On this first day of the New Year, I’d like to share a counter-intuitive approach to human change that I find tremendously exciting. Here is its central idea: Our deepest wounds frequently spring from our greatest gifts, and by acknowledging these gifts, we can speed and deepen our own healing.
You may have read about my concept of “core gifts”; the places of deepest sensitivity, tenderness and passion within us. These are the places of our greatest capacity to love and create—and they are also the places where most of us have been profoundly hurt. These gifts are strands of potential greatness within us, and when we express them we feel most alive and empowered--or most frighteningly vulnerable. Core gifts are not the same as strengths and talents. In fact, sometimes they feel like our greatest weaknesses.
Which of your own sensitivities and passions have more often felt like a curse than a gift? That’s a sign of a core gift. What tender parts of you have been often misunderstood? That’s another sign. What positive experiences in your life touch the heart of what matters most to you? In pain or in joy, the great marker of a core gift is our sense of humanity. The closer we feel to the beating heart of our own or others’ humanity, the closer we are to our deepest gifts.
As a psychotherapist, when I try to understand my clients’ deepest wounds and challenges, I now begin by asking myself this question: What is the core gift that is trying to express itself at the heart of this struggle? Sometimes the answer can’t be reduced to a word or a phrase. And often, we need the insight of others to help us decipher these gifts. Learning to bear the passion and vulnerability of our core gifts is the task of a lifetime.
Let me illustrate with a personal example. For me, the experience of guilt has been a lifelong burden. I’ve made lots of progress, but it’s still a weight I carry, to one degree or another, almost constantly. I feel responsible for way too much, way too often.
So, knowing what I now know, I approach my guilt-wound in a new way. I look for the core gift in it. In moments, this becomes clear. It is empathy. The same gift that compelled me to become a therapist. The very same gift that fuels my protectiveness for my son, for my partner and for my family. The gift that somehow, in some strange way, leaves me feeling responsible for my parents’ suffering at the hands of Hitler, my son’s ancestors’ horrors in the killing fields of Cambodia.
My guilt isn’t healthy--that’s for sure--but its roots spring from the very depths of what makes me, who I am. This guilt which weighs me down has its roots in my very ability to love.
So, how does this awareness lead to healing? How can we use this knowledge to heal our wounds, to liberate the gifts trapped within them?
Well, let me start with what doesn’t work: will power: Telling myself to stop,to simply become more mature about where my responsibility ends. As seductive as that simple approach seems, I’ve found it has no almost no leverage at all.
This is what I’ve come to see as the first, and most important step. It is simply to cultivate awe for the humanity at the heart of the wound. For example, the care that fuels my guilt is what’s best about me, although my unwise guilt creates countless problems. It’s the size of my caring that gets me in trouble. As much as I might want to reduce my caring to a more manageable level, that simply will never work. Our core gifts spring from a source more profound, more essential than anything we can control. If we begin by feeling the mystery and humanity in these gifts, something different happens. We become more human, and finally, whole new doorways of possibility begin to unfold.
Yet as much as we might wish to completely embrace these gifts, I find that most of us cannot. Our core gifts are filled with too much pain, too much longing, and even too much joy. These gifts arise from the heated core of our being---it stands to reason that their humanity would be hard to bear. Therefore, I have found that most of us need to practice exposing ourselves to our core gifts in small doses, gradually increasing our tolerance for their power, their tenderness—and their immense challenge.
Our deepest gifts can grow and mature, but they can never be domesticated. They will never fit into the small, safe, well-mannered boxes we create for them. They will continue to get us in trouble, cajole us to the edge of authenticity, cause tears we don’t understand, shock us with their emotion-filled truths. Genius domesticated is genius lost.
We spend so much time trying to get our gifts to listen to us, to line up in a nice row, to do what we tell them. Guess who loses that battle, time and time again? Until we cherish the gift at the heart of our flaws, we will forever live in knots, and more importantly, we will miss out on the magic that makes us who we are, and which allows the precious people who are made for us to finally discover where we are.
This year, my wish is that we feel the deep gifts living at the heart of our struggles. That we allow ourselves an answer-less awe at their mystery, their beauty, and their humanity.
© 2013 Ken Page,LCSW. All Rights Reserved
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