I honor Dr. King's birthday with one of his quotes. He probably was referring to struggles for peace and justice in the external world. However, I think this quote is equally applicable to our internal world.
Disappointment is an inherent part of life; things don't always work out the way we imagine or the way we intended or wished they would. Loss, disappointment, betrayal, heartbreak, often feel so devastating that many people wish to bypass or avoid these experiences entirely. But to avoid disappointment is to avoid life, to avoid living. By avoiding the possibility of pain, the possibility of happiness and joy are also eclipsed.
I think the take-away from MLK's quote is to remember that disappointment is finite, "having definite and definable limits," although it may not feel that way! We must accept these setbacks, roadblocks, obstacles or suffering as finite, as we go along our life's path. And throughout all these finite disappointments, to hold onto infinite, "subject to no limitation or external determination," hope for our lives.
Relationships, jobs, family, health,friends, state of mind or being may not turn out how we thought they would, or how we envisioned them. But can we continue to accept and move forward in our lives, making it the best life we can? Can we continue to find more internal resources to draw upon to never give up that "Infinite Hope?"
The curious paradox is
that when I accept myself
just as I am,
then I can change
- Carl Rogers
It is indeed a paradox that change isn't possible without first accepting what is. Most people have a long laundry list of things they find unacceptable about themselves from the physical, to the emotional, to achievements, to the way they go about living. This is certainly what brings many people into therapy; a deep dissatisfaction with themselves and their lives.
Dissatisfaction or unhappiness can be great motivators for change, as they are often what lead you to begin to look for solutions and ways to change, and often push you to seek psychotherapy. And this is where the paradox often shows up, as self-criticism and recrimination as well as self-doubt frequently surface. An immediate reaction is frequently a desire to get rid of these unwanted parts of yourself or ways of being or experiencing the world.
The idea of accepting unwanted parts of yourself may feel unimaginable and you may wonder why you would want to do that. Yet paradoxically, acceptance and change are two sides of the same coin. You cannot simply disown or cut out a part of you that you dislike, as it is exactly that, a part of you. The distaste you feel for it doesn't make it any less a part of you. In fact, resistance to it makes it more firmly entrenched.
However, by simply approaching whatever you hate or dislike about yourself, with interest, curiosity, tolerance or compassion, will soften the feeling. It doesn't mean you condone bad behavior in yourself, but you begin to have an interest in it, in how it developed, and in how at one time it served or protected you. Paradoxically, the more able you are to accept all parts of yourself, the more easily you will be able to let go and change.
Try this simple practice: In a comfortable position, take a few deep breaths and relax. Then as you inhale, say to yourself "accept" as you accept the breath going into your body as well as any other feeling, thought or sensations you may be experiencing. Then as you exhale, say to yourself "let go,"as you let the breath go and imagine letting go whatever feeling, thought or sensation you accepted with your inhalation. Repeat for several minutes.
Nothing ever goes away
Until it teaches us
what we need to know.
- Pema Chodron
As we move into the New Year, you may make resolutions or set intentions about the changes you would like to see in your life. The word "new" and a year that is just beginning often feel like a blank slate, fostering hope that you will be able to shift things in your life. The idea of a fresh start is always a time of hope and optimism.
You may begin eating more healthy food, commit to a regular meditation practice, start going to the gym or try to be more positive; but then the old ways may start to creep back in: negative self-talk, eating more than you'd like to, sleeping in or making excuses rather than meditating or exercising. Not sticking to your resolutions may make you feel bad and spiral you into more of the old behaviors and feelings you wanted to let go of in the first place. This is probably a familiar experience to just about everyone!
However, I propose a different take on not being able to stick to resolutions, expressed so eloquently in Pema Chodron's quote above. Instead of trying to simply eliminate things you don't like in your life and/or behavior, what about being curious about them as a first step? If you are not able to do things differently yet, there is more to learn from the things you wish to change. .Those behaviors and feelings developed at some point for a reason. Are you willing to explore what those reasons might be? If you overeat, or eat foods you'd rather not be eating, what might you really be desiring? What does food stand in for? Love, connection, sweetness, or is it trying to fill an empty place inside that can never be filled by food.
Or if you are self-critical, how might this have developed? Whose voice have you internalized as your own? How might your criticizing yourself at one time have been a protection from something or someone?
All of these unwanted, unloved behaviors or feelings cannot simply be willed away. Rather they are like code or clues that guide us into our inner world to see what must be unearthed, understood and healed. As Pema says, genuine change will happen when there is nothing more to learn from the behavior. When there IS a resolution you are able to follow through on, it is probably because you had already learned all that you needed to and were ready to let go. And this will happen at any time of the year, especially if you allow yourself to be curious, rather than critical of your behaviors and feelings.
Happy New Year!
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley