Just Say No

As I write this post today, a family walks by the window. Mother, father, a baby in a stroller, and a small girl - a toddler, are walking to the lake. My concentration is broken by the girl sobbing loudly, "I don't wanna go!" She cries from her depth about her preference, no shame, censoring, or worry about what others will think. The parents bend down to attend to her, hopefully in a way that does not shame her attempts to establish autonomy. Unfortunately, we learn at a very young age that saying no is not acceptable in certain circumstances. We learn that stating our preference is perceived as selfish, contentious, or narcissistic. We learn that the truth of our distress is best contained within a socially acceptable package. Of course, children do need to learn about adjusting to disappointment and frustration, and they need to learn to stay away from the hot stove, but it is clear that issues of autonomy and authenticity develop very early. Can we say no and still be loved? Can we object, knowing that others might feel rejected? A child is dependent on her guardians for survival. In some families, it is not safe to say no, often because the parent takes it personally. They see their child as an extension of themselves, and so when the child resists or objects to what the parent asks, they cannot see the person in front of them, only an aspect of themselves, and the power struggle begins.

I am not talking about the no that accompanies the resistance that comes with pathological control and authority issues, but rather the natural desire to have one's own ideas and the normal development toward individuation. The persistent yes can be a kind of merging with others in an effort to please and acquiesce. This is the kind of dilemma I consistently see in the consulting room. In an effort to be liked, obtain approval, please, and avoid rejection, people will agree to do things they they would rather not do, or withhold the truth of their experience. No sets boundaries, says this and no more, draws a line in the sand, and says I do not agree. I sometimes remind people that they can say no without explanation. They are often shocked to learn that they do not need to give a list of excuses. I find that women in particular tend toward apologizing when they say no. It shows us the relationship between no and feelings of guilt. It's almost as if people feel that they are bad because they bow out, take a rain check, or make an opposing choice. It is the toddlers job to say no. It is a function of establishing autonomy. When adults misunderstand this, children can feel bad and guilty for simply being themselves. 


Inhabit Your Life

To inhabit a space or a home means that you live there. You have moved in. You’ve taken up residence. When you move into a new home, you explore rooms and you see their potential. You are curious and creative. You engage in nesting, decorate, invite guests over, hangout, and settle in. So what does it mean to inhabit one's life? It might simply be described as being fully present to oneself and the environment. Curiosity and creativity are cultivated. To inhabit might mean that you engage your inner world by noticing what is true for you and sharing that truth with trusted others. The art of presence requires compassionate awareness. This can be challenging when difficult emotions surface. The tendency is to want to change it now, to make it better, to sweep it under the rug and get on with however we think things should be. But in doing so, we miss the opportunity to extend kindness to ourselves. We miss the messages that our psyche is trying to convey. We miss the truth.

Perhaps inhabiting your life means that you give notice to the life you are living that is not yours. Certainly one aspect of inhabiting life would involve examining where in our lives we engage in activities as a way to seek approval from others. Do you say yes when you mean no? Do you acquiesce? Many people equate yes with love. If you say no, it must mean you don’t love me. It is important that we learn to separate yes and no from the concept of love. No is just no, and maybe even a way to engage in boundaries and self-love. 

We are riveted by the stories told by people who broke the mold created by parents who unconsciously attempted to live vicariously through their children. The chef whose father wanted him to be an attorney; the bank executive whose parents pushed her to find a good man and have children; the florist who was told, "You will never make a dime doing that!" Parents are not the only influential sources of derailment. Siblings, teachers, colleagues, or any people with strong opinions might be counted among those who might create an agenda for us and try to steer our lives. It takes courage to inhabit one's life. One must be brave to break the mold, stand up and say, "This is who I am!." I believe that it is far more common to settle for less than to go out on a limb. There is no doubt that inhabiting one's life involves risk, trust, and faith.


Dream Gifts

One of the great gifts offered to us by the inner landscape is the tapestry of stories the dreamtime brings to us each day. No dream is too short or too plain to be experienced in a felt sense. A single image can spark the imagination, invite curiosity, illuminate what has been hidden, or drop us to our knees with its honesty. The dreamtime allows us to be in our wholeness. When we dream, we enter the land of all possibilities. One night we are lost at sea on a life raft, and the next we show up at the party in a clown suit. Another night we might be running for our lives from a shadowy figure, while the next we find ourselves dancing in a warehouse with a complete stranger. Dream stories give us ample opportunity to try on multiple ways of being while providing us with psyche's message which always strives toward equilibrium, healing and wholeness.

Some dreams can feel like a gut-punch. You awaken in a sweat, feeling bad and not wanting to remember the dream story. As hard as it is to bear it, recalling the dream is important and trying to forget is a true mistake, for dreams such as these, many of which might be called nightmares, are messages to you from the unconscious. The dreamtime doesn't mess around. It doesn't tiptoe through your mind with niceties, making sure you are okay with the images and stories it provides. Bam! The dream may be raw, wild, sweet, slimy, confusing, inspiring, disheartening, challenging, instructive, mysterious, and hilarious. Psyche doesn't really care much about analysis. To pin it down, to package it up and put it on the shelf, to be too definitive with the meaning of a dream is to rob it of it's multi-faceted potentiality. The dreamtime asks us to ponder, to wonder, to try on different meanings, to look at paradox and contradiction. Tapestries are not always orderly. They weave and wind with overlays and undertones. Allow the dream to unfold and inform you so that it can transform you.


To Look Again

People often tell me that, while their lives are good and everything seems fine on the surface, there is something not quite right. They know something is missing but they can't quite put their finger on it. A low level of discontent follows them through their days, leading to restless nights and an aching emptiness that cannot be filled with the busyness they have arranged on their calendars.

They may go to see a counselor to rid themselves of the discontent and emptiness by trying on new activities and ways of being, only to find themselves with the same old feelings and an equally full calendar. What often gets ignored is the message that discontent is trying to convey. What would happen if we took the time to listen to our discontent? Might it have some information for us about our inner longings and deepest dreams? We brush aside these longings and dreams for all kinds of reasons, and so the whispers of the soul go unheeded and unheard.

The Latin root word for respect is "respare," which means "To look again." I love this definition of respect because it invites an attitude of inquiry coupled with compassion. Just maybe my discontent has a voice that is asking me to pay attention to something important, something that diverges wildly from my normal, habitual, and conditioned ways of responding to life. When we listen to a friend and ask them clarifying questions, we invite a spirt of inquiry and compassion to the dialogue. We care about their wellbeing and want to understand who they are and what they are telling us. One of the kindest gifts we can give to another is our attention. Can we do the same for ourselves?

The Myth of Psyche

Stories and myths hold great power in that they show us universal themes of humanity and the workings of the unconscious. I am remembering the Greek myth of  Psyche who was forced by Aphrodite to face a mountain of assorted seeds and challenged to separate the seeds into individual piles in one day in order to win the love of Aphrodite's son, Eros. It was a seemingly impossible job. But it wasn't until she surrendered that she noticed an army of ants working their way through the mountain of seeds and sorting them into appropriate piles. In our lives, the ants as part of the natural world might symbolize instinct, or perhaps discernment, which may both be needed when wading through the internal and external quagmire of “ What is what?” and "Whose is whose?" And what role does surrender play in our attempts to live authentically? At first glance, we might see Psyche as giving up or giving in. But surrender is much larger than than our culture's small-minded way of viewing the word. Since we live in a warrior culture, when we think of surrender, we think of waving the white flag and giving up. We think surrender is for losers. But surrender is actually the grand yielding that makes room for what is. Psyche means “ soul" or “ butterfly" in Greek. As such, the story of Psyche reminds us that the qualities of discernment and surrender may be aspects of the soul’s journey toward transformation and awakening.