To know you have enough—time, money, food, connection, etc.—you have to feel like you are enough.
As I write this I’m sitting in a public courtyard. There are large planters overflowing with ivy. The faint sound of a piano comes from a nearby hotel lounge. It’s hot out and there’s a breeze. Dried leaves skitter across the concrete. There’s a distant cawing of crows. The occasional couple walks by holding hands. Some stop and read the menu posted in a nearby restaurant window. They look inside. Others search a street kiosk directory and map, then walk off in the direction of their desired destination.
In any moment, we can have many feelings, needs and desires. I’m putting energy into typing these words. There’s satisfaction in writing. Though streaming through my overall contentment is a fear I won’t be able to articulate myself. There’s some dissatisfication already with how I’m expressing. If I hold all of these states as ripples moving through my awareness and take a breath and feel into the perfection of the moment, I can stay with whatever comes. I want to stay in my body and breath. There’s no where else to be. This is what I’ve decided I’m showing up for in this moment. No part of myself in need of improvement. No need to strive to be better. I am as I am. There’s nothing else to do other than to write and make myself okay as I am. In this space I’m aware of a sense of centeredness, solidity, awakeness and flow.
People often come into therapy believing there’s something wrong with them. I certaintly have. What’s my problem? We want “a fix,” which implies quick relief. In our culture, “a fix” is associated with feeding our addictions. We can grab for anything—a drug, our cellphones, food, sex, relationship— to fill a void, to disconnect and numb out. Addiction usually accompanies feelings of isolation, depersonalization, depression, and a deep sense of lack, deficiency. Addictive reaching for comfort means we’re just coping by altering ourselves with some input from the outside. Rather than being able to stay inside our own experience.
The way out of addiction, out of compulsive filling up and disconnecting, is to learn how to feel securely in charge of our lives, to be able to find an internal state of okayness. Emotional, psychological stability and security is earned only in relatively safe relationships. If we surround ourselves with people who also practice making themselves okay, who practice compassion, acceptance and understanding, we will have the support we need to hold ourselves. In attuned, grounded, compassionate relationships we can practice resting in the truth that we are enough, adequate for this moment.
Katherine (not her real name*) was a hard-working, passionate artist prone to panic attacks. When she started therapy with me she described feeling stressed out. She said she felt distant and cut off from others, including family members. While she considered herself to be a caring person, her relationships were in turmoil. She often felt pressured to take care of others, while being confused about her own needs.
She was prolific in her art, yet felt stagnant and dissatisfied in an ineffable way. She wanted to create something that felt alive and new. She wanted to rid herself of “anxiety” and feel more connected and effective in her life. And yet she wouldn’t give herself the space to slow down or try something new. Whenever she completed a project her mind raced ahead toward the next one as it always had. At the end of most days, she usually drank or smoked marijuana “to shut my mind off.”
In the first few weeks of therapy, she noticed the more productive she wanted to be the more anxious she became. No matter how much she felt she accomplished, she accelerated toward the next goal. She literally didn’t know how to slow down or stop, always preoccupied with something, always filling up with experiences. Her panic attacks were usually related to completing and showing her work, giving talks and being alone in crowded spaces like the subway.
In therapy any time she became aware of some part of her experience she made that experience into another project, something she needed to work on. She had difficulty resting. Her thoughts moved incessantly in frenzied webs of assessment, analysis, interpretation, visioning, goal setting and planning. She anticipated that I was going to offer lots of interpretations and analysis. For a while our work together was strictly goal-oriented until she became aware that she approached her therapy the way she approached her life, from a strict habit of doing rather than being, from outside rather than inside.
It became clear over the course of therapy that many of her actions were fueled by a fear that something was fundamentally wrong with herself. The less we focused on completing a goal or on any particular tool, the more she began to settle into the present and find space. She began to encounter other feelings she had little experience naming—anger, grief, emotional pain. Along the way she realized how afraid she was, afraid of feeling and expressing her emotions, afraid of inhabiting her own body.
Katherine was also insecure about the many connections she’d made in her work. She usually felt very nervous, on the edge of panic, when she put her work out in the world. She was wary of being misunderstood, disrespected, exploited. Because Katherine so often came from a place of inadequacy she didn’t trust her feelings about others and often felt indebted. She was often in a position where she felt pressured to explain her self. She capitulated easily to other’s needs. Without being able to access a sense of adequacy, confidence, solidity, she had trouble standing her ground and being direct about her needs and desires.
Over time, she discovered that many of the decisions she made were based in fear and inadequacy. She began to connect those feelings to the insecure conditions of her childhood.
She’d rarely stopped to ask how and from where she made decisions. As she discovered a multitude of voices and feelings and learned how to be with herself, she began to develop a stronger sense of her own authority. She integrated her fears and they no longer caused her panic. She began to be able to tell the difference between making a decision from fear and choosing from a sense of clarity, flow and ease. She recognized more clearly uncomfortable sensations, feelings in her body and how she made choices to distract herself by grasping for something outside. She began to locate her authority right at her core, to know and feel: I'm the author of my life. I’m in charge. And over time deepened her capacity to stay present and simply be. She allowed herself to work less—to rest and be still—until she got clear about a new direction. She felt more balanced. When her life got busy again she felt full and present, more engaged, more joyful.
When we acknowledge all the time we have lived as if something had been wrong with us, as if we weren’t okay, it is natural to grieve. In psychotherapy it is possible to re-inhabit the life we vacated when previous conditions made it unsafe to remain. To leave was necessary for our emotional survival. To return means to reclaim our felt-sense of wholeness. In therapy we can learn to recognize and hold our emerging needs, desires and feelings and give them expression. We can learn to recognize and let go of the contraints on our life force. And along the way, in a given moment, it is entirely possible to recover our innate sense of being one hundred percent, absolutely okay—enough.
*Please note: all biographical details have been significantly changed to protect the confidentiality of my client.