Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In fact, you’re not broken.
So much about us seems beyond our control. On one hand, we inherited our parents’ DNA. Our genes play a huge role in how intelligent, sporty, musical, sociable and healthy we are. They are our raw material.
On the other hand, as innocent, immature little children, we were shaped by the way our parents and others treated us. What did they encourage? What did they forbid? How present were they? How consistent were their moods? Did they protect or harm us?
Much of my reading tells me I long ago settled into who I am. My character was largely decided by the time I was seven years old. But what if I feel broken? If I’m not coping with things, if the world and I just don’t get along? Am I stuck in the rut that was dug for me by my parents and other childhood caregivers? Am I fixable? Are you?
I think the answer to this has three parts: 1) a tough truth, 2) a reason for working on ourselves and 3) the prospect of a liberating perspective.
A tough truth
You will not eliminate pain from your life.
The situations that create disturbing — sometimes overwhelming — feelings in you will likely affect you throughout life. If you do manage to avoid circumstances that act as triggers, new troubles and disturbances will replace them to launch the same feelings.
Uncertainty, insecurity, failure, anger, loneliness and sadness populate every life. These negative aspects come and go, but we can’t wash them from our experience in favour of more enjoyable ones.
So, when you examine yourself and yearn for positive change, best not to aim for the unreachable. Although it might strike you as negative, I suggest you look at yourself in the mirror and face some tough truths:
- I cannot escape death, sickness or injury.
- I cannot ensure that others love me or see me as I really am.
- I cannot eliminate pain, anger or sadness from my life.
- I cannot attain certainty or security.
- My recurrent uncomfortable feelings and core vulnerabilities are likely to continue throughout my life.
You might say, ‘Of course that strikes me as negative, because it is! It is dreadfully pessimistic and negative.’ I can only reply that whatever label we apply to these dark aspects of life, I’ve met no one who has managed to escape them.
So, if we consider ourselves broken because certain negative emotions keep finding us, then broken we shall remain. If fixing ourselves requires stripping these elements from our experience, then we are not fixable.
Why we should work on ourselves
But maybe our inability to escape these feelings doesn’t mean we’re broken. What if these feelings don’t need fixing? That would be nice, since they don’t seem to be fixable, anyway. Perhaps what needs fixing is only our strategies for avoiding their discomfort.
Most of us react to our most intense feelings in ways we learned as children and formed into habits over time. Although we now have access to much more skilful means of responding when these experiences arise, our autopilot kicks in, replaying immature reactions as if we’ve travelled to our preschool years. I see it in those closest to me and (after the fact) in myself. Articulate, reasonable adults resort to wilful misunderstanding, name calling, denying the obvious, believing the ridiculous and sulking in a mood, all because the intensity of an emerging sensation presses ‘Play’ on their pre-recorded childhood avoidance programme to protect their vulnerability.
The habits we unthinkingly act out when we find negative feelings too intense tend to involve creating a drama. We orchestrate it — in our head or in our behaviour toward those around us — to distract ourselves from the intensity that we fear will overwhelm us. Someone’s actions are inexcusable. An urgent problem needs fixing. Some condition in our life is unacceptable. Our self-created dramas can distract us from what we are afraid to experience. Unfortunately, these dramas put the very thing we are desperate to avoid at the centre of our lives. Our dramas organise our world around what we refuse to feel directly.
As an example, I might be susceptible to strong feelings of pending abandonment. These are likely rooted in my distant past, but a wide range of circumstances can trigger them in my sixth decade of life. Although current triggers may be minor events, my reaction is often grossly disproportionate, because it stems from the sense of existential threat that accompanied my early experiences of abandonment. My drama — all that is available to my conscious mind — may be about my partner returning home late, criticising something I’ve said or forgetting something she promised to do. I get wrapped up in commentary about this and likely have a fight with her, all in an unconscious effort to avoid a powerful emotion that I’m experiencing anyway.
Fleeing the intense sensation, I throw a drama over it, but it doesn’t go away. I still experience discomfort while creating more problems and suffering for myself and others. So I make more rules for my partner or for myself, looking to change her behaviour or immunise myself against the triggers that elicit my feelings of abandonment. I’m now organising my life around my denial, to no one’s benefit. And worst of all, I’m not escaping the discomfort!
The childish avoidance strategy, correct as it may have been when I was young, doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for decades. My intense feelings of abandonment are anchored in the past, and I can do nothing to escape them. My modern behaviours are also replays of old strategies, but might they be more addressable than the feeling itself? Is there something here I can work with?
One thing I might do is build a better understanding of my triggers. What circumstances should I seek to avoid? How could I ask my partner to change? There may be small, short-term gains from this effort, but it involves organising my relationship and life around a fear of abandonment. This can’t be the whole picture.
Another avenue might be to investigate my history. Where are the roots to this sense of abandonment? I can visit memories to see what gave rise to this intense sense of vulnerability in the first place and why it has the force of existential threat.
Any understanding I gain from this backward looking does not keep the feeling from arising; I can’t do that. The forces behind this emotion are much greater than any I can summon based on my human intellect and personal will. But I may begin to see it differently, recognising that my current intense feelings flow not so much from immediate triggers as from deep connections to far distant events.
What if the best work I can do is to show myself that this feeling of abandonment doesn’t require an avoidance strategy — or any other strategy — at all? I have a childhood-based association between this intense sensation and serious threat. That association drove the initial formulation of my juvenile strategy. Even if the association was valid when I was four years old, is it still? An actual threat would certainly warrant a strategy to address it, but does this feeling, experienced today, constitute or accompany a genuine threat?
I can investigate this myself, as long as I am willing to bear the intense discomfort of the sense of pending abandonment when it arises. To bear it, to stay with it, I make a choice not to launch into my childhood avoidance strategy and the dramas it produces. This is not the easy option. It is much easier to keep re-enacting the dramas but far more skilful and effective to refrain.
How do I do this? Hopefully, my investigation into my past and into the nature of my abandonment feelings creates space for just the sort of choice I need. It takes the briefest instant as a gap between trigger and reaction. Next, I need courage. As a child, I put a strategy in place to avoid pain. My work now will involve experiencing that pain.
The other crucial element is to attend as fully as possible to this feeling at the level of its immediate body sensation, not becoming seduced by the mental narrative that accompanies it. Both are legitimate aspects of my experience, but the sensation is much simpler and easier to work with. Some of the sensations I might find are a tightness in the throat, a seizing in the gut or a clenching in the chest. Examples of the things not to fixate on are the labels I might apply to those sensations or the stories I might tell myself about why they are there or what they mean. I notice the strong sensations and stay with them, seeking to do nothing to them.
At first, I may be able to endure the intensity for only a few seconds. But over scores, hundreds, maybe even thousands of experiments, I prove to myself that the sensation never kills me. I always outlast it. Each time, it arises, swells, recedes and departs. Its duration varies, but it always — always — passes. The feeling, despite its strength, bears no existential threat. I have learned through my direct experience that I don’t need to manage this emotional state. It ‘manages’ itself through a short lifetime and then leaves of its own accord. My many years of avoidance and neurotic organisation have been redundant. The energy I have spent on maintaining my dramas and struggling with the ‘problem’ of this feeling is now available to me.
So, I discover that it is worth working on myself — not because I can eliminate or reduce this intensity, but because I can integrate it with the rest of my life without harm. Fewer dramas to clean up after. More energy for my life’s pursuits.
Relating to brokenness and insecurity
Life is a complex process, and humans are a complex form of life. Your childhood self had multiple vulnerabilities. So do you. The work we’ve been examining can apply to each of the strategies you’ve operated through to protect those vulnerabilities, to avoid the intense feelings that seem unbearable.
You might think of each of these strategies and the secondary sets of behaviours that have accumulated around them as fortresses, erected by a vulnerable child when doing so made sense in a world that threatened to overwhelm them. With courage and self-kindness, you can demonstrate through direct experience of your bodily sensations that each of these fortresses is now unnecessary and even harmful. Each time you stay with an intense experience instead of launching into drama, you remove a block from that fortress.
In fact, the more you integrate this approach into your life, the more you begin to realise that you don’t need to knock these blocks away. Life will do that. Reality will do that. Only the immense effort you’ve put into years of maintaining the walls have kept the fortresses standing. Without your active role, they will dissolve as life’s waves wash against their bases. Your model of reality may undergo a subtle but powerful shift as you see that your most intense moments of discomfort are the very ones in which life is trying to help you escape outdated, frozen strategies and live based in current truth.
Your battle hasn’t only been against strong, uncomfortable feelings. It has actually been against reality, a reality that contains both positive and negative, both pleasure and pain. That fight has taken the form of dramas that have cost you tremendous energy and effort.
You can now settle into a life of ease rather than struggle. That life contains pain, anger and uncertainty, yet you see that these are bearable. You may even come to love them, although you do not enjoy them. Participating in them opens you to a level of vitality and vibrance unreachable in your dramatic struggle. You let go of your childish desire for your experience to be only happy, confident, peaceful and secure. You open yourself to all of life, stepping into the truth of your vulnerability, the truth that there is no certainty, no security.
What is life like with this openness? Your work does not stop; it is the work of a lifetime. You engage with your immediate embodied experience with kindness toward everything that arises. You participate fully and equally in the good and the bad, the attractive and the repulsive.
The elements you used to take as yourself now appear instead as aspects of your experience. Thoughts, feelings, preferences, judgements, decisions, intentions and memories all arise and pass, ever changing. Perhaps as the particulars of experience change with each instant, you notice that the only continuity is the awareness of them. This awareness makes a moment ‘Now’. You find no other ground for your own being than that very awareness, the process of experiencing. This is the ground for everything.
With this shift, all struggle eases. You are not trying to make something of life. Life has no problem for you to fix. You are not outside of it, not separate, not isolated. You see that you are and have always been undivided, whole and free. Your vulnerability becomes the source of your confidence.
No, we cannot discard our most sensitive vulnerabilities and their intense feelings. They are messages from life, reminders of the full range of our aliveness. Vulnerability and full-spectrum vitality are two sides of the same coin. We can use careful, kind engagement with our immediate body sensations as the gateway from our struggle to recognising our freedom, life’s ease. The discomfort we fear and flee is the path to what we seek and truly already are.