It seems as good a place as any to begin at my beginning. I've had many. This one is the one that invited me to become more integrated. This is the one that allowed me to step onto my true path and into my flow. And it began with Karuna.
I was working as a Prevention and Intervention Specialist at a large high school when I opened my private practice. I had spent many years working in middle schools and high schools at this point and had the opportunity to offer support to countless individuals, both students and staff, throughout that time. As I began to truly consider the idea of opening a practice, I wanted to make sure I had clarity about who I was as a therapist and what I wanted my work to embody.
At some point over the years, I came across a metaphor that resonated with me and I began to use it in my work - the idea that we are all like ducks. When we see ducks swimming in the water, they appear to be gliding effortlessly. Logically, we know that underneath the water, their feet are paddling like crazy. However, it's possible that every duck looks around and thinks "Why do I have to work so hard when everyone else looks to be effortlessly gliding along?" This is often our reality. We feel alone in our experiences and we develop the ability to mask our pain and suffering, believing that there is somehow something wrong with us that we are suffering while everyone else is effortlessly gliding along.
Over the many years I have worked with individuals between the ages of five and sixty-five of varying gender identities, sexual orientations, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, social standings, religions, and any other possible differing characteristic and yet, almost every single person asks similar questions: "Why am I the only person who ________________?" and/or "What is wrong with me? Why can't I just be normal?" If you have never asked yourself any of these questions, I am grateful to know that you have been spared the suffering this creates. Yet, in every session, every person I meet in this life, I am learning this is a very (normal) human experience - we all self-impose doubt, shame, and judgment.
Think about the general way we greet each other. Throughout our day, when we encounter people, we typically say "Hello...how are you?" More often than not, we offer one or more of three answers which seem to have been deemed culturally appropriate:
(1) Some version of "fine" or "good"
(2) Some version of "busy" or "stressed"
(3) Some version of "tired" or "exhausted"
Why do we do this? Why do we deny ourselves the opportunity to connect with others? Many people have said to me "Jenny, what am I supposed to do? Go around telling everyone my life story?" Absolutely not! Unbridled self-expression is not what I am suggesting...and it is not that black and white. It is about authenticity and the discomfort we feel when we sense dissonance between someone's energy and their assertion that they are "fine." If someone asks how I am and I am not in a good space, I might say "You know, I'm not in the best mood and it is not something I would like to talk about, but I really appreciate you asking. How are you?" Now, in offering my authenticity and a bit of vulnerability, that person may feel like they have permission to do so as well and perhaps, may respond to someone else's inquiries the same way later in the day, continuing the trend. By sharing some authentic part of us with another, we are spreading a different vibration in the world; we are connecting.
What about karuna? Well, my experience as a therapist and frankly, as a human being, have led me to an understanding that our avoidance of authenticity and vulnerability is grounded primarily in our self-judgment and shame. Many of us walk around in fear of "being discovered" as a fraud, a mess, being crazy, etc. So we deny ourselves the gift of connection, something we are wired to crave and happens to be the very thing that kills shame. But in order to do this, we must be vulnerable and show parts of ourselves we fear will be judged. This is where I found karuna - a sanskrit word meaning "compassion." This is where I found what I wanted my work to embody. I believe with every ounce of my soul that we could change the world if everyone offered themselves more compassion, because it would support our ability to offer others compassion and to begin connecting with each other in an authentic way.
In her new book "Braving the Wilderness," Brene Brown talks about "the lonely feeling" we can have when we are surrounded by people. She describes the difference between "fitting in" and "belonging":
"Fitting in" means you are assessing how to contort yourself in order to be accepted by something/a group you want to be a part of.
"Belonging" is when something/a group wants you to be a part of it based on who you truly are.
In the case of fitting in, we likely feel lonely because we are not connecting to our true self. In the case of belonging, we may feel lonely because the people we are with, though they may accept us as we are, are not connecting to THEIR true selves. Think about how often you have felt that "lonely feeling" when you have been with others...and consider the weight of the armor we all carry around all day.
So how do we shed that armor? How do we invite karuna into our lives? The next time you hear yourself bullying yourself, talking to yourself in a way that you would never speak to anyone else, nor allow anyone else to speak to you, stop for a moment and consider how you would respond to someone you care about if you heard them talking about themselves that way. Chances are good that you would offer them much more compassion than you offer yourself.
"A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life." (Christopher Germer)