20 WONDROUS STORIES OF RADICAL SELF LOVE
Exclusive Excerpts from Acclaimed Author Andy Chaleff and His New Book Release: “The Wounded Healer”
In This Story: Sharon faces the deep seated fear that if she shares what she is really feeling, it will alienate others, and she won’t be loved. She looks all the way back to her childhood to discover where these feelings came from.
Exploring the Series: Andy is leading the way in supporting people to fully love themselves. Through the “projection and reclamation” method, he holds the hands of many as they discover newfound freedom and radical self-love. In this series of 20 stories from the book “The Wounded Healer”, we examine some of the most familiar archetypes as real people overcome common yet deep struggles we all face that get in the way of loving ourselves completely.
“We are all just walking each other home.”
On my third day in Boulder, a friend invites me to do a session with her friend in the city. Her friend’s name is Sharon and she is the minister at a hospital. We arrive at Sharon’s house and I have about two hours to get to know her before our session starts. Although she is very open, I sense she needs time to see if I’m the “real deal.”
Only women show up at the session. Almost all of them have come directly from the hospital where they work. It’s obvious that they meet often and know each other well. Just before starting the session, I hear a woman say, “Just what we need, another man to come into our lives and tell us how we should feel. I have that just about every day.”
Little does she know that I’m not coming in to tell her how she should feel, but share how I’m feeling and how I use my feelings to help and support others. The same woman goes on to share in the session, “It took me a while to figure out what you were doing here. As soon as I began to write, I understood exactly. You were inviting me to feel a level of intimacy in myself that wasn’t easy. I am grateful.”
She writes a letter to anxiety, a feeling she has a hard time accepting in herself. She reads her letter to the group. We all feel where anxiety is touching us. There is no separation in the group. We are all one in that emotion. She creates a connection that moves the group to tears.
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I introduce the group to the term “holding space.” In some cases, people in the groups will get nervous and defuse the tension with humor. In other cases, the groups can hold the tension in themselves without dropping into coping mechanisms to release it. I also see that when the facilitator of a group is comfortable showing vulnerability, others in a group feel permission to do the same.
In the groups that are able to hold a lot of space, I notice that the people who are struggling most will eventually show themselves. In the face of this incredible embrace of sharing, people feel safe. In the end, it feels effortless.
This is not always the case. Sometimes it is more challenging for participants, even when others are very vulnerable. In these cases, people will often share just a bit of their emotion, and then sit silent until the next person begins. Other times, people will stop once the tears come and say, “I’d like to leave it at that.” These are also beautiful moments, but there is no major release of the kind of emotion that often leads to the biggest breakthroughs.
Yet I trust that the space the group can hold is exactly what is necessary for them at this moment. I never push. It is not the space to get anyone anywhere. It is simply a question of how much space we can hold for one another.
In this session, the person having the most struggles is Sharon. She is dealing with many difficult things in the recent past, including divorce and cancer. Vulnerability and intimacy do not come easy to her. She needs time, and possibly fewer people around, to start touching that part of herself again.
The session ends and all the ladies leave, leaving Sharon and me alone. I stay at her house that evening and we watch the Red Sox play the Astros for the division final. Sharon is a huge Red Sox fan. Every time they score, she jumps off the sofa and runs around shouting. Her team wins at the last minute, which sends her into a frenzy, jumping and screaming throughout the house. And I join her.
The next morning, we take her dog out for a walk. I ask her, “What made you so constricted last night?” I can see tension come over her. First, her face freezes. Then her body recoils into itself to hide the pain I’m inviting her to share.
She shares, “I am still recovering. The divorce was not that long ago.”
I ask, “Would you be willing to share a bit more?”
She says, “I married a man who could not be there for me emotionally and I am frustrated. I abandoned myself for so long that I couldn’t do it any longer.”
I ask, “What do you mean, ‘abandoned’?”
She explains to me that a friend once told her, “You have one of two choices regarding your husband. You can either abandon yourself or you abandon him.”
I think, There is a third option: abandon neither. But I let that voice settle, as it will turn me into just another person trying to solve her problems. I don’t want to push her away. So instead I follow another track. I share, “I am assuming this behavior is nothing new for you. What’s the history behind it?”
She looks confused.
“What is the earliest memory you have of abandoning yourself?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says.
I take the next step. “Where would you have abandoned yourself with either of your parents?”
I see a light of realization turn on in her eyes. “My father was emotionally incapable and he never really understood me. I spent most of my life accommodating him by not being myself, so that he didn’t need to feel uncomfortable.”
“And where do you see that in your life today?”
She says, “I see it everywhere.”
“So what you’re telling me is that the behavior that allowed you to survive as a child is still active in you today.”
She nods. “Yes, it is still very much who I am today.”
I ask her if she’ll be willing to investigate further, to which she agrees.
And I say, “I want to make a big assumption and accept it as true for the moment. You are abandoning yourself in every relationship in your life. There is always a way that you are abandoning yourself, whether you see it or not. So we are not asking whether or not you are abandoning yourself, but how you are abandoning yourself. Where have you abandoned yourself with me in the short time we’ve known each other?”
She investigates for a little bit and says, “I don’t think I have abandoned myself with you.”
I smile and ask, “Well, if you had to guess, where would it be?”
She says, “Well, arranging for the party for people to come, I felt the necessity to make it very special. I wanted to make sure that people felt comfortable and the food was nice. I did abandon myself by imposing on myself that I needed to do well.”
I ask, “How would it have been different if you didn’t abandon yourself?”
She says, “I would have just invited people, but I wouldn’t necessarily have put out a spread and made a very nice dinner for them.”
We both laugh. I ask, “What other ways did you abandon yourself?”
She explains, “I did not feel comfortable saying we were going to watch the baseball game after the session. I didn’t want to impose that on the group.”
I laugh again and ask, “What would it have looked like if you would have imposed it on the group?”
She says, “I would have just said after the session, ‘I need to watch the baseball game because I want to see how the Red Sox play.’” She pauses, then smiles and says, “This is so damn easy.”
I ask, “How does the pattern play out in other areas of your life?”
“From a very young age, I moderated my behavior when I felt that it was difficult for others to deal with. I assumed others were not interested in what I had to say. So instead of saying it, I would just be quiet. I didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. I did what I always do: accommodate the other person, or at least my perception of the other person’s capacity. In this case, I just assumed people wouldn’t want to watch the baseball game and I didn’t allow myself to believe that maybe you would enjoy it.”
I laugh and ask, “How would your life be different if you just accepted who you were and embraced it and didn’t compromise? What if you did not decide what you were going to do, or not do, based on your assumption that the other person may not be capable of accepting it?”
“Yes, I understand that logically,” she says. “But I don’t do it. I don’t know how to shift that behavior.”
I say, “There is only one thing needs to happen.”
“You simply say that behavior is no longer acceptable.”
I reply, “If you don’t tell people how you feel, then you perpetuate the behavior you don’t want in your life. The only way around it is to say it, from this moment forward. You need to state unequivocally, ‘I won’t step away and abandon myself when I feel I want something different.’”
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She is confused. I go on, “It looks like this: somebody comes to you with a request, or demand, or question of any sort and you don’t feel comfortable about it. Instead of doing what you normally do—accommodating it and abandoning yourself—you stay connected to your emotion. If necessary, you say, ‘I’ll need to reflect on this.’ What you don’t do is respond immediately from an impulse to please.”
Sharon says, “I’d like to use a real example with an employee I’m struggling with. One of the people I work with came to me and asked me to do a task that was actually hers. I was aware that this woman was not fulfilling her role when she came to me at the last moment, and instead of saying no, I said yes. I see that I avoid conflict.”
I say, “Yes, none of us want conflict in our lives. But let’s assume you’re not inviting conflict, but just dealing with an issue. This may cause conflict, but that conflict is not necessarily your responsibility.”
“Yes, I understand that.”
“This woman has now replaced your father,” I continue. “Any time you’re with someone who is emotionally incapable, you’re accommodating them by avoiding conflict instead of holding them accountable for their behavior. How would you interact with her in a way where you didn’t abandon yourself but you’re still able to help her take responsibility?”
She says, “I would arrange to talk to her and I would explain to her that in the future this behavior would no longer be acceptable.”
I say, “That sounds great. And how do you make sure that you don’t create the conflict you don’t want?”
She says, “I would tell her what I am feeling, without placing judgment on it.”
“Exactly. Instead of blaming her for what she’s done, you’d bring forward that this is what’s happened so far, and then use that moment to share that that would no longer be acceptable. So it’s not acceptable that she brings forward something at the last minute and asks you to do it for her. If you let that happen, you are setting yourself up for a codependent relationship. By allowing her to give up her responsibility, you are basically telling her that this way of working is okay.”
She says, “This is something that I have done my entire life. I don’t know how to deal with people who are emotionally incapable.”
“I gather that. You still are dealing with the same emotions you had as a child. Everyone who is emotionally incapable replaces your father. So what do you do? Self-sacrifice. You bend over backwards to try and make it work. How would your life look different if you just allowed yourself to be who you are, and accept that it will not always work for others?”
She takes a deep breath and says, “It would look a whole lot different.”
After a moment of reflective silence, she continues, “I’d like to discuss my marriage and divorce. I spent years feeling like I didn’t have a partner. I did not have someone who could comfort me. I needed more. We tried counseling, but it didn’t go anywhere. I want somebody to be there for me emotionally. Somebody who can support me when I am feeling uncomfortable. Someone who won’t judge my emotions as immature.”
She pauses, then continues, “Now that I think of it, I married my father. I needed something from someone who wasn’t able to give it. It’s frustrating. This is a lesson I have had to learn so many times.”
I say, “If someone isn’t capable of feeling and sharing their emotions, it does not tend to be their decision. Rather it is their own baggage. Just like your baggage with your father. If I hear you correctly, it appears that you changed in this relationship and now you need more. There is no blame. Just the reality that the relationship is no longer working for you.”
“I’m ashamed it has taken me so long to learn this lesson,” she says.
I reply, “Instead of judging yourself, wouldn’t it be great to celebrate that you actually learned the lesson you needed to learn in order to evolve? Let’s celebrate it. In fact, I’d love to use a tool I’ve been playing with the last few weeks. Could you say, ‘I am emotionally incapable, and it’s fucking great’? ‘I failed in my marriage and it’s fucking great’? ‘I married my father and it’s great’?”
She begins repeating the statements. As she does so, I see her body relax. I can see the self-judgment, which has led her into a vicious cycle of blame and self-doubt, loosen its grip. In place of indecision and discomfort, a new state emerges. She is embracing her shame.
She says, “You look at the world in black and white. You’re so open and at the same time so definite. I have always thought that looking at the world in black and white would shut you down. But actually, it’s completely counterintuitive.”
I say, “Funny, isn’t it? The more you see the world as abstract, the less people see you. The more you speak in concepts and less in experiences and feelings, the more people feel a distance. It’s safe, but not necessarily emotionally fulfilling. By being present with your experience and treating it totally seriously and at the same time with a lightness, you get to be genuine with others without getting stuck. Once you treat your personal experience as absolute truth, life tends to be an uphill battle.”
Sharon goes on to say that it is incredibly difficult for her to be completely authentic, because she is not quite sure how people will react to her if she were to share all of who she is. “You can never be certain how people will react,” she says.
I reply, “Yes, that is true. But you also will never know how they’ll react unless you are vulnerable. The current situation is that you protect yourself by not sharing, and then you blame the other for not seeing you. You don’t even give them a chance.”
She asks, “How do I change this in my life?”
I laugh and say, “There is always only one thing you need to change. I mentioned it before. You need to say no every time you recognize you are self-sacrificing. In the moment that somebody asks you to do something and you don’t feel good about it, instead of abandoning yourself, you stop. Slow things down. Check in with yourself. Maybe even take a day to think about it.”
She asks, “How has this been for you?”
“When I decided to be fully present with who I wanted to be in the world, at first people had a hard time adjusting to what they perceived as a different person. I lost some friends who needed me to be the same as I was before. I tried things that just didn’t work, as I was experimenting to see how I could be me without diminishing others.
“I saw that navigating this was not always easy, because people have their own needs and they can be blinded when you don’t accommodate their ideas of good and bad. Through the years, I have found ways that work for me.
“And I’ve also seen a consistency in the patterns that push others away. It comes down to judgment of oneself and others. The more you judge, the more you will tend to get triggered and react to others. Developing this inner compass of consistency is incredibly powerful. The less judgment you have towards yourself and others, the clearer the compass will be in reading its environment. It all starts with letting go of self-judgment.”
“It all sounds so simple,” she says. “What do you do when you are confronted with someone who has no desire to see you? Or even judges you?”
I say, “It’s funny you ask, as this very thing occurred two weeks ago.” I tell her the story of the neuroscientist at Esalen, to whom I said, “Fuck you and your judgment.”
Sharon says, “I wish I could do that.”
I say, “There’s a reason I could behave that way. I learned it by doing tons of other stuff that didn’t work. All the books tell you what to do. But my own experience has guided me more than anything, as I have learned to trust it. Books can also create confusion because they create an image of how things ‘should be.’ People do their best to validate that image, ignoring the signs that it is not working.
“In this instance, I just decided to use the last thing in my arsenal, which may have seemed counterintuitive. When I said, ‘Fuck you,’ I didn’t have any judgment towards that word. It was this display of anger that eventually gave us the chance to be close. In fact, it was in my ability to show anger, without attaching to it, that I had the chance to break through.
“I did not know of this beforehand. It was taking a chance. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what has not worked for me. I learned how important anger is, by seeing that every other way did not work. I don’t say I would suggest anger, nor would I discourage its use. I would say be conscious of how your environment is impacted and learn through reflection on that experience.”
Sharon ponders my words as we walk back to the house.
As I prepare to leave, Sharon observes, “You are not prepared for the winter.” She hands me a coat from her closet and says, “Try it on and take it.” I feel love come over me as I see how she is taking care of me. Just as with my time with Darya, I’m seeing how giving is something others feel compelled to return. I am receiving the love I am giving, and it feels beautiful.
Andy Chaleff is one of our heroes in the profound work of healing our world’s heart.
He is an acclaimed author, motivational speaker, talk show host of “A Wonderful Chaos”, a conscious business advisor, and a beloved mentor to many.
He dropped everything and devotionally toured across America for three months holding “Last Letter” healing circles for a wide array of communities to safely explore the depths of their grief, giving people permission to release suffering and move forward with an opened and unburdened heart.
This recent body of work, “The Wounded Healer”, showcases personal stories of breakthroughs where most people deprive themselves of self-love. We are honored to showcase excerpts from this transformational series. A voice of clarity and wholeness in our transitional time.