“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but thought about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Just about everyone experiences sorrow at times. I know I do.
The other morning, in fact, I was caught off guard by a very particular sorrow. Nothing happened, per se; but from the moment I awoke, I felt an aching sense of sadness and loss at the fact that my career path has taken me away from the field of mental health counseling.
As I became aware of my sorrow, it filled my heart and mind like a cup, and eventually spilled over into a rather woeful consideration of the many changes my life has undergone over the past several years.
It was uncomfortable while it lasted, but it was also quite fascinating, once I became aware of what was happening. As such, I emerged intact and, ultimately, quite proud of myself for waiting out and weathering such an unexpected emotional storm.
I haven’t always dealt with my emotions this way—sorrow, fear, uncertainty, inadequacy, and guilt in particular. Indeed, I still slip into old habits at times.
My life has proven an excellent instructor, however, and I am pleased to note the above-described scenario is becoming more commonplace.
Vocation has been extremely important to me. In fact, I clearly recall a moment in my childhood when I declared to myself (in so many words), “I want my work to be meaningful and enjoyable.” That notion has informed my life ever since.
When it came time for me to declare a major in college, I mulled my options and settled on theatre. I knew it wasn’t practical, per se, but it was meaningful to me and I enjoyed it. Besides, I trusted that the act of honoring my passion would lead me down the road I needed to travel. I think I was correct.
A year or so following graduation, I took the next step and moved to New York City to pursue my career in acting. It was an exciting time at first. After several years, however, I was exhausted, disillusioned, and burned out.
The things I needed to do to pursue my career as an actor—“pound the pavement,” rehearse nights and weekends, and work day jobs to support myself—had become nothing short of onerous.
My originally hoped-for payoff (earning a living as an actor) was no longer worth the commitments and sacrifices necessary to taking an honest shot at it.
Once I accepted that truth, the decision to stop was a relatively easy one to make. Waiting for me on the other side of that decision, however, was the ominous question “Now what?”
I had the luxury of avoiding the question at first, because I was attending to other aspects of my life, which, in many regards, was on auto-pilot: I got married, my now-ex-wife and I moved, she entered law school, and I started working full time to help support us.
Life settled into a routine, and, to my dismay, the urgency of the still-unanswered question “Now what?” intensified. I approached it with a sense of helpless, dire urgency; as such, I soon descended into a full-blown existential crisis.
Whereas my path forward had once seemed so clear and exciting and full of promise, it was now almost entirely hidden from my view. I was tormented by the uncertainty. Full of fear and bereft of experience and perspective, I did the only thing I knew how to do: avoid change.
I helped maintain my status quo by, alternately, complaining; losing my temper—usually with my ex-wife—over trivial frustrations; pretending to most of my family and friends that everything in my life was going well; and performing what I call “mental gymnastics”—attempting to trick myself in so many ways that I did not, in fact, hate most things about my life, including myself.
The fact that I had no compassion for myself in view of my vocational confusion, and that I could not accept my own discontent and act accordingly, ensured a certain spiritual toxicity.
The result, of course, is that I viewed the world through a lens of sadness and anger and darkness.
Finally, I had the good sense to say, “Enough.”
With some assistance, I slowly reconnected with myself.
I rediscovered my talents and positive attributes, which, along with the consideration of several of my interests, led me to pursue graduate studies in social work.
I felt it was finally time to enjoy my life, fulfill my destiny, and settle into a contented peace. In reality, everything was about to change.
Yes, grad school was transformative and exhilarating, but it was also the backdrop for what was, perhaps, an even greater learning opportunity: my divorce.
In the immediate aftermath of my separation, I stuck with my old habit of experiential avoidance. Cracks in the armor quickly appeared, however; and besides, my work as a practitioner-in-training ensured I couldn’t realistically hide for long (thankfully).
I had the good sense to seek counseling.
Over the next few months, I learned that I have the tendency, as do many of us, to “jump” out of experiences I deem to be “bad” and into other “good” experiences I would prefer.
In my case, I was experiencing feelings of deep guilt and sadness in the wake of my divorce, but instead of acknowledging my guilt and sadness, I jumped headlong into self-hatred and shame.
That might seem counterintuitive at first glance; after all, how could I, or anyone, ever prefer or deem good the acts of self-shaming and hatred?
What I’ve come to discover, sadly, is that many of us, consciously or not, do just that. We find it safer to attack ourselves than it is to abide certain experiences—such as vulnerability, guilt, fear, and sadness—that we believe may hurt us even more.
Each of us, I would argue, has these types of emotional sore spots that, when triggered, send us into a basic sort of survival mode.
While that looks different for each person, one factor remains constant: something about that “emotional sore spot” experience seems fundamentally unacceptable; and, after all, what does one do with something fundamentally unacceptable but reject it somehow?
For my part, I discovered my “jumping” into self-hatred and shame is a learned behavior.
It is a well-intentioned one, perhaps, in that it is designed to guard me from what I perceive to be the dangerous experience of acknowledging my (real and imagined) limitations and imperfections; but it is one that ultimately prevents me from fully dealing with, and taking ownership of, the myriad truths of my life.
I learned to appreciate the validity of the statement “what you resist, persists.” I saw how that which remains unacknowledged and unprocessed can grow toxic, thereby greatly exacerbating the original problem and greatly amplifying suffering.
I recognized deeply held irrational beliefs about myself, namely, that if I don’t always get everything right, I’m a total screw-up who is unworthy of any positive regard, let alone love, and a propensity for labeling (i.e., “good” and “bad”). These had been the real cause of my extreme suffering, because they incited reinforcing, harmful behaviors.
I realize now the experiences of sadness and pain itself are just that: experiences of sadness and pain. They are not some fundamental threat to my well-being or a rubber-stamped comment on the quality of my personhood.
If I acknowledge these experiences, sit with them, explore and express them, I can choose my actions accordingly without jumping into shame, self-hatred, or other unhelpful behaviors.
So when I woke up the other morning and felt sadness wash over me, I was able to welcome it. I was able to give myself compassion by telling myself, “You’ve been through a lot, buddy, and it’s okay to feel that.”
And that’s just it, you know? That’s the antidote: compassion.
I’ve found that by giving myself compassion—the literal and metaphysical space to abide the emotional experiences I generally deem “threatening”—I am able to discover catharsis, forgiveness, peace, acceptance.
In sitting with our feelings in this way, we are able to live, truly—to be open to the experiences of our lives.
Photo by Almonroth