The Rooms of our Life

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There is an Indian proverb or axiom that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but, unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.

Rumer Godden. A House with Four Rooms

This quote from the marvelous Anglo/Indian writer Rumer Godden has become a guidepost that I offer to many of my clients in recovery from addictions and other issues. It is a metaphor for a type of holistic heath and balance in our lives that few of us are able to maintain on a daily basis.

In which room do you spend most of your time – mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual?

How would it enrich your life if you visited the others more often?

How would your work, relationships and wellness benefit from it?

The Room of the Mental

To really explore the mental room we need to become more self-aware and mindful of our thoughts. It is in the mental room we find the beliefs, assumptions and expectations that drive our experience. Becoming more aware of these beliefs, assumptions and expectations with how they impact and motivate us is the reason behind visiting this room. From this awareness comes agency over our unconscious motivations. Having agency helps us to to grow and to change.

An aid to mindfully visiting this room could include journaling and asking yourself:

  • When are you most content?
  • When are you least content?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What gets on your nerves and pushes your buttons?
  • What scares you?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What do you believe about yourself?
  • What are your dreams? Aspirations?
  • What would you do if you had all the skill, money and time you needed to create the life of your dreams starting today?

The Room of Emotions

This is the room where our feelings reside. Neuroscience has shown that our feelings do not only emanate from one part of our brain (the limbic system) rather, they encompasses our entire body. It is worth knowing that you have more neural networks for feeling in your stomach and heart than anywhere else in your body!

Some of us try to ignore this room of emotions while some are trapped in it and are desperately trying to escape. Still others spend way too much time in the emotional room, reacting on autopilot to life’s events, rather than using the knowledge of the mental room for balance.

Many of us tend to think of this room as a messy place filled with anger, anxiety, resentment, impatience and frustration. Perhaps instead, we can place a welcome sign on this room’s door for all of our feelings. This is also the room where calmness, confidence, contentment, satisfaction, love, joy, empathy and compassion live. There is room for all.

Instead of ‘turning away’ from pain in avoidance we can learn to gently ‘turn towards’ what we’re experiencing. We can bring a caring open attention toward the wounded parts of ourselves and make wise choices about how to respond to ourselves and to life.

Here are some tools when encountering difficult emotions in this room:

  • Stop, Turn Towards – Once you have become aware of the feeling, stop for a moment. Take a deep breath and then ‘sit with’ the anger, shame, guilt, anxiety, frustration and fear. Don’t inhibit it, suppress it, ignore it or try to conquer it. Just be with it with an attitude of open curiosity and acceptance. (And also try the same attitude of open curiosity and acceptance when you are aware of other sorts of emotions like calmness, confidence, contentment, satisfaction, love, joy, empathy and compassion!)
  • Identify The Emotion – Acknowledge the emotion is there. If you are embarrassed, you can specifically recognize that feeling. You can mentally say to yourself, for example, “I know there is embarrassment in me.”
  • Acceptance Of What Is – When you are embarrassed, or feeling another difficult emotion, you don’t need to deny it. You can accept what is present. In his book Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hahn suggest we actually mentally acknowledge to ourselves… “I can accept that I am experiencing intense embarrassment right now…”
  • Realize The Impermanence Of All Emotions – Acknowledge that all emotions are impermanent. They arise, stay for a while and then disappear. They come and go in you like waves in the sea, cresting and receding. Your task is simply to allow this current wave to be and to witness, with patience, as it continuously changes form and eventually disappears. Say to yourself “While this is a temporary feeling, it is here right now, how can I care for it, what do I need?”
  • Investigation & Response – When you are calm enough, you can look deeply into your emotion to understand what has brought it about, and what is causing your discomfort. You may then reflect on how you want to respond to what is happening. This may be take the form of simply realizing that your thoughts are not reality and therefore not taking them seriously. It could be that the simple embracing of the emotion is all you need to do for now, or it could be that a response is needed to a situation that has arisen in your daily life.
  • Trust yourself to choose the appropriate response – Your feelings are your feelings and valid. And, you do have agency over how you react and respond.
  • Be Open To Outcome – you cannot control outcomes – you can control what you do about it! 

The Room of the Physical

This is the room where the physical body lives, our precious vehicle for experiencing life through our senses. Our focus in the physical room is about developing a much deeper relationship with our bodies as the source for our experience of being fully alive.

To accomplish this, most of us need to make greater connections between our mind and our body. We tend to think of stress as the inevitable culprit that attacks us from the outside, describing it in almost “viral” terms. While stress can definitely be felt in the body and can wreak real havoc there, its trigger source is in the mental room. External events happen constantly that can be experienced as stress, but it’s the mental room that opens the door for stress to take up residence in the body.

Ideas for embodying the room of the physical:

The Room of the Spirit

This room is not about religion, ideology, or dogma (but it can encompass those for some). Visiting this room is about identifying what makes us come alive, how our “spirit” (regardless of how we define it) expresses our deepest values and helps us discover the meaning and purpose of our life. Finding ways to ways to embody and inhabit this might be to:

The room of the Spirit is where we find what inspires and brings us joy. Whether it is being in nature, working with passion, being with those we love, sharing ideas, caring for those in need, painting a picture, dancing a dance, making music, creating a wonderful meal, traveling to places we love – all of these bring us into alignment with the spiritual room.

Whenever we visit this room, we integrate all four rooms in harmony. In this room, we find new sources of creativity, energy and peace. Here we discover what truly feeds us – the source of the real needs behind the endless quest for self-expression.

Living in the four rooms does not require a great deal of your time. It does however require your presence and awareness of their existence. To visit each room daily, and mindfully, is to acknowledge your greatness, complexity and simplicity. Visiting the four rooms can be a source of perpetual wonder. It is when our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual selves are in alignment – then we can more fully manifest life’s richness and meaning.

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Monday of Holy Week

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Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

John 12:1-8

The oldest bottle of wine that I ever served (and tasted) was a 1925 bottle of Spanish Rioja. This was in the year 2000, so the wine was 75 years old at the time. It had, as all old red wines do, lost its colour and was a pale tawny hue. For a Sommelier, it is always bittersweet when a rare and expensive bottle of wine is sold. You are pleased that you will have the honour of serving (and nosing it), but there is always an element of mourning in that this is an experience that can never be duplicated. In this case, the wine was purchased as a way of showing off at the dinner celebrating the completion of a financial deal between a Tobacco company and a brokerage house. To my mind the wine was too rare and delicate to be appreciated by group a scotch and martini swilling men.

I opened the wine, carefully decanted and served it to the six most important men at the table. They kindly offered a glass to me. It was a transcendent experience. The wine had a nose of barley sugar and dried flowers – violets and rose petals – and the aroma overflowed the glass and filled the room. I was transported to a memory of my grandmother’s desk. In one drawer she kept a tin of sweets as well as a book of keepsakes where she kept invitations, cards and the like as well as pressed flowers from special occasions…

Have you ever had an experience where a fragrance has overwhelmed you? Where a door has been opened, a meal has been put before you, a breeze has come from an unexpected direction, and you are flooded by memory?

One of the hardest things I had to do as a sommelier was to train students how to smell, how to identify what was the smell that they were actually smelling. It is an ability that, if I were to generalize, is more acute in women. I would speculate that women have a better memory for detail and situation than men. A man might remember more specifically what happened or was said, in what order – while a woman might remember nuances of the environment and the emotional resonances of the situation. And smell is so entwined with memory. It is one of the primary triggers for memory.

“The house was filled with the fragrance…” says the gospel.

What memories and smells would have been in Mary of Bethany’s mind as she approaches Jesus that night? Perhaps she is lost in the memory of Jesus’ first visit to the house of Mary, her sister Martha, and her brother Lazarus? We know that Mary and Martha story, how Martha was so busy in the kitchen, preparing for her special guest Jesus and how her sister Mary sat out in the living room, kneeling and listening to the words and wisdom of Jesus. What would she have smelled? The smells that come in the cool of the evening mixing with the wholesome smells of the meal that Martha was fussing over? We remember that in that story, Jesus gently chastises Martha – the doer, the one who gets things done – for her frenetic activity and busyness in her kitchen and he praised Mary – who abides, who is present – saying that she had chosen the better part of sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his words and wisdom. For stopping and “smelling the roses.”

Or on the night of this gospel passage would Mary have been remembering the smells associated with the death of her brother, Lazarus? In that story she was also at her Lord’s feet – smelling on him perhaps the dust of the road as she reproaches him gently; “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died” and looking up with her eyes full of tears she sees her beloved Jesus weeping. What would Jesus’ tears have smelt like to her? Like a summer rain on long parched soil?

Or perhaps, in her memory, smell takes her to the less wholesome smells of Lazarus tomb and to Martha’s interaction with her Lord. We all know Martha’s in our lives, churches especially thrive on Marthas; bright eyed practical people without whom we would starve and live in utter disorganization. According to the King James translation, the practical… “Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” Was that the smell in Mary’s memory as she approached our Lord on that evening?

Mary, the listener.  Mary, the emotional one. Mary, the sensitive soul. Mary who was prone to tears. Mary took a jar of expensive perfume. She fell at Jesus’ feet as if she knew something that other people didn’t fully realize. She knew that this man was soon to die. She sensed in that moment, she wanted to do something special for Jesus. So in a radical departure from appropriate custom, she let her hair down, her glorious hair, her hair that had been tightly braided around her head and she again started to weep. The Gospel of Luke account tells us that she wet his feet with her tears, wiped his feet with her hair, kissed his feet, and then anointed his feet with the expensive perfume.

It was a most loving and tender gesture, so intimate, almost too intimate, making everyone in the room feel uncomfortable. She was doing the right thing towards Jesus at the right moment. Some people have that gift: the gift of doing the right thing for someone at the right moment. Some of you have that gift, the ability to recognize the sacredness of a moment and to do the right thing. Some of you have such a gift. Mary did. Mary did the sensitive thing at the right moment, sharing her love and thanksgiving for Jesus.

What was Mary’s motivation to do this sacred act? Maybe her deep love and affection for Jesus grew from their relationship where Jesus had taught her so much about God and love. Maybe her deep affection was because Jesus had given her brother Lazarus back to her. Maybe her deep affection is that she loved Jesus and knew he was going to die very soon, and she wanted to make a last loving gesture to him. We don’t know what her motives were. Perhaps her deep affection for Jesus was grounded in all of these. What we do know is that Mary made a gift of herself, an extravagant gift of love for Jesus that we are all called to emulate. This beautiful Mary, this compassionate Mary, gives a gift to Jesus that is utterly outrageous in value.  A pound of spikenard was worth 300 denarii’s, a year’s wages by most people standards.  It came in pint-sized alabaster flasks or boxes and she literally broke the entire jar upon Jesus’ feet.

What does it smell like? What would Mary smell? Not necessarily what you might expect a perfume to smell like, if your expectations are of a floral garden. Spikenard has a profound and complex aroma, a combination sweet/spicy/musky, a very organic earthy scent. A smell that is bursting with life and with promise.

Mary did not count the cost; she never seemed to care about the cost.  She was totally oblivious to what others were thinking when she was with Jesus.  This is indicated by the fact that she wipes his feet with her hair, a gesture of profound love and intimacy. As far as Mary is concerned there is no one else there, no one else that mattered save her Lord.

This is absolute adoration, beyond ritual, beyond liturgy, beyond all practicality. This is the way to come to Jesus (and later Jesus tells us this is the way he wants us to come to the poor, to love the unlovable, to love each other – extravagantly and beyond all practicality).

At this last oasis on his journey to the cross, Jesus is loved, truly loved in the manner that he deserves. Loved while he is with Mary, as he will soon be gone.

What does it mean for us to wet Jesus feet with our tears, and with extravagant love. What does it mean for us to affectionately dry his feet – to use the glory of our hair in utter and startling humility of service to God and to others. What does it mean for us to anoint his feet for burial?

The wine I spoke of at the beginning of this homily, the smell that filled the restaurant as well as my memory soon disappeared. That is the way it is with old wines they blossom, they transcend, and then they are gone. So it was with the smell of the pound of costly perfume made of pure Nard for Mary – filling the house and then gone. It would have lingered for a time on her hands, in her hair, and in the room and then it would be gone. It would have clung to Jesus the longest.

What does God smell like?

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

The house would have been suffused with fragrance and with memory and with love. As is this place. This place where we remember Jesus. Where we are called to serve Jesus, as did both Mary and also her sister Martha each in their separate ways.

We do, we remember, and we love. We perform loving acts of service for Jesus and for our neighbours. And the memory of Mary’s extravagant act reminds us that Jesus Christ is never gone but is present with us – with both the Martha’s and with the Mary’s among us – present with us always.

Mind The Light

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Today in the Anglican tradition we celebrate the Epiphany: The day when the light of Christ was revealed to the Gentiles. Three wise men from the east minded the light and followed His star. And by its light worshiped Him and gave Him gifts. What gifts can we offer the Christ Child? As the old hymn by Christina Rossetti asks:

“What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd I would bring a Lamb.
If I were a wise man I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give him, give him my heart…”

So, here we are in the short dark days of the winter and, in its even colder long nights. Here in the bleak midwinter of our lives, when the ground is hard as iron, comes a great light. A light to guide us. A light to warm and thaw our souls. A light that allows us to see others and to see ourselves.

“Arise, Shine. For your light has come, and the glory of the lord has risen upon you…Nations shall come to your light and Kings to the brightness of your dawn.” – Isaiah 60: 1,3

And nations came. Wise men from the East were drawn to a humble place. Bearing gifts fit for a King they approach, not to a Palace but to a mean dwelling place. To a King attended not by nobles and courtiers but by shepherds and farm animals. Lying not in an ornate cradle as any king, but in a manger. And still they came, drawn by light, they came to witness and worship the light of the world come down for us.

When the magi followed this light to Bethlehem and the place wherein the child lay, they “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” as the King James Version describes it. And, when they saw Mary and the Child, they “fell down and worshiped him.” ” Fell down and worshiped him.” I love the language of the King James Version sometimes. I know that the Translators were not working with the best or earliest Greek texts, but sometimes they get it so right…

“Fell down and worshiped him.” Is this the call to us? Is this what the story is teaching us? How do we worship him today? What gifts do we offer the Christ Child? We know the gifts the magi gave to Him. And it is a magical story that like many good stories has grown in the retelling. By the 8th century, these wise men, these magi, had in our imaginations become Kings. And have developed back-stories and names. Balthazar, the youngest mage, bears frankincense and represents Africa. Caspar, middle-aged, bears gold and represents Asia. And, Melchior, the oldest, bears myrrh, and represents Europe.

“We three Kings of Orient are.
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Westward leading, still proceeding…”

I am sure we all remember the carol. And we remember the gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This has become a part of the fabric of our Christmas story and we slip into its familiar rhythms without thinking about all the implications these gifts represent.

Gold…so worldly….so beautiful and malleable. A precious gift from Caspar. This is surely a gift fit for a king. A costly metal that shines like the sun is an appropriate gift for the Son of God…

We cannot help but remember how precious a gift money is to any young family. Money is always scarce with a new child in the house and I can’t help but feel that Joseph was already mentally spending it on necessities as it was being presented.

Frankincense from Balthazar is the next gift. This of the three is perhaps the most appropriate. This perfume was often used to anoint newborns. It was also used as incense for consecrating a person to God’s service. It will be used in my college chapel this evening in the ordination of my friend and classmate Michael. It is a rare and expensive element. And its use by burning it to the Glory of God is well documented. The words of Psalm 141, “Let our prayers be set forth in thy sight as the incense…” are familiar and that incense would have been frankincense.

“Myrrh is mine its bitter perfume…” The third gift. Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment. A fairly grim gift for a newborn…a bit like giving a burial plot as a christening present. I can’t help but feel that there must have been a rather uncomfortable silence after this gift was given. (Rolling of the eyes…”There is old uncle Melchior putting his foot in it again”).

But, we can see the whole of the Gospels within this story. Jesus is consecrated in service to God and to us with the frankincense. His royalty can be seen with the gold. His death on a cross is clearly foreshadowed by the gift of myrrh. These gifts are said to represent virtue, prayer, and suffering. And, His coming again in Glory is seen in the star, the light that lightens us all.

What are the gifts we have to offer? Can we offer anything that can compare to those that the magi gave him? More important, can we offer Him any thing that can compare to gift He so freely offers us. This unreasonable and unmerited gift of Grace.

I am reminded of a story told by the actor David Niven about his early days in Hollywood. Christmas was always fraught for a young actor with limited funds and he used to take presents that were given to him by more successful actors and re-gift them to others. This did lead to some imbalances. He recalled how he gave the actress Marion Davies a lovely pair of gloves and she gave him a car.

Is this not how it is with our gifts to him? We get a car and we give Him a pair of gloves! Yes, we offer our treasure. Yes, we offer our talents. And yes, we offer our time. Well a bit, not too much. I mean we do go to church, that’s our time isn’t it? We volunteer at “Out of the Cold” programmes, that our time isn’t it? We visit house bound friends and relatives this festive season, That’s our time isn’t it? We do give our time to Christ…

I have been told that the Quakers, the Society of Friends, have an expression: “Mind the Light.” For them I think, this means look for the light of God, which shines in each of us. We give so little time to Him and to the Him in others compared to what we receive. We are so rushed in our modern world. Really, we have little enough time for ourselves, for others, and for Jesus. And this is where we go wrong. This is our gift to the Christ child…our time and attention. We stop, and gift ourselves to others. Give the real gift of time and awareness to others. This is the greatest gift we can give. We can mind the light. We can stop and abide with it. We can follow the light, as did the magi. The magi had to travel so far to gaze upon the face of Christ, but we can look in the eyes of all those around us to see the light of Him, in them.

Mind the Light. And this also means, mind the Light in us. We must also stop, pause, pray, and recognize the face of Christ in ourselves…the divine in us. This is the gift we must also give. Pause, pray, and be mindful of His presence. Make the gift of prayerful and attentive living, recognizing the Light that is all about, and within us. This is how we can offer our gifts. Like the magi we can “fall down and worship Him.” But unlike the magi we may remain with Him for our whole lives. We may abide with Him, as He abides with us.

My book of daily meditations today points out that the magi, for all their wisdom, overlooked the one gift that the child would have genuinely loved to have: the gift of themselves and of their love.

Not our treasure, not even our talents. But, instead, we are asked to gift our time and our attention. We are asked to give our love, to follow that light. I pray we all rejoice with exceeding great joy this day of The Epiphany. Let us offer to Him the gift of ourselves and of our love. Let us see His light in the eyes of all around us…today and everyday.

I pray we all, always, Mind the Light.

Lessons from the “Three Little Pigs”

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We all know the story of the “Three Little Pigs.”

The story begins with the title characters being sent out into the world by their mother, to “seek out their fortune”. The first little pig builds a house of straw, but a wolf blows it down and he ran as fast as he could to his brother. The second pig builds a house of furze sticks, which the wolf also blows down and the pig ran to the third brother’s house. Each exchange between wolf and pig features ringing proverbial phrases, namely:

“Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”


”No, no, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.”


“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

The third pig builds a house of bricks. The wolf fails to blow down the house. And the pigs are safe.

In the story, the pigs are protected from danger by solid walls of brick. These solid boundaries against external threats save the pigs from the Big Bad Wolf who wishes to devour them. In our lives we also need good internal boundaries to protect us from others whose thinking, feeling and behavours can overwhelm us. If we allow that, the message we learn is that our own needs and feelings don’t count – we are required to accept how others treat us without question which is destructive to our sense of self.

Our internal boundaries protect our thinking, our feelings and our behaviors.

Thinking = how we give meaning to incoming data

Feelings = our emotions

Behaviors = what we do or don’t do

These, in addition to our bodies, constitute our reality. Our bodies, thoughts, feelings and behavior make up what is real from our perspective even if they are not what others would feel in the same situation. That others might experience a different reality given the same stimuli does NOT dis-validate our subjective reality.

Those of us with poor, or non-existent boundaries find it impossible to own all or part of our thinking, feeling, and behaviors:

In thinking, we experience difficulty knowing what our thoughts are. And if we do know what they are we have difficulty sharing them. And beyond those limitations, we often have skewed interpretations of the data that we receive.

In feeling, we have difficulty in knowing what we are feeling, or in feeling at all. And most problematically, we have difficulty discerning if the emotions we feel are our emotions or those of another. We have difficulty discerning what feeling is mine or am I experiencing another’s emotions.

In our behaviors, we have difficulty in being aware of what we do or don’t do. And have even more difficulty in owning our behaviors and its impact on others.

Here are some tips for setting healthy boundaries:

  • When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, preferably without anger, and in as few words as possible. Do not justify, apologize for, or rationalize the boundary you are setting. Do not argue! Just set the boundary calmly, firmly, clearly, and respectfully.
  • You can’t set a boundary and take care of someone else’s feelings at the same time. You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for communicating the boundary in a respectful manner. If others get upset with you, that is their problem. If they no longer want your friendship, then you are probably better off without them. You do not need “friends” who disrespect your boundaries.
  • At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway, and tell yourself you have a right to take care of yourself. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don’t let anxiety or low self-esteem prevent you from taking care of yourself.
  • When you feel anger or resentment, or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, then determine what you need to do or say. Then communicate your boundary assertively. When you are confident you can set healthy boundaries with others, you will have less need to put up walls.
  • When you set boundaries, you might be tested, especially by those accustomed to controlling you, abusing you, or manipulating you. Plan on it, expect it, but be firm. Remember, your behavior must match the boundaries you are setting. You cannot establish a clear boundary successfully if you send a mixed message by apologizing for doing so. Be firm, clear, and respectful.
  • Most people are willing to respect your boundaries, but some are not. Be prepared to be firm about your boundaries when they are not being respected. If necessary, put up a wall by ending the relationship. In extreme cases, you might have to involve the police or judicial system by sending a no-contact letter or obtaining a restraining order.

Once you have learned to set healthy boundaries you will find that as much as others “huff and puff” you will be safe and know what are your thoughts, feelings and behaviors and what belong to others. Build your safe house of bricks by developing a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. Eliminate toxic persons from your life – those who want to manipulate you, abuse you, and control you.

Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. You will set boundaries when you are ready. It’s your growth in your own time frame, not what someone else tells you.

Boundaries

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One of the themes that re-occurs in therapy with persons who come from a family of origin where addiction (among other issues) is part of the story, is that of nonexistent or poorly defined boundaries. These porous boundaries affect every relationship that these persons have. They lack the implicit understanding of “where do I end and others begin…” Healthy boundaries mean the ability to recognize what is our responsibility (and what is truly within our power to control) and what isn’t. Boundaries are an essential ingredient to creating a healthy self. They define the relationship between you and everyone, and everything else around you.

It can be most difficult to maintain or define boundaries with our family of origin. Often, we are taught as children, not to make waves or to “just get along;” that is, to not assert or define our own boundaries. This is especially prevalent in families of addicts and alcoholics where the family unit’s primary purpose is to make the family look “normal” to the world.

Children do not have fully developed boundary systems and must rely on parents to provide them. They are extremely vulnerable and need the support and safekeeping of caregivers in the physical, sexual, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual realms. Children learn how to defend themselves and choose safe times to be open and trusting in relationships by experiencing the protection and the vulnerability of functional and healthy caregivers. Protection meaning that caregivers recognize and respect a child’s rights to their own thoughts, feelings, bodies, and behaviors even while they guide them into authentic relationships with self and others. And, when anyone behaves in abusive way to them (family, acquaintance, or stranger) the caregivers step in to safeguard the child’s security. They do not side with the transgressor against the child.

This good modeling of boundaries is never found in the family of an alcoholic or addict. An abusive family system (and the family of an alcoholic or an addict is dysfunctional and therefore abusive) is by its very nature completely un-boundaried and dis-ordered. As children we want to please our disordered parent and get along with a disordered sibling or relative; however, a personality disordered individual lacks appropriate personal boundaries of their own. This can result in inappropriate affectionate gestures and lack of personal privacy for the child.

When our own personal boundaries are routinely broken, the message we learn is that our own needs and feelings don’t count – we are required to accept how others treat us without question. As we grow into adults, these lessons can become our way of life. We often feel taken advantage of, used or that our desires are unimportant. We become frustrated and angry that our boundaries are violated yet we are unable to express what, exactly, our boundaries are. Constant yielding to a parent, sibling or relative becomes second nature. We lose our own sense of self and often find ourselves in unhappy relationships, jobs and life situations. The early lessons that our feelings, views and opinions don’t count continue to dominate our lives, sometimes subconsciously in every new relationship we develop.

This is how working with a therapist can help. Creating healthy boundaries is important in any relationship, and learning how to set healthy boundaries is one of the very best things you can do to ensure that you don’t end up in the same dysfunctional dance again and again in each new relationship.

Step 3: Who is “driving the bus?”

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Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God

Step 3, Alcoholics Anonymous

Who is “driving the bus?”

Step 3 of Alcoholics Anonymous asks the addict to turn his/her will and life over to the care of “something else” asking the addict or alcoholic to give up control. Control is the great paradox of addiction and recovery. Historically (and sadly still today) addicts and alcoholics were thought to be morally deficient persons lacking “self control” who could be saved if they would merely acknowledge and change their destructive ways. And yet, it is the giving up of control that is the greatest obstacle for many addicts who are seeking sobriety through the 12 Steps.

The common thread that runs through the lives of all addicts is that they had ” Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs can usher in a lifetime of misfortune – and frequently pass troubles on to succeeding generations. These are events beyond a young person’s control.

The principal types of ACEs are abuse, neglect and seriously troubled households. More specifically, ACEs are emotional, and or physical. Experiences include; emotional and physical neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence, mental and/or substance (alcohol or drug) disorders. They also include parental separation or divorce, or a family member who is incarcerated. These are traumatic experiences in early life that cause the child to feel helpless, powerless and in grave danger.

Human beings are social creatures, other people function as self-regulating agents in our lives. We learn to identify and recognize ourselves in others when we think, “Oh, that’s exactly how I feel,” or “I was thinking the same thing.”  This is how we begin to figure out who we are.

Addicts and alcoholics internalize the feeling that the abuse suffered was their fault. If you don’t ask why Daddy is hitting you, or why Mommy is passed out on the floor, but accept that it is your fault, then you are in more control. In reality what is happening is the child sacrifices themselves in order to maintain the illusion of control in a situation that otherwise would be experienced as irrational and unpredictable. So, if the child is at fault (in their own mind) then shame for the child’s failure to change the situation becomes part of their narrative.

A child internalizes this illusion of control and it becomes part of the cycle of their addiction. “I control the drug, not the other way around,” is the narrative of the addict also known as DENIAL. As any addiction counselor will tell you, denial stands for “Don’t Ever Notice I Am Lying.”

A child who has faced early traumas has difficulty trusting and opening up to another person. If you have experienced this sort of early trauma, why would you trust again? However, without a capacity to trust, a person can never accurately connect with their own self. An addict/alcoholic has never had the ability to develop the brain mechanisms to regulate emotions, as those are developed through intimate connections to others.

Perhaps the hardest part of getting sober, and recovering from addictions is giving up the illusion of control and become; willing to trust, willing to form connections and willing to explore emotions.

In recovery, addicts and alcoholics learn through connection with others to regulate feelings without getting high or drunk. They learn to make connections that did not develop because they were interrupted by trauma in childhood. The real work comes when an alcoholic or addict sits down with a sponsor and/or therapist and trusts that that person will be available without judgment or shaming. Trusting that person to journey with them as they express genuine and tender needs and feelings.

As social beings, when our tender needs and feelings are shared with others without rejection, we experience relief and the lowering of barriers that we may not even have realized existed. We gradually develop a new sense of acceptance and of self.

It is only through relationships with others that we develop a new sense of self.

It is only through relationships with others that we develop a sense of who we are.

It is only through relationships with others that we develop the ability to regulate our emotions.

This is the barrier that must be overcome, this illusion of control, for any addict or alcoholic to begin to heal…letting go of the illusion that they are in control.

We each have our own inner program for happiness. Our plans whereby we will be safe and happy, secure and in control. Step 3 is all about the addict and alcoholic opening themself to the possibility of faith in something else, a meaningful relationship that facilitates self regulation, and supports them so that that they don’t have to “drive the bus.” This offers a new faith that things just might possibly be OK even if they don’t control them.

Love and Connection to Others

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Human beings are hard wired to need love and connection. From birth to death, love is not just the focus of human lives; rather it is the life force of humans. It regulates our moods, regulates our bodily rhythms, and changes the very structure of our brains.

Most people presume that the body they inhabit is self-regulating all on its own, that there is some sort of internal regulating system that “drives the car” so to speak. We believe that beyond needing fuel and some maintenance, the body just cruises along unaffected by others. This is not the case.

The nervous system of all mammals, including humans, depends for its stability on a system of interactive coordination where balance and regulation comes from synchronization with nearby attachment figures called limbic regulation. We are alarmed and protest when our connection to these figures is breached and if the interruption continues, without limbic regulation from others, physiologic rhythms decline and we despair.

Take a rhesus monkey away from its mother too soon, or subject him to lengthy periods of maternal absences, and you will produce a monkey with a lifelong vulnerability to despair. Without the limbic regulation of an attachment figure (such as a mother) a mammal slips into psychologic chaos whenever his attachment figure moves out of range. Human children of erratic, unpredictable mothers are clingy for the same reason.

Feed and clothe a human child but deprive her emotional contact and she will die. Infant monkeys are hardier than humans in the face of such privations. And although monkeys raised without their mothers often survive their neural pathways are permanently maimed. Monkeys raised alone cannot engage in reciprocal interactions with normal monkeys who consistently reject them. The can not mate normally, and if females raised in isolation are impregnated they are indifferent, and neglect of their offspring often violently attacking them. Self-mutilation, and prolonged food and water binges are other legacies of being raised isolated.

Like monkeys and other mammals, human physiology does not exist in isolation from others. A human baby’s body without being given the limbic regulation of an attachment figure will have its vital rhythms collapse, and the baby will die. In a sense, human infants “outsource” most of their physiologic governance to parents in the early stages of life, only bringing that control “in-house” over a period of months and years. As the nervous system matures, a baby reclaims some of its regulatory processes and performs them autonomously. However even as adults, humans remain social animals continuing to require a source of stabilization outside of themselves.

Even having had the most stable and consistent parenting experience, children never transition to a fully self-tuning physiology. Adults remain social animals: we continue to require a source of stabilization outside ourselves. In some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own – not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be. This prospect is disconcerting to many, especially in a society that prizes individuality as ours does. Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them. So, who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.

This idea goes against much of the teaching of our modern society. Our society teaches us that as an adult we are expected to be emotionally independent and self-sufficient. We are told to detach from our parents, our first loved ones, as a sign of emotional strength and maturity. We are taught to look with suspicion and derision at romantic partners that display too much togetherness. We say they are too involved with each other, too close, too dependent. We shame men seeking togetherness calling them “whipped” or “needy” or “clingy.” Women are labeled as “stalker” or “obsessed” or “desperate.” In consequence, men and women today are taught to feel ashamed of their natural need for love and comfort and reassurance – they see it as weakness.

This is a topsy-turvy interpretation of what science and experience teaches us. Far from being a sign on mental instability, strong emotional connection is a sign of mental health. It is emotional isolation that is the killer. We are born to need each other. The human brain is wired for close connection with a few irreplaceable others. Accepting your need for this special kind of emotional connection is not a sign of weakness, but of maturity and strength.

Psychologist Sue Johnson speaks of the bonds of love as our birthright and our greatest resource. Seeking out and giving love and support is our primary source of strength and joy. Learning to love and be loved as adults is in many ways about learning to tune into our own emotions and needs so we know what it is we want and need from our partners, expressing those needs openly in a way that evokes sympathy and support from him or her. We can then tune in to and sensitively respond to our partners as well. In those moments when we do this we call to others and respond to their call in a way that makes us, and our connection to them stronger. And, nothing makes us stronger, happier, and healthier than loving, stable, long-term bonds to others. Long-standing togetherness writes permanent changes into a brain’s open book. In a relationship, one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner.

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh