There are so many ways that we can avoid pain. We can choose denial. We can self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. We can fall prey to fear/ego’s insidiously convincing beliefs that to turn inward is “selfish, indulgent, and will get you nowhere.” We avoid pain because we live in a culture that teaches us to avoid pain. We avoid pain because we don’t know that turning toward pain (and I use pain as an umbrella term for anything uncomfortable that we wish to avoid feeling) is one of the secret pathways to joy.
If you’ve found your way to my site, one of your default methods of avoiding pain is likely to travel up to the safe regions of your mind where pain can’t find you. There you sit at the Great Loom of Intrusive Thoughts and spin your web of “what-ifs” and “if-onlys”, each thread keeping you stuck in anxiety of the future or regret of the past. Grief can’t find you there, lost in the uppermost corner of your mental castle like Rapunzel, spinning and spinning your golden thread. Except this thread isn’t gold. It might shimmer like gold. It might lure you like gold. But there’s nothing golden about being stuck in the cold chambers of the mind. Safe, yes. But it’s not alive, rich, or full. It’s simply where you’ve learned to go because you haven’t been taught another way to tend to pain.
And on this Thought Loom, alongside thoughts that characterize relationship anxiety like, “What if I’m with the wrong partner?” and “What if we don’t love each other enough?”, escape-hatch threads weave their way into the fabric of psyche. These sound like, “I’ll never be a mother” and “I’ll be happy when…”. Whether or not you’re in a relationship, you have escape-hatch threads that are as familiar to your inner landscape as breathing. And almost all of these thoughts are braided with the thread of perfection.
For it simmers down to one, simple, powerful belief: “If I’m perfect, I’ll avoid pain.” The sister beliefs are: “If I’m with my perfect partner, I’ll avoid pain” or “If I find the perfect [house, city, job], I’ll avoid pain.”
Embedded in the quest for perfection is the quest for certainty. Ego believes that the attainment of perfection is the safeguard against the uncertainty that defines human life. But of course perfection is never attained because it doesn’t exist. Even if we consciously know this, a part of us rails against it and still keeps trying. We create more subtle yet elaborate ways to escape from the messiness and discomfort of being human, from the inescapable reality that life includes pain, loss, and ultimately, death.
A moment of pain can enter as quietly as a feather that lands on the cushion of the heart. The other day I was sitting outside and I had the thought, “I want to move.” I know my mind well enough to know that this became one of my escape hatches that started after the September 2013 flood when our world was turned upside-down. I had dabbled with the idea of moving prior to the flood, but after we lost our land and almost lost our house I experienced a new level of uncertainty that I desperately wanted to avoid again. Now the thought “I want to move” or the image of a picture-perfect house arrives on the heels of a pinprick of pain.
So in that moment, instead of attaching onto the thought and indulging it by getting online and searching for a new and “perfect” house (which I’ve been prone to do), I said out loud, “There’s no perfect house.” I named the defense, and in the naming I allowed for the grief to surface. Sometimes the grief is connected to a current circumstance, and sometimes it’s connected to the nameless grief that runs like an underground river through our human lives. After calling out the fantasy of perfection, I backtracked through my heart to find the source of the pain. Oh, yes, there it is. Breathe.
I name, I breathe, I feel. And in the naming and feeling, the top-layer defenses simmer down into a purr of contentment, the place where all experiences and emotions live harmoniously. It’s not that I bypassed the pain and found happiness. No, it’s that I made room for the pain at the tea-table of my heart and, in doing so, reversed the habitual escape-hatch fantasy of some other perfect house that will lift me out of the pain of being human.
There is a roadmap we can learn that will help us to process our inner worlds with grace and wisdom. There is a way of turning inward that allows us to heal and grow toward our truest nature. This is what I teach in my Trust Yourself program, a 30-day course for anyone who seeks to break free from the stronghold of perfectionism, caring what other people think, the fear of failure, and self-doubt. My work isn’t formulaic, but it does fill in the emotional, cognitive, and psychological gaps left by a culture that simply doesn’t know how to grow its members toward self-love and self-trust. And without self-trust, we are lost on the churning seas of our constantly shifting inner and outer worlds. If you wold like to learn this roadmap so that you connect to your own source of wisdom and self-love, please join me for my next round, which will begin on June 11th. As one of the participants from the last round of Trust Yourself shared (you can read her full testimonial on the Trust Yourself page):
“I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” — Walt Whitman
I feel like I’ve really “been around the block” in my search for inner harmony. Well, it’s only been about six years, but I sure did a lot of searching in that amount of time! For me, in many courses, books and programs there is a subtle exaltation of the work above the people that are studying it. At no point did I feel that way during this course, however. Sheryl, I feel like you have not forgotten what it feels like on a very detailed level, to be someone who has not found the work yet. Even though I know they are well meaning, for me, many teachers give me a feeling of “I’ve cleaned up and I will tell you how to get clean, but I will not get any dirt on me with you.” But with you as my teacher, I felt like I was with a gardener who does not think dirt is a bad thing, who gets her own hands in the soil and cultivates every day. I never got a sense of an exultation of the work or the product or idea above the people.
This course was a gift to me and my family. I think it’s going to cultivate much more for me than I’m even aware of now. I can’t quite express it as well as I’d like to, but I hope you can sense what a difference you’ve made for me and my family. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone. Even more, I wish I could just wave a magic wand and deliver the course to most people because whether they believe it would help them or not, I am of the strong belief that it would.
I look forward to seeing you there.