Perspective: Pass The Salt

As seen on Sarah Brokaw’s blog.  If you haven’t read her book  Fortytude  go get it! 

In the face of adversity, people throw this phrase around:  That which does not kill you makes you stronger.  It’s supposed to be one of empowerment.  But to me, it’s not empowering at all.  It’s a hopeless helpless statement, as if we have to go to the edge in order to grow.  Sure, sometimes that’s how it works– this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life.  The edge is a very real and sometimes dark place.  And coming back from it, whether physically or emotionally, can be vastly powerful.  For the purpose of this essay, however, I’d like to depart from the topic of physical pain, and focus on emotional pain.  Because in the realm of emotions, I think we need some serious tweaking.  We have cultivated a society that is all-too-often propelled by victim/victor thinking.  I’d like that to change.  This is a war we don’t need to wage.  We can actually find peace in emotional pain.  Because emotions are our choice.  It’s all about awareness and re-training your mind. 

How?  Let’s start here:  Language.  I’ve been paying attention to the way we speak as a collective We, and I’ve noticed some dangerous trends.  We often mince the physical with the emotional.  I think it confuses us and sends negative, disempowering messages to our entire being when we do so.  Your back isn’t “killing” you.  It might be in pain.  But it’s not “killing” you unless you have a very real disease, and that’s a different subject altogether.  Your husband didn’t “make” (physical) you mad (emotional).  Your sister didn’t “make” you sad.  Your mother-in-law didn’t “make” you feel guilty.  Again, cruel actions are real, and emotional pain is real too, but it’s how we engage someone’s actions—how we relate with them, that determines our emotional state.  The responsibility is ours.  No one else’s.  If someone punches you in the face and you get a bloody nose, that’s another story.  You are a victim of that thrown blow.  But emotionally, it’s different.

I invite you to re-read the above quote and ask yourself, again in the realm of emotions:  Can a heart really break?  Does pain really kill?  Can anything really “make” a person emotionally grow?    

So much emotional pain comes from words.  In the moment someone throws us a verbal blow, we have a choice.  Sometimes that blow is so unbelievably cruel that we feel it has lodged in our emotional world without our permission.  But that’s actually not possible.  We have, sometimes at the speed of light, chosen to give it the power to hurt us.  And that’s the moment at which I’d like to see us pause.  Become aware of what’s going on.  Aware of our choices.  What’s at stake.  What’s worth our anger, our tears, our hatred, our guilt.  We think there’s a bridge there that we have to cross.  There isn’t and we don’t.  I can’t say this enough:  We choose our emotions, good, bad, ugly.  And so often we choose to be emotional victims. 

But here’s the thing:  I don’t believe there really is such a thing as an emotional victim.  (This is where some of you might be considering sending me some big bad “love” letters.  Don’t.  Send yourself a real love letter instead.  And in it, ask yourself if you want to be free.  Or if you have grown used to certain bondage…)

Let’s define “victim.”  My dictionaries use these definitions, in addition to human sacrifice (which might actually be the most relevant definition):  A person or living creature destroyed by, or suffering grievous injury from another, from fortune or from accident; an unfortunate person who suffers from some adverse circumstance.

In other words, a victim is someone who suffers incontrollable consequence because of someone or something else.  But there is a giant hole in these definitions.  Emotionally, HOW does that suffering occur?  And is it so given

This exercise might help.  Imagine the last time someone said something hurtful to you and your response was one of emotional pain.  Imagine if that person had said, Pass the salt instead.  How does that feel?  Less threatening?  Are you less triggered?  Now imagine that you’ve prepared a lovely meal that took you hours and into which you put all your culinary expertise.  And a beloved family member, without even tasting the food, says, Pass the salt.  Now that Pass the salt could be taken as an insult.  You aren’t a sufficient cook.  You’ve been slighted, underestimated, judged.  You are less than.  And there you are:  at the bridge.  You do not have to cross it.  You can simply pass the salt.  Or not.  Maybe that person just really likes salt.  It’s really none of your business.  It’s a free country.

Now…I’m not saying to suppress your emotions or to hold your tongue.  Of course there are times to let those words come careening at you over the bridge and to react to them in high emotional candor…but still, you are in control of what that looks like, feels like.  You can still take your pause no matter how fast those words (or actions) are coming at you, and decide to invite them into your emotional state—to choose to attach meaning to them and thereby react.  But remember, you have options.  No one can choose them for you. 

AND, this may come as good news to you:  emotional hurt doesn’t need to look like a tantrum.  You can sometimes just say, “Ouch.”  And what happens, in that case?  In my experience, the words or actions go running back over the bridge, or jump in the river and float away.  Let them run around somewhere else other than in your being.  They can just be words or actions even if they are cruel ones.  You do not have to take them personally.  Even when they’re meant personally.

I fought this awareness for a long time.  I wanted to believe that someone could emotionally hurt me.  I was used to walking around with my finger out, placing blame, rather than making the daunting decision to take responsibility for my emotions.  Emotional suffering had become my normal.  I chose to play victim all too often.  And I was sick of it. 

I realized, quite suddenly in a therapist’s office, that I was choosing to emotionally suffer at the flung words and actions of people.  I was choosing to let things outside my control determine my emotional state.  I was choosing to suffer.  So I started changing the way I related with emotionally painful moments.  When I met with those hard moments, rather than play victim, I’d ask myself powerful questions– Did I want that sadness?  Did I want that anger?  Sometimes the answer was, yes.  But if so, I wanted to powerfully choose that yes.  I wanted to be in charge of how I translated painful emotional experiences.  And statements like That which does not kill you makes you stronger didn’t help one bit.  I think a far more helpful statement came from Eleanor Roosevelt:  No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.  We are in charge of our emotions.  Period.

I’ve been going around the country talking about this at conventions, universities, reading series, wellness centers, etc. because I wrote a book called This Is Not The Story You Think It Is:  A Season of Unlikely Happiness (Amy Einhorn/Putnam).  It’s been published in nine countries, so I do interviews all over the world, and I’ve come to see that there are many many people out there who don’t want to receive this message.  It means they’d have to get out of blame, out of victor/victim thinking…and into personal responsibility.  They’d have to tell themselves a new story about where their power really lies.  They resist, complain, deny, and make ferocious overtures in the comments section of websites…and sometimes I even get a personal “love” letter.  (see above).  Why is this so?  I’ve thought about this long and hard.  Here’s where I’ve landed:  They get to be right.  It’s an I told you so reaction that supports a story they told themselves long ago.  “See the world stinks.  See, I’ll never get that job, or that relationship, or that break.”  That is bondage.  I’m not interested in bondage.  I’m interested in freedom.  Are you?

14 Comments

Filed under My book: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, My Posts

14 Responses to Perspective: Pass The Salt

  1. Becky

    Laura,
    SPOT ON!! I have tried to share this view with others who look at me like I am speaking a foreign language. Choosing to believe this can be so scary that a lot of people would rather stay in that miserable, but familiar, helpless place. Tragic. Keep preaching and perhaps the choir will get bigger!

    • lauramunson

      Thanks, Becky. I can’t believe some of the discussions I’ve gotten in about this issue. You’re so right. Even some of my most thoughful friends really feel that words have power that lodge in us and we are powerless over them. I don’t see how this is even possible. I’m not trying to make themm wrong, I’m really trying to open minds and inspire personal freedom. It takes a lot of practice, though, I’ve found. It begins with awareness, and perhaps before that, it begins with getting really sick of being an emotional victim. Glad we’re in the same choir. I’ve always been an alto…and I’ve always loved choirs. yrs. Laura

  2. You’re right. We can choose our response simply by the story we tell ourselves. If we rehash an event, saying to ourselves, “look how she hurt me, look what she did to me,” then we open the door to sadness. If instead we tell ourselves, “I’m not going to take it personally,” then we invite personal strength. Life is chock full of these kinds of opportunities. I suppose that’s what the “makes you stronger” quote is really trying to say–but you have to choose to find the strength and not hide behind a veil of victim mentality.

    • lauramunson

      Kim, I love that you call them “opportunities” because that’s really what they are. Thanks for your wise words! yrs. Laura

  3. Hey Laura,
    I do love your perspective, likely because it mirrors mine… ;-)
    Dar and I use (and I teach my clients to use) “self-responsible ‘I’ language,” as in, “I am choosing to anger myself right now (over my interpretation of your intention.)” My clients initially say, “Cludgy language, and of course “HE” makes me…” With patience, they get the point–without physical violence, no one can “make” us anything (including the “good” stuff — happy, horny, etc.)
    It’s all an inside job.
    We also teach safe expression of emotions– through Bodywork, through pounding a pillow, etc. There’s and out-of-print book called, “Anger, Boundaries and Safety,” by the late Joann Peterson that is great for teaching this.
    I’m so glad you’re out there saying what you’re saying.
    Sending warm thoughts your way, and in keeping with our former conversations, I’ll just sign off,
    ass-on-cushion,
    Wayne

    • lauramunson

      LOVE your wise words and humor, Wayne! I’m going to try to write something for Shambala Sun about my ass-on-bench day, so I’ll have you in mind! Boy oh boy do a LOT of people REALLY not want to know that we choose our emotions. I’ve gotten into some pretty interesting and ribald discussions about it recently with friends. Thanks for the reinforcement. Words have power but they have to cross the bridge if we’re to continue their trajectory, and we’re the gatekeeper! Hard to see that sometimes, but the more I practice, the more I really see it clearly. I’ll try to sniff up that book.
      yrs. as ever, ass-on-bench,
      Laura

  4. Katie Andraski

    This is well written and thoughtful. My question is when do we want that sadness? When do we want that anger?

    Sometimes I think this choosing our emotions can also feel like it’s anti emotion, when I think our emotions can be good things that can alert us to how the world is meeting our bodies, souls and spirits. The Dalai Lama says that the emotions can give us thoughts and our thoughts can give us emotions.

    I think of the hormonal or menopausal woman. I think sometimes emotions well up from our bodies and look for a story that names them.

    Is there a simple way to get a grip on the not so good stories we tell ourselves? They can sure grab me in a not so good way, so any simple thing you can suggest would help.

    How are your book projects coming along? I recommend This Is Not the Story all the time.

    All good things, Katie

    • lauramunson

      Thanks, Katie. I believe in feeling emotion, you bet. I’m a very emotional person. I just want to powerfully choose my emotions. I in no way am saying to supress our emotions. I’m just saying that if I’m going to freak out, I want to powerfully choose it. If I’m going to rage and cry and scream, I want to powerfully choose it. I want to get out of the lie that emotions choose us. Does that make sense? All good things back and thanks for the book support! yrs. Laura

  5. Yes! Eleanor Roosevelt was right! When I hear people self-victimizing, I say to myself “Have fun with that!” and out loud I say something like, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out” or “Hmmm…” Frankly, self-victimizing just isn’t FUN – it’s blunted and boring. Of course, there’s always, “yes, and what do you want to do about that..” which generally makes them go away. Or “let me know if you’d like a hug.” Thanks for your great post, and also for your spunky, enlivening energy – it feels good!

    • lauramunson

      Martha, thanks for your great comment. “Hmmm” is a good one. Sometimes I try to get elegant about how I frame self-victimizing (new word– love it!), and the truth is: I just really got SICK OF IT. Not so elegant. But it is the reason I re-trained my mind. What a nice thing to say about my energy. Come back and say hi. yrs. Laura

  6. Hi Laura

    I love your article. I agree with you 100%. We can get so addicted to our negative emotions that it becomes the norm. Awareness is definitely a huge part of the process to stop allowing words to control your emotions. I’m not sure if your familiar with an documentary called: What The Bleep Do You Know….Theer is a part that, explains what happens to us, physically when we allows negative emotions to to take over our minds. Our brain and body suffers. Thank you Laura for shedding light on this topic, it is well needed, for our emotional health.
    All the best, as you continue to share your message.
    ~Monique

    Here is some of what was discussed in the documentary: “There are neuro hormones that match the emotionional states that we experience on a daily basis. So there are chemicals for anger,sadness, victimization , love etc… There are chemicals to matches every emotional state that we experience and the moment that we experience that emotional state in our body and or in our brain that hypothalamus will immediately assemble the peptide and releases it to the pituatary into the blood stream, the moment it makes it into the blood stream it finds it’s way to different centers or different parts of the body. Every single cell in the body has these receptors on the outside
    *One cell can have thousands of receptors, peptides can dock on a cell (like a key going into a lock) sits on the recptors surface and attaches to it and moves the recpetor, sends a signal into the cell. A recptor that has a peptide sitting in it, changes the cell in many ways. Sets off a whole cascades of biochemical events some of which winds up changing the actual nucleus of the cell, each cell is alive.”

    • lauramunson

      THIS IS FASCINATING, Monique. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve got to see that documentary immediately. Fantastic stuff. yrs. Laura

  7. What a beautiful reminder to stay true to my choices. Thank you so much Lauren I loved reading this. With the project I’m working on I’ve come across allot of the victim clinging and there are times I do wonder wow this is tough but ultimately it is our choice, each day.

    • lauramunson

      Tanya, thanks for saying hi. It is tough, but I’ve found it so freeing that it’s actually getting easier. yrs. Laura

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