Readings & Resources
Readings & Resources
UPDATES: The Joyous Recovery is a book to use and live by, not just a book to read. The program of exercises guides you in putting the concepts into practice, so that you can feel your life begin to improve in the way you have craved. As of May 3rd, the first set of exercises listed covers up through page 100. There will be a continuation of exercises added in the days ahead, so stay tuned!
Exercises to Accompany The Joyous Recovery
Introduction to the Exercises
There are several points about this exercise program that are important to understand before you dive in:
- The program is set out in a schedule of weeks, but that schedule is just a suggestion. Work through these exercises at whatever speed makes sense for you, which may be faster or slower.
- You’ll want to have a journal.
- Many of these exercises are designed to be done with a healing partner (also called a co-counselor). If you aren’t working with a partner, do those exercises in written form in your journal, but also try to share with close friends or relatives in your life about the process you’re going through. If you wish to work with a healing partner but haven’t found someone yet, go to “Find Healing Partners” on this website.
- As you go through this process, I encourage you to do some regular reading on the PLN Forum (also on this website), and to add your own posts or comments. This is even more important for people who are working this program without a healing partner, but it’s important for everyone.
- Any time these exercises lead you to different issues or questions than the ones we’re guiding you toward — including feelings or experiences that may be the opposite of what the exercises is asking you to explore — go with what comes up for you and follow where it leads. Unexpected directions that your thoughts or feelings take sometimes turn out to be the most productive path for your healing. (The only exception to this is to notice if you keep having the desire to quickly move on from a positive topic to a painful one; your healing will be slowed down if you hurry past the exercises that involve focusing on positive events, feelings, or memories.)
- Many issues that we’re spending one or two weeks on actually represent months or years of work for many people. These are just beginning explorations — but even opening these questions up briefly will have noticeable positive effects on your life.
- Try to write regularly in your journal during this process even if you’re also working with a healing partner. Journaling and splitting time (co-counseling) support healing in two different ways, so it’s good to have them both going if possible. (But if you only have time and energy for one or the other, I recommend making co-counseling your highest priority — it’s the game changer for emotional healing.
- This exercise program is a work in progress. We will be adding new pieces over time, and making changes based on feedback we hear.
- Read the “Attention” section (in the front pages of the book)
- Read Chapter 1, pages 1-11
- Read the section on this website called “How to Split Time” under the “About PLN” tab — the points in that section will be crucial to doing this whole program of exercises
1) The main work for this week is to find a partner to read the book and go through the exercises with. If you haven’t succeeded yet in getting someone you know interested in doing it with you, go to the “Find Healing Partners” tab to learn about getting matched with someone through this website.
2) In your journal, or while splitting time (co-counseling) with your healing partner:
a) Make a list of ways you have tried to heal in the past, and discuss how those different efforts have gone.
b) Reflect on these questions:
– What do you tend to most dump on yourself about?
– How might you best argue back against those hurtful internal messages?
– Where have you felt like you made a difference to someone else’s recovery from a hurt or a crisis? Tell about that.
- Read Chapter 1, pgs. 12-16
- Read Chapter 2, pg. 17 – middle of pg. 20
If you’re working with a partner, try to start getting a total of at least 30 minutes per week each in your co-counseling sessions. (That might mean you split time once a week and each take 30- minutes turns, or twice a week with 15-minute turns, or other formats; just try to get a total of 30 minutes or more each.)
Reflect on these questions when splitting time with your healing partner, or in your journal:
– Do you ever cry hard? Do you feel good afterward, or not?
– Explore some happy memories of laughing with people.
– What messages do you carry that say you shouldn’t need other people?
– What do you know about what you were like as a baby? What do you know about how that time went for you?
- Read Chapter 2, middle of pg. 20 – pg. 30
Questions to explore this week in sessions and your journal:
– What kinds of violence (including “spanking”) have you been the target of over the course of your childhood? What violence has happened in your adult life? What violence have you witnessed toward other people?
– In what ways have you been given the message that something is wrong with you?
– How were you dismissed or discounted as a child? After you spend some time answering this question, speak aloud to your young self, as if he or she were in the room, saying how important you think that child really was, and telling him/her how their feelings and opinions should have been responded to.
– Was isolation a challenge in your childhood? If so, describe some of the ways that happened for you. What were some of your strategies as a child to deal with isolation?
– What approaches do you remember using as a child to make pain go away? Spend a few minutes taking pride in how important those techniques were to your survival (even if they also had some negative effects in the long term).
- Read Chapter 2, pgs. 31-43
Explore these questions when you’re splitting time and in your journal:
– What comes up for you when things go well? Have you ever been upset or downhearted after receiving good news? Were you baffled or self-critical about your reaction? Do any of the items on the list on pg. 33 apply to your childhood (or your current circumstances)? If so, explore that some.
– What are your thoughts when you learn the concept of “frozen needs”? Does this idea resonate with challenges from your life?
– Building on work you did last week, reflect further about survival strategies you developed as a child to get through painful periods or to live with ongoing painful problems. Which of these patterns have continued into your adult life? Do you tend to criticize yourself for having these patterns? Write for several minutes, or talk during your turn when you’re splitting time, about why these behaviors (or ways of thinking) were once so crucial to you. Then spend some time, looking from that perspective, to see if you can start to feel more self-forgiving about current challenges that you have that are related to these enduring patterns. What could you start forgiving yourself for?
– Have you ever been labeled as “mentally ill”? Who put that label on you? How did it affect you? Are there remaining traces/scars from the experience of being labeled in that way?
– Look back over the list of balancing acts on pg. 43. What thoughts do you have as you go over these? Spend several minutes sitting with this list and letting these three items sink into you. What feelings come up? Can you begin to envision the kind of peace that could come through finding these balance points?
Read Chapter 3, pgs. 47-52
Read Chapter 4, pgs. 53-58 (middle of page)
Beginning with the material you read in Chapter 3, spend co-counseling time and writing time on the following questions:
– How do the ideas from Chapter 3 connect to other things you’ve heard about healing? Which ideas are new? Which ideas do you doubt, or disagree with? Which ideas go against principles about healing you’ve heard or believed before? Do any of the ideas from this chapter help you to feel hopeful about healing? If so, why?
The exercises this week that go with the reading from Chapter 4 are going to be things to do out in your regular life, though you might also follow these up with some journal writing and co-counseling time about them:
1) Observe yourself during your interactions with other people for a few days. Start noticing who is talking and who is listening during each interaction. Look at both superficial conversations (strangers, acquaintances) and more significant ones (longer talks, whether with friends, co-workers, relatives, children). How much of the time did you spend talking in each interaction, and how much listening? Which person do you think did more of the talking? Did you notice any habits you have of doing more than your share of the talking, or more than your share of the listening? Keep observing yourself in this way through the week and see what you notice, recording your observations in your journal or discussing them with your co-counselor.
2) Notice times during the week when you’re finding it hard to listen to someone — we all have those times. When you sense that happening, examine the feelings or preoccupations you’re having that are making it hard to listen. Are you experience cravings and longings that are distracting you? Are you feeling restless? Bored? Do you feel an overwhelming desire to be the one speaking and being listened to, and that’s making it hard to fully focus on what the other person is saying? Are you feeling reluctant to ask questions, because you don’t want to listen anymore?
Try not to criticize yourself about any of these observations. Just notice them, and then see if you can notice what the underlying feelings are for you.
3) During this week, try also to notice if you’re feeling the need to come up with “helpful comments” while other people are talking to you. In what types of situations does this tend to happen? Try for a few days to see if you can stop saying “helpful” things, and just listen and express your caring and understanding about what the other person says. Do some writing or co-counseling about what it was like to try to do this.
4) Finally, during your conversations this week, see if you can slow down the exchange of roles (see pg. 55), meaning that you try to keep the focus on the other person for a longer period of time before you switch to speaking about yourself. This particularly requires asking more questions. Later in the week, reflect in writing and co-counseling about whether you were able to have some success in this respect.
Read Chapter 4 middle of pg. 58 – pg. 67
Key questions to focus on in your journal writing and co-counseling this week:
– When you’re the person speaking, what kinds of comments from other people make you feel like they’re hearing you? that they’re not hearing you? make you feel good? make you feel bad?
Read the lists on pgs. 59-61, where I’m recommending supportive things for you to day to other people. Which of these do you like hearing back from people? Which ones not? Explain some about why your prefer some of these responses and why some of them bother you (if there are any that do).
Note: Keep in mind that pgs. 59-61 are offering general suggestions. Each person will be slightly different with respect to what kinds of responses from other people make them feel heard and understood — or not — and what kinds of comments they find helpful. We have to fine-tune our responses as we get to know people.
A final and important exercise: During this entire week, see how many questions you can ask people in each interaction you have — and then work on listening carefully to their answers. See if their answers give you ideas for more things you can ask. When it comes to asking questions, the best thing is to practice, practice, and practice; you’ll get better and better at it. Make this your question asking week. Then spend some time with your co-counselor or your journal exploring what that was like.
Read Chapter 5 pgs. 68 – 82
Begin by doing the following writing in your journal, which you may want to spread over two or three days:
Make a list of as many ways as you can think of in which you’ve been courageous over the course of your life. (Review pages 77-78 to help prompt your memory — it includes many important brave actions that people don’t tend to recognize as brave.)
Then make a list of as many example as you can remember of smart decisions that you’ve made at any point, and why they were smart. (Remember that a decision can be smart and still lead to a bad outcome — the result doesn’t prove that the reasoning was bad.)
Then make a list of the ways you got through the hardest times in your life (building on exercises we’ve done in recent weeks of this program). Make sure to give substantial attention to this one.
Then make lists of:
– the people and animals you have loved
– the places you have loved, especially outdoor spots
– the ways you’ve stood up for what’s right (again, spend plenty of time reflecting on this question, don’t rush past it or decide “I can’t think of anything” — you can)
– what you have given to others, or to the world (and I don’t mean gifts — I mean contributions of love, presence, wisdom, assistance, and so forth — although it’s okay to list gifts too, as long as they really meant something to you when you gave them)
If you’re working with a healing partner, share as much as you wish to from these lists while splitting time, and let yourself feel anything that comes up for you as you share.
Next, spend some time, with your healing partner or your journal, exploring the list of different types of intelligence that is on pg. 76. See where you can find your strengths and interests on that list. Do you have strong aspects to your intelligence that have been undervalued? What would it be like for you to start putting a higher value on them from now on?
Try saying several times aloud, “I’m really smart! Here’s how!” As you do this, you can point to one or more of the items on pg. 76 if you want.
When you were a child, where did you get your key messages about what it means to be smart, and what types of intelligence are valuable? Start reflecting on ways that you may have internalized limiting or hurtful messages about your intelligence — and other people’s — and consider starting a process to free yourself of those messages.
Reflect on what you might be doing differently if you believed that you were a smart and capable person with important gifts.
Read Chapter 6 pgs. 83 – 88
1) Write the story of your life in 1250-1750 words (this exercise is described on pgs. 84-85). That’s about five pages of double-spaced text. There is a reason why I give an upper limit; this is an exercise in zeroing in on what has really meant the most to you, both good and bad. I’m not asking you to write a chronology of events. Instead, see if you can describe what the events in your life have meant to you, what their significance has been. You might address, for example:
What would I most want a loved one to understand about what things have been like for me?
What do I most need to say, including pieces that I have not yet expressed?
What have I most cared about? What pieces of my caring (toward people, toward beliefs, toward animals or places) have I not yet allowed to fully show?
What are my deepest satisfactions? And what are my deepest longings? When has my heart most soared? When did it most break?
Write this piece under the assumption that you will show it to no one. If you decide later to share part or all of it that’s fine; but don’t hold anything back in this first version out of concern for how it might sound, or because it might hurt someone or make them angry. You can edit it later if you decide to share it.
2) Push the envelope with someone this week. When someone asks how you are, tell them how you really are that day. When you’re skirting around the edge of an issue with someone, take the dive into what you’re avoiding saying or exploring (see pg. 86).
3) What creative outlet(s) do you have? Do you like to write, draw, sing, write songs, dance, fix up the inside of a house, act, create a garden, or play an instrument, for example? Choose a creative form that you like and try one day seeing how much emotion you can pour into it for a half hour or an hour — really pour it on. (And if you feel you don’t have any creative thing that you do, now is the time to write a poem — just for yourself. You don’t have to make the lines rhyme; it’s totally up to you whether they do or not. If it’s written down in a way that looks something like a poem, then it’s a poem — and your thoughts and feelings will come out differently than they normally do. I would love to see everyone in the Peak Living Network start to write poems, with no pressure to share them with anyone else.)
WEEKS 9 & 10
Read Chapter 7 pgs. 89 – 100
Begin with the following assessment of your current support system:
– To whom do you feel close in your current and recent life?
– Which people are the best ones to talk to or be around when things are hard for you?
– Which people accept help from you, including reaching out to you when they need support?
– Whom do you need to avoid when things are hard for you, because their responses make you feel bad?
– What do you need more of in your social connections? (such as more people for fun, physical affection, deep sharing, calling on at a bad time, helping with things, accepting help from you)
Next, explore the negative messages that are keeping you from reaching out to people you’d like to be closer to or would like to get to know. Spend some co-counseling or journal time on ways to stop being held back by these messages.
During these two weeks, take three specific steps toward meeting new people (from the list on pgs. 93 – 94). After you’ve made all three efforts, describe how it went (and how it felt) to your healing partner or write about it.
Explore these questions:
1) Where do you back off from getting close to people? What can you notice about what’s going on inside you when you do that? Are there particular past experiences that you’re thinking about at those times? If so, spend some time getting some support about those experiences with your co-counselor.
2) What messages did you grow up with about asking for help? How do you feel when other people ask you for help? When do you feel happy to help and when do you feel burdened by it?
During your turn in a co-counseling session, try saying “Help me!” out loud several times. Say it with some intensity, and see what brings up for you. You can try saying it to your healing partner, and also try saying it as if there were someone else in the room you were speaking to. (You don’t need to have anyone in mind while you do this, but if a particular person comes to mind — for example, imagining that you’re back in childhood saying this to one of your parents or to some other adult — give that a try.)
Spend some time thinking about the people who are your main supports in life, asking yourself these questions:
– Who is supporting the people who are supporting me? What is difficult for them currently in their own lives? How could I take more care of them (while continuing to accept their support toward me)? Is there any way I could contribute to the nurturing of my support system?
Chapter One of The Joyous Recovery: A New Approach to Emotional Healing and Freedom
Copyright 2019 Lundy Bancroft. All rights reserved.
Healing shouldn’t have to be so hard.
I hear various versions of the following comments, made with strained voices:
“I have some really heavy issues I need to work on some day.”
“There are things about myself that I’ve been avoiding facing up to.”
“Eventually I’m going to have to dive in and deal with all this bad stuff I went through, but I just don’t want to look at that stuff.”
“I’m working really hard on myself. Some things are getting better, but it’s so hard to keep moving forward.”
What do I take away from all this? That people see emotional healing as painful, scary, and slow. That there are rewards eventually, but first there is huge work and sacrifice before the improvements start to come. That big changes aren’t that common, but that if you really put your nose to the grindstone you’ll be able to make some small changes, and that will feel good. That part of growing and maturing is accepting that life is hard, and adapting lowered expectations.
And what’s my response to all this? That I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think so at all. The reason most people find healing so hard to do is that they’ve had so little help, so little guidance, and so little information. Emotional recovery can be, and should be, mostly a joyous journey. People who really know how to heal find that:
* Healing moves fast.
* Some of the gains are immediate, with many more to follow.
* The pleasure greatly outweighs the pain.
* Even the parts that do involve hard work are so rewarding — and quickly rewarding, not months or years into the future — that they don’t feel tiring, so that the underlying feeling remains, “I can totally do this.”
* Healing is not a solitary undertaking and leads rapidly to greater and greater connection.
I’d like to respond to four messages that likely go through your mind since they seem to go through almost everyone’s mind at one time or another. I’m no exception, by the way; these messages fortunately don’t run around in my head much anymore, but they used to.
(1) “It’s different for me because the things that have happened to me in my life are just too deep and awful.”
And hand-in-hand with this message is the one that goes:
“Other people may be able to heal, but I’m just way too messed up. My problems are so serious that it’s too late to get them to change.”
No, no, no. If you’re still alive, there’s still time. You can gain back a vibrant, connected, satisfying life. Pain, anxiety, and isolation do not need to dominate.
Everyone that I have ever spoken with has been through experiences that are so emotionally wrenching that it’s miraculous that their heart didn’t just stop beating from the pain. I don’t know if the world has always been this way, but it’s certainly true in our times. People from the kindest families and the safest towns still have stunning stories to tell of heartbreak, loss, and fear.
Are there people who have had it even worse than the rest? Yes, some people’s childhoods could only be described as torture. Some people live as slaves, often literally, as teenagers or adults. Some people have been targets of a level of cruelty, of a depth of atrocity, that I can’t even fully wrap my head around. But you know what? Somehow, seeming to defy possibility, many, many of them find their way back to love and peace, back to a life that is full of meaning. The differences in how we’ve been hurt do matter, and it doesn’t help anyone to pretend those differences aren’t there or that we’ve all experienced the same levels of darkness. It’s not true. But those differences don’t have to set us apart from each other. And they absolutely do not mean that some of us can recover from the harm that’s been done to us but that others cannot.
In fact, part of what happens when you experience really deep healing is that you come to feel more and more determined that no one, no one, is to be left behind. It’s not that you can be everyone’s personal rescuer — you can’t be, and it won’t help you or them if you try to be — but you can certainly rescue a few, and the rest of us can each rescue a few — even while we ourselves are being rescued — and together we can get each other, get everyone, onto dry land.
(2) “I’ve read so many books, I’ve tried so many healing approaches, I’ve thought and thought and thought, I’ve wept and wept. There’s just no way out for me.”
Okay, let’s talk about the books first.
I recognize that there are occasional great ones. But most books about psychology, including most of the whole “self-help” genre, are long on analyzing what we’re doing wrong, what’s incorrect about our thinking and our attitudes, and what our sources of pain are, and very short on what to do about it all. Their advice tends to come down to things like, “Change your outlook,” and “Think positively,” and “Just do it.” It’s emotional healing by bumpersticker. And it never works for very long, though short-term gains are common.
If they aren’t telling you to fix your erroneous thinking, they’re telling you to fix your emotions. And again, the actual steps to take are vague. “You need to process your emotions,” they say. But how are emotions processed? Hardly anyone seems to know. Or they say, “You are causing your own pain because of the way you think.” Oh, so now we’re back to where the answer is you have to change what goes on inside your mind, keeping a constant eye on yourself to make sure you aren’t having the wrong thoughts. Good luck with that.
But it’s not just the books. Even psychotherapists that I speak with usually have much more to say about emotional injury than about emotional healing, and they get vague when I ask them, “So where exactly does healing come from?” They say a few words about “working it through,” or “going it over again from an adult perspective,” or “gaining insight,” but not much that’s concrete comes out.
There are some alternative therapies, including especially a genre known as “body-centered” ones, that are showing some promising healing power. But even those are rarely having the depth of positive effect that we’re all craving.
In short, there is a general lack of information available about how to heal, and especially about how to love the process of healing rather than experiencing it as a chore. It’s time for those specifics, and that is what The Joyous Recovery, along with the book that follows it, The Emotional Immune Response, are all about.
(3) “This is just the way life is. Life is hard. We came into the world alone and we leave it alone. You need to accept it.”
You can accept that if you want to. I don’t choose to, because I think it’s total crap. My life, for example, has been mostly terrific for over a decade. Maybe for some reason it’s going to be much harder from now on — that certainly could happen — but the great years I’ve already had will always be mine; it’s too late to take those away from me, they already happened.
As for “we come into the world alone,” no statement could be more preposterous. We come into the world literally inside of the body of another human being — our mother — beginning as an actual part of her, and then we gradually separate into an individual that can survive outside of our mother’s body. And even after we’re born, years go by before we are capable of surviving with almost constant assistance from other human beings. How could we possible come into the world less alone than we do?
As for dying alone, we manage to avoid having that happen for the vast majority of the human race. Most people are accompanied by one or more of their loved ones when they pass on.
Look at wild animals. Do they seem to spend most of their lives suffering? No. Certainly parts of their lives are painful, but mostly they seem to be doing pretty well. Why would the human being be the only animal on the planet destined to spend most of its life in pain?
Yes, modern life has become quite painful, because humans have been driven out of the ways of life we are naturally designed for, including have been driven largely away from our connections to each other. But that doesn’t mean life is inherently that way. We can heal, and our world can heal.
And in fact healing has become an urgent project, not just for you or for me but for everyone, as you may well have noticed.
(4) “Life could never be happy all the time. There will always be pain and suffering.”
Duh. But so what? We don’t need to be happy all the time, we don’t need lives that are pain-free. What we need is lives where the happy times outweigh the sad ones, where we live with meaning and purpose, and where we feel connected to the human race, to all that lives, and to all that exists. When our lives contain these elements we feel fulfilled, and that’s what we’re really wanting. And this we absolutely can have.
So what’s different about The Joyous Recovery? What is this path to healing that says I don’t have to slog through my deep issues, that I don’t have to focus on “facing up” to dark awful truths, that sdoens’t require me to stew in my faults and “work on myself” to fix what’s wrong?
Point One: We’re In This Together
The Joyous Recovery is not a self-help book. In fact, I believe the entire concept of “self-help” is mistaken. Not only does your recovery not have to be a solitary project, the reality is that it can’t be; healing on your own will only move you small distances, if it even moves you at all. This is why consumers of self-help literature keep feeling like they’ve found the answer, then the benefits of whatever new approach they are trying start to fade over time, so they hungrily grab up the next self-help approach that comes down the line. Emotional healing is collective. Either we heal in large numbers or we don’t heal much at all.
Human beings are not mountain lions. Throughout almost the entirety of human history, we have been born into tribes and clans where our membership was secure from the moment we emerged into the world. We are a species of animal that watches over each other, that shares food, that sleeps piled together, that cares for the sick, that gathers for wedding and funerals. It is only in the last 3% or so of our history that we have not lived in this manner, and this means that the need and desire to live in community is genetically programmed into us at the deepest levels.
The reason we are longing for connection is that we were built to live connected.
As I will be explaining farther on, so much of why we are feeling so wounded and unhappy is because of ways that connection in our lives broke down, or because it failed to exist in the first place. Either the people who were supposed to be making sure we were well were hurting us instead, or there just wasn’t anyone that was focusing much on our wellness, or both. Since aloneness is one of the most profound sources of our injuries — perhaps the single most profound source — it’s not surprising that we don’t heal well alone.
And it’s not your fault that you keep trying to make changes in your life and many or most of those improvements slip away from you. Try to stop dumping on yourself about the resolutions you haven’t been able to stick with, the diets you haven’t stayed on, the exercise programs you’ve dropped off of. You aren’t a weak person, so it isn’t your weakness that’s at fault when these efforts don’t work.
As I was writing The Joyous Recovery, I was simultaneously launching the Peak Living Network (PLN). PLN is a free global network for anyone who chooses to be part of it. Our mission is to support each other’s healing and recovery in thoughtful, aware, successful ways. This book will be far more likely to lead you toward your dreams if you become part of the Peak Living Network, or of some other community that consciously supports mutual healing.
The Peak Living Network is here to support your healing. Through the network and our website you can find, entirely free:
* peer-led support groups
* peer-led discussion groups
* articles and brochures
* an online healing forum
* people to meet with for one-on-one support sessions (explained in Chapter ___)
For very reasonable costs you can also find:
* PLN books
* classes on The Joyous Recovery healing approach taught by certified instructors
* weekend healing retreats
* larger regional or national Peak Living Network gatherings
For more information, see the Peak Living Network appendix at the back of this book, and visit PeakLivingNetwork.org.
The core activity of the Peak Living Network is “splitting time,” which we also call “co-counseling.” I am going to be explaining how to work with a partner to do sessions where you split the time in half, where one person is the speaker during the first half while the other person listens and gives support, and then you switch roles for the second half of the time. Learning how to co-counsel skillully and effectively is a lifetime learning process, and the better you get at it, the more you will be amazed by its power to transform your life.
Throughout this book, I will periodically return to ideas about how you can increase connection in your life, so that your healing can happen in a sea of love and encouragement. You will find the difference in your progress to be immeasurable.
Point Two: You Aren’t Broken, So You Don’t Need to Be Fixed
There’s a big difference between thinking:
“I need to change the things that are wrong with me, because those parts are bad,”
“I need to heal so that I can enjoy my life more and give more love to others.”
What do people’s emotional struggles consist of? Mostly, things like:
being downhearted much of the time
having low energy or low motivation
feeling ashamed or embarrassed about who you are
feeling unattractive or unappealing
believing you aren’t very smart
feeling afraid, feeling that your fears are limiting your life
feeling unpleasantly full of anger, feeling a lot of frustrated rage
feeling powerless to defend ourselves or our loved ones from wrongs that are being done
feeling powerless to stop behaving in ways that are harmful to ourselves, such as eating unhealthfully or smoking or withdrawing from social contact or sabotaging our own progress in life
This list doesn’t cover everything, but most of what we go through fits in here somewhere.
And these elements, whether we carry just a few of the or whether we are burdened by them all, are signs of ways in which we have been hurt. These are the effects of traumatic emotional injury. The great majority of the time these emotional struggles are the products of wounds that have happened over and over again to us as we have gone through life, with particular damage done when they kept occurring during our childhoods.
Moreover, these effects didn’t come from small things. They grow out of experiences that were devastating to us when they happened. As we move into adulthood, we tend to gradually block out how soul-assaulting many of the wrongs we experienced really were.
It isn’t your fault that you developed distressing effects from outrages and heartbreaks. We all need to stop blaming ourselves, and each other, for the injuries we are carrying.
You may ask the question, “But what if I’m behaving in ways that are really hurting other people, such as much children?” By way of response, I’m going to put our emotional problems in three categories:
1) Ways that we chronically feel bad or empty
2) Ways that we chronically behave in ways that are bad for us
3) Ways that we chronically behave in ways that are harmful to others.
For now, I’m just talking about numbers 1 and 2 above. Number 3 has to be thought about somewhat differently, and we’ll come back to that in chapter ___. But even for number 3, I’m going to say that seeing yourself as broken or bad is not likely to help your progress. And for numbers 1 and 2, self-blame will get sharply in the way of your progress every time.
Human healing happens most powerfully when we feel connected to our strengths. If from the outset we’re made to feel that we need a repair job, how will we able to focus on what we do well and where our blessings are?
As you will see, I don’t believe that positive thinking is the solution. We need lots of space to allow ourselves to feel how bad we really feel, and not to be constantly pressured to “look on the bright side.” You will see as we go along that I consider it important not to walk around pretending that everything is okay. But the thing is, on a deeper level you are okay. I’m going to be encouraging you to do a balancing act, where you:
keep one foot delicately placed in the realities of today’s challenges
keep the other foot rooted, as much as you can, in the profound truth of who you really are
And who you really are is the same person you were when you were born; loving, open, full of energy, and with a vast capacity for intelligence.
Point Three: To Give Is to Receive
If you go see a therapist, the discussion is all about you. The therapist doesn’t open up with much or at all about his or her own feelings or challenges, and you aren’t there to provide help. In some ways this is nice. You probably don’t get listened to anywhere else in your life with this kind of focused attention, especially not for an hour at a time. Some new things get to happen in your thinking, and in your feelings, from being able to attend fully to yourself, and do so with support. And you don’t have to worry about whether you’re giving enough back, because you aren’t expected to give anything but your payment.
But at the same time, something’s a little wrong here. A message is accidentally being sent that says, “Some people in the world are helpers, and other people are in need of help, and you are one of the ones who needs help.” This in turn implies that the therapist has special healing knowledge and powers that you don’t.
So while the structure of a therapist-client relationship supports healing in certain ways, it interferes with it in others. What tends to work better is to set up a healing path where, from the start, we are assuming that you have as much to give as to receive. And we mean now, not just at some point in the future. Your own healing is accelerated by the contributions you make to the healing of others. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to wait “until I have it together enough that I can have something to give to other people.”
Being a force for other people’s recovery helps our own process because:
* it helps us to see who we really are: smart, capable people with a lot to give, not helpless people who need to be endlessly rescued
* when we help strengthen the people around us, their increased wellness then comes back to help us; we’re helping them become better helpers for us
* it helps us to heal injuries we carry from times when we didn’t get to give enough caring, not just times when we didn’t receive enough caring
This last point, by the way, is one that I don’t hear mentioned anywhere, and it is a crucial one. People don’t just get hurt by not getting the love that they need; they get just as wounded from not having the opportunity to give the love that they feel in their hearts, and to have that love valued and treasured. This is true for children, not just for adults. Children need to feel that their love is noticed and taken in by other people, that it is taken seriously, and that it makes a difference. This is a huge challenge because most adults in our times are reluctant t let children have an impact on their lives, to take in what children have to give.
Now, let’s suppose that you already are a giving style of person, and that you’re actually feeling a little burnt out on all the time you spend listening to other people, attending to their needs, and trying to help them with their problems. If so, you may feel that the last thing you need for your healing is to be giving even more. And in a sense you’re right.
But in The Joyous Recovery I’m going to be teaching you a new way of giving – with some specific structures in place – that you’ll find doesn’t drain you. In fact, it leaves you feeling more filled up than you did without it. The difference is that we’ll be setting it up so that:
* You get reminded often of how much your gifts are appreciated.
* The people you are supporting are actually moving in their lives. So you don’t have to feel that sense of burden that comes from holding people up through struggles in their lives that never seem to actually improve.
* Equal exchange is built into how we do things, so that you can feel confident that you are going to be receiving support in equal measure to how you are giving it.
Bear with me; after a few chapters, you’ll start to see how this is all going to work. And it does.
Point Four: “Just Do It” Doesn’t Do It
Bumper stickers often point to some kernel of truth, but the wisdom gets ruined by trying to fit it into such a small number of words. If we could “just do it,” we would. If New Years Resolutions truly worked we’d all be physically fit, caught up with our taxes, out of debt, and making great progress on that novel we’d always said we would write some day.
At the same time, the sticker has a point. Why? Because it also doesn’t work to keep waiting until we “feel ready” to make the changes that we so desperately crave in our lives. It’s just too easy to slip into waiting a lifetime for the right time to take those big risks, to run with those great ideas, to let our hearts show. It is important to seize the moment, and sometimes it really is time to stop whining.
The solution to this apparent contradiction is to stop seeing these two aspects of life — getting ready to take steps vs. actually taking those steps — as a forced choice. These are not mutually exclusive priorities in our lives. The reality is that both can — and in fact should — go on simultaneously. The Joyous Recovery teaches how to create a constant back and forth between:
taking decisive action in your life, moving forward, living fully
taking time to feel your fear and sadness, to heal, and to grow
When we stop thinking of these as separate processes, one that’s better than the other (take your pick), or one that’s for now and the other for later, we discover that a wonderful interplay is possible.
In fact, the cycle that I will be teaching involves four elements, not two:
1) Increasing your awareness of your personal strengths and your awareness of the love and support you can find from other people
2) Taking time to feel and process our weaknesses and wounds; that whole internal landscape where we don’t feel confident or strong, where we don’t feel whole, where in fact we may feel profoundly shattered
3) Allowing time and space for deep crying (not just weeping a few tears) and other forms of deep emotional release
4) Taking decisive, courageous action to improve our lives, the lives of others, and the condition of our world
You won’t necessarily start at number 1 — you can start at any of these four places depending on where you’re at on a given day — but you will find that you do tend to cycle roughly through these four phases, and that the phases follow more or less this order. You may cycle through them in a day sometimes, while at other periods in your life it seems like you need a few weeks at each one. The pace doesn’t matter as long as the cycle keeps moving.
Most healing approaches are held back because they are missing one or more of these pieces, or because they emphasize one of them way out of proportion to the others. Number 3 above is entirely missing from most healing paths, and the whole train gets badly held back if that car isn’t hooked up, as we will discuss soon.
The most important point for now, though, is to stop blaming yourself when you can’t “just do it.” There are ways to proceed where you can be much kinder to yourself, and that are far more likely to get you where you want to go.
Point Five: Huge Goals and Tiny Ones are Equally Important
If I were to ask someone, “Why do you want to heal emotionally?” I’d be likely to hear answers along the lines of:
“So my life wouldn’t feel so painful and frustrating.”
“So I could have more energy and motivation.”
“So I wouldn’t have these terrible nightmares.”
“So I could stop binge eating.”
“So I could get out of this emptiness and longing.”
All good. These are terrific goals, pointing you toward reclaiming the life you deserve and have a right to. And to accomplish any of these would feel huge.
Yet at the same time these goals primarily touch on just one aspect of life: your relationship with yourself. Consider some other realms of life that are just as important to your well-being:
How can I grow closer to other people?
How can I stand up for myself better?
How can I get clearer about what I want to accomplish on this earth?
How can I make more of a difference to people?
How can I help the people around me to pull together?
How can I have an impact on the crises that are facing my world?
Some of you may now feel an urge to quickly put this book down. The last three or four questions on the list may especially bring up a sensation of, “I can’t possibly take on those kinds of concerns right now, I’m barely making it through each day. The last thing I need is the weight of the world on my shoulders!”
Another way I hear this sense of barely-making-it summed up is in the common saying, “I have to get myself together before I can think about helping others – in fact, before I can think about anything else at all.”
It does indeed make sense to be very careful about what you take on. And there are certain periods in life when we really have to just focus on our own healing and not think about much of anything else because we just can’t.
But there are also risks to narrowing our view in this way, even temporarily. Notice some of the messages that we are sending ourselves from this outlook:
“I’m in such bad shape that I have nothing to offer others.”
“My healing is all up to me.”
“Dealing with relationships is just too stressful at this point.”
“The world doesn’t need me right now.”
These ways of thinking can create substantial obstacles to healing. As I explained earlier, we run the risk of rooting ourselves in what’s wrong with us. The result is that the whole, “I have to get myself together first” approach, as popular as it is – and as much as it’s encouraged by many therapists and self-help books — often doesn’t work well.
The Joyous Recovery approach is going to encourage you to start gently – not roughly – leading yourself to start thinking on four levels simultaneously:
* my wishes and goals for myself
* my wishes and goals for the people I care about (which often includes the goal to simply have more people that we care about in our lives, to find them and building connections to them in other words)
* my wishes and goals for my surroundings (my neighborhood, my community, my work place, my spiritual community, my wider social world)
* my wishes and goals for the world I live in
There are ways to think into these areas that will not add to your burden, and I’ll guide you through how to do that. And what you’ll find is that, rather than slowing your inner healing processes down, learning to move in and out of these four realms will get your recovery speeding along like never before.
One way to sum up this piece of what I’m explaining is that I would like to steer you away from thinking of healing as a process that you go through now so that you can live better later. Instead, think of healing as a way of living that will probably be with you your entire life, and at the least will be with you for many years. So you don’t want to wait for later to live. The point of The Joyous Recovery is to start leaning into life right now. Yes, we do heal to live, but we also live to heal. And this interplay is actually what works best.
Point Six: Deep Release is What Greases the Wheels
The sixth — and last — point in this section is the most overlooked of all, missing from virtually every well-known healing approach; and yet it is probably the most important concept of all. All human beings — and that includes you and me — come into the world built to heal. Healing emotionally, not just physically, is literally part of our bodies’ physical design, and is in fact woven into how our immune system works.
Our bodies are primed to heal emotional distress through deep, prolonged, visceral releases. There is no question that these releases are inherent, because babies and children exhibit them without ever having been taught anything about them. These processes are present because they are necessary to us. The specific forms they take are the following:
* Deep crying and sobbing, which is primarily a healer of grief and longing
* Deep trembling, usually accompanied by frightened outbursts and agitated physical movements and often accompanied by sweating, which is primarily a healer of deep fear or terror
* Deep laughter, which again is often accompanied by sweating, which is primarily a healer of fear and embarrassment at less-than-terrifying levels
* Raging, which generally with intense angry noises and vigorous physical movements, which is primarily a healer of anger (this is a tricky one, as I will be explaining, because needing to release rage should never be used as an excuse for behaving in ways that frighten or intimidate other people)
* Yawning, often accompanied by a desire to stretch, which is a mysterious part of this process and no one really knows for sure exactly what it does (but it is clearly one of the inherent emotional releases, for reasons that I will return to)
No other healing experience open to human beings has quite the transforming power that the inherent releases carry when they get a chance to work as deeply as they were designed to do. They are as central to lasting recovery as the immune system is to physical healing. In fact, they are interwoven in many intriguing ways with our physical immune system, as I explain in detail in my book The Emotional Immune Response.
Fortunately, though, there isn’t any need to choose between these releases and other approaches to healing. One of my central messages is, “Stick with whatever you have found that brings healing to you. You don’t need to abandon your practices or beliefs. Just add deep release to whatever path you are on. It makes everything work better.”
The inherent releases have been massively misunderstood. One misconception is that these releases are ways of expressing emotion, which they actually have almost nothing to do with. We express emotion with words, songs, paintings, tones of voice, physical movements, and many other channels. But the inherent releases exist to heal pain, not to express it. And that leads to a crucial understanding: releasing pain cannot substitute for expressing it, and expressing pain cannot substitute for releasing it. These are two different processes that play very important but distinct roles.
A second crucial misconception is that the inherent releases just dissipate distress. In this view, vigorous exercise can play the same role as a deep sobbing cry does, since they can both leave us feeling clearer and both seem to have driven our emotional pain away. But actually two very different things have happened. The exercise has made the distress dissipate – which could lead to a better day, so it may well have been just the right choice for that moment – but the deep cry has actually healed a significant piece of the distress, so that it’s gone. And over time, it becomes clear that the exercise cannot do what the crying can. Dissipation and discharge play two very distinct roles in our lives.
The releases don’t tend to do much unless they go deep. That’s why you may sometimes cry all night and not wake up feeling any better. Weeping won’t do it. We have to relearn how to cry like babies, no holds barred, busting it all out of ourselves like an avalanche.
The Joyous Recovery will teach you some important ways to bring deep release to your life, It will also help you feel confident in responding when someone else starts to shed their pain, so that you feel like you know how to help and what to say.
If you can succeed in opening up these natural channels, all your other efforts will seem so much easier that you’ll hardly feel like you’re living the same life you were before. We could say that the deepest underpinnings of the Peak Living Network approach are love and release. Our inherent nature, including the natural wisdom of our bodies, leads the way.
You now know the six tenets of emotional healing upon which The Joyous Recovery is based. We will be exploring them in various ways throughout the pages ahead. These tenets create the foundation for building a healing process that is rewarding, connected, and successful. And above all, they lead to a recovery that is full of joy and excitement, rather than one that is dominated by a sense of slogging through a swamp in hopes of reaching green lands somewhere in the far distance. We can’t do all of our healing today – in fact we will probably be healing for as long as we live — but the joy of regaining the pieces of ourselves that we lost, the joy of regaining our excitement and engagement with life, can begin today. And if it can, then why not do it that way?
Establishing and Maintaining Boundaries
This is a brief introduction to key points about boundaries. If, after you read this, you find that you would like more detail, and some great worksheets to guide you in establishing stronger — yet still flexible — personal boundaries, I recommend the terrific materials you can find at the boundary section of the Positive Psychology website.
1) You have to the right to decide who touches you in any way. For people you choose to allow to touch you, you have the right to determine what level of intimacy they touch you with. This is an inalienable right; you can’t lose it. So no one has the right to say, “Well, I get to go ahead and touch you because of something you did or said, or because you owe me money, or because I’m angry at you, or because you owe me something emotionally.” You can never owe anyone your body.
2) You have a similar and equally powerful right to decide who enters other realms that are private to you; who knows your inner thoughts and feelings, who reads your diary, who looks through your belongings, who is in your house or car or bedroom. In other words, someone doesn’t have to touch you to violate your boundaries. Demanding to know what you think or feel when you don’t want to share that, or telling you what you (supposedly) think or feel, are violations of your boundaries.
3) Children whose boundaries are respected, and who are supported to set the boundaries they want and need, learn to establish the boundaries they crave and to know when they’re being violated.
4) On the other hand, people who have grown up having their boundaries frequently or severely violated can lose their sense of where there boundaries are and where they want them to be. They can develop difficulty recognizing when their boundaries have been violated. They may blame themselves when they feel violated by others. They may start to feel a generalized mistrust toward everyone and, for example, may come to dislike being touched even by trusted people.
These effects can become even more severe for people who not only grew up with boundary violations, but were blamed for those violations (“It’s your own fault I’m invading you”) or who had to listen to those violations being justified (“This shouldn’t bother you, there’s nothing wrong with what I’m doing to you”).
5) Boundaries are like a gate to our inner world. When we have strong, healthy boundaries, we feel in control of who comes close to us and who doesn’t. We feel like our gate is working well to let the right people in and keep everyone else out. When we have unclear boundaries or feel that we don’t have the right to defend our boundaries, the gate doesn’t work well; we end up having people coming into our inner world that we don’t want there. And we may also end up shutting certain people out that we later wish we had made more room for or had let in closer.
6) It isn’t healthful for us to allow intimacy, physically or emotionally, that we don’t really want. At the same time, it isn’t healthful for us to keep intimacy away that we would have benefited from. However, no one has the right to tell us which intimacy would be good for us, or to pressure to accept intimacy we don’t want. It’s entirely up to us to decide when and how we want to make that gate open more, if that’s one of our goals.
7) Healing well depends on safety. Therefore it’s very important in the Peak Living Network that we respect each other’s boundaries, and that no pressure ever be used on anyone to open up more than they choose to. Awareness and knowledge about boundaries needs to be shared and spread through our network.
8) If you feel that your boundaries have been violated during a co-counseling session, don’t split time with that person again until you’re fully confident that the violation will not be repeated. If you believe that the violation was deliberate, please tell what happened to at least one other trusted person in the network, and consider together how best to confront the behavior. If you feel that your boundaries have been violated in any other PLN activity, the same principles apply.
9) If anyone you meet at a PLN event, or with whom you meet to co-counsel, asks you to get together socially, whether the intention is romantic or not, that is inappropriate during at least the first few months they have known you and been interacting with you in the network. PLN is not to be used to seek partners; we are not a dating club. Anyone who is repeatedly approaching other people in the network for social contact or for dates should be asked to leave the network.
10) People who were already friends before becoming part of PLN are of course welcome to continue their social connection, and the same goes for romantic partners. People who come to know each other through PLN and decide mutually that they would like to have a friendship or become dating partners should consider doing so only after they have worked together within the network for several months and have had a substantial connection over that time. We have to ask people to respect this guideline so that we can trust that everyone in PLN is participating in the network to pursue their own healing and not for other purposes.
In The Healing Partnership you can find a longer discussion of why maintaining good boundaries is important to the healthful functioning of the Peak Living Network.
One point I wish to reiterate: You do not, under any circumstances, owe your body or other aspects of your privacy to anyone for any reason. Anyone who tries to convince you that you owe them intimacy or access, or who tries to convince you that intimacy with them will help your healing, is behaving exploitatively. Get distance between yourself and that person as quickly as you can, and don’t keep a secret about what the person said or did; find at least one trusted person that you can talk to about what happened, and consider whether you should take further action, including telling other people.
Using Peak Living Network Principles With Children
Are children a regular part of your life? Whether you are a parent, grandparent, daycare provider, or family friend you can apply the central principles from The Joyous Recovery and the Peak Living Network to enhance your relationships with young people and to facilitate their healing from the emotional wounds that life brings.
Most of the concepts from the book, in fact, require no modification in order to bring them into children’s lives. One of the central concepts of The Joyous Recovery is that children are already full human beings; they are not preparing to become human beings. Practice referring to children as “people.” Notice how unfamiliar and odd it feels, and reflect on why that’s true.
All Peak Living Network principles apply to children and teens. That means we need to talk to them with respect, as equals. We need to dramatically improve how well we listen to them. We need to stop flooding them with advice and “wisdom,” stop giving philosophical responses to their pains and discomforts. We need to recognize how deep their emotional pain is — it is every bit as deep as ours. We need to recognize their need for emotional healing.
Perhaps partly due to my career in the human service world, I all too often hear adults saying, “Children are resilient. They can work through things. They bounce back.” Although these statements are true strictly speaking, they are also misleading and insensitive. Children suffer terribly when painful losses, invasions, and injustices happen in their lives. The above statements are often used as a way for adults to distance themselves from that suffering, to decide that it isn’t really so bad, to gloss over it.
Furthermore, children’s resilience is in no way guaranteed. As the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study showed so persuasively, children carry permanent harm from their emotional injuries unless they get the opportunity to heal from them. They carry those effects right into adulthood, with a toll taken on their happiness, their relationships, and their physical health. If you doubt it, read the study. Healing is not automatic and inevitable; it only happens when the right conditions arise in the child’s life – just as is true for an adult.
FIRST AND MOST CRUCIAL POINT: QUIT STOPPING CHILDREN FROM CRYING
One of the greatest causes of misery in the life of a parent — perhaps the biggest cause of all for some — is the effort to stop children from crying. If we could make this one change in how we raise children, our experience of parenting would be as different as the change from desert to jungle — and the lives of children would completely change.
Here’s how a typical “Steven is having a bad day” kind of day tends to go. (I’m using a son in this example because boys tends to be denied crying even more than girls are, but even girls are barely permitted to cry.) The four-year-old boy doesn’t seem quite himself at breakfast, and after his bowl of cereal he announces, “I want a cookie!” His parents peer at him like he has two heads. “When,” Dad says with immediate exasperation, “have you ever had a cookie at breakfast? You’re out of your mind.”
But Steven’s mind appears to be made up, and he demands over and over again, and then starts to pound his fist on the table. Both of his parents yell at him to cut it out, and he bursts into tears. They ignore him for as long as they can, but five minutes later he is still crying and throwing things. Dad leaves the room furiously, leaving Mom to deal with the situation, including the two older siblings to get ready for school. She is at the end of her wits, so she tells Steven that he can have a cookie “just this once” as long as he promises to settle down right away. He squeaks out his agreement, grabs the biggest cookie he can find, and dives into it.
In the afternoon, Mom picks Steven up from pre-school after she gets out of work, and as they’re leaving the teacher take Mom aside to let her know that Steven has been a behavior problem all day. She balls him out on the drive home for misbehaving at school. Steven starts to cry. She tells him he’s not going to get out of this by crying, and that he’d better cut the crying out right away or he’s going to be in even bigger trouble. So he chokes himself off.
After dinner, Steven knocks down an elaborate farm scenario that his seven-year-old sister has created with toy animals. He starts crying when he gets yelled at, leading Dad to say to him, “What are you crying about? You knock Anna’s toys over and you’re crying? Get up in your room right now!”
Steven lies up in his bed miserably sobbing his eyes out for quite a while. He keeps trying to stop crying, but he can’t hold it back and he keeps bursting into tears again. When he can finally stop he emerges and manages to be a fairly normal part of family life for the rest of the evening.
Sound familiar? Many parents will recognize Steven’s Bad Day as one of many that they have lived. None of it needed to happen. Steven’s problem through this whole day was simply this: he needed to have a big, deep cry, while feeling loved and supported. That’s it, that’s the whole deal.
There could be any number of reasons why he needed this cry. Children need a big, hysterical, melt-down kind of cry at least once or twice a week, and sometimes more. (In fact, we all do, adults of all ages included.) During a stressful period or following a trauma, many children need to “fall apart” and cry hard roughly once per day. If this need is understood and supported, and the child is offered some physical closeness or holding and treated with kindness and respect, the needed cry will happen and then everything will be okay after that; both parent and child will enjoy their day.
Did Steven know that he needed a cry? Not exactly. A four-year-old is not likely to have that level of internal awareness. (Most adults don’t realize that their crabbiness is coming from the need for a good melt-down, so we can’t expect children to know.) But a powerful unconscious force is driving Steven to angrily demand a cookie precisely because on some level he knows the demand will be denied. He is trying, without realizing it, to set up an opportunity – an excuse, you might say – to have a good cry. Deep inside he knows he really needs it. If his parents had held firm in denying the cookie, but also had been loving toward him while he pitched his fit, he would have poured out the tears he needed to be free of, and the whole rest of the day would have gone in a much sunnier direction.
Since Steven got stopped from crying in the morning – by being given a cookie that he did not need – he felt driven to create other potentially cathartic situations throughout the day. He continued to try every few hours, not only making his own life miserable but taking a number of other children and adults down with him at home and at school.
He did finally get a little of the release he needed, upstairs alone on his bed. But children don’t cry nearly as much as they really need to if they are forced to be alone and unsupported while they do it, and furthermore when they have already absorbed a lot of shame about needing to cry. And on the long road to finally getting to have this (partial) melt-down, Steven has accumulated more hurt, shame, disapproval and criticism from adults, guilt about how he has treated others (because hurting other people feels bad), and painful loneliness. The cost has been too high.
Children need to be both permitted and supported to cry as often as they need to, as deeply as they need to, and as long as they need to. Supporting them includes looking at them in a loving way, and putting a caring hand on them unless they don’t want that. If they are crying hard, they will usually need and want to be held.
Not that it’s important not to give into the child’s unreasonable demands. For example, if a girl starts to cry because she’s told that it’s her turn to clean up the entryway to the house, and she cries about it for twenty minutes, be there for her and love her. But afterwards make sure she does her chore. This is crucial. By doing so you ensure that crying remains a path to healing and empowerment rather than having it get mixed up with hopelessness, victimization, or manipulation. In this way you also communicate to your child that you see her as a strong person, and that crying has nothing to do with weakness; in effect, you’re saying to her, “I know you needed a good cry, but I also know you’re a strong person and you can totally handle tidying up the entryway now.”
The result of proceeding in this way is usually that the child will have an extended cry or tantrum. These are essential innate healing releases that I explain in detail in Chapter 8 of The Joyous Recovery. These are actually by far the most important healing experiences in the child’s life. They may go on for 10 or 20 or 30 minutes, which will feel like an extraordinarily long time to the adult, but are actually entirely normal and healthful – in fact essential. Crying or tantrums may sometimes go on as long as an hour, although in my experience doesn’t happen often even in children who are facing serious trauma in their lives.
Adults find it hard to listen supportively to children’s crying or tantrums, largely because the children’s releases are triggering our feelings of desperate need for the same releases. Our response to those triggers is typically to become angry or annoyed. Our perception of time also gets distorted, so that when a child has been crying for ten minutes we feel like it’s been half an hour.
I want to emphasize that children who are allowed and supported (the love and support are key for this to work) to cry deeply and at length become less whiny, less likely to fall apart over small things, and more cooperative. In other words, exactly the opposite happens of what adults tend to fear will happen. I’ve had numerous adults say to me, for example, “Well, I can’t have my child think that s/he can just go bursting into tears every time there’s the slightest disappointment or frustration in life, and that’s what s/he’s going to learn if I put up with that.” But that isn’t what actually happens — try it and you’ll see.
The confusion is coming partly from the mistaken belief that children want to fall apart, and therefore will constantly do so if we “allow it.” But children want to be well, just like adults. When they try to cry, they’re attempting to heal, they’re not trying to get away with something.
OTHER POINTS IN APPLYING PLN PRINCIPLES WITH CHILDREN AND TEENS
1) Just as The Joyous Recovery discouraged you from analyzing adults, it’s best not to analyze kids — no one likes to be analyzed unless they’re requesting it. Avoid telling kids what you think they’re “really” feelings, and avoid telling them that you think what they’re feeling “is really about something else.” Kids, like adults, feel disrespected and controlled when someone else tells them what they’re supposedly feeling, and will often respond angrily, as they have every right to do. If their feelings are connected to other feelings, that’s for them to discover and express. If you have an agenda — namely, that you believe they are carrying another injury that you would like them to work through — I can assure you that you’re much more likely to get your wish by letting them feel what they need to feel now, and let them follow their own path to where those feelings lead.
Another way to think about this is: If today is the right day for them process some connected issue, which may indeed be older or deeper than what their immediate feelings are about, their own feeling path will take them there. If you give them love and support, but they stay right in the feelings that are about today’s events, then that’s what they need to do.
When my daughter was three years old, a neighbor’s dog got into our yard, started playing with my daughter’s favorite inflatable ball, and popped it. She saw it happen out the window, and the cried absolutely hysterically for a long time, perhaps as much as half an hour. Then she shifted — with no lead from us — into crying about how much she missed a young cousin that she used to be in daycare with every day. Then, a little later, something quite remarkable happened: she started to speak aloud to the dog, as if the dog were with us (but obviously understanding that it wasn’t), saying repeatedly, “It’s okay Serge, I crying I miss Sophie.” (She wasn’t saying the word “because” yet at that point.) She didn’t want the dog to feel bad about how hard she’d been crying about the popped ball!
We never interpreted her feelings for her at any point in the process of that evening. And if we had, our analysis would have just gotten in the way. Kids know, though it may be largely unconscious, what they need to do. Love them, respect them, avoid condescension, and stay out of their way. They’ll get to where they need to get.
2) Similarly, don’t tell kids, “I think you need a good cry.” A comment of that kind doesn’t help the cry to happen; all it does is make the child feel like they have no emotional privacy.
3) When kids break into tears during the evening, it’s because they need to cry, not because they need to sleep. (After they cry, they may also need to sleep, of course.) Being tired is not causing them to need to cry; rather, it’s that being tired is creating a space where they feel the grief they’ve accumulated over the course of the day. Please don’t disrespect them by saying, “Ooh, someone needs to go to bed,” or similar comments, which make kids feel put down and belittle their distresses. After they cry, they may be ready for bed, or they may get a new burst of energy and want to keep going for a while.
4) If you start to cry in front of a child – especially your own – he or she may well need some reassurance that you’re okay. Adults generally avoid crying in front of kids, with the unfortunate result that when they do cry, kids assume that something really terrible must be happening. This is a chance to model for them that a person can be crying and yet solidly strong at the same time, countering the message that crying is a sign of weakness or crisis. Just say to the child, “I’m fine, I’m just getting some sadness out of me that needs to come out,” and keep on crying.
5) Don’t talk kids out of their feelings (with reason, with philosophy, and so forth), don’t minimize their feelings, and don’t poke fun at their feelings. Children feel their distresses every bit as intensely as adults do, and often more so. And their reasons for being in pain are every bit as valid and important as adults’ reasons are.
I could write volumes more about this point, but I’ve already discussed it in detail in Chapters 2 and 18 of The Joyous Recovery. I hope you will read those if you haven’t already.
6) Treating someone equally does not mean treating them the same; this is a point about which there is commonly confusion. Children are of equal value to adults, and deserve equally to be taken seriously, but they have different needs in a number of ways. One need that children have is for adults to be in charge.
What I’m asking for is unfamiliar to many adults, and may take some practice. On the one hand, I’m asking you to listen more carefully to kids, to take their opinions much more seriously than normally happens, and to give their preferences much more weight than normally happens. I’m asking you to stop constantly teaching them things; just teach them two or three things a day, and otherwise just let them learn by watching and let them be kids. I’m asking you to learn from them; on a typical day, your kids should teach you as much as you teach them. (My children in many ways have made me the person I am today — I’m not exaggerating.)
On the other hand, I’m asking you to continue being the final authority, and thus not to turn decision-making over to children nor abdicate your adult role. Strive to increase your flexibility, respect, and responsiveness, but continue to remain at the helm. On a deep level, kids want that; they want to feel safe and protected, they want the sense that adults know what they’re doing and are running the show.
Unfortunately, many adults think we have to choose between being disrespectful and dictatorial on the one hand and being kind of wishy-washy on the other. This is a false choice; there’s no need to do either of these things.
Teenagers are in their own category. At this stage in life, they still need adults to be in charge, but many of their decisions do need to be turned over to them. You can’t just turn someone loose the day they turn 18 years old and expect them to be ready to exercise consistently good judgment; help them get ready for that day by letting them make more and more of the judgment calls the closer they get to their majority.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Adults in our times feel a tremendous responsibility to make their children smart and successful, and to impress everyone with how polite and well-behaved their kids are. There is one piece in here that does matter — children really do need to guided to be thoughtful of others, just as adults need to be — but the rest can largely be let go of. Adults spend way too much of their time with kids nowadays teaching them things, making points, improving the child morally, and just generally trying to make the child better. These efforts are largely failing to increase children’s well-being; in fact, they’re largely contributing to children’s stress.
Children and teens, like adults, are mostly fine. I would love to see you stop trying to fix and improve them. Most of what you see as a problem will take care of itself over time if the child is respected, loved, and permitted to heal, especially through crying and the other innate releases. (See Chapter 8 of The Joyous Recovery.) When children are behaving disrespectfully toward you or toward someone else, or are being insensitive about the effects of their actions, interrupt their behavior with firm authority, making it clear that you are setting a limit that isn’t negotiable; but do so without criticism or condescension, and then move on.
I find adults in general kinder to children and teens than they were when I was a kid, but not any more genuinely respectful than they were then. They still seem to feel that they have to talk to children in some kind of special voice (which communicates condescension loudly and clearly, and seems to say “I assume you aren’t very bright!”), when actually it works much better if you speak entirely normally but just avoid big words. Adults typically do better at not being scary than they did when I was young, so that’s a good trend. But it’s okay to be angry with kids; in fact, being angry is often more respectful than the kind of insulting tones that I hear adults take with kids in an exaggerated effort to avoid sounding angry. Your anger won’t scare kids unless you are intimidating them, which you can learn not to by watching your volume and body language.
Spend most of your time with kids, especially your own, having fun with them. Everything can be fun; breakfast, brushing teeth, driving in the car, getting ready for bed, the whole ball of wax. I made plenty of mistakes as a parent, but this is one area where I can say I consistently did really well; I kept asking myself, all day every day, “How could we make this fun?” And you know what? Between my contributions and my children’s contributions, we almost always found a way.
(Except maybe with homework. Don’t get me started on homework; we adults should consider ourselves lucky that, for most of us, our bosses don’t get to send us home with things we have to do for another hour or two in the evening after we’ve finally gotten off work.)
See if you can allow your children to influence your life as much as you influence theirs. They can help you learn:
* How to live in the moment, focused on what you’re doing now
* How to love everything you do, how to make things fun
* How to be spontaneous and creative
* How to be affectionate
* How to be funny and how to appreciate other people’s humor (kids so often have great senses of humor, beginning at the youngest of ages)
Children and teens can also teach you specific skills and interests. Open yourself to learning about things that they’re learning about, and to getting excited about things that they’re excited about. Revel with them in the magic of childhood, and see how much of that magic can spill over into the adult world.
We adults really need it.
Choosing and Working With a Professional Therapist
Some people are fortunate enough, through private resources or through their health coverage, to have the opportunity to have an extended relationship with a professional therapist. A competent and caring professional can bring a wealth of knowledge, experience, and creative technique to bear on assisting you with your personal difficulties. In times of severe emotional crisis or breakdown, a good therapist can be indispensable.
Choosing a therapist involves making judgments similar to those involved in selecting a physician. You need to find someone whose expertise you have confidence in and whose personal style works for you. Like physicians, therapists vary widely in their willingness to put your empowerment at the center of the healing process. Keep looking until you find a therapist who is willing to think with you rather than tell you what to think, and who is open to learning about the inherent releases and other healing principles from the Peak Living Network.
Here are some key characteristics to seek in a therapist:
* Someone who respects you.
Avoid a therapist who seems to feel superior, for example one who assumes that his or her insights about your are more accurate or valuable than your knowledge about yourself. When the therapist disagrees with you about something, his or her tone should sound humble and kind, rather than arrogant or condescending.
* Someone who is warm with you, whose caring you can feel.
Therapy is not a technical process. Yes, a therapist’s skills are important, but they can’t substitute for the human qualities of warmth, humor, and ability to connect. Choose a therapist whom you will look forward to spending time with. Over time you should come to feel that your therapist loves you; otherwise the work you’ll accomplish with him or her will remain quite limited.
* Someone who values and recognizes your strengths.
There is so much that you’ve done well in the past, and that you continue to do well today, whether or not you feel like that’s true. A therapist may sometimes need to push you to examine issues that you’re avoiding, but that should not be the overall tone of the therapy. Frequent attention should be paid to your triumphs and abilities.
* Someone who respects the importance of having you in charge of your own healing process.
Be wary of a therapist who analyzes you whenever you don’t want to do what he or she recommends, perhaps calling your reluctance “denial” or “resistance”. Your therapist should value your sense of what will work and what won’t. (And if you decide to quit working with a particular therapist, do not be swayed if the therapist starts to analyze or pathologize your reasons for wanting to quit. Trust your own decision-making process.)
* Someone who respects the innate healing releases.
Many therapists have been trained to see the key discharge processes as trivial or even as unhealthful. For example, some view crying as “just a stage” that needs to be gotten past, or view anger as a sign of failure to accept reality.
* Someone who has a plan.
You are the ultimate authority in a therapeutic relationship — the therapist works for you, not the other way around — but at the same time the therapist should have a direction in mind, He or she should work with you collaboratively to make a plan of action for your healing. That plan should include steps you will take in your life, not just emotional work you will do in your sessions.
You may find it challenging to find a therapist who works in the above ways — or to re-train your current therapist if you already have one — but you can do it. An increasing number of therapists are undertaking mental health work that recognizes our inner drive toward wellness, that sees our strengths, and that remembers that we live in our bodies, not apart from them. Consider alternative approaches such as expressive therapy (art, dance, music, and theater therapies, for example); body therapy; and wilderness therapy; to name just a few. (These are all established, respected approaches to emotional healing with a professional.)
If you live in a very rural area or just can’t find progressive therapists where you live, consider working with a remote therapist by phone or computer.
Finally, I encourage you to give a copy of The Joyous Recovery to your therapist, and ask him or her to work with you in a way that follows the book’s principles (but on a one-way basis; don’t ask your therapist to co-counsel with you, because that wouldn’t be appropriate for a professional therapist to do). For example, you could do all of the exercises for The Joyous Recovery with the help of a therapist, instead of doing them with a co-counseling partner or on your own.
Talking Man to Man About Sexism
I have met many men over the years, more all the time, who feel motivated to be good allies to women in their liberation. What follows is a guide for men to understanding some of the key dynamics in men’s oppression of women, and how men can best join the fight to overturn it.
Some of what I’ve written here will undoubtedly be hard to hear. You may at times feel angry toward me or defensive; or feel pained for what women experience; or feel guilty or depressed; or feel that I’m minimizing how hard things can be for men (although I never do); or feel that I am in some way against you or against men in general (although I’m not).
Observe these feelings as they go by, release them if you can (in the PLN sense of “release”), and keep on reading. Your ability to build effective alliances with women will be increased if you hang in there with this process; the women who’ve commented on drafts of this article have told me that I’m discussing things that they wish badly for men to grasp.
I am not talking about what men are; I am discussing how men think and act with respect to women. I don’t believe that any of these problems is inherent in men, and I believe that men are, at some level, eager to be find a way out of colluding with this system. But we can’t get out if we aren’t willing to look squarely at what we’re in.
Men’s guilt doesn’t do anything about ending sexism. In some ways it actually makes it worse, as it puts pressure on women to take care of us about how bad we feel about being men. However, the effort to avoid feeling guilty at all costs gets in the way even more than guilt itself does. If we decide to go through a process of confronting how hurtful men have been to women, and become aware of our own collusion, we’re going to experience some guilt; it’s a natural reaction. And guilt feelings are just feelings, the same as any others; avoiding them will only interfere with our ability to think clearly. The solution is to feel and discharge the myriad feelings that come up when women tell the truth.
Intellectualizing also gets in the way. Avoid splitting hairs, quibbling with particular points, or overanalyzing. These are ways to disconnect ourselves emotionally. Keep breathing and try to absorb the big picture.
Finally, we don’t want a man to have the last word on how sexism works. So please follow up your reading of this article by reading feminist women writers and listening to what the females in your life are expressing about their experience.
WHAT IS SEXISM?
Sexism is a massive system for the exploitation of women. This exploitation takes economic, physical, and emotional forms.
Economic exploitation means that women do the greater part of the World’s labor but receive a tiny portion of the world’s resources. The UN estimates that women do over 70% of the world’s labor yet own less than 8% of the wealth. This exploitation is on a spectrum, ranging from outright slavery on one end to low wages and minimal opportunities for advancement on the other. In the United States, the vast majority of the poor are women and children, and the percentage is increasing.
The exploitation of women’s bodies includes, in particular, sexual exploitation and childbearing exploitation. Sexual exploitation means that women are used as objects for men’s sexual pleasure, with little regard for their own humanity, wishes, or desires. The exploitation of women’s reproductive capabilities means both requiring women to carry children when they don’t want to, and prohibiting them from having children when they do want to. Prostitution and pornography are examples of ways in which economic exploitation and the exploitation of women’s bodies come together.
Finally, emotional exploitation of women means using women to nurture men and children emotionally, while men return only a tiny portion of that love, support, and listening. Women pour so much into the people they love.
Because women do not consent easily to these kinds of exploitation, a huge apparatus of male violence against women is required in order to keep the system in place. (No oppressed group bows to oppression without being terrorized.) This violence includes rape, battering, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, pornography, and the confinement of women to jails and mental institutions.
The scale of this violence is something that men find difficult to grasp, so it is important to gather together the whole picture.
Rape: In the U.S., at least one women in four will be raped at some point in her lifetime.
Battering: About 20% of heterosexual women report that violence on the part of their intimate partners is a recurring problem.
Sexual abuse: One in four girls is sexually abused by her 18th birthday.
Imprisonment: Over 90% of the women at the Massachusetts women’s prison in Framingham are formerly battered, and most are imprisoned for acts related to their efforts to survive or escape the battering situation (such as forging checks for groceries). Several are imprisoned for long sentences for killing their batterers in order to save their own lives.
Confinement to institutions: The population of mental institutions has typically been over 60% female; women have been defined as crazy by the male dominated mental health system for failing to conform to male norms, or for becoming “hysterical” in the face of rape, battering, or sexual abuse.
Pornography: Hustler, a mainstream pornographic magazine that enjoys particular popularity on college campuses, portrays women being beaten, electrocuted, raped, mutilated, and put through meat grinders, and shows them getting sexual pleasure from such experiences. Real live women are raped, tortured, and murdered in the process of production of pornography.
The term “the war between the sexes” is mistaken; we’re talking about a war on women.
Women are in no sense passive victims of this system. In fact, it is a testament to the courage and tirelessness of women’s resistance to male domination that it takes so much violence to keep women down. Women have carried out periodic revolutionary uprisings throughout the 5,000 year history of male domination, one of which began in the late 1960’s. Individual women fight every day to reclaim their rights.
A tremendous cultural apparatus also makes the exploitation of women possible. Women’s accomplishments vanish from historical, scientific, literary, and artistic texts. Men speak for women who are standing right next to them. Maleness is the norm. Images of women in media portray them as inept, irrational, backbiting, and weak, or show them as humiliated, half-naked objects for men‘s use. Imagine existing in an environment where you rarely saw images of yourself other than these.
With all of the above in mind, we need to make the crucial distinction between sexism and sex-role stereotyping. Sex-role stereotyping is when girls are put in shiny black shoes and told not to get dirty, while boys are told to be tough and not to cry. Raw deal for both sides, right? Well, yes; but these restrictive roles represent only the barest beginning of what women are subjected to by sexism.
Oppression at its base is not about negative or limiting attitudes or stereotypes; these are merely the surface, In its true ugliness, oppression is about the power to control and exploit. This power is backed up by the key institutions of the society; corporations, government, courts, police, the educational system, and cultural messages. Anyone can be prejudiced; but to oppress you have to have the social power behind you.
Communication between men and women often gets stuck in this precise confusion. Women attempt to describe what gender oppression has meant in their lives, only to have the men who are listening respond by saying how hard things have been for them as men; the effect is to gloss over what the woman is trying to express, pushing it to the side.
CONTROLLING WOMEN’S ANGER
Men are sometimes willing to hear a little about sexism from a woman, as long as she expresses herself in a nice calm tone, explains things very “rationally” and logically, and doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable. In other words, she can talk about sexism as long as she does it on our terms. Women who don‘t cooperate with these restrictions get labeled “too angry,“ “man-hating bitch,” and other disparaging names.
But why on earth shouldn’t women be enraged at men? And why is it their responsibility to be nice to us about it?
The underlying issues here are threefold:
1) However progressive we may be, we have reservoirs of sexist conditioning that tell us that it isn’t appropriate for women to be really angry – that is, angry the way men get angry. We’re still not prepared to grant women that right.
2) We have not yet done the work of imagination that is required to begin to grasp what a woman’s experience is. If we had to go through even one day of what women typically live with from men, we would find ourselves feeling a wild fury. Why should we expect women‘s reaction to be any different than ours would be?
3) We are afraid on some level of the liberating power of women‘s anger. The anger and outrage of the oppressed, when it is channeled towards resisting oppression, moves mountains.
For example, when women say, “Men don’t respect our opinions,” or “Men don‘t pay attention to childcare,” we get all offended and insist that they say “some men.” But men are not just a collection of individuals; we are a social entity. When women talk about “men,” they are talking about men as a social force. Let women tell the truth about what has happened to them and stop interfering.
Here is one of the most important points for allies to understand: women have every right to express resentment toward men as a group, but men have no right to express resentment toward women as a group. This ethic may appear on the surface to be a double standard, but it isn’t at all. No one has a right to speak negatively about a group that their group is keeping down. That’s the difference. Liberals (and conservatives) often make the mistake of thinking that being treated equally means being treated the same, but it doesn’t; two treat two people equally often requires treating them quite differently. (Imagine, for example, if everyone in a family were given exactly the same amount of food, regardless of their actual sizes and metabolisms.)
Give this point some careful thought and your alliances will be strengthened.
(Note: A man of course has the right to be angry at an individual woman, but even then he needs to take a look at how that anger is likely to have been intensified by sexism, and he needs to give up the habit of using his anger to intimidate.)
CONTROLLING CONVERSATIONS AND DECISION-MAKING
I see sexism at its most persistent and relentless in male styles of conversing and arguing with women. Our tones of voice get impatient and condescending. We become know-it-alls. We laugh at women’s opinions, or we let out amused, superior smiles. We interrupt, we talk too long, we shake our heads and roll our eyes, we jump in too quickly, leaving inadequate pauses for others to participate. We “correct” women’s memories of events, giving them our more “accurate” memories. We get loud. We find so many ways to get our disrespect across.
When l challenge men about their conversational politics, they often counter with, “‘That‘s just my style, I argue like that with everybody.” This is tantamount to saying, “Well, I intimidate men too.” How does that make you any less intimidating to women?
Men‘s excuses for sexist behavior require some careful analysis.
The most common excuses are in one way or another related to men’s feelings, as in “I behaved that way because I was so upset.” But feelings are not the cause of oppressive behavior; oppressive attitudes are. We are perfectly capable of behaving differently toward women if we truly believe we have a responsibility to do so.
In fact, the way in which people behave when they’re upset tends to be one of the best windows into their underlying attitudes.
Let’s look at some specific examples of blaming behavior on feelings:
“I was too angry.”
Men are socialized to feel entitled to use enforcement when they feel that a woman is not behaving acceptably. Our anger, even when we’re furious, doesn’t make us behave oppressively; the source of oppressive behavior is actually our belief in our right to enforce.
“I was abused as a child.”
In that case, you should be less willing to participate in the oppression of others, because you know what it’s like. Having been abused is no excuse.
“I get really insecure.”
Our jealous feelings can come from insecurity, but our possessive behavior comes from having a “you belong to me” attitude. Don’t confuse feelings with behavior. You’re welcome to feel whatever you feel, but if you’re using your jealousy to restrict a woman’s freedom, that’s possessive behavior.
“You took it the wrong way. You’re too sensitive.”
This excuse is just a way to avoid dealing with what we did. It’s not a woman’s job to somehow know what we intended. We’re responsible for the effects of our actions, not just our intentions. “You’re too sensitive” is a constant weapon of oppression in all its forms; it’s a technique to shut people up, plain and simple. Consider that line off-limits for good.
“You weren’t listening to me, so I was just trying to make you listen.”
First of all, she’s not obligated to listen to you. Secondly, men often define women as “not listening” when what we really mean is “continuing to disagree with me even though I’m obviously right.” She has a right to her own opinion no matter what. (And much of the time when we’re so sure we’re right, we’re simply wrong.)
Give up making excuses for sexist behavior. Instead listen to the feedback, think about it carefully, make an apology where you owe one, and figure out how to be a better ally next time.
BACKLASH: THE MEN’S MOVEMENT
I recommend that every man read Backlash by Susan Faludi. With ample documentation, Faludi shows the consciousness and strategy that goes into maintaining male domination. Sexism is no accident. The book is also gripping; I found it hard to put down.
The “men’s movement,” has been, to a great extent, one of these efforts to strike back against women. Leaders of this movement are fond of claiming that feminism has turned men into “wimps,” and blames male difficulties on our mothers who have supposedly controlled and smothered us instead of allowing us “to become men.”
(But rather than being fired up against our mothers, men should be encouraged to go back and get to know our mothers as people, reforging a bond that sexism works hard to sever. We need to learn about our mothers’ lives and experiences. In the process, we regain a crucial pieces of ourselves.)
Furthermore, the men’s movement perpetuates the belief that men are inherently different from women, with needs to feel strong, competent, independent, and warrior-like that woman don’t have and can’t understand. In reality, women have all these same needs.
The men’s movement communicates the idea that men need to get away from women in order to develop their identities. Imagine a similar argument being made that, for example, white people who grew up in mixed neighborhoods are struggling because they have not gotten to become “fully white,” and in order to move past the debilitating experience of integration they need to go to “whites only” weekends.
Some men do indeed lose self-confidence around outspoken women. But what we need to ask these men is:
1) Why are powerful women so threatening to you?
2) Why do you only see two ways to relate to women, either as one who dominates or as one who kowtows? In other words, why is a respectful, equal, mutually challenging way of relating to women out of the question?
MEN AS VICTIMS
It’s okay for men to talk about what’s hard about being male, if we bring it up on our own time. But these feelings have no place as a response when women are trying to talk about oppression. Oppressive systems emphasize the feelings, needs, and experiences of members of the dominant groups; we are not contradicting oppression if we continue that emphasis. Picture a stockbroker going down to the soup line and telling the starving people about the burdens of being rich. Members of an exploited group should not be expected to provide a supportive ear for whining about how hard it is to be in the privileged position.
“BUT I HAVE RENOUNCED SEXISM”
Men sometimes declare that, since they feel that they don’t participate in sexism, they shouldn’t have to hear about it. But it is impossible to be male in this society, be you rich or poor, gay or straight, male-identified or female-identified, and not have unfair power over women. We can work very hard to reduce that power, but aspects of our oppressiveness are structural and thus are unavoidable until sexism itself ceases to exist. If I pass a woman who is alone on a quiet street at night, she has to consider the danger I might represent to her; thus my simple presence there steals from her some of her sense of safety and enjoyment of life. If I’m in a conflict with a woman, people around us are often going to take my opinions more seriously than hers, and that strengthens my position. I’m compensated better than a woman for doing the same work, and I receive favoritism in hiring and promotion decisions; these benefits are beyond my immediate control.
I also receive subtler benefits from sexism. Because of men’s tendency to treat women contemptuously, I come out looking great just for acting half-way decent. The fact that so many men batter women increases the power that non-battering men have in their relationships, whether they like it or not.
In other words, I’m a participant in sexism and earn privileges from it even though I strongly object to the oppression of women. And thus I have the responsibility to see to it that my efforts to end sexism outweigh my contributions, even my unwitting ones. And that’s a serious undertaking.
Besides, there’s arrogance in a man who declares that he isn’t sexist. How has he become such an expert on women’s oppression that he can be sure he’s not falling into it at all? It isn’t surprising to me that the men who make these kinds of claims almost always turn out to be people whose sexism is obvious to me.
MEN’S EVENTS AND PUBLICATIONS
The various concepts I’ve been covering lead me to two proposals for men’s work. One is that every event or publication that is focused on men’s issues should include a substantial portion devoted to discussions of overcoming the oppression of women. Otherwise we’ll be headed back down the road to self-centeredness and collusion with sexism.
Secondly, no event or publication should exclude women’s participation; women should be welcomed to attend men’s workshops and write for men‘s journals and blogs. Women‘s participation keeps us honest and helps keep us on course.
Holding men-only events is not parallel to all-women’s gatherings; it’s parallel, rather, to holding all-white gatherings, which we of course would resoundingly condemn.
Unity between men and women in liberation struggles is a challenge. Sexism, like all forms of oppression, is divisive. The quality of our alliances with women is going to be up to us; women will trust us to the extent that we earn their trust. Every time they work with us, women will be wondering, “Are our concerns going to be gradually pushed aside? ls our leadership going to be undermined? Are our working relationships going to be sexualized? Are we going to feel silent and invisible?” Women have good reason to worry, because these dynamics unfold in almost every mixed-gender organizations, no matter how conscious the men appear to be.
Women pay other prices to have men along as allies; we insist that they temper their outrage, we expect that they should be grateful to us, we demand that they listen to us whine. If we step outside of these habits, and above all stop sexualizing working relationships, we’ll find ourselves gradually less and less on trial.
The quality of our listening will be the other key determinant; our defensiveness is one of the biggest obstacles to effective alliances.
Women who speak bluntly about sexism, or who demand opportunities to gather without men present, get accused of “divisiveness.” These women are not causing divisions. They are, rather, refusing to ignore the divisions that sexism has created, refusing to continue the charade of unity. When women get opportunities for separateness, the possibility for true unity actually increases. Why? Because women gain the centeredness and solidarity to operate from their own reality instead of from pretense. They then come back to their relationships with men able to insist on redefining them, instead of having to accept them on men’s terms.
This same principle holds across all lines of oppression: genuine unity is only possible as we learn to better understand and respect the different experiences of the oppressed, their different cultures, and their different relationships to social power.
COMING TO TERMS WITH SEXISM
Learning about the full extent of sexism can be overwhelming. Some men become defensive and refuse to think about it further. Others equate sexism with sex-role stereotyping and focus on fighting “sexism” as a way to benefit men by freeing them from sex-role limitations. Many others are willing to take a more direct look at the oppression of women, but end up feeling paralyzed by guilt and the fear of doing something wrong. They start to idolize women the way some whites idolize tribal people; idolatry is not respect. Still another group of men become vocal proponents of women’s rights, but are unwilling to examine their own complicity, and thus their personal and political conduct doesn’t progress.
There is a challenging tension in what we have to accomplish to be effective allies. On the one hand, we need to quit the “men‘s team.” That choice helps us not feel criticized when women say “men do such and such,” because we’ve switched sides. At the same time we need to not dissociate ourselves so completely from men that we start to consider ourselves above reproach.
As I explained earlier, it doesn’t work for men to give up sexism because that’s what’s good for men; we have to do it because we care about the women in our lives, and about women all over the world, and we don’t want them to have to live in these conditions. But at the same time it does improve the quality of our own lives, because stepping out of oppressive conditioning increases our connectedness to the human race; and to feel connected is what we’re all most deeply desiring. Giving up male privilege is hard, but when you look back you find that nothing of any real value has been lost. The damage that oppression does is very real; but the benefits, as real as they are in one sense, are in another sense a complete illusion, because no one finds a satisfying life by behaving oppressively.
Some white people happily say, “My heart lies with people of color in interracial struggles,“ and some wealthy or upper-middle class people say, “I’m really behind the poor in the class struggle.” But it’s less common to hear a man say, “I side with women in the gender struggle.” I think this contrast comes partly from the fact that white people tend to lead lives largely separate from people of color, and rich and poor are usually kept well apart, but the lives of men and women are constantly intertwined. This means that to switch sides, a man has to do more than just take political stands; he has to examine personal ways of operating, and this is a more unpleasant process. The rewards, however, are great as well.
Dealing With Our Own Rage at Men
Each man has an internal reservoir of anger at men, an important subject that never gets discussed. Buried under the oppressive attitudes we’ve been taught, we have a heart that hates sexism and what it has done to girls and women we love. Uncovering this outrage is a great help to us, drawing us away from the idea that feminism is a movement against men rather than a movement against oppression.
At the same time, those feelings can create inner conﬂict. Is it possible for me to simultaneously be outraged about sexism and aware of my own complicity in it? Does this mean that I hate myself? “Yes” to the first question, “no” to the second. Forgive yourself for the past (but don’t demand that women forgive you), demand of yourself absolutely to do better in the future, and channel your resentment in the direction of the patriarchal system that produced this mess. Don’t hate men, but hate their sexist actions with all your heart.
Being a good ally also means learning about how women have resisted and fought back against sexism, not just how they have been its victims. Every oppressed group fights back in courageous, creative, and tireless ways, and these acts of resistance are carried out in the face of tremendous retaliation.
It’s important for us to be able to hold these two views of women simultaneously, seeing how badly women have been harmed but also how inspiring and brave they have been in their efforts, over thousands of years, to recover their rights. Women want us to get how bad certain aspects of their experience have been, but they don’t want us to feel sorry for them, and they don’t want us to see them as collections of injuries. Make sure that each day you are noticing women’s strengths, their intelligence, their courage, and their creativity. Notice how well they have survived against the odds. They don’t need us to rescue them; they need us to join their cause as allies and support their leadership.
WHAT CAN MEN DO?
There are countless actions that men can take to contribute to the dismantling of sexism. Here are some of the key moves I would like you to make:
Treat Women With Respect
Respect is different from patronizing. Women do not want us to kiss up to them, placate them, or abandon our own opinions and beliefs. They are not interested in having us tip-toeing around asking, “Oops, did I do something sexist?” Our guilt just becomes another burden on women. There is no substitute for equality, love, and listening. When you agree or disagree, learn to express your opinions in a way that respects women’s intelligence and validates their perspective. Give up the male compulsion to win and be right. You will indeed agree with women more and more, not because you’re “letting them win,” but because you’re actually hearing and reflecting on what they’re saying.
Above all, talk to women less and listen more.
Respect is communicated most profoundly through concrete behaviors. The loudest indicators of your level of respect is doing your share of all childcare, housecleaning, shopping, laundry, cooking, dishwashing, birth control, communicating with relatives, planning the social calendar, buying gifts, and on and on. A disturbing proportion of men claim to be Mr. Evolved while continuing to exploit women’s labor, which is the central piece of what sexism is all about.
And emotional caretaking is work. Show respect through the emotional giving you do, the proportion of time you spend listening, the supportive comments you make, the appreciation you express, your thoughtfulness.
Support Women’s Leadership
Listen to women, and support them, regarding the specific issue and challenges that come up in their efforts to take leadership. Encourage woman to believe in themselves and in their abilities as leaders. Take care of children so that women can attend meetings and events, and contribute in other logistical ways so that women have time for their leadership efforts. Support women’s leadership even when it is in conﬂict with your own.
At the end of this article you’ll find a bibliography of the books that I’ve found most valuable. Your best source for learning, though, is the women in your life and the feminist political events in your area. Listen, listen, listen. Education about heterosexism is also essential, because it is a crucial weapon of sexism. The oppression of lesbians helps keep all women down, and the oppression of gay men helps to intimidate men into participating in sexism and toxic masculinity. (See Suzanne Pharr’s book in the bibliography.)
Give Up Pornography and Prostitutes
Pornography is deadly to women and children. People are killed in the production of pornography, sometimes by “accident” (torture that got out of hand), and sometimes on purpose for the effect (the famous “snuff films”). Women and children are enslaved, producing pornography against their will. Other women work in pornography out of economic need, so they’re participating is “voluntarilyy” in the same way that a worker who’s dying of exposure to asbestos at his or her factory job is doing so “voluntarily.”
Pornography spreads degrading and hateful images of women. It teaches that women enjoy being used and are sexually excited by violence. It erases women and children as people. It is, along with rape and battering, the most powerful communicator of contempt and hatred toward women that is endemic to our society.
Do not give the pornography industry a penny of your money. Do not rent pornographic videos or visit pornographic websites, don’t purchase pornographic movie options in hotels. Every cent you spend goes to support a massive anti-woman industry ($10 billion per year).
Looking at pornography leaves you feeling bad anyhow, if you really pay attention to what’s going on inside you. If you need support to give it up, get counseling on it or participate in a group for men who are giving up pornography. (One may exist in your area; if not, form one. See the Rus Funk book in the bibliography.)
Prostitution follows a similar pattern to pornography, and in fact there is considerable overlap in the participants. Most prostitutes are slaves to pimps, and even those who are not are there out of economic need. Don’t support the industry. If your excuse is, “my money is helping a woman to survive,” go spend it at a woman-owned business or contribute it to an organization working for economic justice for women.
Call Other Men Out
We need to take responsibility for interrupting the anti-woman behavior of other men. That work should not keep falling all on women’s shoulders. We also can sometimes get men to listen when they aren’t willing to hear it from a woman.
Refuse to allow women to be talked about in a degrading way in your presence. Don’t allow woman-hating (and gay-hating) words like “bitch”, “whore”, “pussy”, or “cunt” to be used without strongly challenging the person doing so. (And it doesn’t matter if they are being used against a man; women are still being degraded in the process.) Refuse to do any bonding with men that is based in making fun of women, feeling superior to them, or using degrading language about them. Don’t laugh when sexist jokes are told, point out that the joke is sexist, and ask that it not be told again. When someone says, “This joke is sexist, but…”, immediately interrupt and say, “Then please don’t tell it.”
Challenging men does not always have to be awkward and tension-producing; there are sometimes humorous ways to point out someone’s negative attitudes. As long as you don’t make light of the oppression, a light touch can sometimes succeed in getting a message through that wouldn’t have been heard otherwise.
Recognize Men’s Stake in Ending Sexism
The outstanding benefit to men (and to everyone) of overcoming sexism is that the world desperately needs women’s leadership. The whole world is in a deeply precarious position. Unless we head in a radically different direction quickly, we will destroy human life on the planet and take countless other life forms with us. Men’s leadership is not getting us out of this mess.
We become more effective activists as we increase our understanding of the interconnection between the different forms of oppression.
We benefit from centuries of women’s wisdom when we stop silencing women. We get back the richness of women’s political organizing abilities, women’s art, women’s knowledge about health and natural healing, women’s appreciation of nature and spirituality.
EXPLORING OUR OWN EXPERIENCES AS TARGETS OF OPPRESSION
One powerful way for men to gain insight into women’s experience of oppression is to do explore our as children. Children are among the most heavily oppressed members of society. When we were children, we faced treatment from adults that is in many ways similar to what women face from men, such as:
* we were considered less than fully human, just because of being children
* we were ridiculed and controlled by adults, who used their power over us
* we were in physical danger from adult violence (including “spanking”)
* most of us were sexually mistreated by adults (usually, though not necessarily, by males) at some point during childhood, or had our boundaries invaded in other ways
* our opinions, our loves, and our outrage carried little or no weight
* we were not permitted to express anger at adults
* we were subjected to degrading images of children in media and in conversation
As we uncover these experiences of adultist oppression, we become able to move beyond the strictly intellectual to an intuitive understanding of sexism, and our desire to stop participating in oppression deepens.
Many men have also experienced oppression as people of color, poor and working class people, LGBT, people with disabilities, and on down the line. Exploring these experiences is not an excuse to mistreat women, and any time we fall into saying, “Well, I know what it’s like for you, because I’ve experienced oppression also,” we are making a mistake. But our healing work can help us gain insight to deepen our alliances with women.
Notice that I’m saying that men experience oppression as part of other groups we belong to, including the fact that we all went through childhood. We do not experience oppression as men. There are things that are hard about being a man, but the concept of oppression loses its power for liberation if we start to apply it to all hard experiences. It will become especially meaningless if we apply it to groups that are in the privileged position, which is to say to groups that are actively keeping other groups down. The single most devastating aspect of oppression is being taught that you are inferior, and then having that inferiority enforced. Society does not each us, through laws, images, religious texts, early cultural training, and so forth, that we’re inferior as men. Quite the opposite, in fact, we get messages constantly, and from the tenderest of ages, that our maleness makes us superior.
I also believe that the proof is in the pudding. I have seen so many men respond to learning about sexism by going off and doing emotional work on the hardships of being male, and I’ve never seen it result in improvements in how they support women in their lives.
One other area of emotional work that I have seen be helpful (besides exploring our own experiences of true oppression) is to process painful childhood memories of times when women or girls we cared about were being harmed. Herein lies a bitter but important irony: One of the reasons why we take part in sexism is, paradoxically, as a way to numb the pain we have about what it does to women, and to numb our guilt about not being able to make it stop. Processing and discharging that pain help increase our determination to not participate in keeping women down.
See, then, what you can remember about the sexism faced by your mothers, your sisters, your playmates, and other females when you were a kid. And through that channel, get in touch with your own bitterness about the oppression of women. There is power in that outrage that will help take action in the world.
Finally, unearth memories of times you were pressured to participate in mistreating or talking badly about females, or were ridiculed for refusing to go along. Boys are intimidated into taking part in hurting or disrespecting girls, and that residue of emotional injury needs to be healed.
MEN AND SELF-ESTEEM
None of us thought up sexism. If we’d had our way as young children, we would have unhesitatingly erased gender oppression and all other divisions. Children hate prejudice, hate separations, hate anything that is unfair; we were no different. So we don’t need to feel ashamed now to be men. But we do need to accept the responsibility that being male brings us. It’s as if someone lit a stick of dynamite and put it in your hands; you can complain all you want that you never wanted that stick of dynamite in the first place, but the reality is you’ve got it now. The decisions you make about what to do with it are going to have a big impact.
Despite my outrage, I feel powerful love and compassion towards men. But I don‘t confuse men’s pain with our behavior. Not only is our pain not the cause of our participation in sexism, it is to a great degree the result of that participation. So when we allow a man to continue acting sexist, when we let him use his feelings as an excuse, when we support his anti-woman attitudes, we’re not only abandoning women, we’re abandoning that man.
The realities of sexism should make us furious. I’ll just pick one: Roughly two-thousand women are killed per year in the U.S. by their current or former partners, and over two hundred children are killed by men during those homicides of women.
How can we let this hatred continue? Are women simply expendable beings? The killings are the product of possession and ownership, of men seeing women as things that belong to them. Women are not things. They were not put on this earth to do things for us, to meet our needs. We do not have the right to insist that they get out of our way. We do not have the right to go fishing or go to our secret lover while women raise our children. We do not have the right to take their children away from them after divorce. We do not have the right to examine their conduct when they are raped, or battered, or killed. We do not have the right to dismiss the perpetrators of these acts as “crazy,” when their actions are the predictable outcome of a society that exploits women and holds them in contempt, and when we play a role in making it possible for them to do what they do.
If l sound enraged, just imagine how women must feel.
Get on the right side of these questions and start making your voice heard. We want you along in the struggle.
These are some of the books that have had the greatest influence on my thinking:
* Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black by bell hooks
* Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism by Suzanne Pharr
* Backlash by Susan Faludi
* This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua
* For Her Own Good by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English
* Women Respond to the Men’s Movement: A Feminist Collection edited by Kay Hagan
* Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman by Michele Wallace
* Rape: The Power of Consciousness by Susan Griffin
* Why Does He Do That?:Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
* Stopping Rape: A Challenge for Men by Rus Funk
* What’s Wrong With this Picture?: The Impact of Viewing Pornography by Rus Funk
* Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
How To Stop Harming Others
People who have patterns of behaving in ways that hurt other people can find it difficult to know where to go for help. Over the years, I’ve been approached by a fair number of people who report one of the following recurring patterns that they’re feeling bad about:
* They keep behaving toward their children in ways that they had always sworn to themselves that they would never do. They really want to stop “losing it” and hurting their kids.
* They have problems with an explosive temper, and end up damaging friendships or partnerships because of blowing up at people in nasty ways.
* They get mean toward their romantic partners in ways that they don’t understand themselves, and that they feel their partners do not deserve.
If you have this kind of behavior pattern, I recommend coming at it from a few different directions simultaneously. Some of these efforts will feel more uncomfortable than others, but they are all important; in fact, the ones that cause you the greatest discomfort are likely to be the most important if you are serious about changing your behavior.
1) Stop allowing yourself to dwell on your complaints and criticisms regarding the people you’re hurting.
Although destructive behavior can feel as though it comes out of nowhere, it doesn’t really. One of the sources is habits you have of focusing on other people’s faults and judging them with unfair harshness. You need to stop feeding your own fury against people. Some ways in which you can do this include:
- When you start to get upset at the person, discipline yourself to think about his or her perspective. What’s their side of the argument? How might they have come to see things the way they do? Am I seeing their behavior as being terrible when it’s actually no different from things I’ve done many times myself? Can I accept that other people make mistakes, and that I do too?
- When you start to realize you’re focused on the person’s faults or their misbehavior, required yourself to think about something else. Focus instead on good things about them, or shift mentally to a completely different subject, such as one of your interests, your job, or something you’ve been reading.
2) Accept responsibility for your actions.
Another factor that contributes to destructive behavior patterns is habits of making excuses for your actions. Examine your internal messages regarding incidents where you have hurt someone. Do you mentally (or verbally) blame it on them? (For example, do you say, “Well, you pushed me too far, there’s only so much I can take, what did you expect” and similar blaming comments?) Do you blame it on how much stress you are under, or your lack of sleep, or how many drinks you had consumed?
Every time you make an excuse, that unfortunately helps prepare you to behave harmfully again. Change your internal messages so that you say to yourself, “What I did wasn’t okay, and I’m responsible for the choices I make. It’s up to me to commit to doing better.”
Take full responsibility aloud with the person you hurt. Tell them, “My behavior wasn’t acceptable, and it’s in no way your fault. I have to do better.” Making yourself answerable to the people you have harmed is one of the best ways to motivate yourself to change your future actions.
3) Stop asking people to forgive you.
Forgiveness is for people who make a mistake once or twice. Once hurtful behavior becomes a pattern, seeking forgiveness from people just helps you stay stuck in your pattern. Accept people’s right to be angry at you, and listen carefully to what they say about how your behavior has affected them. Never tell people that they are staying upset too long, that they should be over it by now, or anything else that allows you to escape the harm that you’re doing.
4) Make concrete plans, and hold yourself to them.
Deciding what you’re going to avoid doing is of course necessary, but it’s equally important to have a clear map of what you’re going to do instead:
“Instead of biting my boyfriend’s head off, I’m going to tell him that I’m taking a break and I’m going to go for a walk for ten minutes.”
“I’m going to stop putting my kids in ‘time-out,” and instead I’m going to tell them ‘Daddy needs a time out’ and I’m going to require myself to go sit alone for a few minutes.”
“When I feel my blood starting to boil, I’m going to practice the skills I’m learning in my ‘Emotional Self-Management’ class and keep doing those until my emotions have evened out.”
5) Examine your attitudes.
Chronically destructive behavior is often rooted in disrespectful or entitled attitudes. This area is particularly important to examine if the targets of your destructive behavior are people who have less power than you have (such as a man who targets a female or an adult who targets a child). You can learn more in my book Why Does He Do That?.
6) Improve your listening.
If you require yourself to listen to people really well especially when they are upset with you and when you are upset with them, your destructive behavior will lessen. Being upset — including being furiously upset — is no excuse to stop hearing what the other person is saying to you (unless they’re doing all the talking and not letting you get a word in). When you make the mistake of deciding to stop listening, you’re just one step away from your next destructive act.
This principle also means that when you storm off because you’re upset, you have to come back and listen once you have pulled yourself together. Don’t use storming off as a way to get out of hearing what the other person is trying to express.
7) Keep working on your own healing.
Your past injuries are not an excuse for your current behavior, but processing them will help you succeed in your efforts to carry out steps 1-4 that we just covered. Practice all of the principles from The Joyous Recovery and work through the full program of exercises that go with the book, with the support of a co-counselor.
If Your Emotions Feel Unmanageable
Some people find that, despite their best efforts, they just can’t get their emotions onto a more even keel, and they tend to turn either mean or suicidal or both during their emotional extremes. If this is true of you, seek out “Dialectical Behavior Therapy” groups or programs, and work the skills that those programs teach. For destructive behavior that are rooted in explosiveness, these emotional self-management kinds of skills have been found to be the most effective antidote.
If You Are Being Abused
If you have a partner, a parent, or a boss that intimidates you, calls you names, controls your freedom, and in other ways repeatedly tears you down, it won’t help you to focus on what’s wrong with your behavior. Focus instead on getting your own rights back and finding places in your life where you can feel safe and supported. It’s important to read Chapter 15 of The Joyous Recovery and then pursue the additional resources recommended there.
Be aware that abusive people will often say that you’re the one with the problem. As many of you know, I worked for many years counseling men who abuse women, and it was common for those men to say, “She takes my freedom away, she attacks my self-esteem, she intimidates me (for example, by saying that if he frightened her again she was going to call the police).” You will never succeed in convincing him that he is twisting everything around backward; in fact, people who reverse reality in this way are the most impossible people to reach in the world. Focus on your own well-being instead, while continuing to hold yourself to the highest behavioral standards you can.