Just like me

When you’re irritated or annoyed with someone for the way they’re being, you may think “I would never be like that”.

But the intensity of your irritation could be a sign that you’re experiencing a shadow side of yourself – a part of you, seen reflected in them, that you deny and which you do your best to keep out of view.

Pushing the other person away is an attempt to push away the part of yourself you’d rather not see.

And instead of believing all your judgements, you could start to recognise that what you’re seeing in them is, indeed, just like youAnd then you have the possibility of reaching out to them with compassion rather than hostility, learning more about yourself, and healing what’s pushing the two of you apart.

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Are you sure that your perfectionism isn’t just an attempt at protecting you from life, with all its chaos, messiness, decay, change and unpredictability?

Or, if not perfectionism, your striving always to be in control, so that nothing can get to you?

Or your insistence on harmony? Your demand to be right, or to know it all? Your clamour to rescue people every time from their difficulties? Your infatuation with being the best at everything? Your preoccupation with keeping all your options open?

And what would happen if, for a while, you found out that you’re way bigger than any of your obsessions and started to let life in for once?

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Sitting on my front step in the early August sunshine this morning, I looked up to see my neighbour’s cat peering round the front gate. She stared at me with amber eyes and I stared back, and for a while we were locked in a mutual exchange with no words and no content. We just gazed, quietly, intently.

I felt myself settle and calm, the inner whirl of thoughts, expectations, hopes, judgements and plans falling away for a while. For a few moments, an inner silence, a simple graceful accepting being here. Belonging.

And then she moved on.

Part of what made this possible, I think, is that she wasn’t – and couldn’t be – caught up in all the stories I had about myself this morning, and all the habitual ways I have of getting myself seen in just the way I want to be seen.

We mostly have no idea how much this is what we’re up to when other people are around. The way we speak, the way we move, the eye contact we make or don’t make, our facial expressions and gestures, what we’ll listen to or not, what we choose to say and withhold, the moods we end up in, the way we beckon – sometimes ever so subtly – for just the response we’d like to get from others.

‘See me’, we’re saying, ‘notice me. Show me I’m ok. Show me you see me the way I want so much for you to see me (as kind, powerful, ruthless, worthless, helpful, troublesome, loveable, intelligent, creative, skilful…). Answer my longing. Show me I’m not on my own out here.’

And, of course, pretty much everyone else around us is up to this too, so that we’re engaged – in addition to what we think we’re doing – in an endless dance of manipulation, manoeuvring and seeking to have the world be just so for us.

It’s happening at work and at home, with your clients and with your friends, and however much formal power or status – or none – you have at your disposal. It’s part of the dance of being human, of being in relationship with others.

And the cats don’t buy it, which is why, for a moment in their presence, we get to put down all our striving and efforting and just be, in touch for a while with the silent part of us that’s always there and that doesn’t get caught up in our games and our posturing.

I think this is why people with pets – particularly mammals, with their deep capacity to be in relationship with us – often find them so soothing. By not playing our games or being enmeshed in our stories, they open up a space in which every part of us can be welcomed, in which we can be still for a while, in which we can quiet the neediness we hide even from ourselves.

And whether we have cats or not, well all need some of this in our life… a place and a way to belong, just as we are.

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Your team weren’t nearly as excited as you wanted them to be about your proposal.

Your colleagues didn’t deliver the report you were relying on.

The company changed its plans and now some of the work you did isn’t needed.

There were 300 mails in your inbox this morning.

The shoes aren’t lined up neatly in the hall.

You’re leaving the house in a hurry and you can’t find your keys.

The train was three minutes late.

An accident ahead of you held you up on the way to work.

You got ill and had to stop everything for a while.

Isn’t the world supremely irritating at times? Sometimes it’s downright exasperating. And there are times – perhaps often – when you just know that everybody and everything is out to get you.

A huge move, that will free up so much, is to begin to distinguish between what’s observable in the world, and what’s your assessment of it. What’s observable is what you could bank on others being able to see too, even those with very different personality or preferences to you. And your assessment is the interpretation that you bring to bear on it.

You can start to see just what a powerful role your assessments have by considering how other people would be in the same situation.

Stuck in the car, in traffic, you might rage at the frustration, the unfairness, the sheer wilfulness of others to get in your way. All of which does much to stir you up and little to address the situation. Or perhaps you’ll take the jam to be part of a much bigger picture that’s far beyond your control, and figure out how to use the time for something that’s genuinely of value.

When your team didn’t go for your proposal, you could blame them, judge them for their incompetence and laziness, and let them have the full force of your disapproval – all of which is likely to stir up judgement, blame and resentment in them too. Or you can get curious. Find out what your part is in it all (perhaps you didn’t make your original request skilfully) and what’s going on for them that had them take up something else they felt was important.

When the shoes aren’t lined up neatly in the hall, you can strop and strut and despair that nobody in your family seems to care about the home you live in, or start to look for the myriad other ways they’re already expressing their love and commitment to family life.

In every case, start to see that it’s not the world that is irritating, but that it’s you who is irritated. The arrangement of the world (observable). Your irritation (an assessment).

When you can own your assessments as yours, you can find out that there are assessments that bind you up tight and others that free you to act. And when you have your assessments rather than being had by them, you’ll find you’re way more flexible and powerful in moving the world than you’ve realised so far.

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In an ancient Jewish myth, before we’re born a light is held behind our head so we can see the whole world, from end to end.

And then an angel touches us on the lips, and everything is forgotten.

Isn’t that how life is for us? Born into the world as shining beings, with our own unique form, our own character and gifts, we quickly learn to cover ourselves up in order to fit in. Because the family we’re born into already has its own culture, norms, language, and its own ways of celebrating and suppressing what we have to bring. So does the wider culture. And before we know it we’re thrown into all of this, finding out which parts of us we can safely bring forward and which are too much for others to take.

From the moment we arrive, we’re forgetting ourselves, taking on what ‘one does’ in our society to get along, leaving much out, in order to make our way.

And the task of adulthood, that allows us to bring our truest and most authentic gifts to the service of others, is to work always to remember what has been forgotten, that which was really right in front of us all along.

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Better to fall

The floor of the martial arts dojo where I am a student is covered wall to wall with soft mats. Because if you want to learn to move in a new way, it turns out it’s better to to fall than to try to stay upright. Staying safe, looking good, holding on all work directly against the risks and failures needed to learn anything in a profound, lasting, embodied way.

Many of us have a never fall strategy for getting through life. If you hold on tight enough, tense your muscles and hold your breath then maybe nobody will ever see that you’re incomplete. Perhaps if you make sure you’re always in control, that everything is perfect, you’ll never find yourself flat on your back. Maybe you’ll be able to escape the shame that’s lurking just out of sight, or the harsh inner criticism that threatens to engulf you.

All this does is create a very tight spiral in which to live. And a very small space in which to learn.

What huge vistas would open for you if you gave up keeping it all together and allowed yourself to be human for once, in all your extraordinariness and all your imperfection?