Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Our Lives as Living Breathing Documents to Examine
(Doorway of Possibilities - photo by Qiyamah A. Rahman, 2006)
Our Lives as Living Breathing Documents
Claiming ones life as a living breathing document is part of the training that most clergy acquire to learn effective companying with individuals in crisis or simply to assume a pastoral presence. Our experiences, past and present help to inform us about our inner landscape that then allows us access to understanding others and how we might best engage them in effective pastoring. Self reflection is the first step toward not only differentiation and the ability to distinguish between where ones own feelings and thoughts begin and end and where others begin and end. Differentiation is critical toward developing a transformative consciousness. What do I mean by that? If we want to be self aware we have to engage in self reflection. If we want to create a shift from where we are to achieve a goal outside of our current reality and the space that we currently inhabit, then we have to know how to shift our thinking and therefore self awareness is imperative. It is very similar to watching the watcher and being able to step outside of ones self in order to deconstruct behavior, particularly chronic behavior patterns that oftentimes plague many of us. Replaying and reinterpreting our life's narratives and stories help us to identify such patterns of thinking and behavior. Knowing that we desire to alter such behaviors does not automatically move us toward inhabiting a new and different space and way of being. It takes awareness, it takes honesty and it takes hard work and patience.
Shaharazard, a client, is working on claiming her power. While that may seem abstract and vague I worked with her to establish specific tasks necessary to demonstrate milestones that she was in fact claiming her power. Establishing small gestures such as not allowing herself to minimize compliments from others with her usual unconscious replys like, "Oh, it's nothing." Or a typical retort to compliments about her funky and stylish way of dressing, "Oh these old clothes? I got this ten years ago at the Salvation Army." Bigger tasks also were assigned that forced her to speak to three individuals each time she attended seminars and workshops and to obtain business cards before she left a social function. We acknowledged her awkwardness at such functions and the tendency to resort to her old shy patterns of behavior instead of standing in the power of her new identity that she has been forming over the last ten years. While others view her as a powerhouse she is oftentimes engaging in positive self talk to get herself through difficult situations that others would not even be phased by. Recently, in response to initating a contact to further a goal she received a call from the individual inviting her to a social gathering. When she realized that the gathering was at the home of a former U.S. Senator she lost her composure for an hour. She later recounted how she talked herself down as she dressed and how she could actually see the humor in her panic because it was actually what her old identity would have done and yet even as she indulged in obsessive behavior like what to wear and what to expect she knew whatever the situation, that she had it within herself to "rise to the occasion." She was surprised how effectively she could stand aside and watch herself behave irrationally worrying about silly things. She convinced her inner child that she needed to settle down and not feel threatened because the adult was going to handle this grown up situation and that her inner child could stay "home" or come and appropriately bring her "playful humorous self" to the social event. Thi was an intervention that she and I had worked on in our sessions. Sharazard reported that the evening went well. While she didn't "enjoy" it she enjoyed the conversations and seeing how other families did holiday rituals and gatherings.
Another client, Carmen recently received her doctorate. She talked abot using her new title, "Dr" and how it was sometimes a challenge since she did not want to bring attention to herself. Yet, she is very outgoing and verbal around social justice issues and does not hesitate to claim her prophetic voice. Internally however, she is constantly engaging in a process of analysis about her surroundings and her inner landscape. Not only does she love being in her head but it is apparent that her insightful analyses have benefitted her career. However, the contradictions between her behaviors and her abilities are stark. There is no question that Carmen has the ability to assume any role or responsibility she chooses. She is resourceful and possesses good instincts. Her archilles heel is her ability to know the truth about who she is. And that is where she is lerning to stand in her power and to declare that in the very moment her self doubts begin. She was recently sweating bullets when she attempted to make reservations for a conference out of the country. Money issues came up that triggered guilt about spending the money and taking time away from her current position where she was working on a special project approaching its due date. Even though she had a contingency plan she still found it very difficult to make the reservations that she found herself overwhelmed by the flight options after spending hours comparing different airlines. Some of her old tapes were activated, "I should not be spending money to fly to a conference." These disparaging messages assailed her even though she had been literally working full time to finish her Masters in Divinity after being granted a doctorate that she had been working on for many years. She finally convinced herself that she deserved the treat. She informed me in one of her sessions that she endured an early morning ride to the airport at an ungodly hour and several stops and layovers because she was simply unable to really treat herself to the cost which would have been an additional $300. But she didn't beat herself up about her decision and when reporting the escapade to me she was clear about her behavior and owned all the consequences rather than making herself the victim.
We devalue ourselves and judge ourselves for not being good enough or deserving enough. Examining our life's narratives helps clarify the stories that we have bought into about ourselves, some good, some bad and some indifferent. Carmen's and Sharazard's life narratives main themes support their belief that they are not good enough to experience their good. So they go out of their way and stop short of going for the gusto and often settle for less than their wildest dreams. The plus is that their behavior is no longer covert or unconscious. When Carmen panicked at the thought of a social encounter with individuals she didn't know she realized her old tapes had seized control and that she had the ability to regain control. Furthermore, she knew exactly what parts of her were threatened and the usual pattern of acting out was squelched and she could appease her inner child by promising that she did not have to entertain adults but the adult Carmen would do the necessary work. Another strategy she employed was to reconceptualize failure not as something bad, nor a reflection of herself but something that visits all of us sooner or later and that if she simply continued to try to avoid any possible failure, not only would she have a boring life but it be even harder for her to deal with failure when it eventually showed up in her life.
Thus, it is not about us not being good enough.
In the instance of another client, a recent career "failure" left Naim feeling defeated and unworthy until we worked through the feelings that he was holding onto that labeled him a failure in a society that is schizophrenic about failure. We say it is inevitable and a learning tool, yet when we fail, our employers and supervisors place our heads on the chopping block. Sometimes that might even lead to the auction block and unemploymen. Naim was determined to work through his feelings about failure once and for all. As an African American male, some of those issues may never go away, instead, Naim worked on getting better and better at recognizing the games he played with himself that buy into dysfunctional patterns. Now, when he has the desire to beat up on himself, Naim remembers to start his internal dialogue, that is, processing the situation and to not give in to his emotions that want to indulge the distortions around not being "good enough" "liked enough" etc. Recently, I delivered a presentation on some research that I had been working on. I spent time delivering and posting flyers and talking it up. First of all, claiming the intellectual space to assert my leadership was a major milestone. Furthermore, marketing it meant I was important enough to expose my ideas and create a forum to share my research. Finally, I delivered a well organized and well thought out presentation. That is never the real worry. It is always about, "who do you think you are.?" "How dare you think that you should bring attention to yourself." The truth of the matter is that in my childhood I was the invisible one sitting off in a corner with a book. I learned to love my solitude and I learned to love reading and experiencing life through the written word. As a result, I have capitalized on my love of knowledge and have far more education in my family of origin than all my siblings. That is not a judgment on them or me. Book knowledge does not make a inherently good or smart etc. I am demonstrating how my use of a survival strategy benefitted me over my lifetime. However, what I have noticed is that some of my siblings who have less education are more entrepreneurial than I am. An entrepeneur requires risk taking and the willingness to strike out on their own and march to the beat of a different drummer.It has taken me a lifetime to even begin to think about being self employed. I make a good employee because I usually choose jobs that reflect my passions in life and then I give my all and all. I now understand that tendency is part of my compulsive/obsessive pattern and I have learned to honor my tendency to drive myself while still setting limits. I will push myself for a designated period over time to finish a project. After that I will rest and enjoy my success before moving on to another major project. I usually check in with myself to make sure that I am practicing good self care like diet, exercise, movies and tv, meditation, reflection time and time with others. It is so easy to isolate myself and experience some degree of content until I start to crave social interaction. So I often have to push myself to get out. When I do, I usually enjoy it but it is not my first inclination.
Ministry is about self awareness. The more proficient we become at understanding ourselves, the better we can engage others and be present with them. Wrestling with ones own inner demons also is a great way to foster empathy, compassion, non-judgemental attitudes and patience. Using our own lives as living breathing documents is both necessary and empowering.