I don’t know about you, but for me, the holidays have historically been difficult. Foolishly, I thought it would be different this year. After all, I had just come back from a meditation retreat. I didn’t stress myself out getting material gifts. I decided to do the 12 Days of ReKINDling Challenge. I had been building deeper connections to my family over the past year. Why wouldn’t it be easier?
And still, it was a trigger-fest.
And so, with (metaphorical) dirt on my face and some new notches on my belt, I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learned from having a frustrating, difficult holiday season. Even as I’m writing this, there’s still much pain and discomfort. As I’ve promised before, I am not going to wait until I’m all better and “perfect” before I share what I’ve learned. And yet, sharing has been a challenge.
As a writer, there’s always a fine balance between my own vulnerability and the deserved privacy of the people who never asked to have their feelings or actions made public. So, I’m going to try to share what I’ve learned over this season, but know—this is not the whole story. I can only tell as much as being respectful will allow me.
So here, in no particular order, is what I’ve learned in this past month. I say “learned,” but I don’t mean that I had an epiphany. You can find pieces of my writing when I had these epiphanies long ago. No, I am not just having intellectual revelations. I am getting practice with life’s most important teachings. This is not the end. I will never be done learning.
1. I am no one’s saviour
I am not the only possible reason that people are upset or happy. I am not the only difference between a person’s healing and not healing. I am not responsible for fixing others’ suffering.
This seems really obvious, and I thought I knew it. And yet, I’ve discovered some part of myself that doesn’t understand this at all—a part that takes responsibility for everyone’s emotions, healing, and happiness, and then goes crazy when I can’t make it work.
About a year and a half ago, I had this epiphany about my clients. I realized that my compassion for their suffering had somehow turned into my feeling solely responsible for “fixing” that suffering. I wanted so badly to ease their pain that I developed this saviour complex. Needless to say, this didn’t work out very well.
It took me much pain and self-awareness to realize that I wasn’t the architect of the universe. I couldn’t make change happen for anyone. I could help people allow change. I could love people and give them a safe space. I could be their support system and best friend, but not their saviour. Everyone must save themselves.
Well, isn’t it amazing, then, that I’ve been trying to “fix” my loved ones? Over the past few years, it seems I developed a new version of the saviour complex towards people I’d forgiven. I forgave them and developed compassion towards what they did in times of suffering. Then, I started feeling responsible for fixing that suffering.
I wanted so badly to break the vicious cycles of pain in my family that I thought my love and compassion would change the behaviours of anyone except myself. Big mistake. Taking responsibility for changing others is a recipe for frustration.
I’ve realized, again, that I am no one’s saviour. I’ve also realized that this tendency to take responsibility for other people’s lives and to fall into mistrusting the natural processes of change is going to come up again. I’ve learned to watch for it. For that, I am grateful.
2. I cannot escape judgment by being better
In my relationship with myself, it has taken years to see that self-judgment and my worth are unrelated. Self-judgment is a pattern of thought, and no amount of self-improvement can fix it.
I started learning this slowly in my work as well. Some people will hate what I have to say, and other people will love it. That has nothing to do with my worth or the worth of my words.
And yet, this past holiday season, I discovered this little girl inside of me who still thinks that she can earn love and approval. When I found her, I cried. I cried because she deserved that love, and because she’d never get it from where she needed it. I cried because there was no one to blame.
Visiting with my family this time around has been more of a minefield than ever because I feel that I am closer than ever to living authentically. To have my mask criticized is one thing. To have my self-aware choices bring shame and disappointment to people I so deeply wanted to be proud of me—that is something else.
For example, to Jamie and I, selling all our things to travel was a dream come true. To my family, it’s not respectable. I should settle down and have children. I’m irresponsible. I should grow up. And in the meantime, no one cares about what I’m doing to help people or help the world. No one asks.
But what has been the real cause of the suffering? Is it their judgment? Is it their poking and prodding? Or, is it my expectation that, maybe this time, I’ll visit and something different will happen? Is it maybe my hope that they will suddenly change, or my even more unreasonable hope that I’ll do something so pride-worthy that they’ll be proud of me?
I realized that, even though I know logically that I shouldn’t, some part inside of me wants to be accepted so badly that I hope and wish, every single time, that maybe this time, I’ll be good enough. Just like when I used to feel fat and ugly all the time, and I’d step in front of the mirror, feel shame, and think, “Maybe next time. Not this time, but maybe next time, you’ll be beautiful.”
And I’m done. I can’t do it anymore.
My job isn’t to change how they do things or how they perceive me. I can’t change their values or make them stop trying to impose their values onto me. I can, however, expect that these conversations will come up and handle them more gracefully. And I can let go of the expectation that my grace will make the slightest difference to anyone except me.
3. Difficult people will either leach you or teach you
I’ve done my best to face the trigger-fest of these past few weeks with patience, a calm resolve to get through the storm instead of fighting against it. In that space, I realized that I had a choice: to resist or to learn.
If I allowed myself to resist, I would get run dry, and then I would become exactly what I was fighting against. If I allowed myself to learn, I would feel pain and surrender, and then I would become wiser. So, I started looking at which parts of my own behaviour I see in the behaviour of those who have triggered me.
I’ve realized that it’s much harder to learn from people with whom I have a history of pain. My mind has come up with a million justifications as to why I shouldn’t use them as mirrors for my own behaviours.
“I’m not like that. I wouldn’t do it to that extent. I only get like that when I’m really stressed. I don’t take it that far. I don’t hurt people this much when I do it. I would have apologized even if I did do that.”
And yet, as I’ve reminded myself constantly: every mirror is worthwhile. I’ve also reminded myself of the fact that, in my darkest hours, I have allowed myself to become the same monster that I spent my life fighting. I am not some saint who has no darkness within me. I am just a person trying to choose the light.
And so, to experience the pain that a person can inflict upon me when they choose darkness—this is an incredible teaching. And it hurts. It hurts so much. But I’m choosing to learn from it.
I can’t do this forever, and I don’t know if I’m going to subject myself to this for as long next time, but choosing to learn from this pain has been constructive. Brutally painful, but useful. By choosing to learn from it, I am getting something valuable out of it. If I didn’t make that choice, I would just get drained more and more until I reached my own darkness and then started to do things that hurt others.
I have realized that when it comes to people whom I find difficult, they will either leach me or teach me. It’s going to be nothing in-between. I will either allow the darkness to spread to me, or I will allow the darkness to teach me the importance of light.
The amount of pain, in the moment, is the same. But in the long run? Choosing to learn will give me more than turning into the worst version of myself.
So those are my lessons from this difficult time, which will come to an end within a few weeks when I set off to Southeast Asia. Some part of me just wants to keep this post for my records and not publish it because the dust is still settling down and I don’t have a giant smile on my face yet.
And that hesitation—that urge to conceal this perfectly normal, painful, and yet real, human experience—is exactly why I am sharing.
If you relate to this, know that you’re not alone. And you’re also not doomed.
The holidays can be hard and facing the past can be hard. We can’t escape that pain. But we can choose to learn from it and we can choose to share what we’re learning. We can choose to do it together and to be honest about it.
I want to thank you so much for reading this. Thank you for allowing my feelings to be important to you and for walking with me on this confusing, beautiful path.
I hope that my sharing will inspire you to leave me a comment below and share your experiences with holiday triggers and frustration as well. Your story matters too.
(Photo by Gabriel Kronisch)