Self-improvement is often no more than self-criticism in an alluring outfit. Our culture focuses obsessively on the endless quest for improvement, but as I describe in my book Deeper Dating, there’s a much more thrilling area of inquiry: What parts of ourselves are aching for expression, and why do we flee their heat?
Our quest for self-improvement is usually booby-trapped from the start, because it begins with the tyranny of comparison—how can we become the person we think we should be? A classic twelve-step slogan carries the warning “compare and despair”--and that’s often just what happens when we fix ourselves in order to find love or earn self-esteem.
The hours we spend fixating upon our personal "drive to excellence" are often hours spent avoiding the core gifts of our being. What are these “Core Gifts?” They are simply the places where we feel the most deeply, where we most ache to express our authentic self. Yet, because we sustain the greatest wounds around these core gifts, we spend large parts of our lives fleeing their call. We remember the pain, the shame and the embarrassment we’ve been made to feel around these tender parts of ourselves, and we vow to never to feel that again. Yet, as safe as we may feel by avoiding our core gifts, there is a grave cost to this avoidance. In my experience, fleeing our vulnerability is actually an act of quiet violence against ourselves. We create a vacuum where our self should be, and our nature abhors that vacuum. In my experience, avoidance of our authentic gifts always leads us into situations and relationships which chip away at our sense of self worth.
Instead of white-knuckling our way to a more successful self, we might instead practice identifying the gifts that are in us already, and to learn wise ways to bear their magnificent heat and existential challenge. That’s the steep path, the path of real adventure, the path that leads to both authentic intimacy (into-me-see) and authentic meaning.
So why do we spend so much time focusing on everything else but these core gifts? The biggest reason is that our gifts scare us--perhaps more than anything else in our lives. Donald Winnicott, the great psychoanalytic theorist, said that each of us has both a true self and a false self we construct to protect our true self. According to Winnicott, the need to protect our true self is so great that some of us chose death over a threat to that self.
Following are three aspects of our core gifts which frighten us most, followed by what I believe is the simplest way to move past our fear.
Power and Passion
Most of us are scared of how deep our love goes. How powerful our anger can be. How fierce our hungers. How burning our need. How fierce our protectiveness of self and others. We are scared of our power. Scared because we feel it may frighten others, and scared that it will frighten us. We are afraid that like Icarus, if we fly too high, get too close to the burning sun of our soul, our wings will melt and we will come crashing down. We’re afraid of showing the intensity of our power, and afraid of feeling the intensity of that power.
Jody was told to “tone it down” since childhood. She was smart, and her feelings were anything but quiet. Her mother felt threatened by her intensity. She felt that it was unladylike and too demanding, and Jody quickly learned that her passion got her in trouble. She was never taught how to work with the intensity of her passion, simply to suppress it. As a result, she swung between expressing her feelings with a pressured intensity which turned people off, and suppressing her feelings, which left her bewildered and lost.
A rich question for reflection is simply this: Which passions of yours scare you with their intensity or depth? What are the core gifts within these passions?
Our Tenderness and Vulnerability
At our core, we are all tender. Breathtakingly tender. Sensitive in the deepest ways. Life teaches us—quickly—to toughen up. Our sensitivity to the pain of those around us and our own pain threatens to break our hearts. The more authentic we become, the more we feel our tender soul. And, in a world like this, that’s scary. We’re afraid of feeling the depth of our tenderness, much less revealing it to others.
As a child, Jay felt things on a deeper level than most people. The daily small blows to his spirit, the myriad little cruelties of life all affected him deeply . He longed for a world that was kinder, less pressured—and he felt weak for feeling the way he did. He was chided for it by his parents and teased by his siblings, and it wasn't until college, where he found a cohort of like-minded friends, that he began to feel that maybe--just maybe--there might be a place for him in the world.
Another question for reflection: What parts of you have felt too tender for the world? What core gifts might these parts reflect?
At our core, with all our similarites, each of us is a completely unique creation. Though we share a language, each of us has our own internal personal language as well. We each have our own dreams, visions and hopes, but going too far with our originality is risky, because on some level, we are herd animals. When we get too far from the pack, we begin to feel insecure. “Will I end up all alone? Am I so different that no one will want me?” As we go deeper into our authentic self, we become more original--even to ourselves. As we venture deeper and deeper into the new space of what we really feel, what we really see and what we really sense, the terror of the unknown rears its head. We’ve left the herd behind, and things become somehow dangerous. So we protect ourselves by not letting ourselves wander too far from the fold. We curb the power of our radical and endlessly surprising originality. We’re afraid of the extremes it might lead us to.
There always seems to be a choice in front of us: do we express what's real, or do we express what sounds right? Where does this most apply for you? What things feel most important, but hardest to express?
So how might we approach these fears in order to heal them? The key, I believe is through relationships, not self-will.
Our gifts are at once too powerful, too original, and too tender to be ordered around by us. They will never stop drawing outside the lines. And if we try to make them do so, they will simply hide in plain sight until the threat is gone. No matter how much we threaten, pressure or grieve for them, our gifts won’t come out until they sense they will be honored. It’s that simple. And when we hornor our gifts, we begin to glimpse the scary, magnificent path to the things that truly matter most.
We can’t rob our gifts of their mystery. We can only rob ourselves of our gifts.
So, what’s the key? I think it’s to approach them with love. A gifted therapist of mine used to say that the wisest way out of an old hypnosis is through a current relationship with reality. So too, the best way to transcend the fear of our gifts is through a current relationship with them—and through relationships with people who also honor these gifts.
What creative processes, what kind of interactions, what environments get us in touch with those gifts? The more time we spend there, the more alive and emboldened our gifts will become, the less timid and self-sabotaging.
Our culture tells us to use our will to break through our fears, but in my experience, that rarely works. We need to learn to bear our gifts through tiny daily practices, gradually stretching our capacity to hold their power. We must gradually build our tolerance. Fifteen minutes of painting what really thrills and scares us. Five minutes of feeling what we most long for. Touching and being touched by our partner in the way we most yearn for.
Most of all, the way to learn to stop fleeing the heat of our gifts is through those precious people in our lives who honor those gifts, with whom we feel willing to share our scary thoughts, our risky feelings, our tender and huge dreams.
At any given moment, we can think of countless ways to improve ourselves. Yet there are wiser questions to be asked: what are the gifts that already live in me, what holds me back from them, and how can I liberate them in my life?
© 2012 Ken Page, LCSW. All Rights Reserved
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