(written April 17, 2020)
I’m sitting in the backyard at a friend’s house with two others I met through Ana David’s Launchpad Inner Circle; the group I mentioned in 6 Feet Apart. An amazing company of people with their own stories about rising from the ashes of their pain and soaring beautiful, healing, and newly, enriched lives. A bond of individuals from all over that only grows stronger every day.
I haven’t blogged much in the past couple of months. I’ve taken a break and done some deep work on myself that I really needed. I have so much content from these new experiences and many “ah ha” moments I want to share with all of you.
I’m still in the discovery and rebuilding stages of myself and my life. I’m trying to be more present for my precious daughters, my gifts from God. And there’s a lot I’d like to do with this website that will be taking most of my energy before I can get to blogging like I once was.
I’m not going to rush my process. I will get there in due time.
I wrote this piece in April when I hit a wall. It was when I realized I needed a reboot. It was when I realized I was sitting in the fire, burning up inside, and I needed to spread my wings so I could soar agin. It was a brief step backwards to get back into the air.
I shared my writing with my group and my group only. I wasn’t planning to publish it, and yet, as I’ve battled this inner voice that has once again became too afraid to speak publicly (I have a piece about Black Live Matters that I started almost two months ago that I can’t seem to finish), I reread this the other day and realized I had done some really good processing I had forgotten about.
Sometimes, we fall back into old habits.
Rafiki recently told me, “It’s the first time hearing that again!”
I’m human and it’s only with repetition and experience that learning will eventually become habit.
Here’s what I wrote over three months ago.
It's the first time hearing that again. Click To Tweet
I’m the great procrastinator. I don’t say this with pride. It’s a known fact.
My writing group has helped me have a set time to sit and write, and instead of digging in deep to an issue that has bothered me for more than a month, I’ve spent that time posting Coronavirus Parody videos, Grateful Sunday posts, Motivational Monday posts, and Wednesday Share Day posts.
All of these are good; however, I’ve avoided the one area I’ve needed to look at the most.
Only continued repetition and experience will allow what you're learning to eventually become a habit. Click To Tweet
Immediately right after my session with my counselor, now over a week ago, I was ready to write what we had discussed. I wanted to jump in and put my Emotions plus Beliefs which equals Feelings onto paper (thank you Rafiki in 6 Feet Apart for bringing that E + B = F awareness back).
I wanted to talk about my ANGER!
I wanted to immediately reach out to my inner Rafiki by putting pen to paper to help me process that rage that was eating me up inside.
Ok, maybe not pen to paper. I haven’t journaled like that for a very long time. It’s more like, fingers to keyboard.
<Side Note: I’ve journaled pen to paper now, twice daily, for almost 100 days as part of my morning and evening rituals. I stopped doing that years ago. I did mention I have content. My challenge has been finding time.>
I know. I know. I’m starting to procrastinate again…
The Universe Spoke
Two days ago I had asked to get together with my ex in the morning to discuss this anger stuff that’s been going on with me before I had finished processing it (this piece here).
Um, not a smart move Phoenix!
I did this by offering to help her go to the dump as an excuse to give us time in the truck where I could express my thoughts without having to hold eye contact with her. Yes, I even went so far as to plan to avoid eye contact. Definitely a sign that I’m not yet ready for this conversation.
I also had not told her I wanted to talk to her about what was going on. Fear of confrontation, fear of not being heard, fear of being reactive, fear of not explaining myself well or saying something in an insensitive way, fear of not being perfect. Just flat fear!
If I said I wanted to talk to her, I would have then been obligated. Maybe I wouldn’t have to confront her, even though my little boy so wanted to tell her how bad he was hurting.
When I got to her house yesterday, we noticed the truck tire was flat. The Universe had spoken! I could avoid again.
Probably a good thing since I was still in this reactive state.
By the time AAA had arrived and added air, I needed to leave so I could join my writing group. She honored my request.
In the past, I would put her needs before mine. Going on a dump run would not only give me time with her, I’d also feel helpful. I would care for her needs, at the expense of my own self-care.
I recognized that my ex encouraged me to leave, to go write, and that she was ok going to the dump by herself (she actually did two runs that day).
I guess, in many ways, we have grown.
Ok, here I am, ready to process my anger and I’m spending more time trying to get the first part of my story complete and straight before I do the hard work. (insert eye roll here)
Come on! Stop Procrastinating Already!!
Ok, ok, Mr. Rafiki in my head whacking me over the head. I’m getting there. Patience.
My therapist had told me he wanted me to do three things in regard to the anger I was feeling. Wow! That was already nine days ago.
The first part of the assignment was that he wanted me to sit for an hour and meditate. Use the EMDR tappers for resourcing if I’d like to. My homework was only to sit in silence for an hour and NOT write.
I dislike challenges like this. I know why he does it.
This is what Kyle Cease was telling his listeners to do in an email I received this week; sit in silence to bring up all the underlying stuff so you can release it all.
Your Shift Happens
~ Kyle Cease
This creates too much anxiety for me.
Sitting still, let alone for an hour, feels like holding your hand a foot or two over an open flame. At first there’s a little heat. Then it starts to get warmer. Until eventually, you need to yank it away because it’s burning too much!
That’s what it feels life if I meditate less than five minutes. I need to get…OUT!
I have so much anxiety slowing down.
Anna David explained it better today right before our writing session; “Meditation is where our thoughts don’t matter. Writing is where our thoughts do matter.”
Seriously? Sit and feel the pain? Are you fucking crazy?
Sitting is what gets me in my head. Sitting is where I get overwhelmed with stories and feelings and emotions. It’s like a snowball rolling downhill gaining mass and speed.
Just let me write because that’s what matters!
My therapist wants me to meditate. It’s what all the recovery gurus are pushing. They want me to learn how to listen to the silence without the story. To listen to the silence without attaching judgment. To just let it be rather than continue to add to the story.
To see the emotions and be aware of them. That’s it. Nothing more.
<Another Side Note: Part of my morning Sadhana practice is to warm up the body, hold a posture with a certain type of breathing, then sit in silence for five to ten minutes. I meditate in the afternoon for fifteen minutes. And I actually, now enjoy the time spent in nature sitting in silence with either my eyes open or closed. Such a shift and what a HUGE change from three and a half months ago.>
My next assignment, after the meditation, was to talk with close friends and peers in program about my anger. Then, and only AFTER I had done all that, was I “allowed” to process my anger through my writing.
The rebellious part of me wanted to scrap my therapist’s assignment and write immediately. I mean it’s all about me, right? What does a therapist know anyway?
I know me. If I don’t jump in and do it when I’m ready, I’ll never go back to it.
And yet, when I’m most resistant to do what my therapist asks, is when I really need to listen to his suggestions.
Oh fuck! I’ll do it. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. Time to sit in uncomfortable silence.
I’m Pissed Off
Yay! Now, only days later, and I’ve got that one hour meditation out of the way. I’ve “completed” my homework. I’m ready to confront Rafiki and let it all out!
“Good morning my favorite monkey,” I cheerfully greet my friend from a distance of not less than 6 feet away. Today we’ve decided to go out and get some exercise. A much-needed break from the monotony of sitting at home or in the back yard. A walk sounds incredible.
“I too am enjoying time with my favorite primate,” Rafiki replies with a knowing smile reminding me that him and I are related, brothers from the same Order, not from the same Family. I’ve been indirectly corrected.
Rafiki jumps right in, “You mentioned you needed to process some anger from your last therapy appointment.” He knows I’ll dance around the issue.
“Yeah. I guess I’m holding anger around following the same patterns, once again, with my ex. I had thought things were going to be different this time. That we could start anew, and yet we’re doing the same things. Nothing has changed.”
“I’m going to ask a question you may not want to hear. I only say this so that you have your armor of self-protection to give yourself self-care.” He pauses then adds, “Let me know when you’re ready.”
Feeling my gut start to tense, I take a deep breath. I give him the thumbs up. I do wish I had Hippo, my stuffed animal for comfort. My mind of make believe will have to suffice.
“Has your ex ever said to you that she wants to work on the relationship?”
“Well, she came back in January and said she sees things from a different perspective, sees how she was controlling, that she sees her piece in our divorce, and misses all the fun we had,” I answer, successfully dodging the question.
“Has your ex ever said she wants to work on the relationship?” Rafiki repeats.
“We went on a date. Even talked in the third person about our marriage, our girls, our dreams in life. We had a beautiful evening.” I can feel my gut tighten more and my breathing starts to become shallow.
Rafiki, gently, ever so gently “Has your ex specifically,” he emphasizes the word specifically, “said to you, ‘Phoenix, I want to work on the relationship?’”
Tears well up in my eyes, “No.”
Silence. We continue to walk. I wait for Rafiki to break the quiet. He leans on his staff as he shuffles forward, looking straight ahead.
I look down at my feet. I stumble along. Oh, man! Why is silence so deafening?
I’m not going to talk. I refuse to talk. I’m angry at my ex. I’m angry that she came back and told me that she sees her piece in our divorce and admitted that she was controlling. I’m angry that she said she misses us. I’m angry that I allowed myself to open up to her again, to be vulnerable.
I’m angry that when she’s hurting emotionally, I want to comfort her. I’m angry that she knew I’d comfort her. I’m angry because she pulls away when I really open up and become vulnerable.
I’m angry because we didn’t hold boundaries and we slept together. I’m angry that it felt like I had come back home when I stayed with her and the girls for three days nursing her back to health after her surgery.
I’m angry that I allow myself to be pulled back in when she needs me, only to get tossed back out to sea when she’s done with me.
I’m angry because I still love her, miss her, and want to be with her. I’m angry that after all this time I still have hope.
I’m fucking pissed off!!
I don’t realize that my hands are clenched, that my teeth are clamped tightly together, that my face has heated up, that my breathing has increased. I don’t realize the tears streaming down my face.
I don’t realize that we haven’t talked for over five minutes.
What’s Under the Anger?
Rafiki is the one to break the silence. “Phoenix,” he says, again gently. “What comes up under the anger?”
“Huh?” I wipe my tears with the back of my hand. I don’t want to accidentally spread Coronavirus, although the brief thought of catching it and not being here afterwards seems easier than managing the pain I’m feeling right now.
“What is under the anger? What’s the story you’re telling yourself?”
Before I have a chance to even think about or answer the question, Rafiki sighs and opens up, his voice trembling, “I felt invisible. I felt unimportant.” He let that hang in the air.
I have never heard Rafiki admit his vulnerability. He’s always been quick to use metaphors and analogies to get me to see things differently. He catches my words, my phrases, my tone. He listens well and challenges me.
And yet, I haven’t heard him come across as weak. I look over at him, one hand limply holding his staff, the other arm flopping by his side. His head is down, shoulders hunched forward, a sadness in his eyes.
Without looking at me he continues, “My anger was the mask I wore so I didn’t have to look at the ugliness of my own face.”
I don’t say anything. Literally, he has a beautifully colored mandrill face. It’s far from ugly. And figuratively, I realize he’s only lifted a corner of his mask for me to see. Today he seems to be removing the entire veil.
Underneath, there are scars. They’ve healed over and yet, the marks still remain.
He’s just like me, constantly working to heal the inner wounds that sometimes open up and bleed.
My anger was the mask I wore so I didn’t have to look at the ugliness of my own face. Click To Tweet
“For me, I believed I was unimportant,” Rafiki continues. “This belief created a deep hole in my heart. At one time, a crater so big, it didn’t matter what I did or what people said, it was never enough.”
I listen in shock, surprise, and compassion. I know that pain too well.
“I had to do something to protect myself. So, I covered the hole with anger. I put on this mask and avoided looking at the deeper issue that was going on within me.” Rafiki takes a deep, shuddering breath, as if he was remembering something he wanted to forget.
“What I used to mask the truth, I then used as both a shield and a weapon. I used the shield as deflection, to keep the people I love from getting too close to me. And if they got through my defenses, I struck out with my sword of blame and shame.”
He looks at me, sadness mingled with a bit of seriousness. “Phoenix, we all have a right to our anger. It allows us the ability to see that we’ve been hurt. The real gift of anger is when we identify what’s causing the pain so we can put down our sword and shield and open our arms instead.”
Rafiki turns away and continues to look at his feet. He doesn’t speak again. I walk in the silence trying to comprehend everything he just said. He mumbles, as if talking to himself, “We must have a tough hide when we do that. Without shield or sword, we need to rely on our self-love and self-respect to protect us from the unpredictability of others. We need to love ourselves enough to protect us from internalizing our human imperfections.”
I’m not sure if I should speak. Maybe he needs more time for introspection. Maybe I should wait until he asks me again. And yet, he did ask me a question that I haven’t answered.
I look over at him again, standing taller, head erect as he grips his staff. There’s a confidence in his step, a bounce. I see how my mentor accepts and allows his emotions, his thoughts, his feelings to flow into him, through him, and how he then releases them.
It’s as if I had never seen it happen.
We need to love ourselves enough to protect us from internalizing our human imperfections. Click To Tweet
The Background Story
I decided to tell Rafiki what happened. “In the beginning of March, right when the county ordered the shelter in place, in a panic, my ex called and told me that she had texted the girls that the world was going to change as we knew it and I would need to move back in. I felt this excitement, fear, and sadness. I want to move back home. I want it to be the four of us. I have wanted this for years.
“And then I thought. She doesn’t ‘want’ me to move home because she wants to work on our relationship. She ‘needs’ me to move home to protect her financial state if I was to get furloughed and am no longer flying.” I emphasize the words want and need. “She relies on my income to provide child support and alimony to make ends meet.
“My oldest daughter doesn’t want me to move home. She completely opposes the idea of my ex and I together even for family get togethers, always stonewalling the two of us when we’re getting along. And my youngest would have to share her room with her Dad. That’s the last thing in the world she would want. Dad and daughter shouldn’t be sharing a room together.”
“Why would your daughter have to share her room?” Rafiki asks, confused.
“My youngest daughter’s room is the size of two large bedrooms. Because my ex’s nephew lives in the other bedroom and since my youngest spends most of her time in mom’s room watching TV and still sleeps in my ex’s bed, my ex said that she isn’t in her room that much to begin with.”
“And your ex texted all this to your girls?”
“Yes. She called to tell me what she had texted them and wanted to prepare me for what I might hear from them first.”
“And what did you do?”
“I was excited at first. I get to move back home. And then the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Nobody wants me to move back. I was the one who had sacrificed moving out, then moving when we sold our house, and now I was going to have to sacrifice moving again? Then, when the economy has turned back around, I’m sure it’d be, ‘Thank you Phoenix, you can move back out again. We’re all good now.’”
I was on a roll. I started talking faster, louder. I got more animated. “I felt like the analogy you we had discussed over three years ago; the one with Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football. I could see our patterns showing up right in front of my face and I could feel me being sucked right into it.
“So, I wrote an email. It wasn’t passive aggressive. It wasn’t attacking. It wasn’t coming from a victim state. I just stated my thoughts and my beliefs and how that made me feel. I followed your suggestion of asking for a time frame for a response. And she didn’t respond within that time. It’s been over a month, I’ve brought it up a couple of times, and yet she still has pushed the entire issue away.”
I take a deep breath. Whoa, that was a lot. I’m seething.
Digging into the Deeper Issues
“I have some questions for you, Phoenix.” Rafiki speaks, sounding analytical. “There are some aspects to this story you had not previously disclosed.”
Uh oh! Fear. Judgment. The reminder that I haven’t done everything perfectly.
“Who did you talk to before you wrote this letter?”
Feeling ashamed, lowering my head, “No one. However, it took me all day to write and a couple hours to send it. It wasn’t like anything I had sent before,” I justified.
“In your letter you talked about how you felt and how her actions affected you, correct?”
“I may not have heard this. When did you come to the protection of your girls?” Rafiki’s voice had a hint of an accusatory tone to it.
“Did you say anything about your ex texting your girls before she and you had a chance to talk?”
“Umm. No,” I stutter.
“I’m not sure.” My face heats up again. I feel like I’m being interrogated. For some reason, I don’t see a ‘good cop’ on this walking path.
“You wrote a letter to your ex before talking with someone and once again you placed your feelings and your issues about you and her over those of your girls.” I can sense anger seeping from Rafiki. The gentleness had dissipated and, as I observed, a trauma wound had been triggered.
I try to defend myself, “That’s why I wrote the letter in the first place. So that we could talk about the issues that have come up.”
“Phoenix,” Rafiki sighs, his voice bitter. “What you wrote to your ex was what you needed to talk to your peers in program about. It’s what you needed to talk to your therapist about. It’s what you needed to talk to your sponsor about.” He let that sink in. “The only thing that needed to be discussed with your ex was how inappropriate it was for her to bring your kids into this discussion. Something she has always done in your relationship.”
I could sense him smoldering next to me as we continued to walk. I hear him, but I want to drown him out.
And yet, Rafiki doesn’t stop. “When are you going to put your girls first? The patterns are the same. It always comes back to how your ex makes you feel. You keep dancing the same waltz, tripping over your feet and trampling on your girls in the process. Stop the dance with her Phoenix. And take care of your girls!”
I feel as if I’m suffocating over my own inaptitude as a father, choking and drowning on my own guilt and shame. Will I ever get anything right?
As quick as he was to anger, Rafiki immediately becomes somber. “My parents did not attend to my needs as a child. It was always about them. Neither one of them stood up to protect me. I was left alone trying to learn how to fend for myself. I did not have an advocate. I did not have a voice. I was not seen. I was not heard. And at a young age, before I could truly understand or comprehend what was going on, I was forced to deal with their issues.
A deep breath. “Phoenix, I understand your triggers. I do. I get triggered all the time. We’re adults and we have the capacity to manage those triggers. Your kids don’t. They need you to stand up for them and hold boundaries between what goes on in your relationship with their mother.
Three steps of silence, then he continues, “The text she sent them added an extra layer of uncertainty in their lives. Right now, life is pretty scary, especially for kids. Now Dad may move back in? Followed by a month plus of nobody talking about it leaving them hanging and wondering? These are the things you need to discuss with your ex. There’s an importance of holding boundaries around the fragile young ladies both of you love.”
Changing the subject and completely catching me off guard, Rafiki asks, “Why do you say ‘home’ when referring to your ex’s place and yet you don’t call your own place home?”
I’m shocked into a state of being caught, like that deer in the headlights look. There’s a piece of me that feels exposed and another part that wants to quickly cover it up.
“I do that?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“All the time.”
“I’m not sure,” I lie.
“What is your definition of home?”
“Home is where the heart is,” I recite, as well as anyone who watches romance movies. I know he’s not buying my indirect sense of humor. He takes the bite anyway.
“So, your heart is where your ex lives?”
Oh crap! That backfired! “That’s not what I’m saying,” I respond, my defenses up in an instant. I imagine his shield and sword analogy from earlier. Interesting, I never have used the sword with Rafiki, and my shield gets swatted away as if made out of paper.
However, with my ex, I’ve been able to hide behind the protection of my solid spherical disk and have done some real damage slashing out with my sword.
“I don’t hear you refer to your place as home. Why is that?” Rafiki asks the same question, yet in a different way.
“I guess it’s because I have a roommate who has her own kid and her boyfriend that stays over and her son’s dad that hangs out. It’s not just the girls and me. It’s probably because my definition of home is where the family is together.”
“Your girls are your family.” Rafiki again reminds me. “You have an idealized version of what you want family to be. This is not reality. You are divorced.”
Like I really needed him to say that again. “Over Christmas, you said your house finally felt homey. What changed since then?” Rafiki asks.
I think back. I did enjoy the month of December with my girls. I was very happy and didn’t have my ex on my mind. I was finally letting go of what could have been and living life as it was now. The Eckart Tolle way.
“Reconnecting with my ex after the new year,” I expel, as if the faster I said it, the quicker I could move onto the next subject.
“Let me see if I understand this correctly,” Rafiki clarifies. “Your ex comes back to you and explains that she misses you, sees her part in the reason for the divorce, the two of you sleep together, go on a date a week later, after a month or so she starts to hold you at arm’s length, then she slowly pulls away from you. And you end up grabbing onto that piece of hope you’ve been trying to let go of for years thinking things will be different?”
I nod. I want to explain that it is different. That she shows more empathy than she used to. That she’s more interested and asks how I’m doing and hasn’t don’t that in years. That when we communicate, I don’t sense the anger lying underneath the surface like I used to.
However, as much as that is true, we still are trapped in our own patterns. She does not want to see these patterns and work on them together. It feels like a passive aggressive, Phoenix has not changed so I’m going to protect myself and stonewall him.
It is I who needs to not get pulled back in. It is I who needs to hold a boundary.
Rafiki chuckles to himself. How can he laugh in the middle of all this? “Oh Phoenix,” he says, shaking his head. “As I mentioned before, kryptonite to you is your ex and your finances.”
He’s so right. I’m getting more resilient and yet, they still are my biggest weaknesses.
I start explaining my childhood. “Growing up, we didn’t do anything when it was only me and my parents. No matter how much I wanted to interact with them, they were too busy doing their own things; reading books, watching TV, having adult conversations. They were tired after a day of work and I felt as if I was a burden and in their way.
“Every other weekend when my stepsister would come over, then we’d do things. We became a ‘family.’ We’d go to the park, to museums, eat out at restaurants, play board games. We interacted and have fun together. Then, when she left, it was back to me having to spend time on my own finding ways to entertain and amuse myself. I felt invisible.
“I guess that’s how it feels now. It seems as if my family is always doing something without me. I’m not asked if I want to join them when I’m off work. It feels while I’m sitting at my house, on call, that I’m in a crash pad another state away. It doesn’t matter if I’m home or not. My girls are in their teens and don’t seem to want to do things with Dad when they’re with me. I see them doing stuff with Mom. And I wish to be a part of that. I just miss all four of us together.”
“Phoenix, your family does not include your ex,” Rafiki again reminds me.
Then he repeats, a little sterner this time, “Let me say that again. Your family does NOT include your ex. It’s you and your two girls. When they are with you, your family includes your roommate and her son. You need to get the fantasy of the four of you as a family out of your head. When you do that, you’re not attentive to the two who really need their Dad. Why don’t you make that a priority with your girls?”
“I try,” I say, sadness starting seep back in my blood.
“Do you?” Rafiki pushes.
I have to get really honest with myself. Do I do that? “Sometimes.”
“And when you do, how do you feel?”
“Connected. Happy. Content.”
“And what keeps you from continuing to do it all the time?”
“I don’t know. I get into working on the To Do List I have that’s a mile long.”
“So, in a way you kind of become like your parents? Like the song Cats in the Cradle.”
I think about the song. I think about how I put my stuff before my girls. I think about how I ask them what they want to do instead of being more of a leader directing them, like a symphony conductor.
I have always said, if I could live and lead my personal life how I do when I’m the captain of my airplane… Instead, I wait for them to lead.
That’s what I did in December. That’s why we had an incredible Christmas holiday. That’s why we enjoyed each other’s company. I took charge and led my girls.
“Yeah, I can see I do that,” I admit, deflated.
Rafiki smiles, “A work in progress my young protégé.”
Again, What’s Under the Anger?
“Let’s go back to the original question I asked. What is the story underneath the anger? Is the anger really what’s going on? Or is there an emotion that it’s masking?”
I take a deep breath. I think I’m ready now.
“It’s the same as yours.” I murmur. “The thoughts under the anger is that I’m not worthy and I’m unlovable. If I was important, my ex would have responded in a timely manner. I believe I’m invisible, so I bring it up saying that I’d like to discuss it with her. When she avoids and dodges the issue, I feel unappreciated and a burden. Those thoughts I then project onto my girls.”
“Change that last sentence Phoenix,” Rafiki interrupts. “Change thoughts to lies.”
“State after me,” he commands. “Those lies I project onto my girls.”
I take a deep breath, “Those lies I project onto my girls.”
“Those lies I project onto my girls.” I so want to place a “but” in there. Rationalize. Justify. Not accept it as truth without some explanation.
Seeing my hesitation, Rafiki says one more time, lightly, “Once again.”
“Those lies I project onto my girls.” This time no ‘but’ needed, no explanation, no shame. Just acknowledgement.
“Phoenix, you have a right to your anger,” Rafiki expounds. “It’s ok to be angry. What’s important is how you respond to the anger and taking the time to figure out what the anger is showing you.”
I think back to the blog I wrote over three years ago, The Gifts of Anger. How is it sometimes we still forget that which we thought we had learned?
“Your primary job as a father is to protect and provide for your girls,” Rafiki continues. “You can’t do that when you’re holding onto a ton of emotions. You can’t do that when you allow yourself to get sucked back into the patterns with your ex. And you can’t do that when you allow conflict with your ex to not be discussed. By not acknowledging the elephant in the room, you just might get trampled.”
I feel my chest tighten. I feel my heartbeat increase. I realize he’s absolutely correct. Unfortunately, I’m so scared to talk to my ex about what’s been going on.
Rafiki notices the nonverbal change in my body. “What thought are you thinking at this moment?”
“I fear that what I say will be dismissed. That her defenses will come up and she will shut me down. It’s less painful to not say anything than it is to speak up and not be heard.”
“How do you express your anger to your ex without having expectations about how she’ll respond?” Rafiki asks.
“I don’t have expectations,” I argue.
“You don’t?” Rafiki smiles. “If she dismisses what you have to say. If she shuts you down. That’s her stuff, not yours. You have an expectation of how you want her to respond to you and when she doesn’t meet that expectation, you’re hurt.”
He lets that simmer a bit, then continues, “To be secure in who you are, you need to not only be vulnerable, you also need to drop all expectations. Imagine what it would look like if you didn’t have that excess baggage?”
Rafiki takes a deep breath, holds it, then exhales, “How one responds to your truth is a reflection of who they are, not who you are.”
Man! He makes it sound so simple.
Parent Your Inner Child
“You have an entitlement piece to look at. You feel entitled that she must respond to you in a specific way. That she must take care of you. And when she doesn’t, you get hurt. Drop that piece. Drop any expectations. Drop the entitlement! Let yourself be known and accept whatever comes.”
So much fear coursing through my body at the moment. My hands are shaking.
As if reading my thoughts, “I get it Phoenix. Really, I do. If your ex doesn’t respond to you the way you hope, it only reinforces the story your parents taught you. That’s how it was for me. I never developed self-soothing skills.”
“I guess you’re right.” I feel burned out. Like this walk has turned into a marathon.
“What belief is keeping you trapped into the same role as a child? What has kept you a child instead of being an adult or father? What is the story you continue to believe?”
I don’t answer. I don’t think he even wants me to answer. I think this is something for me to ponder.
“For me,” again Rafiki uses himself as a basis for discussion. I’m still not used to his vulnerability. “I had to learn to parent myself the way my parents never did. I had to learn take care of my own needs. I couldn’t place those expectations on anyone else. Self-care, self-soothe, self-love.”
I nod, half listening, half struggling through memories my of own childhood trauma, the breakdown of my marriage, and the past five years of separation and finally divorce.
“When you learn how to care for yourself,” Rafiki continues. “You aren’t affected by the humanity of how others respond to you. You’re able to be open and vulnerable, while holding boundaries around that.”
He sounds like our therapist. Oh wait, we do have the same therapist. That’s how we met so many years ago.
“And when another is imperfect with how they respond; you have empathy and compassion because you understand that they too are coming from their own childhood wounding.”
Wow. That’s deep. I’m going to have to go back over that a few times to get it to sink in.
Empathy Can Transform Anger
Rafiki changes course, “Didn’t you tell me that your ex acknowledged your letter, apologize that she had not responded and had done the same thing she has always done?”
“That’s an amazing step forward in growth.” I hadn’t thought about it that way. She was apologetic that she hadn’t talked with me.
“Didn’t your ex tell you she needed more time to process?”
“Why, what?” I ask, slightly perturbed
“Why would she need more time to process what you wrote?”
“I don’t know. To avoid the issue. I mean she had already had a few weeks to process.”
“Why would she avoid the issue?”
“Because she doesn’t want to deal with my shit?” I answer, feeling anger again.
“Phoenix, it always comes back to you doesn’t it?” Rafiki points out. “Just like you don’t want to look at your underlying issues, have you ever thought that maybe your ex doesn’t want to look at hers?”
I contemplate that last statement. I always come back to how I’m hurt. And through my own pain, my own blinders, I lose empathy with what she’s going through.
“We’re all human. We’re all imperfect. And sometimes we all don’t get it right.” Rafiki reminds me. “You wrote a piece about the lies we tell ourselves. How, we respond to these untrue stories as if they were truth. What if the story you continue to tell yourself is not true?”
“What? That she doesn’t want to address these issues at all?”
“Maybe, just like you’re avoiding telling her how much it hurt you that she did not respond in a timely manner, she doesn’t want to tell you what’s really going on with her. Maybe, she’s just as fearful about digging into her emotional trauma, that she avoids it not to hurt you, but to protect herself from that pain.”
“We do have a history of sweeping stuff under the carpet. That’s what we did for years before I went into treatment.”
“From what I remember you telling me, that’s how she manages life. If she doesn’t have to look at it, then it doesn’t exist.”
He does have a point. We both were the masters of hiding from our emotions in our marriage and putting on a good show for the rest of the world.
“Phoenix, you can have empathy while at the same time be angry. You can have compassion while at the same time feel hurt. It’s how we respond to that pain. It’s how we respond to that anger. It’s how we express what we’re feeling to the ones we care about that’s important.”
I’m listening, feeling the physical sensations that have been trapped in my body dissipate. Allowing myself to have empathy over another releases the built up tension that I hold onto when I stay stuck in my own story.
“Phoenix, your family didn’t listen to your feelings. You have done this to your ex. You shut her out a year ago when she opened up to you that she still wanted a divorce. You were hurt and you pushed her away while you were in training. Have empathy over how she allowed herself to be vulnerable to you and you didn’t respond to her back then.”
I guess I did do that. I keep justifying I was in so much pain that I couldn’t focus on training if I was to talk to her. However, I never expressed how hurt I was. I never talked to her about what was going on. I just slammed the door!
“Your family didn’t allow you to be angry. They beat you down when you became mad. Your family never listened to your feelings. They shamed you for the stories you made up. How does this play into the relationship with your ex? How does this resurface in your friendships? What do you need to do so your next relationship will be healthier?”
Rafiki answers his own question, “It’s important for your adult to stand up for your child. Let your child be known through your adult. When we respond through our child’s eyes, we end up becoming reactive. We hurt ourselves and we hurt others. When we learn to take our child and pull our arms tightly around him, comfort and protect our child, while at the same time standing up for our little one, we honor ourselves and we honor those around us.
“Remember, Phoenix, your beliefs are yours and hers are hers. You only have control with that which you can change. You can’t change her. Why get hurt and upset when she follows the same patterns? Change your patterns and let hers be hers. Hold boundaries and come from a place to be known without the expectation that she responds in a specific way.”
Rafiki can push me to the limit. He can challenge me and bring up so much junk that hurts.
Lately, I’ve avoided talking with him because I’m worn out. I’m tired. With everything going on in the world, I feel as if I’m crossing the finish line of that marathon. No, make that an Ironman. I just want to lie in the grass and sleep for days.
I want to hibernate.
A tear slips down my face. I realize that Rafiki only does this out of love.
I focus so hard on still trying to be heard by my ex, followed by the pain and anger when I believe that I’m not, I forget I have a network of people who do love me and who do hear me.
I forget that I have myself and my own tools to comfort and support my inner child when he’s feeling amiss.
I forget that I love me.
Insight from My Ex
A week ago, on the phone, I told my ex that I still wanted to discuss the email I had written and options moving forward. I mentioned that both her and I avoid conflict and do not like to rock the boat.
My ex then brought up a situation I had forgotten about that happened the day after I sent her the email.
Over a month ago, my oldest daughter rudely woke up her sister. Her sister is one who needs to wake up slowly. Wake her up gently, tell her you’ll come back in ten minutes, then wake her up again.
Since they share the same room, my older daughter started packing her things and kept antagonizing her sister. I had calmly asked numerous times for her to leave the room and give her sister ten minutes. She refused.
They started fighting, yelling at one another. A childhood wound in me was triggered.
I snapped. All the displaced feelings I was struggling with spewed and projected onto my daughter. I experienced the rage I had grown up with from my stepfather.
And not only did I attack my oldest daughter, my youngest joined me as my wingman.
I can still see the initial look of fear in her eyes, how her body cringed. I could see how she fought back. And when I backed off, the damage had already been done.
She called my ex and begged that she pick her up, refusing to let me drive her back to her mom’s.
On the phone, my ex explained to me that hearing that story, she too was triggered.
This was how it used to be. My girls would fight, and I’d jump in believing, that as their father, I could control them and make them stop. I was never able to do that with my parents. I had to watch, listen, and suffer through their verbal assaults. As a Dad, I believed I could stop what I wasn’t allowed to stop as a child.
Instead, it always ended up with the three of us fighting and my ex shaking her head in agonized disbelief, “I have three children.”
My ex continued to explain that she felt this trigger throughout her body. She said I wasn’t safe, and she didn’t want her peaceful, quiet world to be disrupted by my unpredictability.
Over a month had passed and neither one of us had talked about our underlying issues. We stewed in our own emotional trauma rather than releasing it.
I felt so much compassion and empathy for her. I didn’t feel the shame and guilt I used to feel because I screwed up. I didn’t feel judged. I knew exactly where she was coming from.
I understand triggers. Shoot, that was what happened between my oldest daughter and me.
It’s the way it used to always be. Maybe not always. That’s a story I repeat to myself. It’s a story my ex reminds me of.
It is not who I am today.
I flashback to how I used to treat my older daughter when she was my roommate’s son’s age. She’d spill water and I’d get so angry with her. I’d take her hand with a paper towel and forcefully make her clean it up, shaming her the entire time for being clumsy. It hurts to admit I used to do that. My daughter wasn’t even two.
Today, if my roommate’s son spills, I immediately say, “Uh, oh,” with a smile on my face. He repeats, “Uh, oh.” I grab a paper towel and hand it to him. “Let’s clean this up,” I encourage in a sing song voice. He rubs the towel about a full foot away from the spill, me encouraging him. “‘ow don,” he says and hands me the towel. I quickly clean up the mess and hand the towel back to him. “Let’s put that in the trash.” He throws it away and I thank him for cleaning up and being such a good boy.
Years ago, I was not safe to be around when my emotions and beliefs were under attack.
I was not safe when I reacted.
I started thinking about that day, now over a month ago.
It didn’t matter that my energy dissipated within minutes afterwards. That I made an amends to both daughters. That I acknowledged my imperfections and worked towards repairing our relationship immediately.
It didn’t matter that my roommate, someone I’ve lived with for over three years, said to me, “Phoenix, I’ve never seen you lose your temper like that. Is everything ok?” It didn’t matter that my ex hasn’t seen that I’m not who I used to be.
It didn’t matter that I was dealing with a load of emotions: the fear that I was going to catch the Coronavirus any day and that my exercise induced asthma was my sentence to death, that working on my estate planning meant coming to an acceptance that I am human and will eventually die, that I didn’t know how long I’d have a job, the idea of packing all my stuff and moving again, and the possibility of moving into a house where I believed I was not wanted.
It didn’t matter that I was overwhelmed with anxiety.
At that moment, none of that mattered.
What mattered was that my ex had her own childhood wounds activated. That the PTSD trauma symptoms I caused from my betrayal and my addiction came back in full force.
I had no idea. She never disclosed this to me. She went on with life as if everything was ok. Her way of dealing with stress.
Her life has also been turned upside down due to the state of the world. And if my triggers were on edge, I never acknowledged that hers were too.
My ex made a decision without fully thinking it through or talking to me about it and probably felt as if she trapped herself into a corner after she made it.
I realized that both of us have not felt safe to discuss what’s going on.
With compassion and understanding in my voice, I explain that I’d still like to talk with her. She agrees that it’s important, however, she doesn’t want to do it by text, email, or phone. She wants to do it person. She establishes and holds a boundary.
And yet, we still avoid. I avoid because I don’t trust myself. I haven’t processed this enough to trust that I won’t fall back into old habits.
I avoid because I procrastinate.
She has her reasons. Those are hers. I’m not tied to the stories I make up around that.
I thought I was ready to talk with her yesterday. The truck tire was flat. We didn’t drive to the dump together as I had planned. My ex encouraged me yesterday to go home and join my online writing group.
The universe had other plans.
What a blessing.
Not because I get to put our talk off another week. But because I found the time to sit and process this before we talked. I can address my thoughts and emotions from a place of recovery and understanding, not from a place of being triggered.
I don’t need to talk about my anger, my pain, my fears. I can leave my shield and sword at home.
I can sit down with her and focus on what is most important, co-parenting. This includes establishing boundaries over our relationship and discussing back-up plans if by chance my airline decides to furlough in October.
The Universe Continues to Bring Gifts
I swear. I have no idea how this happens. It seems that when I write, I get an email or something that compliments what I’ve been working on.
I get occasional “Marriage Minute” emails from the Gottman Institute. These are short little blurbs about how to connect with your partner. The one that I received yesterday, and opened today when I had finished writing, was titled Investigating Anger.
There was a link to an article titled The Anger Iceberg. I won’t go into the blog post; however, I will share the infographic included. (updated May 28, 2021: Unfortunately the article link no longer works).
What’s under the anger?
The Anger Iceberg
From the Gottman Institute
Shit! For me, I think it’s almost all of them.
Anger is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s important to identify the other emotions that are hidden under the surface.
In this article there was also a link to a website titled Atlas of Emotions. This was done by the Dalai Lama to “create a map of our emotions to develop a calm mind.” What a really cool way to look at emotions, the triggers behind them, and the different ways that we respond to them.
The results were spot on! Number Two all the way (this will be a blog for another day).
I suggested to my ex that it would be interesting to see what her result would be. She acquiesced when she picked up the girls this evening. I guessed correctly her number and when we looked at how “The Helper” and “The Peacemaker” are in relationship with one another, it’s another insight as to why our communication patterns break down. Even when she was reading it out loud, my youngest daughter commented on how accurate it was. “That sounds like both of you,” she replied.
There’s so much more under the tip of the Angry Iceberg.
My Fledglings, when you’re angry ask these questions:
- What’s under the anger?
- Is it disappointment?
- Is it betrayal?
- Is it not being heard?
- What’s the childhood wound that’s been triggered?
- What belief is trapping you as a child?
- What’s the story you continue to believe?
- I’m not important
- I’m not valuable
- I’m not loved
- I’m dismissed
- I’m invisible
- How do you express your anger without expectations?
- What tools of self-care do you have to nurture your inner child prior to expressing your thoughts?
- What tools are already in place to take care of yourself after your discussion?
- Talk with a close peer
- Have them challenge you
- Ask for different perspectives, not to just agree with you
- What questions can you ask to help you see their story?
- Asking questions will help build compassion and empathy, which will diffuse your own energy.
- Can you pretend you’re dating for the first time and become curious to find out more about your partner’s truth without internalizing their story?
- How would you respond if it was a friend talking about someone else, not about you?
- Make sure you bookend prior to discussing your thoughts with the person you’re angry with.
- Check in with your friend before you talk
- Check in again afterwards
The biggest lesson, the take home, is that it’s important for us to learn how to parent our inner child, however that may be.
We need to lean on ourselves for self-love and self-care.
To care for our inner child, we need to give that child a voice. We need to let our child be heard.
We need to do that from our adult, our parent.
By learning how to integrate our adult with our inner child, Together We Can Heal.
And part of being an adult is reaching out to our community for support. To know we aren’t alone and to have others guide us, gently and compassionately, with love, so we can adequately listen and care for the little one within us.
It takes a village!
Together We Can Heal
Rising from the Ashes,