The Perils of the Poker Face

brenebrownWhen we don’t speak up about what we’re feeling, it comes out in other ways. This is particularly true in any intimate relationship, whether familial or romantic. Things we hide from ourselves will also swim to the surface to bite us in the a$$ and demand our attention, but you can multiply that bite by at least two when we’re talking about the way we relate to others. It’s not surprising that clear communication is so difficult for the majority of us, because we’re taught to edit our feelings from an early age. “Don’t cry”, “Don’t be sad”, “Don’t be scared, “Don’t be angry”–these are like cultural mantras we hear as early as we hit the playground, and often sooner, in our very own homes. Loving parents say these things, so I’m not throwing anyone under the bus, I’m just saying we need to understand when we love people, we have to teach them that it is okay to be sad, scared or angry, it’s what we do about the feelings that matters.

It’s never easy to watch someone we love as he or she grapples with difficult feelings. We know the pain of it from having grappled ourselves. Of course we want to spare those we care for, pain, anguish and discomfort, but these feelings are part of life, and they’re an essential part of knowing ourselves. If we learn to push down the feelings that make those around us feel uncomfortable or inadequate, you can safely bet we will also have no clue about how we feel as we reach adulthood. When we cut ourselves off from what is true and real for us, we also cut ourselves off from our intuition, and that is the surest way to get lost on the path. And when I say “the path”, I don’t mean there’s one path for everyone, I mean the path that will lead any of us to our deepest joy.

Recently, I was talking with good friends of mine who were laughing about a heated game of poker they’d played. Apparently, my friend’s wife and his mother went head-to-head, and his wife wondered if she should go easier on her fairly new mother-in-law, but my friend assured her this made her an official part of his family. Friends of theirs chimed in, and said things also got crazy and competitive in their house when the cards or board games came out. The woman turned to me and said, “You should try playing with THIS heartless prick”, and pointed her thumb at her boyfriend, whom I’d only just met. I knew from our mutual friends that she adores her boyfriend and thinks the world of him. I knew she was just trying to join in on the “heated family games joke”, but the words “heartless” and “prick” came out with a lot of force, and I watched his face change from the happy, social mask we wear when we’re meeting people for the first time, to a closed one that was obviously covering hurt and surprise. She turned to him with her eyes dancing, and saw that her words had landed in a way she didn’t intend, and she immediately apologized. He recovered but they walked away shortly after, and my heart went with them. I knew they were probably in for a difficult conversation at best, and a rough night at worst.

There’s always a little truth in a joke. I don’t think this woman believes her boyfriend is either heartless, or a prick, I think she’s in love with him. But I’d also guess there’s some anger swimming underneath the surface of whatever is happening between them, and it reared its head for an instant. If there’s anger there, it’s coming from some kind of pain. Either she perceives that he’s hurt her or disappointed her in some way, or he actually has. Either way, her pain has not been acknowledged and dealt with in a way that’s satisfying for her (maybe she hasn’t brought it up, doesn’t know it’s there, etc), and so it’s popping up at parties over card games. Isn’t it amazing how these tiny little things can turn into land-mines? Something as innocent as poker can bring up a well of pain neither party sees coming. And now he’s hurt, and probably angry.

Why do we hurt each other? We have pain, and things arise as they always do when two people are close, and we either deal with these things in the moment, or we don’t. When we don’t, it’s because we’re afraid. Maybe we’re afraid of confrontation, rejection, or heartache, but it’s fear of some kind. Our fear causes us to hurt each other. If only we could give one another the benefit of the doubt, if only we could breathe and consider whether someone we love is intentionally hurting us, or whether there’s a chance we’ve misunderstood, taken something to heart that wasn’t intended that way, are dealing with their pain that’s coming to the surface in a way that’s hard to understand, or are bringing some of our history into the present, we’d save ourselves and those who love us a lot of feelings of alienation, frustration, sadness and anger. And we’d save ourselves, as well.

It feels terrible when someone we care for deeply won’t forgive us, or is so ready to doubt our love. That alone feels like a betrayal. I saw it between those two people I barely know—he felt betrayed she’d said something hurtful to strangers in a social situation with zero provocation from him, and she felt betrayed that he would doubt her love over something that was supposed to be funny, but ended up coming out badly. Again, maybe there’s some unresolved pain on both sides there. I have no idea what’s happening inside their relationship. But I’ve seen that moment they had a million times. I’ve been in that moment myself, and I’ve watched it happen between other people more times than I can count, and it’s always the same moment with different words. It’s never about poker, that’s for sure.

The more we learn to acknowledge and deal with our own uncomfortable feelings as they arise, peak and subside, the more we can do that for the people we love. Not every feeling in life is like unicorns or leprechauns or stardust. Some feelings hurt us to the very core. Rage, grief, shame, guilt, fear, loneliness—none of these are easy, but they’re all normal human emotions we are going to deal with at some time or another. Denying that is futile. If you don’t learn to embrace and examine your painful feelings they are not going to magically disappear, they’ll just keep trying to get your attention, because that’s all we want when we’re struggling or suffering. We want someone to say, “I see you, I feel you, I understand why you feel the way you do, I’m so sorry you’re hurting. Hang in there, it won’t always be this way. “ We just want understanding. We want to be seen and held without anyone telling us that what we feel isn’t true. And the sad thing is, we can do this for ourselves, but so many people run from their feelings, or numb them, or deny them, and so pain rules their lives. It doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the main reasons I teach yoga is that it changed my entire life for the better. I was one of those numb-ers and deniers myself. I tried to manage my pain that way for years and I was anxious and depressed a large majority of the time. I kept trying to fix things from the outside. Maybe if I met the right person, or got thinner, or had a perfect job, then I’d be happy. None of these things ever worked. Until I sat down and faced my pain head on, it owned me, and at a certain point I decided I did not want to be owned by pain, I wanted to be owned by love. And then I found out love doesn’t own you, it liberates you. And so I teach, because I think if it worked for me, it could work for anyone. It’s not a magic bullet. Change is hard. It’s a practice, and it has eight limbs, and you have to work every one of them. But it’s doable and beautiful and eventually it’s inspiring and you want to see how much you can open, and what it means to really love and release your grip on the story. Sending love to all of you, Ally Hamilton

Haters Gonna Hate

You-will-never-reachIntentionally or not, we give things, people, accusations, or situations validity and power when we give them our attention. People are complex, and it takes a long time to know the interior of another person’s world unless they give you access to it, and even then, you never know if you have the full story.

When you put yourself out there and follow your heart, some people will feel inspired to do the same, and others will feel threatened or envious. Envy is an uncomfortable but human feeling we all experience sometimes, but if it’s ruling your life, that isn’t any fun at all. Sometimes people see someone else thriving, and it’s easier to be enraged and mean-spirited than it is to get off their own a$$es and do something. I’m a big believer that each one of us has something unique and amazing to offer, that only we can. There is not another collection of 37 trillion or so cells that is exactly like the collection that comprises you, there never has been before, nor will there ever be again. If you don’t pull that song out from the center of your being, then you rob the world of beauty only you can offer. So no one can ever steal your spot in the sun.

But some people are attached to their rage and bitterness, to their lists of all the people who’ve wronged them, to their version of reality that paints them as the heroic, kind, and generous victim, and everyone else as the evil villain with no morals. Chronic victims need their oppressors in order to stay secure and comfortable in their victim-hood. If a person wants to create a fiction where you are this terrible person, and they take no responsibility for the deterioration and demise of a familial relationship, friendship, business relationship, or marriage that once was, and potentially could have remained wonderful, there is not a thing in the world you can do about it. In the vernacular of our times, “haters gonna hate,” and all you do is give the hater power when you give her or him your attention and energy.

People are complicated and life is full of challenges and things are not always what they appear to be. Sometimes a person is covering a deep well of pain, anger and instability under a cloak of peace and calm that is carefully constructed, but falls apart behind closed doors. I’ve dealt with so many people over the years who are struggling with personality disorders but refuse to get help, because according to their construct and worldview, they don’t need any. The thing is, any sane and rational person recognizes that we all need help from time to time, and that it takes two, or sometimes three, to tango. A person who refuses to be accountable for their behavior, actions, choices, lies, and abusiveness, but remains committed to pointing fingers and telling tales, is not a person you can deal with in a rational way. Although you can make yourself sick, tired and crazy trying. I know, because I tried myself.

Eventually you realize there’s nothing you can do with certain people except to step away and create boundaries. And that once in awhile that person is going to stand up from behind the fence you built because you decided you didn’t want to be crapped on anymore, or held hostage by someone else’s rage, and yell at you again. So be it. Let them yell, and you stay focused on all the good in your life, and all the good you can do. Maybe you’ll do so much good, eventually it will spill out onto their mountain of vitriol and they’ll realize you aren’t the enemy and never were. And maybe not. That isn’t something you get to control. Sending you love, and wishing you peace, Ally Hamilton

The Eye of the Storm

Our-wounds-are-often-theSometimes we’re feeling low or vulnerable or insecure or alienated or depressed, and someone we don’t know, or someone we know well, walks right into the heart of that mess we’re in, and says something or does something that sets us off spinning even more.

It’s all well and good to say that people can’t make us feel anything unless we allow them to, and that is the truth. A person can’t drive you crazy or make you happy unless you open yourself to those feelings. Nonetheless, when we’re already feeling tested, fragile, or down, we’re not going to be in a place where it’s easy to direct our energy, or focus our minds on what we know in our hearts to be true. Namely, that another person’s cruelty, indifference, envy, or misplaced rage has nothing to do with us. It’s hard not to take things personally when we’re already walking through the fire.

When you’re spiraling, or feeling confused, scared, ashamed, guilty, or anxious, the best thing you can do is open to it. That isn’t what we’re taught, and it might feel counter-intuitive, but the more you try to run from or deny your feelings, the more you try to make them go away or numb them out, the harder they’ll push to come to the surface. The best way to stop the spinning is to sit down in the eye of the storm, because from that vantage point, you can see that you are not your thoughts. There are a lot of things we think sometimes that are just absolute garbage. Sometimes we’re getting some kind of pay-off, and from the center of the whirlwind, you might find the space to be honest with yourself about that. Is it easier to feed the idea that you’re a victim, or that there’s something broken about you, than it is to pick yourself up and get to work? If you’re doing something that isn’t serving you, there’s some kind of benefit, even if it isn’t immediately obvious. I’m not talking about depression here, so please don’t misunderstand me. Depression is not a choice you make, it’s an affliction that causes suffering, and sometimes people need medication to regulate it. I’m talking about repeating patterns or ways of being or thinking that you already know bring you nothing but pain.

Maybe you’re punishing yourself, maybe you’ve hurt people in your past, and you feel like you deserve to be treated badly. Maybe you’re lying to yourself about what you want. Maybe you’re terrified of screwing up, so you’re paralyzed. It’s all okay, seriously. This business of being human is a messy job for most people, at least at some time or another. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be honest with yourself about where you have work to do, assuming you want to be happy. And that might seem like an obvious thing, right? I mean, who doesn’t want to be happy? But I can look in my rearview mirror and remember times when I wanted to be angry more than I wanted to be happy. Times when I was more invested in my story than I was in changing it.

Shame is debilitating, and it won’t get you far. In fact, it’ll keep you stuck, and deplete you of the energy you need to do things differently. Try to let it go. Be where you are, and have some compassion for yourself. If everything is a mess, believe me, it’s not because you suck at being human, it’s because you probably have some unlearning to do. When we make a mess of things, it’s because we lack the tools to not make a mess of things. And if we lack the tools, it’s because they weren’t taught or modeled. Relationships of any kind require some tools. Communication is a huge one, as is the ability to listen with your heart, and not with the burning desire to be right. Intimacy is terrifying for some people, because maybe their past experience of love involved smothering, or a lack of control. No one likes to feel powerless or imprisoned, but if those are your fears about real relationships, they’re unfounded. Love does not imprison you, it frees you.

You don’t have to keep feeding a story about why you are the way you are, because it doesn’t really matter, and you aren’t set in stone. Is it harder to have to unlearn and relearn something than it is to learn it well the first time? Of course. But is it easier to stay stuck than it is to unstick yourself? I really don’t think so. Figure out the tools you need to dig, because time doesn’t stop and wait for anyone. Choose happiness over anger, choose compassion over shame. There’s no formula for healing, but that’s a solid foundation for anyone. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton

You Have to “Like” Yourself

You-cannot-save-peopleIf you’ve ever tried to save another person from his or her pain, then you already know it can’t be done. You cannot divorce a person from his past; whatever we’ve been through is going to shape us, and have an effect on the way we look at, and move through the world. If we come from a stable and loving background where we felt secure and celebrated, we’re probably going to have an easier time dealing with life’s difficult surprises, rejections and losses. But there are some things that are so knifing, it really doesn’t matter what your background was. You’re going to have to walk through the fire.

I think the large majority of people are going to struggle, and I say this because it’s rare for two healthy, happy people to come together out of love, and to remember to appreciate the gifts as they roll in every day. I’m not saying this doesn’t exist, I’m just saying I don’t believe it’s very common. They teach us about fractions in school, we spend time figuring out what happens if a train leaves Baltimore at 7:50am, traveling 40mph, and another leaves New York City at 8:20pm going 30mph, but we don’t learn about the human heart. We don’t have classes that teach us about healthy relationships, and how to be a good partner. Most people develop their skill set with on-the-job training, and that doesn’t always work out so well. If you didn’t have exposure to healthy, happy relationships growing up, if you don’t have a model for that, then you’re flying by the seat of your pants, and it’s likely you’ll have a bumpy ride.

The point is, if we come out of pain, dysfunction, confusion and instability, it’s probably going to take some time for us to find our center. And if we start having intimate relationships while we’re still totally in the dark about who we are, they aren’t likely to go well. If you were born into a situation with two people who didn’t know how to love each other well, and also didn’t do a bang-up job loving you well…welcome to the human race. I believe you’re in the majority.

On top of your own personal history, there’s the vulnerability inherent in this gig called being human. And not everyone deals with the uncertainty of this thing very well. Life is unpredictable, and sometimes explosions go off in the middle of our lives because we set them off, and other times, this happens because we lose someone unexpectedly, or we lose a job, or some other totally unforeseen thing happens. What defines us is how we deal with what we’re given. Sometimes people flail about or point fingers or develop constructs that support the idea that it isn’t their fault, whatever “it” may be. Sometimes people numb out, deny reality, or run like hell. Sometimes people are so self-destructive, you just can’t watch anymore.

The thing is, you can’t do the journey for anyone else. You can’t do it for your children or your parents or your siblings or your best friend. We all have to man up and woman up and and get serious about healing. You can’t be of any real good to anyone else if you’re miserable. You can’t blame your parents if you’re 40 and unhappy. I mean, you can, but it won’t get you anywhere you want to be.

What can you do if someone you love is hurting? You can offer your support and encouragement of course. You can learn to say less and listen more, and just be there with your love. You can reflect back to them the incredible beauty you see. You can try to find them resources so they can start to take ownership of their pain and their happiness. But you can’t fix it for them. It’s torturous to watch someone we love as they flail or doubt or fear or cling. When people have a hole they’re trying to fill, whether they try to fill it with fame or adoration or things or food or sex or they try to numb it out so the ache is less intense, there’s nothing much you can do except to tell them again and again, the only thing that fills that hole is love. And it isn’t love from other people, although that’s wonderful, it’s love from within. Sending you some right now, Ally Hamilton

The Part That Is Personal

Sometimes-life-knocksOften I get emails from people who tell me their relationships would be wonderful, if only their partner would change. And sometimes they tell me they’ve been to therapy hoping that would help, but there hasn’t been any movement. Here’s the thing. We can never change other people. No one can ever change us, either, unless we want to make a shift. And you can find yourself at a real stalemate, and start to feel hopeless and stuck.

But just as we can never change other people, we are also not set in stone. You can always change what you are doing, and there’s tremendous power in that. When you look at the situations in your life, the story to pay attention to is not the one about what this person did, or how things unfolded in ways you couldn’t have imagined, or how something beautiful turned to something painful. I mean, you can examine all of that, but the thing you really want to dive into, is the story of your own participation.

Sometimes people get very clear on the “not taking things personally” part, and that’s wonderful. If someone is abusive, cruel, unkind, dismissive, thoughtless or disrespectful, that’s a reflection of where they are on their particular journey at this point in time. Is is not a reflection of anything lacking within you. But, and this is an important but, what is about you is your decision to continue to interact with people who don’t know how to do anything but hurt you. That part is the personal part, that’s the part you want to understand.

We’re not always talking about awful, abusive situations. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the spark going out. People take their partners or loved ones for granted all the time. Sometimes we think we have people “pegged”, and we don’t have to pay attention anymore. But everyone and everything is in a constant state of flux. You are not the you of five years ago, and neither is anyone else. You can’t ever peg anyone. But you can stop looking and listening and appreciating and cherishing and celebrating people, and that’s a sad but common occurrence. And if you find you’re in a relationship like that, where you feel unseen and unheard and taken for granted, you’re probably not going to turn that around by pointing fingers, and letting your partner know all the many ways he or she is blowing it. Because it’s never one person. In any relationship, there are two people, and the third thing, the space between them. That is where the relationship exists, in that space. Each person decides what’s going into the space, and this is true whether we’re speaking romantically or otherwise.

It’s easy to lose the thread. But if there was a spark in the beginning, if there was communication and vulnerability and honesty, you can find those things again, by offering them yourself. When you change what you do, things change around you, people respond to you differently. Also, your happiness is your own responsibility. You can’t put that on anyone else, that’s an inside job. If you are not at peace within yourself, if you’re not feeling inspired, if you’re not loving yourself well, no one can solve that but you. The idea in a healthy relationship is that you support your partner, you don’t look to him or her to solve your pain for you.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, and by that I mean verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive, it’s time to do something. Physical abuse demands that you create physical boundaries. In other words, you have to get out, and you’ll probably (definitely) need support in doing that. You cannot stay and expect things to change because they won’t. Or they will, but not in a good way. Your life here is a gift. It isn’t something you want to gamble. And thinking your love or patience or tolerance will finally change things is a dangerous delusion.

If we’re talking about verbal and emotional abuse, boundaries are also in order. If you’re not worried about your physical safety, it’s time to draw the line. If a person cannot treat you with care and consideration, then what is the relationship about? Are you financially dependent? Does the abuse remind you of the way you grew up? Does some part of you believe that you are not good enough to deserve love? If you get a yes to any of those questions, you need help and support. Low self-esteem is dangerous because we betray ourselves when we feel we aren’t worthy of being cherished. We put ourselves in situations that are crushing and heartbreaking, and you can only take that for so long before you become depressed or hardened, or you need to numb the pain. That’s no way to live.

There is no happily ever after without your participation and action. There is no person who’s going to sweep in and save the day and make everything okay, unless you decide to be that person. Be that person, seriously. Life is too short for anything else, and it can be so beautiful. Sending you love and a hug. Reach out if you need help, Ally Hamilton

Don’t Die on the Inside

A-coward-is-incapable-ofIf you want people to know you, you have to be willing to show yourself. You can’t lie, deflect, manipulate or play games, and also expect to feel close to anyone. But for so many people, fear seems to get in the way. Most of us long for connection, for shared experiences, for genuine intimacy, but then we sabotage any hope for those things by hiding our true selves, our real needs and desires. People do it in relationships all the time. They fall in love with someone, or they get hooked on an unhealthy dynamic and think it’s love. And they accept far less than what they truly want, and pretend to themselves and to their partners that it’s okay. That less is enough. That all is well.

A lot of people struggle with self-doubt. I’d say that’s a normal part of being human, and if you never doubt yourself, you’re probably in some trouble. Uninterrupted confidence that you’ve got everything figured out is not a great sign. But if doubt is an overriding issue, if you aren’t sure you’re lovable, if you fear you might not be worthy of respect or consideration, or you ask yourself questions like, “Who am I to do anything extraordinary?”, then you’re going to have a very hard time being close to people. Because in order to be close, you also have to be brave enough to expose the parts of yourself that aren’t pretty. If you fear you aren’t good enough, that you don’t measure up in some important ways, you’re going to be motivated to hide those deficiencies, not highlight them. Fear doesn’t make you brave. Of course, what you really need to do is puncture a hole in the idea that you’re less than. Because that is not real. Sometimes we learn things because they’re taught to us, and sometimes we learn things because those around us don’t have the tools to love us well. We internalize the lack as our own. Those are all lies you’ll need to unlearn if you want to free yourself from ideas that imprison you. How can anyone get in if you’ve blocked them with walls?

We all have our stuff. Our histories, our pain, our tendencies, and the way that we deal with them. If you’re constantly trying to put up a good front, or be the way you think people want you to be, then you’re going to feel alone, and rightly so. Before you can feel comfortable sharing who you really are, you have to feel comfortable with yourself. People avoid that work for years sometimes, and some people avoid it for their whole lives. You can’t solve it from the outside. No relationship will fix it if you think you might be broken. No job will ease your fears, no amount of money, no house or car or dress size. If your main house is not in order, you will take that mess with you wherever you go.

I know people who spend an inordinate amount of time promoting themselves, but underneath it, right underneath the surface, you can feel the need. “Love me, see me, tell me I’m here and I’m wonderful.” If you need that affirmation every second of every day, you are in pain. And no amount of external reassurance will solve that, because that’s what you call an inside job. No one can crash your internal hard drive but you, and that’s what you’ll need to do if you want to rewire your system. Of course that sounds scary. Most people try to keep the system running, even if they have to shore it up with denial, or numb out or keep themselves so distracted they don’t realize the system is failing. Better off to let it fail, and start doing things a different way. Some of the best stuff in life includes connection. Feeling comfortable in your own skin. Being able to love and live with your heart wide open. There are so many tools available if you need to create a new way of being, and start living your life in a way that feels good. Doing this work won’t kill you, but avoiding it makes you die on the inside, and life is too short for that. Sending you love and a hug, Ally Hamilton

Not This, Not That

buckminsterfullerIn yoga practice, so much of what we’re doing is about stripping away. It’s very possible, and quite common, to reach adulthood and have no clue who we are or what we need to be at peace. Culturally we’re taught to look outward for happiness; if we just meet certain “markers”, if we can look right and have the right job and the right partner and the right house and car, then we’ll be good to go. A lot of people are so focused on attaining these outer signs of happiness, they pass right by the signs that would actually lead them there.

Also, there’s the way you grew up. Maybe you were taught, in word or through actions, that your worth as a human being was based on your performance; if you did well in school, if you were a good boy or girl, then all would be well. If you screwed up or failed to reach the bar, love was withdrawn and the disapproval was palpable. Maybe punishment was swift and intense. That’s just one example, of course. There are many. Maybe you grew up in a house where you felt unsafe, and you learned to be indispensable or invisible depending on the moment. Maybe you were spoiled rotten and taught that you were the center of everything, and that other people existed in order to orbit around your needs and wants. Perhaps you were taught that your needs and wants were something you were supposed to swallow, and that your fears and dreams had very little impact on the world around you. Maybe you were parentified and got a huge lesson in care-taking and people-pleasing. It’s a huge spectrum, but the chances for knowing yourself are slim in any of these scenarios.

This is why we have so many people who reach adulthood and have no idea which way to turn. The house doesn’t do it, the diet doesn’t do it, the right partner doesn’t do it. What’s the point? Where have they gone wrong, why isn’t the formula working? The formula doesn’t work because it’s based on the stuff around us, not the stuff within us. I know someone who’s been searching for the “perfect house” for years. Money isn’t an issue, the location could be anywhere. No matter where he goes or what kind of house he buys, it’s never the right one. It never does the trick. If you want to be at peace, you have to get your true house in order. Your body is your home. If things are not well within you, they won’t be well around you, even if you buy a mansion in Bali and have people on hand to feed you fresh mango at your every whim. There’s no escaping yourself.

In the yoga practice, we’re looking for “vidya” or “clear-seeing”; being able to identify what is real from what is unreal, what is permanent from what is impermanent. You have to question everything you think you know, because you may have accepted things along the way, decades ago, that turn out not to be true for you. You may have adopted ways of being that don’t serve you, that dis-empower you, or block you from receiving love and joy. You may have a lot of unlearning to do. Maybe you’ve come to believe you aren’t lovable, or that you’re broken in some un-fixable way. Maybe you think you can’t trust anyone, or everyone lies and cheats. There are all kinds of ideas you might have developed that just aren’t true, and so you have to dig. You have to unearth. You have to do the work to heal your deepest wounds so they don’t direct your entire life. The way to peace is inside, not outside, and the sooner you start, the faster you get to a place where life feels good. Avoiding this work is the surest way to suffer. You aren’t here to suffer, although it’s part of life sometimes. You’re here to shine. I wouldn’t wait.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton