- Our Therapists
“Where there is love there is pain” –Spanish Proverb
I’ve known and lived with many amazing dogs and cats in my life. Each animal I’ve known has been special and wonderful in their own way. But then there is Dalai. She is my lifetime dog. When we adopted that scared little dog all those years ago, I could never have imagined how she would change my life. She’s the canine version of my soul mate.
The problem is Dalai is growing old
We’ve shared many, many years together, and unfortunately the fact of nature is that our canine companions’ time on this earth is way too short. Dalai (pictured to right) is somewhere between 16 and 18 years old now. Gone are the days when we would end our early morning walks by chasing each other outside of the Brookings Institution (you should have seen the security guards out in front of that stodgy DC think-tank laughing at us each morning) or of overhearing people at the park say things like “Wow, look at that little rocket dog run!”
We still have our daily walks, but they’ve become slow strolls-- sometimes it takes her 20 minutes just to get around the block. More frequently we simply spend time together with her curled up and snoring away beside me on the couch, perfectly content to let her younger adopted sister take over ball-fetching duty. And nearly every day when I’m walking Dalai or sitting with her on the couch, I feel a deep sadness in my heart. As I am with her I am constantly reminded that her time with me is getting ever more finite. And sometimes that sadness is so intense that I have the thought that I can’t bear the feeling.
But here’s the thing…
If I’m not willing to have those thoughts and that sadness that shows up when I’m with Dalai, I can’t actually care for her in the way I would choose to during this time in her life. The only way to get away from these difficult thoughts and feelings is to not be around her. In order to spend time with her, to care for her and love her as my constant companion, then I have to experience my sadness at her impending loss. It’s the price of admission to be in this relationship.
My experience has been that those things that I care about the most, that are most meaningful in my life, are also the things that come with the most pain.
Check that out with your own experience. Are there areas in your life or relationships that you care about so deeply but that also bring a great deal of pain? Is it perhaps the case that the more you care about something, the more you’re opening yourself up to feeling pain?
Here’s an exercise I often do with clients around this struggle…
Step 1: Find some activity or relationship in your life that you value, but from which you find yourself pulling away. Maybe it’s a relationship you care about deeply but in which you’ve noticed you’ve been less engaged. Maybe it’s an activity you care about but you aren’t taking much action on.
Step 2: Now take out an index card or piece of paper. On one side, write down what you value in that relationship or area of living. Who do you really want to be to that individual? What are some descriptors of how you would like to be in that area of your life? Now turn the card over. On the other side, write down what difficult thoughts and feelings might show up for you when you start taking action toward that value. For example, for my card with Dalai it might look something like
Front of card
Being a caring steward and loyal companion to Dalai for as long as she lives with us.
Back of card
Step 3: Now take that card and put it in your pocket, wallet, or purse. For the next week, take it out and ask yourself: “Am I willing to have that card, both sides of it, in its totality or would I choose to walk away from it?” Because, it’s a package deal, you can’t have one side without the other.
Values are freely chosen; we get to decide whether we will pick up the card. What we don’t get to choose is what’s on the other side of the card. Those things just come along for the ride.
Dalai and I are in this together. So Sadness, strap yourself in because Dalai and I still have a ways left to go on this ride together!
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. “– Helen Keller
Something many of us yearn for in our relationships is a sense of security. We long to feel certain and secure in our relationships, to feel like no matter what, we will not be hurt in this love. Where there’s doubt or insecurity, we view it as a sign that something is wrong—that something needs to be fixed.
And our desire for security extends beyond our intimate relationships. On all levels, our world appears to be increasingly focused on trying to ensure we won’t be hurt. Our federal government even has an entire cabinet department dedicated to trying to help us feel secure—Department of Homeland Security.
We attempt to eradicate feelings of insecurity in the hope that if we can just feel secure—secure in ourselves, our relationships, our world around us—then we will be “safe” and happy.
But What If Trying to Feel Secure Actually Makes Us Less Secure?
Sometimes it can be useful to exercise more security in our lives: we lock our doors at night, get life insurance, or carry “bear spray” when camping in the backwoods. However, much of the time we are trying to achieve a feeling of security—a certainty that we aren’t vulnerable to hurt. But suppose our attempts to try to feel secure actually make us more alone, more insular, and more insecure?
Eve Ensler on Security
This is the argument that Eve Ensler, the Tony Award winning playwright, activist, and creator of the Vagina Monologues, makes in her TED talk on the subject of security. In her eloquent and inspiring talk, Ms. Ensler argues that our attempts to feel invulnerable and secure—personally, politically—are actually making us more insecure through the loss of connection with our shared experience. Ms. Ensler encourages people to willingly embrace difficult thoughts and feelings—including insecurity, doubt, ambiguity, and fear—in the service of living a life that is truly more connected, vibrant, and meaningful.
In a similar vein, but drawing from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I help the people I work with in therapy accept their doubts and insecurities in the service of moving towards what’s important to them. As Ms. Ensler points out, sometimes our lives become very small and unsatisfying when we spend all our energies trying to be secure.
“Real security is not only being able to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity but hungering for them and only trusting a situation when they are present…In the shared future… the end goal will be to become vulnerable, realizing the place of our connection to one another rather than becoming secure, in control, and alone.”
This has been my experience as well. I highly recommend watching Ensler’s entire talk.
I love stories. A great storyteller can transport you to places you have never been, can touch a place within you that seemed lost, or can inspire you in ways you might never guess.. A great story can take you on a journey but also reminds you of what is important in your life right now. My favorite place for great storytelling is an organization called The Moth. The Moth is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. They sponsor a free podcast that relates some of the best stories from their storytelling events.
My Go-To for Inspiration: The Moth
The Moth is one of my “go-to” sites when I'm needing to get reconnected with what's most important in life. I save their podcasts for those moments when I'm feeling distracted, disconnected, defeated, or just overwhelmed. I'll go for a walk, put on my headphones, and listen to The Moth. Most of the time I emerge from the end of the walk in a better place, having stepped out my personal drama for a bit, and reconnected with a larger perspective on life.
This blog post was inspired by one such story, that of Charlene Strong. Charlene tells her personal story of how heartbreak led her to reevaluate her life and dedicate herself to advocacy for equal legal protection for LGBT families. Her story reminded me of the dearness of those in my life and the importance of nurturing and protecting my relationships with those around me. It also connected me with how pain and loss can sometimes be a catalyst for tranformation. I hope you enjoy and are also touched by Charlene's story.
Here's the video version of her story.
Here's the audio version of her story.
“If we want to discover the full potential in our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities that we all have…it is our humanity, and all the potential within it that makes us beautiful.” – Aimee Mullins
As a therapist, I sit face to face every day with people’s suffering. And regardless of what form that suffering takes, whether that be trauma, a psychiatric diagnosis like “depression” or “bipolar disorder,” or a physical disability, a very common experience is that people feel “broken” or “defective” in some way because of their suffering.
Enter Aimee Mullins. Ms. Mullins is an internationally renowned athlete, model, and actress. She is also someone who was born with a medical condition called fibular hemimelia which resulted in having to have both of her legs amputated when she was a year old. I came across this inspiring TED talk she gave in 2009, in which she talks about the beauty and potential that lies within our common humanity. In addition to the absolutely amazing and beautiful prosthetics she has helped design (think cheetah legs and exquisite wooden legs with handcarved vines running throughout them), I was struck by her story of adversity bringing beauty and meaning to life. Adversity is an inevitable part of life and our culture may sometimes make us feel ”broken” or “defective” because of it. But within adversity, as Amy Mullins says, we can also find “… our humanity and all the potential within it that makes us beautiful.”
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