Women! – We Are More Than Our Stories

This summer, I attended the first ever “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) BootCamp for Women’s Issues.”

Though I had attended a traditional ACT Bootcamp earlier this year, I was drawn to this summer event out of a desire to connect more with my community of women and to examine ways I can better serve my female clients. The reality of the unique struggles women face in the world has been inescapable in both my personal life and in the therapy room.

I went to the training ready to learn. I walked away empowered and inspired.

A Mutually Shared Story

Throughout the training, we often reflected on the question, “What is our story?”

In other words, “How did I come to be who I am?”

The answer would help us to understand the multitude of challenges we often face as women—how our story may limit us in terms of the choices we make in our lives and what we feel our lives can be.

There is so much commonality in that story—it crosses over the human experience. Pain and suffering do not discriminate by gender.

However, there is commonality that is also very gender-specific. Women have different experiences that can impact us in so many ways in our lives, such as our relationship to finances, to aging, to sexuality, or to a career.

Even though we have distinct personal experiences, there are ways in which women also have shared experiences—a shared story, essentially. For example:

  • Women are more likely than men to be the main caregiver for their children and other dependent relatives
  • Women are overrepresented in low-income, low-status jobs
  • Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted and neglected or abused in childhood

We explored a lot of sobering but not surprising facts like the ones above.

But the most powerful experience from the training did not come from a lecture or discussion. The act of sitting in a room full of people who had similar experiences, and feeling and understanding the power of connection coming from these mutually shared experiences, was by far the most impactful.

Breaking Free of the Confines of Our Story

The pain of our experiences often leads us to withdraw and isolate. And when we do that, it is easy to think that we are alone, and for many of us, that we are at fault. It keeps the story alive and makes our lives small.

That isolation keeps us contained—trapped in our little boxes and limited in our lives. It has profound consequences. For example, research has shown that a lack of social connection negatively impacts our health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The antidote is simple—connection.

Connecting can help us see that our story is not an uncommon one. When we connect to others and build community with them, we can start to recognize how our story got built. And that not only helps us to understand ourselves and our situation, but it also takes the power out of that story as something that has to define us and isolate us.

In turn, connection allows us to break free of the confines of that story, making room for the fullness and complexity of our beings and giving us greater freedom to choose our path.

Looking for more connection in your life?

Sign Up for Our 9-week ACT on Life Class for Women in Portland, Oregon.

In ACT on Life for Women, you’ll learn techniques based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to break the grip of unwanted thoughts and feelings and more fully engage your life. Amongst a community of other women, we will connect and dismantle common stories we carry that are often barriers to the full life we want and deserve to live.

Sign Up Here

Pain and values: two sides of the same coin

 “Where there is love there is pain” –Spanish Proverb

I’ve known and lived with many amazing dogs and cats in my life. Each animal I’ve known has been special and wonderful in their own way. But then there is Dalai. She is my lifetime dog. When we adopted that scared little dog all those years ago, I could never have imagined how she would change my life. She’s the canine version of my soul mate.

The problem is Dalai is growing old

Dalai

We’ve shared many, many years together, and unfortunately the fact of nature is that our canine companions’ time on this earth is way too short. Dalai (pictured to right) is somewhere between 16 and 18 years old now. Gone are the days when we would end our early morning walks by chasing each other outside of the Brookings Institution (you should have seen the security guards out in front of that stodgy DC think-tank laughing at us each morning) or of overhearing people at the park say things like “Wow, look at that little rocket dog run!”

We still have our daily walks, but they’ve become slow strolls– sometimes it takes her 20 minutes just to get around the block. More frequently we simply spend time together with her curled up and snoring away beside me on the couch, perfectly content to let her younger adopted sister take over ball-fetching duty. And nearly every day when I’m walking Dalai or sitting with her on the couch, I feel a deep sadness in my heart. As I am with her I am constantly reminded that her time with me is getting ever more finite. And sometimes that sadness is so intense that I have the thought that I can’t bear the feeling.

But here’s the thing…

If I’m not willing to have those thoughts and that sadness that shows up when I’m with Dalai, I can’t actually care for her in the way I would choose to during this time in her life. The only way to get away from these difficult thoughts and feelings is to not be around her. In order to spend time with her, to care for her and love her as my constant companion, then I have to experience my sadness at her impending loss. It’s the price of admission to be in this relationship.

My experience has been that those things that I care about the most, that are most meaningful in my life, are also the things that come with the most pain.

Check that out with your own experience. Are there areas in your life or relationships that you care about so deeply but that also bring a great deal of pain? Is it perhaps the case that the more you care about something, the more you’re opening yourself up to feeling pain?

Here’s an exercise I often do with clients around this struggle…

Step 1: Find some activity or relationship in your life that you value, but from which you find yourself pulling away. Maybe it’s a relationship you care about deeply but in which you’ve noticed you’ve been less engaged. Maybe it’s an activity you care about but you aren’t taking much action on.

Step 2: Now take out an index card or piece of paper. On one side, write down what you value in that relationship or area of living. Who do you really want to be to that individual? What are some descriptors of how you would like to be in that area of your life?  Now turn the card over. On the other side, write down what difficult thoughts and feelings might show up for you when you start taking action toward that value. For example, for my card with Dalai it might look something like

Front of card

 

Value:

 

Being a caring steward and loyal companion to Dalai for as long as she lives with us.

 

Back of card

Pain:

  • The thought “I’m not going to be able to handle it when she dies”
  • The thought “This is too painful”
  • The feeling of anxiety of not knowing when her death will happen

Step 3:  Now take that card and put it in your pocket, wallet, or purse. For the next week, take it out and ask yourself: “Am I willing to have that card, both sides of it, in its totality or would I choose to walk away from it?” Because, it’s a package deal, you can’t have one side without the other.

Values are freely chosen; we get to decide whether we will pick up the card. What we don’t get to choose is what’s on the other side of the card. Those things just come along for the ride.

 

Dalai and I are in this together. So Sadness, strap yourself in because Dalai and I still have a ways left to go on this ride together!

The myth of security– Embracing vulnerability, uncertainty, and ambiguity in our relationships and in our world

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. “– Helen Keller
Something many of us yearn for in our relationships is a sense of security. We long to feel certain and secure in our relationships, to feel like no matter what, we will not be hurt in this love.  Where there’s doubt or insecurity, we view it as a sign that something is wrong—that something needs to be fixed.

And our desire for security extends beyond our intimate relationships. On all levels, our world appears to be increasingly focused on trying to ensure we won’t be hurt. Our federal government even has an entire cabinet department dedicated to trying to help us feel secure—Department of Homeland Security.

We attempt to eradicate feelings of insecurity in the hope that if we can just feel secure—secure in ourselves, our relationships, our world around us—then we will be “safe” and happy.

But What If Trying to Feel Secure Actually Makes Us Less Secure?

Sometimes it can be useful to exercise more security in our lives: we lock our doors at night, get life insurance, or carry “bear spray” when camping in the backwoods. However, much of the time we are trying to achieve a feeling of security—a certainty that we aren’t vulnerable to hurt. But suppose our attempts to try to feel secure actually make us more alone, more insular, and more insecure?

Eve Ensler on Security

This is the argument that Eve Ensler, the Tony Award winning playwright, activist, and creator of the Vagina Monologues, makes in her TED talk on the subject of security. In her eloquent and inspiring talk, Ms. Ensler argues that our attempts to feel invulnerable and secure—personally, politically—are actually making us more insecure through the loss of connection with our shared experience. Ms. Ensler encourages people to willingly embrace difficult thoughts and feelings—including insecurity, doubt, ambiguity, and fear—in the service of living a life that is truly more connected, vibrant, and meaningful.

In a similar vein, but drawing from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I help the people I work with in therapy accept their doubts and insecurities in the service of moving towards what’s important to them. As Ms. Ensler points out, sometimes our lives become very small and unsatisfying when we spend all our energies trying to be secure.

She says:

“Real security is not only being able to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity but hungering for them and only trusting a situation when they are present…In the shared future… the end goal will be to become vulnerable, realizing the place of our connection to one another rather than becoming secure, in control, and alone.”

This has been my experience as well. I highly recommend watching Ensler’s entire talk.