knowing what you know

I am a little bit addicted to TED Talks.  I liked them on Facebook, and now they send me all these high-octane, deep dark chocolate morsels of wonderfulness for my brain.

So yesterday I watched this talk by Margaret Heffernan, called Dare to Disagree.  She says that good information is not enough, because all too often, we're willfully blind to what we already know.  

We're too afraid of conflict to let ourselves know what we know.

But disagreement and conflict, Heffernan says, is the way we know more and get better.  When we allow ourselves to keep doing things the same old ways, without questioning, without stirring the pot, we can actually end up causing harm.  

(Think about the days when doctors didn't wash their hands.  Eeesh.)  

She says that we have to let ourselves know what we know.  And then we need the will, the talent, and the moral courage to use what we know in the service of good.  

Heffernan's field of expertise is organizational culture, but what she has to say applies to where I live, in the world of counseling therapy.

Because an awful lot of what I do is giving clients permission to know what they know, and supporting them to have the moral courage to create conflict if necessary, to live in the truth of what they know.

And, if you've read my Manifesto, you'll know that I won't ask my clients to do what I won't do myself.  So I have to know what I know.  And I have to have the moral courage to create conflict at times, to live in the truth of what I know.  God help me.

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

When we don't allow ourselves to know what we know.

When we live in willful blindness.

When we live in fear of conflict, in dread of disagreement, enslaved to What Everybody Else Will Think.

Then we base our life on lies and the truth slips away, far from us.

God's gift to us is power, love, and a sound mind.  (2 Timothy 1:7)

The Truth sets us free.

Not lies.

Not fear.

Not slavery to What Everybody Else Will Think.

So, today.  

Let us all know what we know, fearlessly, powerfully, lovingly.

Let us live in freedom and truth.

And let us be a haven of freedom and truth to those around us.

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."  Nelson Mandela

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An Anatomy of Redemption: Poking Around

"What difference does it really make, all this poking around in your childhood?  What good does it do?"  A friend of mine asked me this the other night. Well, since you asked...

The truth sets you free.

Jesus said it, we believe it, that settles it.

And when we try it out, we find it actually works, even when you're poking around in your childhood.

I can't tell you how many times somebody comes  into therapy saying, "My childhood was pretty good.  In fact, my parents were in ministry.  Nobody abused me.  Why am I so depressed/anxious/addicted?"

And we start exploring the tender places, the hurts.  And I'll ask about when they first remember feeling that way, and they'll tell me a story about something that happened when they were little.  Many times they've never talked about it before, and the shame or guilt or hurt or anger has stayed pretty much the same since it happened.

(And if you don't think that little kids can feel things deeply and strongly, go hang out near the church nursery on Sunday morning.  Let me know if you observe any intense emotion.)

One of my clients experienced extreme shame as a young adult.  So we talked about important emotional experiences early in life, and she told about a household accident in which her younger sister was quite seriously injured.  And as she told the story, it was clear that she absolutely believed that the accident was completely and solely her fault.  She felt incredible shame over what she had done.

My client was four years old at the time of the accident.   

Finally I said to her, "Where were your parents when all this happened?"

And she said, "Huh.  I don't know.  I never thought about that before."

We started wondering why a four year old was in charge, and how these events could have occurred without adult intervention.  It was a pretty big aha moment.  And an opportunity to let go of something that could not possibly have been her fault.

When something happens to you as a child, you understand and process it as a child.  And if you never get a chance to think about it as an adult, and process the emotions as an adult, you're stuck with your childish understanding and your childish emotions about it.

Here's another thing.  When we poke around in our childhood and bring the truth to it, we can let go of the burden of fixing our families.

Our families are all composed of human beings.  Our parents are human beings.  Our grandparents are human beings.  Our aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and in-laws are all human beings.

None of them were perfect.  Some of them were significantly less than perfect.  Some of them were neglectful.  Some of them were actively harmful.

It is sometimes hard to tell the truth--even to ourselves--about the hurtful choices and actions of our beloved family members.

Here's the thing, though.  When we can't face the fact that Daddy or Mama or Grandpa Joe are making bad choices, and have been making bad choices, and look to be making bad choices til the cows come home--most of the time we will find ourselves engaged in all kinds of crazy behavior in an attempt to prevent and conceal and fluff their bad choices.

When that's an entrenched way of life, we call it codependency.   I've written about it before.

Maybe, as I face things honestly, and let go of having to fix everything, I can trust God for THEM, and let Him deal with ME, too.

(You can see how this starts to expand past your childhood and get all up in your present, with the other people who need to love and approve and attend.)

When we face up to reality, it's hard and it hurts.  But it's also very freeing to get off the crazy train.  A little disorienting, for sure.

But when the dizziness wears off, and you find yourself unshackled and running in the open air--that's a good, good day.

Trust me, it's a good thing to get free and breathe.

Here's one more thing.

Your life is God's gift to you.

And, potentially, your life is God's gift to those around you.

When we live our lives small and afraid, Satan wins.  And when we live our lives out of lies, Satan wins.

But when we are willing to face the truth, and let it set us free, we're asking God to redeem.  We're saying no to bondage and yes to freedom.

We trust God with everything that weighs us down and holds us back.  All our hurts, all our shame, all our anger and grief.

And ultimately, that's why we poke around in the past.  So we can lay it down and press on to all the promises before us.

What does "poking around in the past" bring up for you?  

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can't buy me love

[youtube=] Have you seen these new back-to-school Famous Footwear commercials?

I've spotted three different ones so far, all with this plot line:  Mom buys "the shoe" for grumpy teenager.  Grumpy teenager begrudgingly gives mom a smirk.  Mom is overjoyed and says, "Victory is mine!"

I think there is confetti at this point.

Now hear this:  there is NOTHING WRONG with buying your kid red Nikes.  More power to ya.  (Really cute shoes, BTW.)

What IS wrong with this ad series?  Three things.

One.  The idea that we are responsible for the emotions of our adolescents.

Two.  The idea that we can buy things, and then they will be happy.

Three.  The idea that if our kids are happy, then--and only then--can we claim victory as parents.

In truth, we all know that sometimes our best, most victorious parenting makes them really unhappy--for the moment.

The Beatles said it this way:  can't buy me love.

(And I would add, especially when your kid is a whacked-out bundle of hormonal adolescence.)

I love, love, love my kids.  And because I love them so much, it is hard to see them unhappy.  When that happens, I want to fix it SO BAD!

But when we attempt to buy their love, to manipulate them into feeling better so we can feel better:

  • We teach them that their negative emotions scare us.  If we're scared of their negative emotions, they will be too.
  • We miss out on the opportunity to let them be disappointed or sad or angry, to learn how to cope with it, how to contain it, how to live through it, and move on.
  • We teach them that the answer to their negative emotion is some THING that somebody ELSE can provide.
  • We  miss out on the opportunity to let them have their own victories, to learn the wonderful skill of self-efficacy.  To take responsibility for themselves--for the shoes, and for their own emotions.  
  • We teach them that they are the center of our universe.
  • And while that may be true--and even good and right when they are little--it needs to become less and less true as they grow older.  We've got to let them go, step by step.  

Maybe we're afraid of:

  • their anger, if we make choices they don't like.
  • our grief, if they make choices we don't like.
  • feeling abandoned, as they grow up and leave us.

I'm NOT saying, throw your kid out to sink or swim on their own.  Being completely detached from our kids is just as unhealthy as being totally enmeshed with them.

Of course we need to be there, and keep loving them, no matter how grumpy they get.  Of course we want to make sure they have what they need.  And it's fun to provide some of the things they want, too.  Those things are all part of showing them that we love them.

But judging our parenting skills by their current emotions?

Victory is nobody's.

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During media-free week, my husband and I celebrated our 25th anniversary in Canada.  We flew to Calgary, rented a car, and drove through Banff and Jasper National Parks on the way to Vancouver, hiking and taking 750-plus photos along the way.

I didn't miss media at all.

Why would I?  Pinterest, schminterest.

Real life was way too awesome.

(And yes, the water really is THAT color.)

But what about when life is just normal, and not way too awesome?

I think that's when obsessions can creep in and take over our lives in unhealthy ways, until we're lost under an avalanche of way-too-much.

Food or spending or possessions or clothes or media.  All the stuff we've talked about in the Summer of 7, plus a bunch of other areas we haven't covered at all.

We use that stuff to make ourselves feel better when we're disappointed in our marriages, hurt by our children, upset with our parents, overwhelmed by stress, needing a way out.

And the reason we use it is:  it works.  For a little while.  And then we need another hit.

Essentially, we become hoarders of whatever it is that makes us feel better when life is less than awesome.

In therapy, when we come across a problem like hoarding, we work it from the top (the behavior) and the bottom (the underlying pain).

Yes, we want to stop unhealthy behaviors before they do even more damage.

But unless we identify and process the emotions that drive the behavior, we'll end up with an emotional yo-yo diet:  try hard-give up-try hard-give up.

So, here are some steps toward processing emotions and getting free of whatever has us in a mess.

  • Tell the truth.  It's sometimes easier to start with writing it down, before you say it out loud.  Journaling helps.
  • Name your emotions.  No need to get fancy.  One of these four will work:  Sad, Glad, Mad or Scared.
  • Acknowledge your needs.  For example:  I need emotional connection.
  • Examine your losses.  For example:  My marriage is not the emotionally nurturing place I had hoped for.
  • Take responsibility wherever you can.  For example:  I am afraid I'm not really loved, so I act tough and strong. 
  • Allow yourself time and space to grieve the things you can't change.
  • Hang out with healthy people who love you and encourage you to grow.
  • Trust God.  Profoundly wonderful things can happen when we stop trying to hold the world together, and truly put ourselves into the hands of God, with our hearts wide open and our expectations at the door.
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you gotta wanna

The other day I saw this quote:  "If at first you don't succeed, then maybe you should do it the way I told you to in the beginning." That's funny.

But lying beneath that quote, there's a misconception we often live by:  that all the people in my life who are doing the wrong thing would be fixed if only I--or somebody--would tell them the right thing to do.

But change is so much more than instilling accurate information.

What's really needed is a change of heart.  You gotta wanna.

And I don't know any way to change the heart of another person.  Usually my own heart is more than I can deal with.

This is a good news, bad news situation.

First, the bad news.  I can't finagle a way to make other people do the right thing.  I can't talk them into change.  Or control them into it.  Or cry them into it.  Or nice them into it.  Or even (as a Good Christian Woman) submit them into it.  It's really up to them.  I can make an offer.  That is all.

Now the good news.

When I stop trying to pick the splinter out of everybody else, I'll finally notice the log that's lodged in me.  Initially this is not a fun part of the process.  It's so much more entertaining to be distracted by the misdeeds of others.  But (and if I say this often enough, maybe I'll finally get it) the truth sets you free.  Most especially, free to receive grace.

I believe that grace, combined with truth, is the only thing that can change our hearts.

The Cross means that there is grace for me in place of judgement, so it's safe for me to face the truth.  To admit what's wrong and ask for help.

And the more I receive grace, get in touch with my wrong-doing, and turn it over to God to deal with, the more He deals with it.

And the more He deals with it, the more redemption I see in my own life.

And the more redemption I see in my own life, the more hope I have for all the people around me who are being crazy for no good reason.

I start to believe that God might make a way where there seems to be no way.

I start to see that Amazing Grace is amazing because it's amazing.  It makes no sense.  It's out of our control.  It extends to all of us.

Even to those who would be so much better off if they'd just listened to us in the first place.

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trust yourself

This morning, the news networks are carrying the story of a young teacher in Vermont who disappeared along a road one night.  It turns out she received a phone call from a male acquaintance, asking for help since he was having car trouble.  Reports say she was uncomfortable enough with this person to call an ex-boyfriend and leave a voice mail, saying where she was going.  Her body was discovered the next day.  The acquaintance and his wife are under arrest. Gavin DeBecker, in his book The Gift of Fear, says that human beings have a bad habit of seeing danger and then going ahead anyway.  We talk ourselves out of our fear, rationalize it away, and put ourselves into dangerous situations for no good purpose.

DeBecker is a security specialist, so he's talking about physical danger.  But I think we do this emotionally too.

Most of us, I think, come to harm incrementally.  We know our own boundaries, but we overstep them, just this once, until we have "just this onced" ourselves into oblivion.  Over time we walk away, one step at a time, from the things we deeply value, from what we know is real and true and genuine.

Here is what I want to say today.

When you come to a boundary.  When you are uncomfortable.  Nervous, anxious or unhappy about what you're being asked to do.

Trust yourself.

If you don't want to, DON'T!

You might not be able to verbalize quite yet why you don't want to.  But that doesn't matter.  You can figure that out later.  Right now you just know that something feels bad.  Trust yourself.

If it's too hard to say no on the spot, ask for some time to think about it.  Get feedback from a trusted friend.  If all else fails, pray about it.  See what the Lover of your soul has to say.

When you finally do say no, just let your no be no.  No excuses or explanations required.  Just say you can't, and be done with it.  Yes, the other person may be sad, mad, or scared.  But they will deal with it.  God can care for them, just like He can care for you.

And if you have already said yes about a billion too many times this week, learn how to be a quitter.  Over the past few years, I have quit so many things I can't even remember them all.  And yet, the sun still comes up each morning.  The birds still sing and the flowers bloom.

And I guess what I have learned is that it is not up to me to keep the world on its axis.

So when I get asked to do things I don't want to do, I can say no.  I trust myself to know my own boundaries.

And I trust God to take care of all the people and problems that I can't.

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get real

Mike Yaconelli says that so many times we are pretending in relationships.  And when we're pretending, we're relating to each other on the basis of who we are not. I think that is such a profoundly challenging thought.  How many times am I, for whatever reason, pretending?  And then relating to other people based on who I am not?  And even relating to God on the basis of who I am not?

When I pretend to myself, we call that denial.

When I pretend to someone else, we call that...hmm...being nice?

Honesty is not all that easy.  Human beings have a long history of throwing on the fig leaves and running for cover.

I have to know I am safe and loved, in order to be honest.  I think most of us have a problem with knowing that we're safe and loved.  We all have those sneaking insecurities, those what-ifs, those little anxieties that keep us covering up.

And instead of real relationships, we end up with pretend.

The thing is, everybody loves a fairy tale.  We all want to live in a palace with the prince, happily ever after.  With the birds and the squirrels doing all the housework.  Pretend looks like the happiest place on earth.

Until it's not.

And then we have to fight our way out of a lifetime of pretend, to step out into the light of real and true and honest.  As challenging and difficult as that fight may be, it's a fight worth fighting.  Because it will set us free.

Free of who we are not.

We are not strong and brave and competent and together and perfect and cheerful and smiling all the time.  Honestly?  That is a horrible burden to bear.

The truth is, we are broken and scared and impaired and tired and needy and sad and anxious and depressed sometimes.  And we need to be in relationships that can handle the honesty of our humanity.

God knows all these things about us, and He loves us.  All the time.  We are the ones who pretend, and keep ourselves slaving away in the far country.

When we know God loves us, we can take a chance on the people around us.  Find the ones who celebrate our "no," and who love our limits, but who see our strengths, and encourage us to keep growing.  Who make it safe for us to stop pretending.  Who make it possible for us to be free.

Who join us in relationships that are all about who we are.

Broken.  Scared.  Sad.  Tired.

Human.  Unique.  Precious.  Beloved.

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If you've really changed...

You tell me that you've changed, and I hope that you have.  But I'm a little worried. You tell me that you've changed, but you keep telling me that what you did wasn't really all that bad.  You were just upset, and that's why you yelled at me, cussed out my mom, hit my sister so hard she couldn't hear for a whole day.  It was just the one time.

Saying it wasn't all that bad?  It just doesn't make sense.  If you've really changed.

You tell me that you've changed, but you don't seem to be sorry about it at all.  I feel really bad.  I'm sad and scared and hurt.  But you just seem to be angry.  And it seems like you're angry at me.

Being angry with me?  It just doesn't make sense.  If you've really changed.

You tell me that you've changed, but you aren't ready to talk about change.  You're upset with me when I want to talk about what bothered me in the past and how I would like things to be different.  You don't want to go to therapy with me, or to an accountability group, or to a batterer's intervention program.

Not negotiating the new normal?  It just doesn't make sense.  If you've really changed.

If you've really changed, own your behavior.  If you've really changed, be sorry.  If you've really changed, be different.

Otherwise, I'm a little worried.

Even though what you did was wrong, I can let it go.  I can forgive you, because God is enough for me.

But trust?  That's another story.  Trust is something you earn, by your trustworthy behavior over time.

Can I be honest?

I don't believe you right now.  I don't trust you.

Because things should be different, if you've really changed.

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Holding the string

Back in the day, there were games at birthday parties.  Games involving balloons and string and music and not enough chairs. The game I liked best was made up of a bunch of long, long, long tangled strings, one for each kid at the party.  A present was tied to the end of each string.  Each of us got to hold one the end of a string, and then we had to untangle the whole mess so we could claim the prizes at the other end of our strings.

Sometimes I feel like I'm still doing this same thing.  Holding the ends of my tangled emotions, not quite sure what's at the other end.

As a kid at a birthday party, I knew I had a hold of a prize.  As an adult, I get the sinking feeling it might be a live grenade.

When we're afraid of what's at the other end of the string, or when it just seems normal to feel like this (nobody's perfectly happy, right?), there's a temptation to do nothing.

But James Reeves says this:  "If you haven't dealt with the past, it's not the past.  It's the present and the future."

And besides that, as a therapist, I feel ethically bound to do what I'm telling other people to do.

Things like:  don't be afraid of your emotions.  Feel them.  While you're feeling, listen to what you're thinking.  Be willing to hold your automatic thoughts and beliefs up to the truth, and see if they match.  Journal.  Rest.  Breathe.  Get with the people who love you.  Tell them the truth about how you're feeling.  Listen to what they have to say.  Be willing to make changes where things aren't working for you.

I think that holding the string is just part of being human.  Our lives are a journey and a process and not just a destination.  I think that life is going to be challenging, often painful.  We are designed to have emotions about that.  And those emotions will need to be acknowledged and honored and processed.

That doesn't make us bad or weak or unworthy.  It just makes us human and normal and on our way.

We go through the untangling process with hope, because we've been promised that the truth will set us free.  Whatever truth we find at the end of the string, we welcome it.

In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says this about painful emotions:

Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible.  You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession.  Martyrdom can't be beat.  While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn't for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering.  But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you.  A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart.  But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won't hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion.  You begin to cry and writhe and yell and keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things:  softness and illumination.

So here's to holding the string.  To following and untangling.  To softness and illumination.  And to the truth that sets us free.

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