Categories
Stories

What Is Your Victim Story?

 

What is your victim story?

Lately my ears have been tuned in to these. Folks are happy to offer them up quicker than any other tidbit about themselves. And if they aren’t talking about them, they are definitely thinking them.

What are you, a mindreader? Not hardly. I just know that when someone’s got a scowl on their face, it’s a sure sign they are playing a familiar melancholy tune in their heads that provides them a simple explanation of why life sucks.* (Also—takes one to know one.)

Granted, no one likes to consider themselves a victim. But the fact is, most of us have a narrative about why we just can’t progress in the direction we’d like. That one thing that gets in the way, no matter what.  Our victim story exists to keep us stagnant, small and safe. Emphasis on the safe. Breaking out of it throws us into unknown territory and that can be scary. More on that later.

When we are particularly bothered by someone else’s victim story, therein lies a hidden nugget of truth about ourselves. Something we hear in the other person mirrors our own go-to tale and. We. Cannot. Stand. It.

 

A few of my acquaintances have victim stories that match up with my own. A sure sign I am hearing one of them is that I suddenly get the urge to stuff my fingers in my ears and belt out the Star Spangled Banner. One story in particular bothers me so much that the last time I heard it, I ordered a couple more drinks just to dumb the pain. I hadn’t bumped into the woman who tells this dreary tale in ages, but at a recent outing, there was no avoiding her. She turned to me, and, as if on cue, unleashed a torrent of complaints about how little time she had for anything. I wish I was you, she said, and then named some luxurious thing she perceives as how I spend my day. It drove me absolutely bananas. And if you are wondering whether she’ll identify herself here—don’t bother. She claims she doesn’t have time to read.

 

There is no doubt that her victim story sticks in my craw because it is also my victim story: I never get my own time for my own life. Sometimes it’s my husband spontaneously working from home on loud conference calls on the other side of the wall from my quiet writing space—it’s happening this minute actually—or the child, who is no fan of school, remaining face down on his bed, requiring an hours long effort to coax him into the car. When something like this throws off my day, I tell myself how no one cares one whit about wasting my time. Then I go around with a black cloud over my head, not doing my work and resenting everyone around me with their fancy, undisrupted schedules.

So why do we repeat this story about our lives and let it derail us?

Because we are afraid of our own power, of what we would be capable of if we weren’t strapping on cement boots. We are afraid to unleash our true potential. We got the idea that playing small serves us best due to it’s safety and predictability. If we continue to tell ourselves we can’t because of ______, we can be sure that the worst that will happen is we will be comfortably disappointed in ourselves. Nbd.  

But the only way to really live is to take risks. To break out of our comfort zone, not to wait for the perfect conditions. To go for it with no regrets.

Here are some ways to break free:

  1. We begin by identifying what our victim story even is. (Like me, you may have several.) When we recognize it and accept that that is what is happening, we can take a deep breath and know awareness is the critical first step.
  1. It’s super comfy to let the story explain why we are here, playing small. The downside is that when we choose fear, we say no to our true desires. Love. Fulfillment. Acceptance. Joy. All of those are within us, waiting to come out IF we honor our true selves, claim our space and choose love over fear. In this life, you only get one of those. Why not choose love.
  1. We can avoid the grip of the victim story if we give ourselves what we need in the moment. For me, when my son is stuck in the I hate school routine, it works out best when I clean up my own energy. When I don’t pile on the judgment, he has the space to work out what he needs to do in his own head. I also dealt with the practical matter of searching for alternatives to his current program. I now have a great one in my back pocket. We will check it out if and when he is ready.
  1. Seek the wisdom of your spiritual guides. Eckhart Tolle teaches that life will give you whatever experience is the most helpful to the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because it is the experience you are having at the moment. It is all meant to be exactly as it is right now. Learn what you need to learn from this and then you will move on to the next lesson.
  1. Recognize the gift. Your life is not about what you have to do, it’s about what you get to do. In recent weeks, I’ve done more caretaking than usual. At times, I have devolved into self-pity. When my husband prepared to go skiing while I sat in an emergency room, I wondered how I’d drawn the short straw. When I shook free of victim mode, I recognized that I had been blessed with the time and resources to spend a beautiful few days with my father and daughter and to reconnect with my brothers. There are people out in the world who have no one at all and others who have loved ones they cannot be with. I am lucky.
  1. Lastly, all you are responsible for is right now. Don’t waste time regretting yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. You have absolutely no control over that. Do the next right thing and stop freaking out.

And just so you know, I was REALLY getting stuck in my victim story so this little offering to you has been gently used by me first. When you realize it is YOU that holds you back more than anyone or anything, you can make better choices. Knowing you are in control of your attitude and your energy gives you the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love, Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What is your victim story? How can you break out of it? What hasn’t been possible in your life when you have believed it? How is it going to be different now?

Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up!! Click on elizabethheise.com and subscribe today. And if ya want, come find me on the socials: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!

*You might be saying to yourself, hey, I have this limitation that really is awful and insurmountable.I used to buy that too. And then I saw Nick Santonastasso speak. He was born with Hanhart syndrome, an extremely rare condition that left him legless and missing an arm. His motto: “the biggest disability is a bad mindset.”  Check him out. He may just change your life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rc8offk7Mho

 

Categories
Stories

The Healing Power Of Dreams

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a reoccurring dream. In a dark, drafty house, I’m searching for somewhere safe just to be. As I roam from room to room, panic rises inside me. I pass strangers who appear comfortable there and don’t acknowledge me. The homes are never the same in these dreams, but they are uniformly inhospitable and filled with people who don’t see me.

A few weeks ago, the reoccurring dream progressed to a new dream. It truly felt like it had changed. The old one must still be rattling around in my psyche, however. Over the weekend, the old dream invaded my waking life.

After learning of my father’s mysterious illness, my brother and I traveled to see him at the hospital. We had agreed to stay at the home of my stepmother and Dad which I haven’t done in decades. I have visited them both alone and with my family, but have always rented a hotel. This time it made the most sense to stay there in light of Dad’s condition. Plus, it was two days. I could do anything for that short a time.

When I walked into the bedroom where I’d be sleeping, the past came flooding back. There were no sheets on the mattress and none left in the room for me to make the bed. A suitcase full of someone else’s belongings lay open on the floor, a crumpled tissue beside it. In a corner stood a baby changing table with random detritus stacked on top. In the bathroom, the toilet had not merited even a cursory swipe in advance of our visit.

These people are dealing with a medical emergency—only the hopelessly tone deaf would expect fresh flowers on the night stand. The general neglect of the room, however, echoed the state of every space I’d occupied as a kid with these two in charge. I asked for the sheets, pushed past the disturbance it caused, and turned away from the feelings stirring inside me.

Throughout the weekend, I remained cheerful and positive for my dad, found solace in reconnecting with my brother and stepbrother and grounded myself in nature. When my daughter arrived on the train—her plan was to stay only one night—it became difficult to manage the triggers. My precious child. Here.

Comments thrown out like invisible grenades detonated everywhere. If your daughter gets upset about the bedding, she is a spoiled brat. Watch out, Liz is so judgmental. I really wanted your Nana’s Burmese sapphire, such a shame it was stolen when she died. I’m not paying for breakfast. It’s a hassle for me to take your brother to the airport.  

As a child in their care, I was left to meet many of my own basic needs, as were my three siblings. I got a job at thirteen to buy clothes. The younger ones left and ended up couch surfing. And far worse. Our family faced hard times.

There was only one incongruity: the youngest among us lived like a doted-on only child. Every heart’s desire from Toys ‘R Us filled his shelves, always with more on the way. Granted, he was due some compensation for going without a father. Only the four of us received none for having no mother. The message that came through harmed us all.

My stepbrother now has two sweet children for whom his mother bakes homemade pies. She rents a vacation home across the street from them for long stretches, allowing her to assume a major role in their lives. My daughter Jane got to hear all about it at dinner, a quizzical expression on her face. My dad and stepmother came to visit her once when she was born. They never returned.

For two days, I held it together. Dad was doing much better and it seemed the worst was over.

When the weekend came to a close, Jane and I drove South to drop my brother at the airport, then North into holiday traffic out of town. Olivia Rodrigo’s angsty lyrics poured out from the speakers and summoned the flood of emotions I had suppressed. I ranted and railed. When I had exhausted myself, I couldn’t apologize to Jane enough. It’s the worst when someone doesn’t check in before they drop their awfulness into your unsuspecting lap. Worse still when it’s your mom who allegedly flew in to take care of you. It took both of us by surprise.

When I got home to Miami a day later, I opened this week’s materials for Martha Beck’s class. Dream Analysis. A dream is full of symbols that are actually parts of the dreamer that haven’t been fully integrated. It was high time I unified all parts of me instead of running away from the ones that hurt.

In class, we were invited to share a dream to be analyzed. The only dream I remembered was the reoccurring one and the new dream that had replaced it.

“Elizabeth, do you want to share your dream?”

I usually jump at the chance to do this work, but I felt spent.

“If no one else wants to go,” I said.

I described the reoccurring dream with the dark house, then the new dream: my colleagues in this program had gathered at a sparsely furnished retreat center, situated in a lush, wooded area. Large plants in blue ceramic pots were the only decoration in the space which was equipped with everything we needed. The wide rooms were filled with natural light. Martha Beck lead the training only it was very physical, few words were spoken. As we practiced some kind of wrestling, everyone got sweaty and dirty. We were all happy.

At the end of the retreat, Martha asked us to gather all the plants and leave them in one spot so the staff could pick them up to deliver them wherever they were needed next. As we left the center, I spotted a car full of gangsters, silently leaving their place, promptly at checkout time. My colleagues and I all piled into a white van that took each of us to our destinations.

To analyze the dream, first, you identify the symbols:

Old House

Retreat Center

Potted Plants

White Van

Gangsters

Martha Beck

Then the dreamer gives three adjectives for each symbol:

Old House: cold, scary, lonely

Retreat Center: spacious, light, neutral

Potted Plants: Wandering Jew, growing, oxygen-producing

White Van: purposeful, competent, focused

Gangsters: fearsome, brooding, leaving

Martha Beck: excited, accepting, open

Now here’s the woo part, so stay with me so you don’t miss the magic:

The dreamer then speaks as if she is the symbol and communicates the symbol’s purpose, how it wants to help, and the message to the dreamer.

Old house: my purpose was simply to shelter the people. I was not capable of providing warmth, comfort or anything else. My message is that it was not your fault that I am this way, it is simply my nature. There are other homes better suited to your needs.

Retreat Center: I am a space to learn and grow. You are free to be yourself here.

Potted Plants: I am here to allow you to breathe, to make things beautiful, to help you feel at home and to bring ease.

White Van: Don’t overthink your direction. Let it be easy, allow yourself to be guided.

Gangsters: We hold all the trouble, we aren’t as scary as we seem, we are going away now and you will be at peace.

Martha Beck: in those dark moments, a benevolent force greater than anything loved you and has always loved you. You are meant to be exactly where you are, doing exactly what you are doing. You have everything you need.

At the end of the session, my tear-streaked face broke into a smile. I am the Wandering Jew who will go where I am needed. I have faith in my direction and trust that everything’s going to be okay. I am home.

And so are you.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Do you have a reoccurring dream? Do you keep a dream journal? Are you open to learning the message in your dreams?

Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up. If you have a friend who might be interested, feel free to share. Click on elizabethheise.com and subscribe. And if you like, come find me on the socials: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Thank you for reading.

 

Categories
Stories

How Do You Show Up?

 

Walking the dogs last Friday, Dad collapsed on the street. The ER doc called it a heart attack. Several scary days and a hospital transfer later, his diagnosis was less dire, but the incident put all five of his kids on high alert.

Dad and I haven’t been particularly close—he doesn’t really do that. But as he gets older and his health declines, I feel an urgency to get beyond what we have been to each other. We humans are programmed to love our parents, no matter what. I am definitely feeling that primal need to show up for him before I no longer have the chance.

My younger brother and I decided to fly out to see him. Except that I had already planned a visit to my daughter at college over the holiday weekend. With all the Covid restrictions and weirdness on campus, she has been homesick. My mom instinct told me to go. On Facetime, I explained that I would have to cut my trip short. Her roommate Lisa, my other UCLA daughter, stepped into the screen.

“I’ve always thought that if someone was a jerk to you, you aren’t obligated to rush to their side just because something bad happens.” True enough. But I have come to feel differently about my dad over these last years.

Was he selfish and uncaring when I needed him? I definitely thought so as a kid. But I have learned to take care of myself and, I have a better understanding of how selfishness works. Martha Beck recently explained it on Episode #67 of Glennon Doyle’s podcast We Can Do Hard Things.

 

What does it mean to be selfish? When someone has been starved of self, they can be really toxic. That person’s sense of self has been stifled to the point where they cannot even think about anyone else. They have been robbed of being their true selves and have nothing to offer other people until they restore what has been lost. Some never do. But if the person begins to prioritize themselves, takes the time to understand who they really are and what it takes to make them happy, they recover. If they do it consistently, they naturally begin to see other people for the first time.

I wouldn’t say my dad has undergone this transformation, but I have. Writing my truth has done that for me. My own growth has made space for his limitations, which he comes by honestly. From the sound of it, Dad grew up being ‘starved of self.’ Abuse, threats of military school, and running away from home were just a few features of his life as an only child. He didn’t leave home with any sense of what it meant to be loved, nor how to be a present father. All he wanted from his parents was to be left alone and that’s what he gave us. It was the best he could do.

But, in his way, my dad showed up for me. When Mom announced she was leaving, he stepped up and took care of us. He could have left too. Instead, he kept a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. Sometimes he even did the usual things like pick me up from pom pon practice. As a teen, he told me that if I ever drank too much at a party, that he would come get me, no questions asked. I called him one late, chilly Chicago night and he did just that. When I became a mother, he flew to Miami and held my baby girl in his arms. Each one of those things would have been enough—we Jews call this concept Dayenu. At pivotal moments, I could count on him.

He doesn’t call on my birthday, but the day after my last one, I called him. In good humor, I asked what he might have forgotten about October 1st. He was supposed to go in for cataract surgery, he said, but it had to be rescheduled. Then, it hit him. “Oh sh!t,” he said. “You deserve to have someone remember your birthday.” He knows. If he had more to give, he would. And I was proud of myself for calling.

Last weekend, I admitted to a friend that her negative reaction to a vulnerable truth I shared had hurt my feelings. She didn’t take it well. It’s hard to hear you have hurt someone. Instead of apologizing, she dug in and said she’d choose the same words over again. I knew at that moment that I had done my work, the rest was hers. My old self would have owned her narrative and felt guilty for saying anything. I no longer make myself small for other people’s comfort. And now I understand her limitations.

I am getting better about showing up for myself. For not “going deaf to my own pain.” When you step into your own truth, it makes space inside to accept others for exactly who they are, not who you wish they would be. This creates a sense of freedom for everyone.

Be free, my friends.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT:  How do you show up for yourself?  How does this affect the energy you bring to caring for others?

Do my Friday Stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up. And if you have a friend who might be interested in them too, please share. Click on elizabethheise.com and subscribe today. And if you like, come find me on the socials: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!

Categories
Stories

Cultivate A Calm Mind

 

A few days ago, old friends converged on Miami for a special wedding. During a week of festivities culminating in an epic dance party, I noted that I didn’t allow my own history to cloud any of it. To be totally present for my dear friend who came back here to celebrate new love, chosen family, and enduring friendships felt like a gift.

This group of friends hadn’t been together in years. Relocation overseas and across the country had scattered us all. But I hadn’t been around much since before geography intervened. A conflict within the group and the effort to repair it had fallen flat. Individual friendships had survived, as true friendships always do.

So much has changed for me personally and I was curious to find out how I would feel to be with everyone again—one friend, in particular. After the big blow up, sides were taken. Except I didn’t choose a side. Not knowing the full extent of the rift, I tried to make peace. It didn’t work. From that point forward, the one friend excluded me and my family from events she hosted. As the centrifugal force of the group, her actions had a huge impact. When I asked, she insisted that she held nothing against me and I was always welcome. It was pretty clear that I was not.

I didn’t appreciate the irony back then, but I had expected the other friends to take my side. Because the official position was that we were fine, there was no option but to be super confrontational with her and that just wasn’t anyone’s personality. Except mine. When they all continued to revel on without me, my mind became a dark garden of painful thoughts. I didn’t matter, took over like chickweed. It hurt for a long time.

 

Given that I now understand my thinking better,* I was curious to check in with myself around that one friend. Would I be triggered and go back to that self-pitying place? For a second, I fantasized a heartfelt apology. I almost laughed at myself.

Before everyone came back to town, my friend Karin sent me Episode #1 of The Michael Singer Podcast: Ceasing to Be Caught in the Waters of Mind. He authored The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself which teaches how to focus less on the world around you and more on changing your inner space to achieve peace. Sounds like a bunch of hippie weirdo talk, but this New York Times Bestseller has changed a lot of lives for the better, so if you haven’t gotten into it yet, open your ears and listen up. We could all use some peace.

In the podcast, Singer explains that the mind and all its thoughts are not who you are. YOU are your awareness that floats on the surface of the mind. As long as you remain the observer of your thoughts, you can always be at peace. If you aren’t sure what that means yet, exploring some mind calming methods like yoga, meditation or breath work is a good place to begin.

If this is your first exposure to this stuff, here’s the background: our brains are programmed to scan the world for problems, it’s how our species has survived. As we are no longer in survival mode, it serves our higher consciousness to cultivate a calm mind. It is the only way to reach our full human potential. You have to work at this though, it doesn’t happen automatically.

If we don’t realize we have the ability to calm the mind from inside ourselves, we are constantly working to control our environment to keep the mind from being disturbed. We believe that if we can just collect a few key items (the money, the house, the car, the partner, the perfect kids) our mind will settle down. Your mind is always busy trying to figure out what you need so that you are okay. Only it never stops trying to figure out what else you need outside yourself, which is so not the answer, ever.

Most of us don’t do any work on our minds, we try to fix the world around us. We get stuck in a constant effort to manipulate our circumstances so that the mind will become calm. We have no concept that there is any way to relax the mind other than controlling the world. Since this is impossible, our mind is always trying to make our world okay. It’s crazy-making.

So how do we fix our minds? First, we get comfortable watching the mind react to the nature of things as they are. Say for example, that it’s raining. The mind says, “sh!t, I just had my car washed.” There is nothing you can do about the weather, so there is no reason to hold onto the thought. You observe the thought come in, you have the negative feeling and then you allow it to float away. If you don’t resist, it will pass. If you surrender, it will leave you and your mind will return to a peaceful state. Or you could rant about it all day, your choice.

I experienced this very thing at the wedding. After the ceremony, performed by a particularly plucky pastor, the wedding photographers gathered groups for pictures. “Let’s get a shot of all the friends,” she said. I stood at a distance and observed a thought coming in. They don’t want me in the photo. A stab of hurt accompanied the thought and I let it pass through me. I knew my mind was just looking for problems, as it always does.

“Okay friends, love on Abby,” the photographer said. I walked over to the group, grabbed the shoulder of the woman next to me and smiled, sending love to my dear friend on her extraordinary day.

Later that night, the band was so good I left chocolate truffles uneaten at the table and joined everyone on the dance floor where we stayed for hours, just like the old days. At one point, I spotted the friend with whom I had shared the difficult history. We danced out whatever was left of our past.

If you try to resist pain, it stays stuck inside. You cause more disturbance by resistance. That which we resist persists. Deciding what is and isn’t supposed to be and whether or not you have a right to be angry just prolongs suffering.

Make peace, find your center when things go wrong. Your secondary reaction to a disturbing thing is what makes the problem worse. Don’t fight the nature of things. Relax and release. Rest quietly. Lean behind the reaction. Don’t try. Notice it, let it go.

There is no special skill here. You don’t need a technique to NOT do something. All you have to do is stop being so interested in everything your mind has to say. When you learn how to let go of little things, it leads to letting go of bigger and bigger things.

Our natural state is joy, love, and peace. And it has nothing to do with anyone else.

When you observe your mind, let go of painful thoughts and release the emotions, you can rest in the knowledge that you will always be okay, no matter what.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: what in your past have you held onto for a long time? What will it take to let it go?  

*In a piece a few weeks back, I demonstrate how to examine painful thoughts and provide tools on how to detach from them: https://elizabethheise.com/the-daily-divorce-habit/

Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up. And if you have a friend who might be interested, please share! Click on elizabethheise.com and subscribe today. And if you like, come find me on the socials: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!

 

Categories
Stories

Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

 

I learned to lie early. A chaotic home life can be tucked behind a toothy grin and good grades, no problem. If you look like a kid who has it all together, approval abounds. The constant anxiety that goes along with all that pretending is just part of the deal.

All these years later, my instincts are still to create a perfect image. I fight the urge to answer, “I’m fine” no matter who asks. It takes real effort to push past a lifetime of conditioning and just tell the truth. 

I wonder if others also feel like they’ve peddled enough BS for a lifetime? A reader of these stories reached out last week after I revealed what I really think about the periodic disconnection in my marriage.* She wondered why we all don’t just tell the truth.

I have a hunch: no one wants to be judged. Every time I hit send on these stories, I wonder whose thought bubble is saying, “Jeez, Elizabeth, TMI.”

I will tell you something about speaking the truth though. It has become my new favorite bauble to hold up to the light. Because it’s a relatively new practice, however, it’s uncomfortable. I wish people who received it would be gentle. Sometimes they are not and it hurts.

 

 

 

But, like a big gorgeous salad, I know it’s good for my health. Telling the truth has benefited every aspect of my life. I no longer come down with “mystery illnesses” that take me out for months at a time. I have withdrawn from spaces where I feel muzzled. I have extracted myself from relationships that don’t serve me and transformed the ones that needed healing. My friends know me better. Strike that: everyone who wants to, knows me better. Revealing who I really am has helped me feel more alive than ever.

 

Martha Beck writes about this phenomenon in her latest book, The Way of Integrity, Finding the Path to Your True Self. Her theory is that telling any kind of lie does lasting damage. Whether it is meant as a kindness, to avoid confrontation or to save your own behind, any untruth wreaks internal havoc.

When a friend makes a mean joke about us and we say nothing, that breaks trust with ourselves. When we let the moment pass, we have “gone deaf to our own pain.” Our instinct to take ourselves out of harm’s way is blunted. We trust people who don’t deserve it. We remain in bad relationships.

Clearly there is a payoff to lying, that’s why we do it so much. Telling people what they want to hear wins the popularity contest every time. We are well trained to tell and receive the sweet little lies about how great we look when we do not or that a friend “forgot” to include us in a group outing when in reality they did it for reasons we need to hear. 

When the stakes are higher, lying can be about survival. Sometimes it’s just not safe to tell the truth in an abusive relationship or an oppressive institution. If the truth is too dangerous to tell, we can bridge the chasm inside us by telling the truth to ourselves—noticing where, why and to whom we lie.

 

Shielding ourselves from the truth has deep roots. As kids, we may have been called upon to keep it together when something bad happened. The only option was to abandon ourselves. The “just-world hypothesis” explains that to feel safe, children must believe that the world is fair, that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When something bad happens, a child believes it was because she was bad.

Nearly all of us have this sort of self-blaming lie buried in unspoken childhood assumptions like my own: “if I hadn’t been so demanding, mom wouldn’t have left.” It took me a long time to unearth this fiction that helped make sense of a painful situation. Blaming ourselves when we did nothing wrong splits us off from our truth. The more suffering we’ve encountered, the more reason we’ve had to punish ourselves.

The toll it takes is obvious. Pretending all the time is exhausting. Acting happy when we are bummed out or lying to impress people requires a ton of effort. Maintaining a perfect image drains our brain power and takes up a ton of mental space. It slows down the rest of our thinking. Studies show that people who present “an idealized image of themselves” have higher blood pressure; elevated cortisol, glucose, and cholesterol; and a lowered immune system. Lying and keeping secrets have been linked to heart disease, cancer and emotional problems like anxiety, depression and “free-floating hostility.” In sum, it’s worth it to come clean.

The evidence that all this truth-telling has brought peace into my life is all around me. I have been going through a hard time with one of my children. Anyone who has called to ask about it has heard the complicated truth. I don’t feel judged (mostly). It’s still difficult to share the hard stuff but I do it anyway. I call upon the friends who’ve confided their difficulties because when you tell the truth, you create the space around you for others to do the same.

Deciding to open yourself up can dramatically improve your well-being and it can happen within days. One study concluded that just making the effort to stop lying significantly improved physical and mental health. Subjects reported feeling less sad and tense.They got sick with sore throats less often and had fewer headaches. Their relationships benefited as well: they reported happier personal lives during the weeks they intentionally told fewer lies. The relief comes when we begin by being honest with ourselves. We can go from a life of suffering to calm and peace without changing a thing on the outside.

When we have the courage to tell the truth, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: How do you feel about sharing the truth, even when it’s messy? Do you have a hard time trusting people?

Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up. Click on elizabethheise.comand subscribe today. You are also welcome to find me on the socials: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!

*ICYMI https://elizabethheise.com/the-daily-divorce-habit/

Categories
Stories

The Daily Divorce Habit

 

I have done it my whole life. Make progress in a certain area and then backslide to old habits. Maybe not all the way, but enough to feel bad about myself. I’ve done it with my body, my marriage, my goals, the list is long.

After I have blown off a commitment to myself, I make up story to explain why I am still lame in whatever way. It’s what we humans do to make sense of the world, we tell stories.

Take the twenty-five year relationship with my husband. We’ve had many good years, peppered with times when we barely limped along. I have suggested daily rituals to deepen our connection and provide a solid foundation for our family. They include but are not limited to:

  1. setting an intention and sharing it
  2. a good hug in the morning before we run off
  3. reaching out once a day with something thoughtful
  4. prioritizing each other—taking our phone calls no matter what
  5. before bed, naming three things from the day we are grateful for about the other
  6. reading three pages aloud every night from a book of mutual interest
  7. each of us giving our relationship 100%—if we want something from the other person, we must first offer it ourselves

When we practice connection regularly, it makes a difference. At busier, more stressful times, the gratitude at the end of the day is the one habit we’ve sustained. Over the last several weeks, however, we haven’t managed to accomplish even that. Mark’s been swamped at the office and has continued to work late into the night.

 

When our disconnection grows, I tell myself stories that explain the distance:

He only cares about work.

We are just different people who are not meant to be together.

This is how it’s always going to be and it sucks. 

He won’t take a break to read together but he’d show up in a flash to get naked.

Maybe I just don’t deserve a fulfilling relationship.

I am meant to be alone.

I realize this story, not the actual working late, is what causes me pain. Martha Beck teaches about the four areas of human experience: circumstances, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Our circumstances create our thoughts; our thoughts cause our feelings; our feelings shape our behavior.

For us, our circumstances (Mark’s working late) have created these painful thoughts that have made me sad and caused me to be curt and chilly. Clearly, we all experience painful circumstances from time to time—that’s life. But telling ourselves a negative story and dragging it around inside us causes continued suffering. I don’t want to do that anymore.

This week I learned a few new tools that helped me to detach from painful thoughts. Steven Hayes, author of The Liberated Mind teaches Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. “ACT” interventions help people suffer less. He differentiates between clean pain and dirty pain. Clean pain is slamming your fingers in the car door. Dirty pain is when you tell yourself how stupid you are for doing it for the rest of the week. You attached a bad story to the painful event that causes way more suffering than the original incident.

The simplest of his techniques is to take a painful thought, in my case “Mark only cares about work,” and to place a few words in front of it, “I am having the thought that he only cares about work.” Repeating the phrase a few times may create some distance between yourself and the painful thought, allowing you to detach from it.

To create even more space, we can say, “I notice that I am having the thought that he only cares about work.” Repeating it 2-3 times may help. (Think of a painful thought and try it. Make sure it’s a thought and not a circumstance, feeling or behavior.)

My favorite of the ACT skills is Hayes’ Fiction vs. Fact tool. You take a cluster of painful thoughts, always somewhat loaded blanket statements, and juxtapose them with actual facts.

FICTION: Mark only cares about work.
FACT: He is a devoted Dad who wants to talk to and about the kids all the time.

FICTION: We are just different people who are not meant to be together.
FACT: We had an instant connection the moment we met and have grown personally and together for twenty-five years.

FICTION: This is how it’s always going to be and it sucks.
FACT: Our marriage is ever-changing, as are we.

FICTION: He won’t take a break to read a book but he would show up in a flash to get naked.
FACT: He would probably show up for either. Maybe test the theory before making assumptions.
 
FICTION: Maybe I just don’t deserve a fulfilling relationship.    
FACT: I have the relationship I am actively creating.                                        

FICTION: I am meant to be alone.
FACT: I like to be alone but it’s also pretty great to share my life with Mark. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without him.

 

This one is my favorite exercise because it provides a drama-free look at what is going on in real life as opposed to our very active imaginations.

Okay, so we know it’s the thinking that caused the pain. But what about the emotion that resulted from the painful thoughts? If we’ve clung to the thoughts, the emotions are hanging around too. If we don’t process them, they show up in other ways: disease in the body or even as other emotions like anger. Music helps me, also @vjohanv (Johan van Vuuren’s) Instagram—I could cry all day at his posts.

So now that I’ve cleaned up the dirty pain, how do I solve the problem of growing distance? While cooking dinner this week, I clicked on a random podcast of best-selling Author don Miguel Ruiz and Oprah. He shares ancient Toltec wisdom in his brilliant book, The Four Agreements. Committing to this powerful code of conduct allows us to experience freedom, to be happier and love with more ease. They are:

  1. Be Impeccable With Your Word.
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally.
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions.
  4. Always Do Your Best.

If I could live by this code, I would take 100% responsibility for my relationship. I wouldn’t take his working late personally, nor would I assume he values work and not me. Clearly these are aspirational because who is this perfect? These principles are simple but they are pretty hard core, so I will write them down, put them up where I can see them every day. I’ll start with the last one and simply do my best with good intentions.

When you keep your commitments to yourself, you change everything. Living a life of integrity, however imperfectly, gives you the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: How do you manage your painful thoughts? What could you resolve by taking full responsibility? How will that change things?

Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up!! Click on elizabethheise.com and subscribe today. And if ya want, come find me on the socials: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!

 

Categories
Stories

A Week To Regress And Reset

 

For a while, I have been in fixer-mode with one of my kids. It has intensified lately. At high stress times, I tend to dissociate. Yesterday, I drove off with the gas pump still plugged into my tank.* My son Snapchatted it.

 

Each night this week, I’ve sprawled on the couch with Emily in Paris and a sugary snack for a companion. Old coping mechanisms die hard. With a pink box of fancy macarons from the freezer, I transported myself back to the Fall of 2019: a trip to Paris in the Before Times. Before my children’s world closed in and healthy developmental stages froze in amber.

 

 

 

Life from the Netflix position stagnates quickly, however. I eventually mobilized. So much of parenting has forced me to examine where my own dysregulation has caused problems. Being a parent is an emotional and spiritual practice, to say the least.

 

 

One particular expert has spoken to me for this leg of the journey: Dr. Shefali Tsabary who teaches Conscious Parenting. And also how to live with more ease and joy in general. On a podcast a while back, I recall her saying, “every parent should have at least one bad kid.” She didn’t mean it how it sounds. Rather, that to parent a child unwilling to conform to societal expectations is a huge growth opportunity. I am the mother of someone who isn’t compelled to change one hair on his head to please others. It’s equal parts amazing and terrifying.

I broke from Emily making out with the hot downstairs neighbor for a webinar with Dr. Shefali. In it, she explores a few common problems that plague most of our homes: screen addiction, lack of motivation, disrespect, and lying.

While I listened, I became convinced that the principles required to properly care for children are the same ones we need to mindfully govern ourselves. For this reason, I will share what I learned with all of you, parents and child-free humans alike.

First, Dr. Shefali recognizes the insane expectations we are subject to in modern life. We were meant to live in community, connected to nature, interdependent on others. Instead we have opted for consumerist individualism which has resulted in our being alone more than ever. The cultural pressure to achieve, comparison with others and the endless quest for eternal youth is crazy-making. Add to that the expectation to raise the perfect kid and you have a society set up for anxiety, depression and shame.

The good news is that we can make choices to mitigate the damage. Maintaining open curiosity is key. We can be present and in flow with what happens around us. There is no predicting outcomes. The only question is, am I doing my best to be here now and show up with the highest level of consciousness that I can for my kid? For myself? 

The bad news is that your unhealed self is the greatest obstacle.

According to Dr. Shefali, all problems with our children, (and inner-child, it seems to me) stem from one of three things:

  1. disconnection;
  2. lack of proper boundaries; and
  3. not having the skills to deal with the issue. (She didn’t spend much time on this other than to say, invest in a coach or barter with someone who knows how to do the thing you don’t.)

Screen addiction tops the list of challenges and by now, we know why. Genius programmers have manipulated us to get our real human needs met online rather than in person. They have mastered the 5 biggies: the need to feel seen, safe, successful, soothed and significant. Scrolling, gaming or binge-watching is a feel-good hack available around the clock. Sneaky algorithms supply a dopamine hit rendering the ability to self-regulate exceedingly difficult in adults and impossible in children. Inside the virtual world, there are no real life problems or difficult relationships. There is always something exciting to do. And if any of it makes us feel bad: DELETE.

To combat the addiction takes an increase in real human connection, with each other and with our kids. To be better connected with your child, engage in activities important to them which helps them feel just as successful as they do winning their game of choice online in a virtual world.

Uncomfortable boundary setting around screens is necessary, however, and we parents hate it. Turning off WiFi, having screen free zones in the house, time limits and common charging stations are basic boundaries for healthy screen habits. In our house, we struggle with all of these, except turning off the WiFi. But then we have to bar the door because you can get a signal right outside.**

The second most common problem in kids is a lack of motivation. Having so much convenience all around us has stripped away a lot of our natural drive. Hello dishwasher, Amazon, Uber Eats. But it’s not just that. Early pressure to achieve, too much parental control and unrealistic, high academic expectations have robbed children of their autonomy, causing them to shut down. Parents are urged to have compassion and to cut kids some slack. The only way to motivate children is through their own empowerment. My older daughter is a great example of this. I put too much early pressure on her but then gave her total autonomy throughout high school. It helped. Of course, she had earned it with our trust.

 

 

 

Regardless of academic achievement, parents can help our kids reconnect to their innate talents. Feeling successful in other areas helps maintain self-esteem. When we have compassion for our child and stay aligned with them, they feel supported and connected. In our house the family room piano provides a boost. As does a perfect kick-flip off a staircase.

 

Children do better in a relaxed atmosphere. Especially in sports. If they get the sense that our approval hinges on their performance, it breaks connection and lowers their self-esteem. The fact that they are participating is enough and that we are present to see them do it. The rest is not our business.

When children lie, Dr. Shefali says it’s because they don’t feel safe enough with us to make mistakes. Overly rigid, perfectionistic parents who have overreacted create a fear of disappointment. We have pressured and shamed them to be perfect. We need to be on their side instead of thinking our kid is the out of control one who needs to be fixed.

What is the solution to lying? Connect, connect, connect. Praise the child for telling the truth, be a safe person to confide in. The self-esteem of the child goes up if they are not afraid to tell us things. Too much parental control decreases the child’s own power, control and worth. In my home, Mark and I have shared some of our own major screw ups with our kids so they generally don’t lie. I probably shouldn’t have been so open about my own teenage drug experimentation, however. That gets into tricky territory sending a message that experimenting is okay which was not my intention.

Disrespect is another bigee. When a child is disrespectful, it stems from a lack of regulation which may be caused by a few different factors. A reverse hierarchy results when the child is in control and feels entitled to their own rules. The parent acts as a “fixer,” trying to fix their own lack of love, their own self-esteem. They are afraid of losing connection. Now she was talking to me. Putting up a healthy boundary is a simple tool for this. The response to, “get out my room,” is “I see that you are stressed. This treatment doesn’t work for me. I will be back later.” I’m gonna try that.

Disrespect could also stem from controlling the child too much. They don’t feel seen and lash out. They can also be copying your own dysregulation. When a parent loses it, this traumatizes the child and strongly imprints on them. (This is me too.) The only way to help your child is with your own calm, self-regulation.

What is the solution? Connection. Healthy boundaries. You don’t have to engage. Teach your child how to manage emotions by managing your own. If you have to yell to get the child to do anything, it’s because you yell. They are waiting for it to escalate to move their butts. Kids need your physical presence. They need you not to react. They need you to be easy going. Simple, right? 🙂

Dr. Shifali’s underlying message was this: be a safe haven for your child. Be present. Trust your kid. Express interest in what lights them up. Do not judge their outcomes. And above all, heal your own wounds so that they don’t have to fight your demons along with their own.

Lessons for all of us: seek being seen, safe, successful, soothed and significant out in the world, in nature and maybe even with people instead of technology. Don’t put pressure on outcomes. Take risks. And don’t BS yourself with stories about what is going on. Stay open, curious, and present.

When you focus on your own self-regulation, you create a safe space for yourself and others. We then get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: How well do you regulate your emotions? Does it bear any resemblance to the ways in which your parents self-regulated? How have you made progress?

Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up!! Click on elizabethheise.com and subscribe today. And if ya want, come find me on the socials: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!

*This is not my car, thank goodness. Only a Snapchat video narrated by my son’s laughter remains, along with the bill. I dragged the hose away and it popped off at the spot where it connected to the big box. Given how many photos exist on the net of this very scene, gas stations have likely upgraded to a quick release to guard against distracted people like myself.

**She spoke about a new phenomena Hikikomori, a Japanese word for total withdrawal from society, seeking extreme degrees os social isolation and confinement. Estimates suggest that half a million Japanese young people have become social recluses as well as more than half a million middle-aged individuals. Technology is seen as the catalyst. This is scary. It happens gradually so if you see signs of withdrawal, treat it as a huge RED FLAG and seek therapy.

 

Categories
Stories

A Good Lesson From A Bad Mother

If you haven’t yet seen The Lost Daughter, a film based on Elena Ferrante’s book, it’s chilling. My husband didn’t get it. If you are a mother—scratch that—if you are a woman, you will. Every time Leda chooses not to do what’s expected of her, i.e., accommodate others at her own expense, we fear for her life. You should watch it. The more recognition of how women are required to move through the world just to survive, the better.

To me, we have something to learn from how Leda condemns herself as a “bad mother” with such finality. Without giving anything away, young Leda makes a painful parenting choice not so common in mothers. Our perfect-mother-obsessed culture weighs heavily on her shoulders. The viewer, however, is offered the choice of whether or not to judge. Her complicated past shows that she is not just some crazy lady like the old trope would have us believe. I could totally relate to her honest portrayal of a complex, frustrated woman who truly loves her daughters.

 

 

 

It got me thinking about how quick we are to label ourselves and how counterproductive it is. I’ve stamped my own forehead with “bad mother” on many a guild-laden occasion. Howling at my kids over being late, forcing academic choices on them over their objections, and, worst of all, ending a backseat brawl by ordering the loudest kid out of the car while I circled the block, leaving the impression that I had disappeared forever. The same thing happened to me at a young age and it abruptly ended my belief that I would always be taken care of. And I did it anyway. 

I have hated myself over such incidents. But did they make me a “bad mother?” No. I can say that now. Mothering in our culture means that any way in which your child may suffer is your burden to bear and your problem to solve. No matter who else is involved. I reject that.

In the last few years, I have experienced a shift. I am less prone to judge myself. I am also less reactive. They both happened at the same time and it was no coincidence.

After nearly two decades of mothering, I now understand that self-flagellation doesn’t help. How we choose to conduct ourselves is not who we are. When we confuse a well worn pattern of behavior with our very identity, I am a procrastinator, I’m not a morning person, I am a bad mother, the painful label makes the behavior even more difficult to stop.* We condemn ourselves as simply that kind of person. It’s hard enough that the culture conditions us to label people good and bad. We don’t have to pile on.

In my experience, the only way to change a troubling pattern is first, with unfailing self-acceptance. That may sound backwards. Why would you accept something in yourself you don’t like? Because we are human and making mistakes is the best way to learn, that’s why. I love how my friend Jude does it. She says to herself, “Oh well, it’s who I am in this moment.” She doesn’t spin a harmful story about who she is, she remains present. She offers herself some grace.

My ability to exercise self-acceptance draws directly on my reserves of self-care. If I have neglected myself, forget it. Of late, I now pay attention to my own needs. In the past I waited for someone to say, you should take care of yourself. No one ever did. In our culture, it feels self-indulgent and spoiled to even talk about this, let alone do it. But I will push past the discomfort because it really is critical.

By self-care, I’m not talking about a once in a blue moon bubble bath or a stiff drink at 5:00 pm to forget the day. I mean regular, consistent attention, that sends the message that you matter. I was once a woman with decades old gym shorts. No more. The quality of my work out gear should at least be on par with my teenage daughter’s, for Pete’s sake. It really is the little things.

I currently communicate my own value to myself with small sensory delights throughout the day. Self-care looks different for all of us, but mine begins with sufficient sleep. I think it was sleep specialist, Dr. Michael Breus, who said, “sleep is the glue that holds everything together.” That refrain can be heard on a loop in my house.

My routine is extensive by now, beginning with an early morning meditation, journaling and outdoor exercise. I stay away from my phone for all of this because the phone automatically brings you down. I clean my energy and express gratitude for everyone in specific ways.** When I am all set to get to work, I light a delicious candle next to my writing space and make a warm mug of tea.

 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I say no. The question used to be, “should I do this?” Now it is, “do I want to do this?” No thank you has become the phrase that pays. 

Alternatively, I say yes to me. I had some reading to catch up on for my program and thought I’d like to do it outside. So I packed a bag and read at the beach. No big to-do. Granted that’s not possible for all of us for myriad reasons, but we all have our own version of saying yes to ourselves.

Why is taking care of yourself so important? Self-care builds trust within you. When you are good to yourself, the knowledge that your choices directly affect your quality of life goes bone-deep. It then becomes possible to break a pattern of behavior that no longer serves you. This critical connection with yourself empowers you to mindfully choose what is good for you. The most important relationship in your life is with yourself. I have broken a great many unhealthy patterns in just this way and I feel good.

When you take the very best care of yourself, you begin to live the life you always wanted. And that’s not just “okay,” it’s fan-freaking-tastic.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Do you have harmful labels you’d like to let go of? What is your self-care routine?  

*I learned this concept from Mel Robbins. I strongly encourage you to check out her no BS approach to self-improvement. She loves to swear. 🙂

**Jay Shetty teaches that being specific about why we are grateful stays with us throughout the day, raises our vibration and even boosts our immune system. He suggests reaching out to the person we are grateful to and communicating exactly what they did meant to us, creating an even more valuable experience for both people.

Categories
Stories

Go Ahead, Make It Awkward

 

When I was a kid, Nana and Grandpa came down from New York City to stay in our little hippie house on Quiet Lane. It was hard to believe our wild-haired Dad belonged to those fancy people. They had visited us in Albuquerque only once before when we lived out in the sticks. We’d since moved to “the city” but to them it probably still seemed like the middle of nowhere.

We kids were excited. Out of town relatives meant only one thing: gifts. My Dad, on the other hand, acted like it was a visit from the firing squad.

Soon after their arrival, we understood Dad’s dark mood.

“So much smaller than the old place,” Grandpa said of the white stucco box the six of us lived in. The last house, an unfinished adobe out in Corrales, had no interior walls and a roof so leaky it required pots and pans to be set out all over the furniture when it rained.

“What’s doing with these weeds?” Grandpa asked Dad as he gazed out at the backyard. At each shot fired, Dad remained silent, his face a stony mask of misery.

 

With no desire to be the target of Grandpa’s next blast, we kids made ourselves scarce.

Mom tried everything, even inviting him and Nana out to the one fancy restaurant for prime rib. On the long drive home, my sisters and brother slumped against each other, asleep. All except me. My parents whispered up front as we sped down the highway toward the South Valley. Grandpa grumbled in the middle seat.

“We didn’t come all this way to be ignored,” he bellowed. I popped my head up from the back. Mom spun around in the dark to face Grandpa, the street lights outlining the riot of curls.

“You have no right to speak to us like that, Arthur. From the moment you got here, you have ripped your son apart. It. Is. Enough,” she said in a gravely voice I had never heard.

The next morning as I read on the couch, a taxi cab pulled up to the curb. Suitcase in hand, Grandpa slammed the rickety red door behind him.

 

Nana stayed. For an entire week, she smiled at us and acted as if mom didn’t exist. Mom tried her best to smooth things over, but Nana appeared intent on making her suffer.

Nana and Grandpa never came back. They both died having had no real relationship with any of us.

These are the roots of my fear around speaking up. I often allow the moment when someone steps over the line to pass. If they do it once too many times, poof we are no longer friends.

In my writer community, we often discuss the need to claim our voices. Some of my favorite artists have shared their experiences of speaking up in the moment and stepping bravely into awkwardness. On her series, Ask Julie, Author and Activist Julie Lythcott-Haims described how, with clarity and kindness, she chose to confront problematic behavior in her home over the holidays. Unlike years past, she didn’t place other people’s comfort ahead of her own needs. Afterwards, she felt like she’d made real progress.

Writer and Creator Alyson Shelton shared on our Instagram Live this week about losing friends around issues of social justice. She has resisted the conditioning to make it okay for people around her to espouse harmful views. Despite the cost, she is at peace about it.

 

Unlearning the habit of silencing ourselves is the work of a lifetime, especially for many of us women and likely more so for women and non-binary folks in marginalized communities. We have all been habituated to tamp down our own discomfort in favor of someone else’s comfort. Instead of speaking our minds, some of us choose to gossip instead. The less I speak my mind, the pettier and more gossipy I become. Not a good look.

When I have allowed the moment to speak up to pass, the hurtful comments linger inside me until I snap. One such incident happened at the beginning of the pandemic. A friend and colleague was in the habit of delivering casual insults disguised as “helpful hints.” I said nothing, rationalizing that I had no wish to be on bad terms. Plus, confronting her would be awkward. When the world shuttered, I had a break from her. When she showed up again with a signature barb, I blocked her on everything. She had no warning whatsoever and I imagine she probably wonders what happened.

I’d like to say this is a one off, but it isn’t. A grad school friend, a writer pal, and the latest friend invited to my block party, a person I had considered a friend but took way too long to notice that it was entirely one sided. And that’s the collateral damage of silencing yourself. Our intuition is dulled. Our instincts for people go wonky. When you don’t listen to yourself about who deserves your attention and continue to gulp down whatever awfulness they dish out, your body stops signaling friend or foe. Then when they do something really horrible, it comes as a genuine shock.

So, this is my intention for the New Year. I will step into awkwardness with a brave heart and address the problematic sh!t when it happens. I will take care of myself.

When you own your voice and step into the discomfort of expressing your truth, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

PS. WRITING PROMPT:  Do you speak up in the moment or do you stew? Do you have a limit on how much garbage you will take from people? What is it? 

Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up. Click on elizabethheise.comand subscribe today. And if you want, come find me on the socials: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!

 

Categories
Stories

Free To Be You In 2022

My friend Ilene should write a book about her experience as a mother-in-law. She maintains a solid record of being the one invited at such critical times as post-childbirth, parent getaways and emergencies of all sorts. When I asked her secret, she smiled. “Whatever their choices, my response is always, that’s great! I am asked back every time.”

Clearly, Ilene is a special case. It’s an old trope that a certain amount of criticism in this dynamic is to be expected. From the opinions I’ve accumulated over the years, I’m about a C- daughter-in-law.

 

By picking her up when she cries, you are spoiling her.

Organic produce is a waste of money.

My son shouldn’t have to cook or clean at home when he works so hard.

 

The full list could fill a set of encyclopedias, but I will spare you. Over these twenty-five years, I have allowed my feelings to be trampled by such casually delivered barbs. I’ve gotten angry, but mostly, I’ve felt terrible about not being good enough. For years, I have dragged around the weight of disapproval like a sack of hammers.

Over the course of the last year, however, I have unearthed my self-worth, rinsed it off and set it out in the sun. When the annual holiday visit ushered in a fresh round of judgments, I had a choice. Just because some unfestive vibes spattered a little mud on the holiday, didn’t mean I had to deep six my progress.

 

Before the kids got up on Christmas morning, I set out for a long run, intent on leaving the latest layer of hurt and rage out on the road. I’ve learned that when I am triggered, I can ask myself some powerful questions to probe the bitter thoughts.

What would you like to change about this dynamic?

I want something better from this relationship. I have come to terms with my own mom and fully accept where we are now. We have light-hearted conversations with zero baggage. Perhaps because my mother-in-law visits our home and is a part of our lives, I would like her to see me, not just make assumptions. After all this time, she doesn’t really know me. She’s been aware of my website and Friday Stories for months but hasn’t been interested enough to take a look.

 Why is this a problem for you?

When she is around, I brace myself for judgments like a cat with its back up. My reaction is extraordinarily thin-skinned and I don’t like the person I become. Here’s an example. Like many at this time of year, we do lots of holiday cooking. My mother-in-law has a decadent stuffing recipe that my husband asked her to prepare. Mark roasted the turkey and I sautéed mushrooms, green beans and mashed the potatoes like my own mother did: skins on. As my mother-in-law gathered ingredients for her dish, she expressed surprise at how equipped my kitchen was. With each found item, she registered shock to discover it. After the third or fourth time, I asked her, “why are you so surprised that I have a stocked kitchen?” Her reply, “I don’t know why you have any of this since you aren’t into cooking or baking.” You would have thought she threw a can of red paint on my new fur coat. I fumed in silence, shouting in my head, I have raised three children on homemade baby food, packed school lunches and prepared family dinners for decades. How dare you.  

 

 

Of course, there is history. Over the years, it became clear that my “nutrition-forward” cooking topped the list of grievances against me. On Thanksgiving at our house a few years back, my mother-in-law brought her own peeled mashed potatoes, even though I had made my own, skins on. Insults and efforts to avoid my cooking number too many to count. In my defense, I am legitimately a good cook. When she visits, I avoid her scrutiny by staying out of the kitchen to the extent possible. Perhaps she believes that if I am not cooking for her, I don’t cook for my family at all, leaving her poor son to do absolutely everything.

How would you prefer to feel about this?

I want to feel the same freedom I feel with my own mother. I want to have no expectations. I don’t want my self-worth to be tied to anyone’s opinion of me.

What is standing in your way?

My own awful thoughts, actually. By Christmas Day, I had replayed all the versions of what a terrible disappointment I had been, lo these many years. I ran until the fury drained out of my body, absorbed by the pavement beneath my feet. On mile nine, when letting go of my harmful thoughts seemed impossible, I phoned a friend. She reminded me that I don’t need to claim the C- I had given myself as a daughter-in-law. I don’t have to hold onto anyone’s opinion of me. More than a dozen miles later, I returned home to celebrate Christmas.

Shortly after brunch, my mother-in-law had to fly home early due to my son’s positive Covid test, so I did the rest of this work on my own. Everything happens as it is meant to, so perhaps I wasn’t totally ready to do the work with her yet. This last question finally broke through.

Who would you be without the thought that you are a C- daughter-in-law?*

It has served my victim story to view myself as the black sheep family member, the lowly rejected one. To have recreated the dynamic of my family of origin, the one I wasn’t yet ready to release. Without the thought that I am harshly judged, I am free to be myself. Without this burden, I am lighter. Simply by imagining how I would feel as this person who is not judged by her mother-in-law, I could become that person. Truth always feels like freedom. It may be easy for me to say behind the safety of my computer, however, in my body, I know it. Instead of the contraction in my chest, I expand, able to draw in deep, cleansing breaths.

And then this thought popped in: I don’t need a different mother-in-law than the one I have. The emotional trigger has helped me continue to work on myself, as awful as it has felt. Next time, I will work hard to remember that the past has no power over the present moment. I can open my balled up fist and let the harmful thoughts float away. I am no one’s opinion, I am simply myself. I will maintain good energy during one of the few times a year when we can be together.

Next time she comes, I will allow a fresh start. She actually tried while she was here, but I was so stuck in the past I missed the opportunity. She made a couple of attempts to heal the impression she’d left of my cooking. I prepared a palmini lasagna with tons of vegetables, not for a meal, just to have something healthy on hand. When I offered her a piece, she liked it. Another day for lunch, I made her a turkey sandwich on cauliflower sandwich rounds. She commented that she actually enjoyed healthy food, that it wasn’t she who had the problem with it.

Above all, I have realized that she has shown up for us. She is the one grandparent who agrees to come when I have a trip out of town or when we need to tend to another child. She has been here for hospital stays and college drop off. She has cooked and cleaned and cared for us. Once I let go of the thought that I am judged, my heart opened in gratitude for all she has done for me and for our family.  

When you examine your painful thoughts and ask powerful questions, you get to the bottom of what is bothering you. And when you think of who you would be without the harmful thoughts, you give yourself the chance to be free.

Love,

Elizabeth

 

WRITING PROMPT: How can you choose to be free in the New Year? 

Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up!! Click on elizabethheise.com and subscribe today. And if you have friends who might enjoy these stories, please invite them to join us. If you don’t already, come find me on the socials so we can chat: @elizabethheise.writer on the gram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!

*This question comes from the Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet by Byron Katie on thework.com. I know I sound like a moonie, but this has been the key to personal freedom for me and I literally cannot plug it enough.