Agency and Emotional Bondage

Agency and Emotional Bondage

My Dad has battled Parkinson’s disease for the last 10 years. While he’s had an amazingly resilient attitude about it all, I’ve watched his frustration with losing the capability to do things he loves, and as it’s progressed, even simple daily tasks. I often think about how helpless it must feel for him to still have a mind that is fully alert, but trapped in a body that slowly loses its functioning. Any kind of physical bondage has an immense impact on a person’s freedom and sense of identity. Emotional bondage and captivity can pack just as powerful of a punch. 

When we think of being in emotional bondage our first thoughts might be of external forces- addictions, habits of the “natural man,” or the actions of others. But more often this bondage comes from internally imposed expectations and fears. These fears trap us and suffocate us. Like the walls closing in, they slowly etch away at our agency until we feel small, helpless, and captive. Fear can take so many different forms- fear of loss of love, fear of pain, fear of loneliness, fear of disappointing others, of not being enough, of anger, of having hope and being miserably disappointed, of losing value and worth, etc.

Regardless of the core motivator, these fears strip us of our freedoms to think, feel, speak up, have needs and boundaries, act for ourselves, and experience joy and hope.

I believe in a God who wants us to maintain our full capacity for agency; our full ability to think, feel and act for ourselves. He wants us to be freed from this emotional bondage.

I’ve always liked the phrase, “any virtue taken to an extreme can become a vice.” I have many clients who are naturally loving and kind but have become enslaved by these attributes. Rather than kindness coming from a pure place freely given, it originates from fear. They are so consumed by the potential consequences of “not” being loving and kind, that they lose their own sense of identity and inherent worth. 

When fear enslaves us, we end up with a mess of boundaries. Either we struggle creating any boundaries because we are afraid of the accompanying pain, loss of love, anger, or guilt, or we swing to the other end of the spectrum and create extremely rigid boundaries due to fear of loss of control, being taken advantage of, not meeting expectations, etc.

With either scenario we are left with little room for compassion, empathy, and love for ourselves or others.

How do we free ourselves from this emotional bondage? There is power in simply becoming aware of these fears and expectations that bind us. I think the next step is getting back in touch with our core identities. Getting to know our thoughts, feelings, and desires. Those often get so lost when fear takes over. What also seems to get lost is the truth about ourselves and others. When my client’s and I explore their fears, they typically have some strong underlying beliefs such as:

“If I inconvenience someone they will resent me”

“If I express an unpleasant emotion I will lose their love”

“People expect me to be perfect”

“If I let someone in they will abandon me, hurt me, or take advantage of me”

“My only value comes from being or doing _________”

“No one cares about my feelings so I have to look out for myself”

While some relationships may actually be this fragile, that says so much more about the pain and emotional struggles of the other person. In my experience, most people don’t have such extreme expectations of others and have no intent to cause harm. We all have bad days where we don’t exhibit the best emotional responses or actions, but most typically have good intentions.

The main point is that we can’t heal from the emotional bondage until we are willing to see the truth. Agency isn’t just about having the freedom to make choices, but seeing the world truthfully. And then once we see the truth, we have to be willing to act on it and engage differently with ourselves and others.

This can feel incredibly risky and terrifying. Good thing we’re not alone in attempting these changes.

Isaiah 61:1 says, “….He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”

Christ didn’t come just to release us from physical captivity or the captivity of sin, but also to free us from emotional bondage. It is the light of Christ that helps us take off our warped lenses of fear and see the truth about ourselves and others. And it is the power of Christ that strengthens us to become new creatures and act on this truth.

Healing from my own fears that bind me has been a lifelong process, and I’m sure will continue to be so. However, I fully believe the fruits of this labor are worth the struggle. I believe we fought for agency long before we came to this earth, and that the battle for agency continues on here. We can experience so much joy, peace, and freedom as we allow ourselves to be released from fear and strengthened to see ourselves, others, and God through truth.

Exposing Ourselves to the Light

Exposing Ourselves to the Light

I’ve had a dull toothache for months now. Months. The pain ebbs and flows. Sometimes when I drink something cold I’ll get a shooting pain, but other days it goes completely unnoticed. I’ve even learned to adjust to it by only eating and drinking on the left side of my mouth, and that’s actually worked pretty well for me. Is it getting worse? Probably. Should I get it checked out by a dentist? Most definitely. But I’m scared. If I go to the Dentist, they will most likely tell me that I have a cavity, and having a cavity equals pain in my mind. Or what if it’s actually a root canal? I’ve never had a root canal before but I’ve heard some pretty bad things about the pain involved in fixing that up. Or even worse, what if for some bizarre reason they have to take the tooth out and then I’ll look ridiculous and never find love and get married (just kidding….I haven’t actually thought that, but it illustrates what a beast anxiety can be in coming up with worst case scenarios). It’s easier to just avoid the toothache, pretend it’s not there, make minor adjustments, and live with the dull pain rather than the extreme pain that might come with actually dealing with it. It’s not that bad.

A toothache may seem like a silly comparison, but I see this pattern of avoidance play out with emotional pain every day.

We are terrified of exposing parts of ourselves to others, to God, or even to ourselves for fear of the emotional and physical pain that may be involved.

These wounds we hide may look like weaknesses, flaws, addictions, past mistakes, or things that we had no control over that were said or done to us and caused us to feel bad, unlovable, or unworthy. We lock them up airtight, shove them under the bed, and pretend they don’t exist. If anyone, or anything, tries to probe at them, our instinct is to shift blame, run away, and do whatever is necessary to cover them back up.

I can’t tell you how many times things have been going great with a client, tons of progress is being made, healing is happening, and suddenly in session something gets exposed that they are terrified to look at and they don’t come back to therapy for weeks, months, or ever. Krishnamurti says of this,

“Relationship is a process of self-revelation; relationship is as a mirror in which you begin to discover yourself, your tendencies, pretensions, selfish and limited motives, fears, and so on. In relationship, if you are aware, you will find that you are being exposed, which causes conflict and pain. The thoughtful person welcomes this self-exposure to bring about order and clarity, to free his thought-feeling from isolating, self-enclosing tendencies. But most of us try to seek comfort and gratification in relationship; we do not desire to be revealed to ourselves; we do not wish to study ourselves as we are, so relationship becomes wearisome and we seek to escape.”

I’ve often thought about how so many people could choose to reject Christ when He was here on the earth. When you study His character, it’s evident that He was a man filled with compassion and love. His intent was perfect – never to harm or hurt, only to heal. How were so many people in His actual presence, feeling that light and love, and yet still chose not to partake and receive? We find one of the answers to this in John chapter 3 as he discusses how light reveals darkness, and that can be extremely exposing.  While Christ was exposing them to the light to heal them, it would first require them to look at their own darkness. He knew that if they would allow this light in it would be a balm that offered compassion, love, understanding and forgiveness. Unfortunately, truth can be blindingly hard to look at.

If as a kid you ever fell off your bike and had a skid burn cleaned of the gravel and rocks before your mom could put Neosporin and a Band-Aid on it, you know that healing can hurt like the dickens before the relief actually comes. This is why I often warn my clients that coming to therapy might feel like things are getting worse before they get better. Close, intimate relationships can often do the same things. Sometimes they open up a Pandora’s box of things we’ve done a really good job of avoiding for years. As rational beings, it makes sense that we don’t want to sift through that box and feel the pain. Every part of us screams that it would be easier and less painful to just not deal with it.

But that’s the big lie. Sitting in our darkness, avoiding the truth, running away is NOT easier. Nor is it less painful.  It’s just creating a different set of pain that we’re often not paying attention to. And that pain always finds a way to catch up with us.

Brene Brown says, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially- secrecy, silence, and judgment.” Those things that we’re avoiding and keeping locked up, they’re creating shame- boatloads of shame. And that shame is festering, and creating all sorts of havoc in our lives and relationships. Shame prevents us from feeling self love and seeing ourselves clearly.

When we don’t love parts of ourselves, or haven’t made amends with things from our past, it inhibits our ability to both give and receive love.

This is often at the root of many of our self defeating behaviors – withdrawal, isolating, numbing, self-medicating, anger, blame, perfectionism, and on and on. Ironically, these self defeating behaviors then create more shame, and more things we feel like we need to hide, and thus the cycle continues.

We think that hiding and avoiding these things is helping us, but it’s not. It is hurting us in unimaginable ways. It is pulling us away from God’s love and light, from loving and healthy relationships with those around us, and from our own innate sense of divinity and worth.

So how do we stop running, hiding, avoiding, self-justifying, and face our fears of being exposed? The trick is exposing these parts of ourselves to the right sources – love, light, compassion, and forgiveness. Brene Brown continues, “If you put the same amount of shame into a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” When we expose ourselves to light it brings clarity, truth, and understanding. But most importantly, it brings freedom.

Freedom from burdens that we have been carrying for far too long, freedom to be vulnerable and allow others to truly see us, and freedom to give and receive the love that we all desperately and innately need.

We must choose to believe that this light and love do exist, and open our eyes to those around us, and those in the heavens, who are ready and willing to give it. Through all of this we have to believe that even in our weaknesses, frailties, and imperfections, we do matter, and we are deserving of receiving this love and light. Be patient with yourself if you’re not there yet. I’m sure there’s some really emotionally and spiritually progressed people out there who have learned how to fully embrace these concepts, but for the rest of us, it’s a lifelong process that typically comes by chipping away one little piece at a time. Choosing to believe these things is hard for all of us, myself included, especially when we’ve experienced the opposite from those who are struggling with their own pain.

But when we do choose to embrace these beliefs, powerful things happen. Some of the most sacred and special experiences I’ve had as a therapist come when my clients allow themselves to receive this light. One of my clients battled for years with a burden of sexual abuse that occurred to her by a family member. As she worked through her own healing process and allowed herself to be freed from this pain, she approached me with the question of whether she should expose what happened to the rest of the family. We talked for many months about what this would look like, and the possible reactions that could come from this. If the perpetrator was not ready to look at and heal from these parts, she would most likely be met with defensiveness, anger, denial, and blame. All of which would be very painful. However, exposing this could also give him the opportunity to heal from his pain, receive forgiveness, and move forward. After conferring with God, this client felt peace about speaking to the family member privately first, through a letter.

What occurred after this can only be described as divine. The family member, consumed with shame from carrying this burden for so long, was overcome with relief at receiving this letter and immediately took action to begin making amends with my client and with himself. Many tears were shed as this man opened up to my client about his remorse, grief, and the negative repercussions these actions had on his life and relationships through the years. While these conversations were difficult and painful, they brought profound healing to both my client and her family member. It was beautiful and sacred to witness. Both of these people were at a point where they were ready and willing to allow the light to heal them, and give and receive love. And miracles occurred. Sadly, sometimes those that have hurt us are not ready yet to have these parts exposed, but that does not mean that we cannot receive our own healing.

In John 8:12 Christ says, “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

Christ is there, ready and waiting to let us be partakers of this light and heal our dark places. We also have the fortuity to be givers of this light as we take and create opportunities to expose those dark places and offer love, compassion, and empathy to ourselves and to those around us.

May we all help each other calm those fears in our heads that say it will be better and easier to run, hide, and avoid. Instead may we have the courage lean toward the light, confront those dark places, have the hard conversations, make amends with ourselves and others, and ultimately face the pain so that we can be freed.

 

 

Grief Is Evidence of Love

Grief Is Evidence of Love

Last night I sat in my Mom’s hospital room with her, staring at the ceiling. Her machines were beeping and buzzing, I knew she was in pain, I was worried about what the future would hold, and I couldn’t sleep. As I sat there I thought back on a few days earlier when I found out the news that my Mom was very sick and had been admitted. I was scared, I was heartbroken, and my friends came running to my aide. They sat with me for hours as I cried and talked through my fears and anger. They cried with me, got angry with me, shared their love, and mostly just listened.

They created a safe space for me to feel whatever I was feeling, and they helped carry my grief.

It was exactly what I needed. Many times they asked what they could do for me, and while we joked about them showing up to my voice lessons or going on a date for me while I was gone, I didn’t really need them to “do” anything. Just being there and sharing in the grief was more than enough.

Over the past few days I’ve received countless texts, messages, and calls from family and friends who are worried about my Mom. Beneath all of the words and text is the same message: We love you. We hurt because you are hurting. Let us share this grief with you.

Grief is such an interesting and complicated thing. Because it can be so incredibly painful, our natural tendency is to run from it, avoid it, shove it away, distract with something or someone new, numb out, or pretend it’s not there. But if we do those things we’re missing out on something incredible.

Because while painful, grief is a beautiful thing. Grief is evidence of love. Grief tells us that we have the capacity to care, to love, to attach. Grief says, “This matters. You matter. My feelings matter.”

Allowing ourselves to feel grief, for ourselves or for someone else, can be so dang hard because it requires an immense amount of vulnerability. And vulnerability can be scary. As C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” When we allow ourselves to really love someone, their hurt becomes our hurt. The thought of losing them is devastating. When we choose to grieve with and empathize with someone’s pain, we have to tap into our own painful emotions and look at our own hurt and grief. That can be terrifying and exposing.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is when Christ comes to Mary, a dear friend of His, who is weeping over the death of her brother, Lazarus. When He sees her grief the scripture says, “He groaned in the spirit, and was troubled (John 11:33).” And then it states that Christ weeps with her. He knows that in just minutes He will raise Lazarus from the dead, but He takes this moment to share her pain. Christ hurts because Mary is hurting.

While her joy is restored when her brother is healed, I believe her own healing occurs within this beautiful moment of weeping together.

This avenue of healing is one of the things I love most about being a therapist. When clients share their deep feelings of sadness and shame, I have the opportunity to sit in those feelings with them and tap into my own emotions and vulnerabilities to better empathize. Sometimes it is emotionally painful to go to that place with them, but it often feels like a sacred experience that I am privileged to be a part of. After those moments clients will often tell me they feel “better” and “lighter,” and are confused as to why. I don’t have a good or scientific answer for that. I just know it works.

Connection is healing. Shared grief brings relief. Love and vulnerability are powerful.

This week has been heart wrenching for myself and for my family. I have battled with fear and anxiety, and wept at the pain of someone I love deeply and feel helpless to offer relief to. But this week has also brought great feelings of love and connection. It has brought bonding and healing moments with my Mom, Dad, Brother and Sister-in-law that I will cherish forever. It has brought tender moments of gratitude and love as others have reached out with comfort and shared their own vulnerable feelings of grief and love.

Would I trade these moments for my Mom to be pain free and not going through this trial? Absolutely! But that’s not how life works, and it seems that these experiences of grief are necessary to give us the opportunity to stretch our capacity to love, deepen our relationships, and choose vulnerability over fear.

So maybe we can all give ourselves permission to love a little deeper and grieve a little more. To dig into our own vulnerabilities so that we can truly, “mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 18: 9).”

To be healers, and to be healed, by allowing ourselves to sit with those we love and share their pain.

Is God Disappointed In Me?

Is God Disappointed In Me?

It happened again last week. Another client sat across from me in my counseling office, and with panic flashing in his eyes, said, “I feel like I’ve let God down. I’m terrified that I’ll get to the other side and He’ll turn me away because I wasn’t enough. Because I failed Him.”

Different forms of this fear have become increasingly frequent disclosures from my clients. I see their heads bow in shame as they share these concerns. I feel their hurt; their feelings of unworthiness; and I’m left wondering how and when our image of God became so warped. When did He become this figure of disapproval, of condemnation- someone waiting to catch us in our shortcomings and cast us out? This is not the God I know.

But perhaps this is all WE know. Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to disappointment, that we can’t fathom any different. We’re so used to judgment from others and judgment toward ourselves, that this is what feels comfortable and normal. Letting others down, while extremely painful, is what we’ve come to expect.

And so we project our human experiences with mankind onto God.

But God is not mortal man. Imagine a God who knows you; really knows you. He knows your strengths, your weaknesses, your potential. He knows you and loves you so perfectly that there’s little you could do that would surprise Him. Could a God that knows you that perfectly be disappointed in you?

Disappointment is rooted in expectations. And as humans, we’re full of expectations for ourselves and for others. These expectations are rarely met to our satisfaction, and because of this, out comes the shame, blame, and resentment. But these expectations often come from our own immaturity, lack of understanding, and lack of patience with ourselves and others.

I spent some time with my 4 year old niece a few weeks ago. She’s the youngest in her family and she wants so badly to be able to do all of the things that her older siblings can do. I saw her become frustrated with herself when she couldn’t figure out how to read a story that her older sister was reading. She tried and tried to figure it out, and then finally threw her little arms up in the air in frustration and gave an exasperated sigh of defeat. Did we all pounce on her with scoldings of disappointment and send her to her room for failing us? Of course not! We hugged her and told her that it was okay that she couldn’t figure it out yet, and that she’d get there eventually.

She was disappointed and frustrated in herself, but there was no disappointment from us.

I believe that instead of a condemning God, He is an encouraging and compassionate God. A loving Father who knows you and will welcome you home with an embrace of, “Well done. It was hard, and messy, and confusing down there, and you tried your best. I’m proud of you.”

I believe in a God who weeps with us in our own feelings of frustration and disappointment with ourselves, but does not embody these feelings Himself.

A God who sees our potential and gives us every opportunity He can to push us toward it, but is incredibly patient with us in our process of learning and growth. This is the God I know.