How do we change the direction of our lives? Despite our histories, why do some people create fulfilling lives for themselves while others do not? As a therapist, and as a person who has made her life about self-transformation and then later, the transformation of others, this is easy to see. But for many people, especially those who do not know much about “therapy,” and the process it entails, this is more of a mystery.
Have you ever said to yourself, “I will do whatever it takes to reach my full potential in this lifetime – no matter what”? This statement to ourselves, to our god, to the universe, is powerful and can open us up to change. There are several main ingredients in change: a desire to improve one’s sense of well-being, and a willingness to do whatever it takes. These qualities could be put together and called emotional courage.
Emotional courage means we are willing to connect to all aspects of ourselves, including old, scary and painful experiences, and feel whatever comes up, rather than cutting ourselves off to avoid pain, shame, grief, and sadness. Emotional courage means we will leave our comfort zone if it enlarges our lives, rather than live in a smaller but seemingly safer world. It means that we can have the courage to suffer if it enables us to grow and live a bigger life.
While there is much to be said for being kind to ourselves, to not always be pushing, when we avoid that which is challenging or enlarging, we keep ourselves from growing new muscle, developing new talents and abilities. Doing what is easiest is often a way of avoiding what is hard.
In therapy, we often have to remember old experiences that hurt us. We often have to sit in those re-activated feelings of shame or pain. We are taught to allow ourselves to let go of control and be disoriented. We come to know that we can survive this process and that in doing so we are opening bridges between different parts of ourselves. We have to trust that ultimately this is courageous and allows us to become stronger. We can be in contact with all we have lived with. We can look back and say, “gee that was really hard”, rather than dismiss it and say, “I had a great childhood”, or “I don’t want to wallow in the past”. Nobody had a perfect childhood, and we all have created ways of surviving. Some of those ways no longer work.
For example, Jane often attacked her partner George angrily when she felt uncared for. She wanted to stop this pattern and began to look at why she got so upset by things he would do that felt neglectful. As this pattern was explored, it became clear that as a child, her parents did not consider Jane’s needs and desires. Now, whenever George didn’t specifically consider her, she went into a rage. As Jane began to delve into her reactions (which were always much bigger than the situation at hand), she began to experience the pain that she lived through as a child, the feelings of unworthiness, the hurt, the loneliness, and the anger. She was able to start to communicate what was getting triggered in her, instead of attacking, and due to her courage both in delving into the pain of the past, and communicating her vulnerability openly, Jane began to rebuild her relationship.
Do you find yourself avoiding situations that trigger uncomfortable feelings? How is this holding you back? What might happen if you take the leap and trust that facing your fears will ultimately empower you? Will you speak up honestly? Will you stand in your vulnerability rather than be self-protective? Will you trust that you can survive feelings of shame or embarrassment? These choices become skills and abilities that allow us to create healthier lives and relationships.