One of the worst things you can feed is a victim mentality. And let’s get right to it—sometimes horrendous, heartbreaking things happen to kind and beautiful people. Maybe you grew up in an unsafe environment and spent most of your childhood trying to be invisible or indispensable. Maybe you saw things and experienced things no one ever should. Maybe you grew up and had a terrifying interaction that turned everything you thought you knew inside out. And maybe you’ve endured a loss that feels impossible to comprehend. These things are all possible. I hope none of them have happened to you, but they’re all possible.
And I say this to you with total compassion and empathy. I really truly get that life can break your heart sometimes. But it will never ever serve you to define yourself as a victim. Your much better option is to choose the role of survivor. Life is not fair. We all want to make it make sense, we want to create order out of chaos and uncertainty, but it can’t be done. Yesterday a 20-year old man went to Venice Beach and was struck by lightning and died. It was a sunny afternoon. It had drizzled for maybe five minutes. Try to make sense of that. All day, I’ve been thinking of his family, and just feeling so sad. How do you wrap your head around that? The odds are so incredibly small.
The pain in this life is real, and it’s not dosed out in equal amounts. So if you’re reading this and you’ve had to carry something that hurts so much it’s hard to breathe, I get it. And of course there are less dramatic events that might cause a person to feel that life isn’t fair, and that they have a rotten hand to play. Again and again, it comes down to what you’re going to feed. Of course if you’ve suffered losses you have to give yourself time and space to mourn and grieve. And how much time and how much space is completely personal, and something only you can move through.
I’m not talking about grieving, though. I’m talking about letting your losses and experiences harden you, or moving through the world bitterly. When we tell ourselves that things have happened that have broken us for example, when we define ourselves as broken, the implication is that we cannot be healed. When we clutch a story to our chest that explains and excuses why we are the way we are, we’re also letting ourselves off the hook for doing anything about it. You can’t control what’s happened, but you can certainly decide how you’re going to respond.
I see so many people who cling to their rage like a shield. Who dig their heels in and demand that everyone acknowledge their version of reality. Who recite their list of ways they’ve been wronged. The thing is, it’s exhausting. It’s like a full-time job to be that enraged. You really can’t get much else done. And it’s such a miserable state to be in, of course you want to numb out and check out, and look to external things or people to “make it better”. It’s not like bitterness tastes good.
Whatever has happened might shape you, but it doesn’t have to own you. At a certain point, at any point, you can decide to take ownership of your life. You can figure out what you might be able to change, and get to work changing it. This might be the way you interact with people, it may be the tone and message of your inner voice that needs work. Some things you won’t be able to change. Other people would fall into that category. You can never change what someone else needs or wants or says or does, but you can always change the way you respond. You can decide to rise up. With every breath, there’s the potential to begin again. If we’re pitying ourselves, we’re stuck in the past. We’re dragging the past along with us into our present, and holding it up for everyone to see, even our brand-new friends, and we’re demanding that other people reckon with our past, when that job is ours. If they want us, they have to accept this whole bunch of baggage we come with. But they don’t. And we don’t have to drag it along with us, either. A pity party isn’t very fun; you’ll probably have a tough time getting people to show up. But someone who looks their pain in the face and then deals with it (whether that means reaching out for support, or exploring healing modalities until they find something that works for them), that’s a person who’s ready to live. If you want to be free of your pain, you have to reckon with it. You don’t bow down and let it own you, you challenge it to a duel on a bright day, so you can bring all that darkness into the light and take a look at what you’re facing. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton
It’s really important to be conscious of where you direct your energy. It’s easy to get caught up in all kinds of mental gymnastics that will do nothing but exhaust and deplete you. For example, you really don’t need to spend your energy on anyone else’s drama. You may have friends who always have some urgent thing happening—a fight with their neighbor, a disagreement with a friend or colleague, an ongoing frustration with their partner—that they want to discuss endlessly with you. You might also realize you’re drained when you walk away from these interactions. Or, maybe you’re allowing yourself to obsess about things over which you have no control (that would include most things). Perhaps you’re spending an inordinate amount of time daydreaming and fantasizing about a person who would be with you, “if only they could.” You only have so much energy, and you only have so much time.
Sometimes we overextend ourselves and say yes to everyone else, sacrificing our own needs and wants in the process. If you’re miserable, you’re not going to have a lot to offer anyone. Self-care is not selfish; it’s necessary. If you’re someone who’s a natural giver and helper, you really have to watch your tendency to leave nothing in the tank for yourself. You might be able to show up for other people, but you’d have so much more to give if you took care of yourself, too. If you’ve ever ridden on a plane, you’re familiar with the directive in case of a “water landing”—you’re supposed to secure your own oxygen mask first, before you try to help anyone else, including your children. If you pass out, after all, then they’re really in trouble.
Sometimes we spend a lot of our energy thinking about how we look, and that usually includes our dissatisfaction with where we’re at right now. And in the time it takes to berate yourself, you could have gone for a quick walk around the block, elevating your heart rate, and taking in the trees, or the sun, or the breeze on your cheek. You could have done ten minutes of yoga, which might have served as a reset button for your day, or might have brought you into alignment with what’s in your heart. Ten minutes to connect to your breath and open yourself up is more powerful than you might imagine. It sure beats ten minutes of staring at a “beauty” magazine, which is not about beauty at all.
Everything you eat, read, watch and think about is food for your mind, your heart, and your body. They work together, and the more you feed yourself well, the better you’ll feel in all these areas. If you gossip about someone, you’re going to walk away from that exchange feeling crappy about yourself, because you’ll know you fed a weak part of who you are. You really want to choose the thoughts and activities that will strengthen you and fill you up with yes. Then you can take that yes, and spread it all over the place.
Carve out some time in your days that’s just for you. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but let it be enough that you can hear that inner voice. Without that, you’ll really be lost at sea, and may find yourself saying yes, when you really mean no. You may find you’re running on empty at a time when you need to be able to fire things up (which is most of the time). You’re precious, and you have gifts to share that only you can. In order to do that, you need to direct your energy. Don’t waste it on the meaningless stuff. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton
Few things are worse than feeling powerless. Sometimes we’re betrayed by those with whom we were once close. Sometimes our own bodies betray us. Sometimes we fail to act on our own behalf. Whatever the cause, when we feel we cannot have an impact on the world around us, or that we can’t save those we love from pain and anguish related to our own situation, it’s just crushing.
The truth is, we are not in control of anything except how we respond to what we’re given. We’re certainly not in control of circumstances. And you may have noticed you can’t control what other people will do or say or want or need, nor is that ever your job. Sometimes the repercussions are devastating, and yet, we always have some power. If you’re at the mercy of someone else, whether that someone be an ex, a family member, a judge, or your own internal demon, the key is always compassion for yourself. This human experience is incredible, and wildly interesting, but I don’t believe anyone would argue that it’s an easy gig.
We arrive here, and our parents have whatever tools thy have to love us and nurture us. We arrive here, and some of us have a cozy and safe roof over our heads, and others of us never feel safe. So right off the bat, it’s not a level playing field. Then, we have unknown expiration dates. It’s not like you can count on living to one hundred. It’s not like you can take tomorrow for granted (although we do it all the time). And every single person you know and love is in the same boat. So if you want to deny your vulnerability, have at it, but it’s still a reality.
Here are other things—so many people struggle to be happy in the face of all this. Most people take a good twenty to thirty years just to have a sense of what they might most like to do with their time. The majority of people in our culture run down paths that are supposed to lead to happiness, but don’t. As a society, we’re taught the mantra of “survival of the fittest” at an early age, and we grow up thinking we’re supposed to compete with each other, which doesn’t tend to engender happiness for other people’s good fortunes. So we breed an environment of envy and despair. Also, we do a woefully inadequate job of teaching what it means to love ourselves, and others. We have crazy notions about love that lead to disappointment and ridiculous expectations.
My point is, it’s very easy to find yourself in a mess. Human beings are complex, and we each have an interior world that we choose to share or hide to varying degrees. The more you hide from yourself and others, the less likely it is that your path will be clear. Sometimes two unhealed people come together, and there’s so much happening under the surface, it’s only a matter of time before things start exploding or imploding. Unfortunately, this is how some of us learn. This is how we begin to understand what love is, and what it is not. The webs we weave can be very painful to unravel, but sometimes that’s the only chance for peace. Thread by thread, we have to dismantle the thing, and start to build something new.
Often, our hearts break as we move through an experience like this. And if you’re in the thick of it, try to remind yourself of two things—one, it’s not forever, and two, you get to decide how you’re going to respond to reality as it is. You can’t manage anyone else’s journey, but you can keep your side of the street clean. And when you’re starting to head off down a new path, feeling like you’re moving with integrity is very strengthening. You don’t have to get down in the mud with anyone else. And you don’t have to condemn people if that’s where they are. If you have it in you, you can try to find compassion for people when they lash out, because a person doing that is in pain. That doesn’t excuse cruelty, manipulation or abuse, but it might help you not to take it as personally. What another person does or says is a reflection of where they are at this point in time, and not of anything lacking in you. You have the power to be kind to yourself if the picture you had in your head is now in pieces around your feet. You have the power to move through this heat with some grace and strength. You have the power to breathe deeply. You have the power to remind yourself that no feeling is final. You have the power to create a loving and nurturing environment for yourself, and anyone close to you, to blossom within. No one can take that power away from you, you just have to own it. And do your best to trust that if you do your part, the rest will be okay. That’s all you can do, anyway. Sending you love, as always, Ally Hamilton
As much as possible, try not to “future-trip”. It’s so easy to get caught up in worries about things that may never come to pass. To start envisioning worst-case scenarios. To formulate conversations in your head, or come up with plans you might not ever need. And the thing is, while you’re busy boiling yourself this way, your nervous system is tensing up and sending cortisol through your system, as if these events are actually occurring. In other words, you can make yourself sick with worry. You can raise your blood pressure with your thoughts.
When are we most likely to do this to ourselves? When we’re feeling vulnerable, tested, or threatened. And maybe it’s part of our inclination toward negativity bias. If we’ve been hurt before, we try to set things up so we won’t be hurt again. You know the saying, right? “Hurt me once, shame on you…hurt me twice, shame on me.” But the thing is, living in fear isn’t really living, it’s gripping. When we start to spin out, and imagine all the things that could go wrong, we’re losing the potential for peace in the current moment. We’re feeding fear instead of love.
And the same is true when we travel back in time, with regret, despair, or longing. Whatever has happened, it’s behind us. Of course we all have treasured memories, and there’s nothing wrong with visiting old friends and cherished loved ones we can’t hug anymore, in our minds and in our hearts. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about traveling backward as if we could redo or undo something. There’s no potential left in the past. We can learn from it, we can be softened by it, but we can’t rewrite it.
For so many people, the mind catapults from one to the other. Longing and sadness over things behind them, fear and anxiety over things out ahead of them. And the poor nervous system goes along for the ride. The most powerful way I know to land yourself fully in the now, is to become aware of your breath. That’s the greatest gift of yoga, and seated meditation—they both center around your breath. Those inhales and exhales are always happening in the present moment. And if you can feel your breath, you know you’re here. Awake, aware, engaged with life, which isn’t happening behind you, or out in front of you. It’s happening right now.
Worry doesn’t change the outcome of a thing. Believe me, if worrying about something could prevent it from happening, we’d know about that by now. And we’ve all had the experience of making ourselves ill over something that never came to pass, right? It’s especially hard when we love people and we’re concerned for their well-being. Maybe someone you love beyond words is putting her/himself in harm’s way. How do you not worry about that? First of all, when we love people, we make ourselves vulnerable, so you may as well accept that. And, you can’t save anyone but yourself, and you may as well accept that, too. There are certain answers we’ll never have until we exhale for the final time, and perhaps, not even then. And that also makes us vulnerable.
Anyway, my point is, we can’t control the outcome of anything except how we face what we’re given, and even that takes tremendous effort. We can love people with everything we’ve got. We can offer an ear, our shoulder, a hand up if we’re in a good position. We can listen, we can grieve with people, or make them a meal, or try to find help for them if we aren’t sure how to help them ourselves. But our worry doesn’t help anyone. If someone is afraid for themselves, you really don’t help by reflecting that fear back to them. If someone is suffering, you don’t serve them by getting down in the mud and wailing with them.
I believe you can help a lot simply by being present with someone. Being able to hold a space for someone’s grief or anger or loneliness or confusion or shame. That’s a huge thing you can do, but you can only do that if you show up with open ears, an open heart and an open mind. You won’t find those things behind you or in front of you. They’re within you. And when you can show up that way for yourself, and for all the people in your life, then I believe you’re really living. Life is short and precious, or it’s a long and painful; I believe those are the options. Try not to miss too many moments. Life brings enough heartbreaks of its own, we don’t have to make this stuff up. But it also offers a million gifts a day if we’re paying attention. It’s easy to take it for granted that we all woke up today, right? But that is a gift. If you have your health, it’s a gift. If you have people in your life whom you love with your whole heart, that’s a gift, even if they’re causing you some pain right now. Loving people so deeply that we hurt when they hurt, is a gift. I guess what I’m saying is, try not to miss too many gifts if you can help it. Sending you love and a hug, Ally Hamilton
Sometimes we spend too much time looking in the rear-view mirror. It’s always good to examine our choices and behavior, especially when we’ve landed ourselves in situations we never intended and didn’t want. But once you’ve looked at what happened, once you’ve plunged the depths of what was motivating you and what went wrong, it isn’t productive to swim in those waters. As a matter of fact, it can really start to wear you down.
Most of us can look back on our lives and point to choices or decisions we’ve made, wishing we could go back and do things differently. But screwing things up is how we learn. Maybe you didn’t show up for yourself the way you wanted to; maybe you weren’t able to act on your own behalf in a timely fashion. It’s possible you participated in a situation that was very damaging to your tender and precious heart. If that’s the case, of course you want to get really clear on why you were feeling so badly about yourself that you allowed someone else to mistreat you, or felt unable to remove yourself from a toxic situation. The information you really need, though, has much less to do with the other party or the events around you, than it does with your own emotional and psychological drives.
So many people get caught up in the particulars. Maybe you wish the story went a different way, and you find yourself time traveling, going backward in your mind and rewriting conversations. Maybe you’re stuck on wanting to be right, or wanting someone else to embrace your version of events. The thing is, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about you. It matters what you think about you. And if you blew it, whether that means you let yourself or someone else down, I’d look at that, but I wouldn’t marinate yourself in regret and despair. That isn’t productive, and it keeps you stuck in a cycle of shame and self-loathing. You’re better off swimming with sharks.
The best we can hope for is to learn and grow. We start with the tools we develop as kids. We enter young adulthood armed with information, some of it good, some of it really, really off-base. We do the best we can with what we know, and most of us make plenty of mistakes. We get hurt. We unintentionally hurt other people. We try to figure out how to be happy, and for most people it’s a messy process because we’re sent on so many quests that lead nowhere. Starve yourself and you’ll be happy. Accrue money and buy things and you’ll be happy. Meet the right person and you’ll be happy. But none of that works, and in the meantime we’re walking in circles in the dark, banging into things and stubbing our toes or breaking our hearts.
The main thing is to learn as you grow. To make better mistakes every time until you find your way. To do your very best not to hurt other people. To release the stuff that’s weighing you down so you can fly. We only have so much time. I wouldn’t spend too much of it kicking yourself. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton
When we allow outside forces to upset us, we’re giving our power away. Yesterday as I was driving, waiting to take a right on red, the man behind me started laying on his horn. He couldn’t see the oncoming traffic because his view was blocked by a van to my left in the next lane. But I could not have taken that right safely, so I was waiting. My kids were in the car, and as they do, they were asking me for a play-by-play of what was happening. “Why is that man honking at you?” “Because he wants me to drive.” “Why aren’t you driving?” “Because it isn’t safe.” “So why is he honking at you?” “Because he’s full of rage.” “What’s rage?” “Rage is anger.” “Why is he angry?” Anyway, you get the picture.
Not only was this guy honking, he had his other hand up in the air, and I have no doubt he was shouting expletives at me, because his face was red and his lips were moving in my rearview mirror. When I took the turn, he pulled up next to me at the next light. And my kids were looking out the window at him, even though I told them not to worry about it. My son, who’s like an investigative reporter, wanted me to roll down the window so he could ask the guy why he was angry. I did not oblige. But we did talk about anger, and how it’s a natural feeling everyone experiences. And that the important thing is what you do about it. We also talked about frustration, and about inner power.
We’re all going to have our moments. It’s possible that guy was having an exceptionally bad day. Maybe there are really challenging things happening in his life right now. Maybe there was an emergency at home. Or maybe he always drives that way, because he feels deeply dissatisfied with his life, and the way it’s unfolding. The thing is, if something that small gets a person that upset that quickly, that rage or despair was just underneath the surface.
Sometimes my kids get upset about something someone else has said or done (sometimes they get upset with each other, too ;)). And a big phrase at our house is, “Don’t give your power away.” If, for example, my daughter wants to play with her older brother, but she doesn’t want to play the game on his terms, sometimes she’ll come find me with her lip quivering and her voice about 10 decibels higher than usual. Other times she’ll yell. And I’ll tell her to take a couple of deep breaths so she can talk to me in a “regular voice”, and that she doesn’t have to give her power away, just because she’s upset about something her brother is doing or not doing. And sometimes it’s reversed. Sometimes my son will do something he knows he shouldn’t, and when I ask him what’s going on, he’ll try to tell me his sister did something that caused him to do this thing he shouldn’t have done. At which point we have a conversation that goes something like:
Me: “Is your sister in control of you?”
Me: “Who’s in control of what you do and say?”
Me: “Okay, then who’s in trouble right now, you, or your sister?”
Him: “I’ll go apologize.”
Him: “Do I still get dessert?”
Anyway, my point is, we all do this stuff, all the time. Someone we don’t even know flips us off in traffic, and we allow it to affect our blood pressure. Or someone we do know says something thoughtless, and we stew about it for hours, losing a whole afternoon we can never have back. Or someone we’ve just met rejects us, and we feel stung and desperate for days or weeks. Something amazing happens and we’re elated. Something painful happens and we’re depressed. There’s no power in that. If we’re victims of circumstance, we may as well accept that life isn’t going to feel very good a lot of the time.
But of course it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to let the guy behind you at that light get you riled up at all. You could allow that to be his problem to solve. You could even send him some compassion if you have it in you, because maybe it really is unusual behavior for him. And if it isn’t, he probably needs even more compassion, because that can’t be a fun way to live.
A lot of people struggle with anger. Some let it out in unhealthy ways, so it explodes all over them, and everyone in the near vicinity. Other people repress it, and end up depressed, because it takes a lot of energy to sit on an active volcano. Some people numb out, feeling they’d better blur the edges and check out, or their rage will overwhelm them. Not facing this stuff is what does us in. Learning to sit with intense sensation is one of the major ways we retain our power, and our peace. Intense emotion creates intense sensation. So when you feel enraged, you might notice your breath is shallow, or your shoulders are up around your ears, or your face feels hot, or your heart is racing or your fists are clenched. If you can observe sensation, you’ll draw yourself into the present moment. Then you might be able to examine what’s come up for you, and why you’re feeling so triggered. And in so doing, you’ve created space between an event, and the way you choose to respond to it. And that’s power. Don’t give yours away :) Sending you love, Ally Hamilton