How Do I Know What I Really Want?
What do I want? What makes me happy? How do I know?
Maybe there was a time when I knew, when I was really young, but I don’t remember. I remember my mom worrying constantly about my highly sensitive brother and his struggles to fit in socially and emotionally.
I remember feeling proud that my parents didn’t have to worry about me because my teachers liked me and I was able to make friends. I remember feeling some power in my ability to contribute to a relative sense of calm in our family.
While I had an easier time fitting in than my brother, I was also highly sensitive. New research demonstrates that high sensitivity runs in families.
I was particularly sensitive to injustice. It infuriated me that people in the world lived with hunger for example, because of where they happened to be born. That some of my classmates’ great grandparents were enslaved felt so absurd and wrong, I had trouble sleeping. The strong feelings I had about injustice were confusing and scary.
What do I do with these feelings? What do these injustices in the world say about me? They were unanswerable questions, especially for an eight year old.
Perhaps it was because my brother’s needs seemed to trump mine, or perhaps it was because the oppressed people of the world’s needs so clearly seemed more important than mine, or perhaps because it felt so good to be recognized for my “togetherness”, I didn’t develop a muscle of tuning into what I might want.
I felt happy taking care of others. I liked praise and recognition more than an internal sense of my own needs being met. And if I did feel hurt or passed over, it never occurred to me to do anything but “get over it.”
Our Pain is Sacred
But the truth is, we all experience pain. It is part of being human. Our pain is sacred. Our pain comes when what is most precious to us – our special gifts, are trampled on, belittled, or rejected.
And we all have special gifts – and it seems impossible to live in this world without our gifts being trampled on at one point or another, even when we live with privilege.
Our pain is therefore a gift too – if we let it be.
One of my early memories of pain, one that I have only recently let myself experience, is being told that my ideas of how to help those in need were self-serving and coming from white guilt. I was told this when I was about sixteen and full of passion and drive to make the world a better place. Around the same time, in a number of different ways, I was told that my creativity made others feel uncomfortable, that I was “showing off” and that if I wanted to be accepted, I better reel it in.
These experiences were hurtful, but because of my list of reasons why my pain didn’t matter, instead of feeling my pain, I built up resolve to move on despite it. Somehow, it felt more powerful and courageous to make them right. To say – OK, I can take it, I don’t need to wallow in my pain or feel sorry for myself, I can GROW instead.
Making them Right
I decided to accept that I must be functioning out of unconscious white guilt and sought from then on to rectify this and ensure that any work I did on behalf of people in need was done “right.” Which meant all kinds of weird things; like constantly taking a back seat, calling out other white people on their racism, and an obsession with tackling root causes through policy change, when really I am much more suited to working directly with people. I also decided that yes, I was a show-off and that my ideas probably weren’t that good anyway and not worth nurturing, at least not the really wild ones.
And so my true activist self (the one filled with empathy, desire to connect, as well as genuine anger and confusion) and my true creative self (the one who lost track of time imaging new ways of engaging with ideas and connecting with people) were shut away in a closet deep inside my soul, locked up with a key and forgotten about.
In the meantime, throughout my adult life, I went on to create the selves that I thought the world would like. I created a fabricated version of what I thought was the “right” activist, devoid of white guilt. I traded in my wild creative side and fabricated a strategic intellectual achiever instead. These facades drew on whatever dust of the real me was left behind after my true gifts were locked away. Turning dust into success takes a lot of work, let me tell you, it is exhausting!
The Dream Provided me Access
Until one day, I had a dream.
I dreamt that my family and I had gone on vacation and on our way back, I suddenly remembered that I had left the beloved family dog all alone in a small shack without food.
“Why did I think he would survive like that?”
I berated myself. I dropped off the kids and started speeding down the highway, a familiar road from my childhood, almost crashing into people along the way, panicked about getting to the dog in time. When I finally arrived and opened the door, he was just barely alive, flopping out pathetically from his dungeon, desperate for sustenance and attention. I woke up balling. I knew immediately that the dog was me. It was the self I locked up when I was sixteen years old.
And so I couldn’t hide any longer. The “locked up self” was out. She was barely breathing, sad, and alone. But she was also so incredibly grateful and glad that my “adult self” came to let her out and give her some air and water, and most of all, that she cared. The “locked-up self” saw that the “adult self” realized what she had done and she cared enough to come looking for her.
That was the breaking point, the point of no return, the point of transformation. The greatest gift I could have received was the gift of feeling the pain of being locked away.
How Did I Get In Touch With My Pain?
So, this didn’t just happen. The dream of the dog didn’t just come out the blue. I had been training as a professional coach for five years, investing in my own personal growth as a means of preparing to support others.
One of the most powerful experiences I had over those five years was noticing the different parts of myself. I noticed the part of me who wants to please others. I noticed the part of me who wants to do the “right” thing. The part that values what other people think more than what feels right to me. Realizing that these were are parts, and not ALL of me was incredibly freeing.
Once I got to know these parts, I was led through a process of asking them why they were there. I asked them; What are you scared of? What do you want for me? What are you protecting me from?
Ultimately, they all wanted to make sure that the very special gifts (the gifts of the true activist and the true artist) weren’t ever trampled on again. So they made sure no one ever had the opportunity to judge them by keeping them hidden. They used just enough of the truly gifted selves’ shadows to create personas that they thought would be well received. And mostly, they were right, those personas were well received. They were so well received that the real gifts might not ever had a chance to be seen.
So, the next step was asking these parts to let me talk to the child with the special gifts. The child who had been hurt. The child who felt pain. This was scary to my protector parts, but eventually they stepped back. Particularly in my dream, they let me see the abandoned child through the metaphor of the dog. I found some scribbles on a piece of paper from an contemplative exercise I did with my inner abandoned child self.
Here’s some of what it said;
Adult me: I am listening. I am committed to feeling rather than thinking as we do this. What do you want to say?
Child: I am still here. I feel ashamed for not having fought for myself, for not having claimed what was mine. But I am still here. Thank you for listening.
Expressing my True Self
Through this process I am now deeply in touch with my true activist self and my true artist self. I have missed them! And now I get to feel their energy flowing through me and I have less fear.
The fear is not totally gone, but somehow I find the words to say what I really mean more easily, I am accessing ideas and stepping into relationships and ways of expressing myself in my work and personal relationships that I never thought were possible.
My activist self now doesn’t have to be perfect. She can receive feedback about her unconscious bias without having to negate her natural empathy. The artist can see when she has tunnel vision without having to give up her independent spirit.
Many of us think, the way I was when I was a child is not accessible to me as an adult, I’ve grown up, I’ve changed. I think the gifts and sense of self we experienced as children are still there. We just have to give ourselves a chance to mourn what was taken. The mourning is the way back.
Are you not allowing yourself to feel pain because you don’t think you deserve to? What would be possible for you, if you had permission to feel all of your feelings?
Rebecca Aced-Molina is a certified professional coach who works with women who have lost track of who they really are, reclaim their life, find their authentic voice, and embrace their gifts. She has spent 20 years coaching and consulting social change leaders, entrepreneurs, and achievers reconnect with their compassionate, courageous and creative essence in order to bring about personal and professional fulfillment in their lives as well as impact positive social change. You can find out more about Rebecca on her site & follow her on FB & Twitter.
Image courtesy of Kaique Rocha.