Once when I was about sixteen, I was walking down Columbus Avenue with my dad. We were talking about something innocuous enough, and all of a sudden, he lashed out and whacked me on the side of my head with the back of his hand. It wasn’t incredibly hard, but it came out of nowhere, and tears sprang to my eyes. When I asked him why he’d done it, he repeated back what he’d thought I’d said to him. He’d misheard me, and thought I was being disrespectful. When I told him what I’d actually said, he looked pained, but didn’t apologize. He just said “Oh,” and mumbled under his breath. We kept walking, and I did my best to behave as though I was okay. I knew he felt badly about what he’d done, and wished he could take it back. Or I imagined that’s how he was feeling. I didn’t want him to feel any worse. So I took care of him, but not my own rage, pain, or very hurt feelings.
Unfortunately, that had become a habit of mine. I’d learned to direct my attention to the feelings of those around me, and to stuff down my own confusion, pain, anger, sadness, longing, and, to a great degree, joy.
By the time I reached adulthood, I had no clue how I felt about anything. Making decisions was agonizing. What did I want to do with my life? What made me happy, inspired me? I could not have told you.
Sometimes we’re taught that our value is measured by how much we can do for other people. Or we’re dealing with a situation where someone’s needs or issues are so overwhelming, they take up all the space in the equation. My dad is a good person. He’s spent the majority of the last twenty years doing hospice work. But when I was little, he went through some dark years, and I believed it was my job to help him. To make him happy. As an adult, I understand you can never make another person happy. They are, or they are not. Only they can solve that. But it took me years to get that lesson.
The thing is, I took this tendency into every single relationship in my life, and once I hit adulthood, I took it into all my romantic relationships as well. A man in need was like a magnet. “Hey! I know how to do that! I’m not sure what to do with my life, but I know I can help this guy!” And so I’d dive in and get to work. Also, I had a huge fear of being abandoned, and so I thought if I could be indispensable, I wouldn’t have to worry about being left. I mean, if you spend your time and energy trying to be someone’s ideal mate, they’re not going to leave, right?
Anyway, I share all this with you, because a lot of people drag their past into their present, and wonder why they’re miserable. Also, a lot of people play out these patterns unconsciously, trying to heal an old wound. But it doesn’t work that way.
I didn’t realize I was playing an old tape. I just wondered why all my relationships ended in heartbreak, one way or another. It’s exhausting to try to be someone’s perfect person. And it’s a nightmare if you don’t really know who you are.
When you give to get, even if you’re trying to “get love,” it never goes well.
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For me, the practice of yoga turned the lights on. Instead of directing my energy outward, I started to devote ninety minutes a day to figuring out what was happening inside. The very act of paying attention to your breath makes you present. You cannot love anyone, including yourself, unless you know how to be in the now. Love is not an idea, it’s an action. And loving action can only happen now.
If your formative years were spent pushing down your feelings, or editing them for any number of reasons, a disconnect occurred. The body is full of information, and it speaks to us all the time. We know this. We use expressions like “gut feelings,” “sixth sense,” “hot-blooded”. We might say we felt the “hairs on the back of our neck stand up,” or mention someone’s sweaty palms as a sign of their nervousness. Intuitively, we understand the body doesn’t lie. But if we cut ourselves off from that conversation, we lose access to our internal compass. And then we’re lost in the worst way.
In order for life to feel good, your actions and choices have to be aligned with your feelings, with what is in your heart.
So for me, practicing yoga reignited a conversation I’d long since extinguished. I’d spent years making decisions based on what other people thought I should do. It hadn’t even occurred to me to consider what I wanted or how I felt. When I had relationships, I never asked myself if I was having fun. Whether this person was helping me grow into the best version of myself, and vice versa. Whether we laughed together, or if I felt understood or cherished. Everything was directed toward my partner. How he was feeling, what was good for him. And that’s toxic, it truly is. A healthy relationship is a give-and-take. It’s a source of inspiration, affection, appreciation, understanding, celebration. I mean, it requires work, and it certainly isn’t always a party, but the foundation ought to be one that strengthens both people.
Before we can understand how to love others well, romantically or otherwise, how to honor what someone else is feeling, how to listen deeply, we have to figure out how to do those things for ourselves. Love requires compassion and forgiveness. Your desire to understand your partner has to outweigh your desire to be right. And you have to find the balance between your needs and the needs of the person you love. It’s a dance. Ideally, you want two people who understand what it means to nurture and support one another. But before anyone can know you, you have to know yourself.
The other part of the equation for me was therapy. I think of therapy as the “top-down” part (your mind), and yoga as the “bottom-up” part (your body, your intuition). A great therapist will help you understand your tendencies, your old wounds, thoughts and ideas that weaken you, lessons you’ve learned that you might have to unlearn. And the practice of yoga (and by that I mean all eight limbs) gives you the tools to shift, grow and open. To liberate yourself, so your pain does not rule your life.
Healing is personal, and what you’ll need in order to heal is something only you can figure out. But I’d argue that’s your most important work. You have to get right with yourself before you can uncover your gifts and share them. And I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re here to do. Get quiet so you can know yourself. Figure out what lights you up, what scares you, what inspires you. If there are raw places within you that are longing for your kind attention, lean into them. You can liberate yourself from your pain by acknowledging it, it just takes time and effort. Don’t let your pain own you, let love do that.
Ally Hamilton is a Santa Monica-based yoga teacher, writer and life coach, who streams online yoga classes all over the world. She’s the co-creator of YogisAnonymous.com, which has been featured in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Self Magazine, Shape Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. She’s a regular contributor for The Huffington Post, a wellness expert at MindBodyGreen, and writes an almost-daily blog. She’s the mama of two amazing kids and one energetic Labradoodle. She’s excited about her first book, “Sex, Love and Yoga: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times” due from Llewellyn Worldwide in 2016. You can follow her on Twitter or FB.
(If you want to try a little yoga, you can sign up for a free trial with me right here: I’d love to meet you in your living room and share the tools that have worked for me).
Image courtesy of elizabeth lies.