Last week, I had the blessed opportunity of having a closure session in person with a beautiful woman with whom I’ve worked for almost six years. As we sat face-t0-face (as opposed to screen-to-screen) and the session’s minutes clicked toward the end of our hour together, I told her that I wanted to make sure we had ample time to talk about our work and reflect on her growth over these past six years. She immediately dropped into her heart and, through tears, expressed her gratitude. And then said, “You know, one of the most transformative pieces of our work together is that you normalize everything. I’ve shared every thought and feeling I’ve ever had and you always tells me it’s normal. I’ve shared every struggle with my husband and I leave the session feeling like there’s nothing wrong. I have a feeling that’s why so many people come to you: they’re looking for you to say, ‘That’s normal.'”
It’s true: That’s what people need to hear. I don’t say it to placate them. I say it because in my worldview everything that we think and feel as humans is normal. My position as a therapist affords me the privilege of peering into the most hushed places in people’s hearts and minds and bearing witness to the thoughts and feelings that dwell there, often ones that they’ve barely admitted to themselves. And because I see across the board – across lines of gender and geography, race and sexual orientation – that we all struggle with the same thoughts and feelings, it’s very easy for me to say, “That’s normal.” The palpable relief I see on my clients’ faces and hear in my readers’ words has led me to see that this normalization is one of the most healing experiences we can have.
Why? Because we live in a culture that promotes shame. We live in a culture that makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us. We live in a culture addicted to the happy face – one that promotes the fantasy that everyone else has it all together – which causes the voice of shame to become easily activated. This shame voice says:
“You’re broken and everyone else is whole.”
“You’re struggling with doubt in your relationship and everyone else is doubt-free.”
“You’re sad around the holidays and look, clearly everyone else is happy.”
“Life should be different: easier, less stressful, perfect in some undefinable way.”
“You should be different: more certain, more stable, kinder, smarter, more successful, more social, further along in your career, pregnant, married.”
“You should be a better mother. You should enjoy your baby every minute of every day.”
“There’s something wrong with you and everyone else is fine.”
In some ways, the excavation of “shoulds” and replacement with normalization underlies every blog post I write and every session I have. From my early work around the wedding transition to my current work around relationship anxiety and the anxiety of being a sensitive human, I’ve been guided by a need to unearth the unrealistic expectations that create the web of shame, the ones that say, “You should only be happy when you get engaged” and “If doubt is present in your relationship then you’re with the wrong partner” and “Pregnancy should only bring joy” and “If you have a thought it must mean it’s true.” The more I’ve unveiled the lies and replaced them with the truth, the more clearly I’ve seen that the net for what’s “normal” is very, very wide. This extends from the daily transitions to the bigger transitions. And it extends, or course, into the holidays.
In this “season of joy”, for example, many people do not feel joyful. They struggle with the holidays, and the struggle is made exponentially worse by the overt expectation that they’re only supposed to feel joyful. As soon as I say, “It’s okay to feel sad during the holidays” and you give yourself full permission to feel sad, the shame is lifted and we’re left only with the tea-leaves of sad at the bottom of our teacup. Without shame at the helm, it’s no longer a “bad” experience. It’s simply the experience of sad. And it’s okay then. Sweet, even, for at the heart of experiencing any emotion at its core comes the beauty of allowing ourselves to be fully alive.
When we carry an idea of how we think we’re “supposed” to feel or act, we’ve immediately annihilated the reality of what is true in this moment and positioned ourselves against an impossible expectation. This is a recipe for shame. When shame enters, compassion leaves; the two cannot co-exist. And without self-compassion, we lose the capacity to breathe into the experience of the moment, which is what allows it to move through.
We’re all human. We all struggle. Even Pema Chodron loses her temper. Even the Dalai Lama gets annoyed. The more I do this work, both my own and helping others navigate their inner realms, the more clearly I see that there’s no “there.” We cycle and spiral around the same core issues at deeper and deeper layers, finding more spaciousness as we dive into the dark and learn to surround ourselves with a higher light. The challenges don’t change as much as our responses to them, which, of course, changes everything.
As we mature, we may become more comfortable with paradox and uncertainty. We may stop striving for definitive answers to life’s unanswerable questions. We may learn to dwell in mystery and find our deepest joy there. But we still hurt. We still feel envy. Longing still curls up into the inner layers of our hearts. We still argue with our spouses and lose patience with our kids.
My client last week said to me, “I have this idea of you and your husband meditating every day together and dancing under the full moon.” I laughed and said, “We meditate sometimes and we dance sometimes but mostly we talk about what to pack in the kids’ lunches and how to keep our boys from fighting with each other.” We are all human, and the work of daily living doesn’t change all that much no matter where we are on the path.
As you enter this holiday week, remember to invite all of your feelings to the holiday table. If you are the only one at the table, pull up a chair for loneliness. If your heart is broken from a broken family, set a place for heartbreak. If happiness bubbles up, pour a glass of bubbly for joy. Allow for gratitude, but don’t force it. Know that longing usually makes a strong appearance around the holidays, for the child inside will always long for the attuned, loving, intact family to magically appear around the table.
When our response to what is is “that’s normal”, the world opens up inside. From there, we can become curious about the feelings and allow them their full expression. This may be tears in response to sadness, shaking in response to fear, reaching out to a friend in response to loneliness, praying in response to disconnection. We may dance or write a poem as the longing unravels like a long red satin ribbon from inside the coil of our heart. Without the veil of shame squelching them, the feelings are free to be fleshed out in a variety of ways. Then they change. No longer stagnant or frozen, they shape-shift into expression, flowing from our own inner river as we then flow back into the ever-changing and constantly moving river of life.
There is no perfect life. There is no perfect human. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says in The Book of Joy, “You are a masterpiece in the making.” Or perhaps we are all already the masterpiece: an unfinished, imperfect, messy and beautiful creation of unique and shared humanity.