I recently visited an acupuncturist who had a shocking and wonderful painting on her wall. Over her treatment table hung a simple image of an empty chair with large script that said this: There is nothing wrong with you. Really? I pondered this as I received treatment for symptoms that certainly felt wrong. Surely someone with a life-threatening or chronic illness would beg to differ. But as I let my body relax and gave it room to do what it does naturally - heal and re-balance, I began to understand the saying on a deeper level. I believe this statement is saying You are not fundamentally flawed. Over and over I see people in my psychotherapy practice who believe that there is something inherently wrong with them. It may be because they do not like how they are feeling or perhaps because they have found themselves in a place they do not care for, but somehow this gets translated into the belief that that there is something wrong with them as human beings. I often wonder if this might be a holdover from Catholicism’s notion of original sin, which essentially says we are born bad. Or perhaps it comes from incessant parental criticisms early in life, or maybe when children are not celebrated for who they are and so they embark upon the impossible task of becoming someone else. The internalized authority or super-ego carries on within us until we recognize that it is not us per se, just the old tapes playing again.
Mostly what I notice is that people do not want to feel uncomfortable. So when difficult feelings surface, they try anything to make them go away. If I pray, do yoga, see a funny movie, eat popcorn, go to happy hour with a friend, paint the bathroom, go on a hike, or enter into denial, maybe I’ll feel better and therefore be better. But it doesn’t work and it is actually quite dishonoring to The Self to ignore the cries of one’s own feelings. We might call these cries a soul’s song whose lyrics have special messages for us. If we can pause long enough to be with what is, the inner world is validated and we gain a deeper understanding of what psyche is attempting to communicate. We call this act of pausing, listening, and noticing, mindfulness, which is the ability to be present to whatever is occurring in the moment. Then we notice that feelings are fleeting, just like thoughts, and they are not who we are. It is just phenomenon. Being with what is broadens our perspective and choices, turning coping and enduring into a path of meaning, understanding, and engagement with the inner world.
I remember a meditation teacher of mine advising his students to avoid turning meditation into a “self-improvement project.” The inner-critic will use anything to remind us that we are lacking. Even outwardly healthy activities can include an underlying message of I’m not enough. In her wonderful book True Refuge, Tara Brach describes this self-loathing as similar to being in a trance state. She calls it the trance of unworthiness, and says, with awareness we can get to the place where we “recognize that it is our mistaken perception of who we are that’s causing the difficulty. We see how we've been living inside the identity of a small, isolated, deficient self.” I have come to understand that one part of the psychotherapy process includes waking from that trance.
We rush through life in an effort to get to the next place. Being with what is requires that I actually experience standing in line at the grocery store. It asks that I take time to relish what I love, feel my disappointment or any other feeling that surfaces, and actually taste my food, take in the sunset, and feel the breeze. Being with what is doesn’t mean we don’t make change. It doesn’t mean we stay in a bad relationship or endure eons of suffering. It means that we stay with what is long enough to experience it. A client of mine speaks of making endless to do lists. He finds great satisfaction in crossing things off his list, sometimes even adding an item after he has completed a project so that he can cross it off! But when I asked him if he actually enjoys his life, he could not honestly say yes. All of his accomplishments and goals are designed to ward off the feeling that he is flawed and not enough. What if you were okay, just as you are? It’s a question that often stumps people. What do you mean I’m okay? I came to therapy because I am not okay! This begins the discussion of self-acceptance, being with unpleasant feelings, diving deeply into the complexes that trouble us, and honoring what is true in the moment. As John Lennon said, Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans. I reminded my client how easy it is to miss our appointment with the numinous in life when we are in the trance of unworthiness. With self-acceptance comes liberation.