There are a many reasons why it’s a good idea to take stock of what we hold in our hearts. We who were not raised with healthy ways of coping tend to bottle up memories, feelings, times of loss and heartbreak and tell ourselves we’re moving forward. Our hearts become heavy, crushed under the weight of all that we chose not to release and resolve. As we reflect on the baggage we carry, it surprises us to find that time doesn’t heal old wounds – It just covers them over. We remain torn because our choice to avoid conflict with others leaves us conflicted within.
I spoke with a beautifully broken man today. He carries the shame of having been an abused child in his heart. He is peaceful, accepting, and loving toward others and ruthlessly hard on himself. He treats others in exactly the opposite way that his father did. He treats himself identically to how his father treated him as a boy.
In his estimation, he is broken because he “always feels afraid, sad, and guilty. “ He describes this as being “overly feminine.” I ask if having a lot of emotions makes one feminine and he nods. I suggest that his definition of masculinity is unfortunate and explain that all men have feelings – most were simply socialized to ignore them. He seems to be considering that perhaps we are both pansies.
His greatest fear is that he might accidentally hurt those he loves. In order to keep this in check he tries to be very “positive.” He battles inwardly for self control. He rejects himself for even minor mistakes or for being anything less than a perfect father/husband/brother/worker/friend. He gives of himself endlessly. I point out that he is fully aware of the needs/feelings/desires of others and ignoring most of his own. He reasons that as long as he’s the only one that gets hurt then it’s ok. I point out to him that if he believes it’s ok to hurt himself, he’s likely to allow others to do so as well. He sacrifices and gives of himself endlessly because in his experience, any other approach might lead to conflict and conflict leads to confrontation which leads to pain. These simple associations run deep.
We talk about letting go of pain and he’s afraid to do this. We talk about how holding on to past pain and anger caused by others does not hurt them but does hurt him. He tells me he doesn’t want to dwell (we who live in black and white mindsets tend to envision change as moving from one extreme to the other). I assure him that I have never seen anything good come out of dwelling and I wouldn’t encourage him to relive his past. Rather, I want to help him take stock and to explore connections – how his past experiences continue to impact his present perspective and behavior. This is where change becomes possible and meaningful.
He sees that his heart is full and that there’s no room to take in anything good for himself. What I’m emphasizing is that the things he’s held on to result in shame, which leads to feeling unworthy and undeserving. This guides his choices and what he allows himself to have.
Men tend to have a hard time with feelings and they are far more focused on actions. He asks me what he can do about this. I suggest that it’s like cleaning out the refrigerator. When we’re busy doing everything for everyone else we tend to procrastinate the details of our own lives. When do we clean out the fridge? Many of us do this only after we’ve gone grocery shopping. We start to put the new stuff away and we notice that there are things in the fridge that really shouldn’t be there.
We realize things like, “Oh wow, we haven’t ordered Chinese in weeks. What’s this still doing here?” Don’t open it – just throw it out.
In the same manner, as we look in our hearts we discover that there are things there that do not belong to us. We hold on to hate, shame, humiliation, and guilt that were instilled by the actions of others. We are not responsible for the things that caused these feelings but we are responsible for choosing what to do about them. I suggest to my client that he separate the hurt of his heart into two categories, “Mine” and “Not mine.” The first category probably requires making amends to self and others and making small changes in his life today to prevent repetition. The second category is the 3 week old Chinese food that your roommate left in the fridge. It’s not quite as easy as throwing it away, it’s more like acknowledging that we did not cause this, we cannot change this, and we do not wish to hold on to this.
Everything in the fridge/heart has a story behind it. Write the story. The story has characters, feelings, conflict, and now it needs a conclusion. We would sooner try to work things out internally – just by thinking it through. This is not release – this is not resolution. By cleaning out the fridge we make room for more good things. Compliments, praise, recognition, appreciation, and respect are the metaphorical cheesecake that we killed ourselves to earn but can’t find room for because last year’s fruitcake that mom made (the failings of others that we blamed ourselves for) is still in there. Fruitcake sucks. Get yourself some cheesecake.