understanding and trying to shift these tendencies. To a certain degree they have changed, but they’ve never gone away completely. What IS changing, is the way I relate to these challenges.
Just as meditation and mindfulness teaches us to develop awareness of, compassion for, and non-attachment to our thoughts, ultimately we practice meditation and mindfulness to be able to apply these qualities to our lives in action. These are the qualities which, despite the ongoing tendency of anxiety, depression, disorganization, hot tempers, and so on, can help us relate to our lives in lighter, more fluid, more compassionate ways.
I might not be able to prevent myself getting anxious during a big life transition, but I can:
anticipate that anxiety might arise and reduce any anger or disappointment in myself
notice it early on after it does arise so that I can respond quickly to take care of myself
use humor to lighten the experience
relax into the sensations and emotion and reduce the fight/flight/freeze response.
These are just some ways that I can improve my life even if I don’t get rid of my anxiety.
We can grow and change in beautiful ways, but we have the most power to do that effectively when we make friends with our enduring character traits; our temperaments, our tendencies, the particular constellation of beauty and bunk with which we entered this world.
What qualities about yourself are you tired of trying to change? To which ones might you bring gentle acceptance and skillfulness? If the challenge is going to be there anyway, can you make friends with it?
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s a question we’ve almost all been asked, as children, over and over. The “be” in the question always refers to work/career–as if that is the most important part of who we become.
And WHEN are people grown-ups? Is it age 18? (Not.) Is it post-college age? How about right around the midlife crisis time? Nope, I actually would say that midlife crisis (which happens all the time and doesn’t necessarily involve red sports cars) occurs right alongside the realization that you’ve become a “grown-up” and you haven’t actually figured out everything you thought you would and you might have made some decisions that aren’t proving to be as fun or exciting (parenthood? marriage?) as you’d always imagined.
Usually the signposts of adulthood that people mention have something to do with seeming to “have your sh@$%t together.” When I’ve asked around, one friend said she’d thought when she was a grown up her refrigerator would be neatly organized. My mother always said half-jokingly that she’d truly feel grown up when she had matching bedroom furniture (I guess my mother wasn’t grown-up until post-retirement).
However, we can probably all agree that there are some pretty organized folks out there who’ve got very little in the emotional maturity bank.
The fact is, in this time of globalization and individualism, many of us have largely distanced from any religion or culture that provides education for, and rituals to mark, the transition from youth to adulthood. Certain markers are laid out as goals and expectations (varying depending on class/income/education):
But what do you do if you reach some or all of these goals and you still feel like you’re faking it till you make it?
Realize you’re not alone. As Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.” Not-knowing is perhaps more of a sign of maturity than knowing (think of the all-knowing teenager). Life is both too complex and too simple to comprehend. The best we can do is continue to let go of thinking we should be able to tie everything up in neat little packages.
Maybe instead of growing up, we should aim for growing wise. We all have wise parts and confused parts–the more grown-wise we are, the more we are able to notice the confused or scared parts. We can let the wise parts lead the confused parts instead of letting the confused parts run the show. The more we listen to the wise parts and let them lead, the more we are able to relax into each moment…to let go of needing to define or compare ourselves. We simply become more comfortable being who we are more and more fully.
It’s so hard for us–being animals with overgrown brains. All of the biological systems on which we depend–our bodies–can’t help but respond as animals do. Our bodies are on the look-out to see if we’re safe, if we’re going to get enough of what we need…and we can’t help but subscribe so much significance to our lives. Our lives ARE significant–to us at least–to others who love us–but what do we do when our tribe, our village, our family, our cities don’t meet our needs?
We are animals, longing to be nestled in the dark den. Surrounded by brothers and sisters. Eating and playing. Living and growing. These are the deepest longings of our cells. If, when we’re young, we experience some lack–of safety, of food, of nurturing–we carry that through our lives searching for the pack that will give us what we never got and so desperately needed.
It may be your journey to find healing from the wounds of the family who wasn’t able to give you what they probably never had themselves. But there is a hitch. In my practice–I see people who turn again and again to those wounded families hoping for healing. Hoping for a chance to get the love and acceptance from their mothers and fathers which they didn’t get as children. But most often, unless those family members have also been on a path of growing and healing my clients are disappointed. The mother still doesn’t stand up for her daughter, the father is still critical of his son.
What do you do when you need to heal but your family won’t give you what you need? Won’t apologize? Doesn’t even see your pain? Still believes the judgments you’ve come to internalize?
Here are some steps for moving forward:
1. Turn towards your inner child: For all the cheese of the term–it’s true. The parts of yourself that are longing for healing need attention and if your family can’t or won’t give it to you, you have to give it to yourself. Think of a young child or animal in your life whom you nurture and send that same kind of protection, empathy, and kindness to the young You.
2. Write a letter which you won’t send (unless you want to): Even if your family won’t listen and won’t understand–you need to express your disappointment, anger, righteousness, passion. Center yourself before writing this. Consider burning it ritually and sending the ashes into the ocean or some body of water…
3. Find relationships which support a new kind of family: Find friends, teachers, therapists who nurture, love, and accept you for who you are. Who communicate with you in kindness and authenticity.
4. Challenge yourself (in a kind way) to understand your own family’s wounding: It’s easy to play the internal tape of “If I was only X enough they would have loved me more (or criticized me less or whatever).” No. It’s not you. It was their job to raise you. They were your family. You ended up playing a role in the general dynamic, but it’s a parent (or guardian’s) job to keep their children safe and to nurture them. But they could only give what they had themselves. They could only teach what they understood themselves. It doesn’t make pain or abuse or neglect okay, but it is the truth about why it happens. It can be freeing to see how stuck they are and to see if you can forgive or understand how they came to be who they are.
5. Catch yourself trying to get what you need from them if your Wise Self wants to let that go: The ego part of you (or the inner child) tends to think that their love and approval are necessary. It’s certainly a beautiful thing to get that love and approval, but if it ain’t gonna happen, it’s going to prolong the pain. This often comes in the form of unrealistic expectations for “this get-together to be different” or “this time they’ll listen and respect what I say.” Check yourself for realistic expectations.
6. Allow the feelings of pain and disappointment to be there, and then move forward into your own beautiful life with tenderness–hug the folks who are ready to hug you, and know that you are a whole, lovable person by virtue of being alive.
My son has a book about a tractor named Otis. Otis saves a calf who’s fallen into a mud pit. The calf is struggling to get out and the more he struggles, the deeper he gets sucked into the thick, sticky mud. It all ends well for the calf and Otis, but what about the rest of us who’re stuck in the mud with no friendly tractor to pull us out?
Because we’re all stuck in some mud. It’s the nature of being human.
Buddha spoke of it when he said that life is suffering. Maybe you’re sick, maybe you’re lonely, maybe you have a hangnail. Maybe your marriage is falling apart, maybe your children are driving you crazy. Maybe you’re lazy or broke or 4 pants sizes bigger than you want to be.
This is what it means to be human—to be imperfect in our own uniquely beautifully messed up ways.
So many people spend so much time and energy worrying that they are too __(fill in the blank)__. That if people only knew how _(fill in the blank)____ they were the shit would hit the fan. What would happen?
Would everyone really turn their backs and walk away? Would stones be thrown at your head? Would you be exposed as a breathing, sweating man or woman with bruises and bumps?
As somehow more truly broken or icky than everybody else?
We are ALL warty. Whatever you are worried about—that you are too _(fill in the blank)___—there is likely some truth to it…
…AND it is NOT the WHOLE TRUTH.
I am impatient. I can’t remember anything about history or dates. I get lost in the plots of complex movies and need someone to explain it to me. I snap at my kids. I don’t like the burn of an intense workout. ALL true. But I’m also loving, and funny and smart in all kinds of other ways. And so are you.
Sometimes I work with clients who fear that, on some deep-down buried level they are evil. And even that is partly true. We are all microcosms of the universe and bad/evil is part of that universe so it is part of us. It’s the yin and yang. It’s the whole gorgeous blob of sweet aliveness. But it’s an evolving universe, and unless you have a serious head injury or cognitive disorder, you’re evolving too. The definition of evolving is to develop towards more a mature, advanced, complex form. And when we use the brilliant consciousness we’ve been graced with as human beings, we can shine the light of mindfulness and compassion on even the dingy, stingy bits of our beings.
When we can stop writhing in the mud, we can quiet down. We see our muddy legs, the brown splotches of mud on our elbows. We see all our loved ones in the mud with us—and they’re splotchy too. They have mud mushed on their cheeks and in their hair. But we don’t hate them for it. We love them in spite of that wet, soggy dirt.
Maybe when you allow yourself to look clearly at yourself you find things you don’t like. That happens. But when we are seeing clearly, there isn’t a charge. It isn’t the end of the world; it’s just a little mud. So maybe we wash some of it off. We try to change what we can. But it’s not an emergency. It’s just growing into the next moment we’ve been gifted.