Are life’s difficulties the result of overwhelming external circumstances? Or are unpleasant situations self-created?
A viewpoint that is popular in some spiritual and New Age communities is that we are responsible for whatever happens to us. When something goes awry, we’re invited to ask, “How did I create that?”
Perhaps unfortunately, we are not as powerful as we might think.
Five billion years from now, the sun will explode in a supernova, frying all life on earth. No one will be around to debate whether we created that. And forgive me for reminding you, but before that fateful day we will perish… of something. A harsh extreme is to look fervently toward ourselves for every foul thing that happens to us.
If our lifestyle habits have been less than stellar, such as smoking cigarettes or not exercising, then we might argue that we could have made better choices. But even that might be a harsh judgment. If we probe into the secret history of those who adopt destructive behavior, we might extend a more compassionate, less judgmental understanding. A history of poor early attachment or trauma, which can lead to long-term dysregulation in the nervous system, may have led to addictive habits to distract ourselves from unbearable suffering.
This is not to encourage us to cling to the identity of being a victim, where we blame others and believe that no positive change is possible, but rather to argue for the hope of gradual change as we uncover the roots of our discontent, cultivate loving-kindness toward ourselves, and direct gentleness toward feelings that have been threatening to face. Psychotherapy can be one good way to gradually deepen our understanding and self-care, while empowering us to befriend neglected feelings and make positive changes.
Stuff happens. We exist in an interconnected universe. One version of narcissism is to believe that life is firmly under our control. Those who lay claim to a special spiritual knowledge might be sobered to recognize that at the heart of all the great spiritual traditions is the humble recognition that forces exist in the Universe that are much more powerful than ourselves.
Philosophers and psychotherapists have pointed out that while we have little control over what happens to us, we have the power to respond to what befalls us. We can meet what happens to us with a growing sense of grace, wisdom, and patience. We can make room for pleasant or unpleasant feelings, hear whatever wisdom they may hold for us, and move forward in our lives. We may gain the realization that however unpleasant our feelings may be, they won’t destroy us. We become stronger as we welcome our feelings rather than expend energy trying to avoid or numb them. We can reach out for support when we need it so that we might gain some perspective and not feel so alone. As we cultivate inner and outer resources to meet adversity, we develop resilience, which is the essence of inner strength.
Our attitude toward life affects how we experience it. If we’re always expecting bad things to happen, they probably will. By bracing ourselves for rejection and criticism, we become defended in a way that keeps us distant and isolated. Through a suspicious or cynical attitude that tests people’s loyalty, we might try people’s patience and push them away rather than invite them toward us. Sadly, we create the reality we fear due to unresolved past wounds around trust and a persistent fear of exposing ourselves to hurt or embarrassment.
Are the bulk of our problems self-created? It depends on which lens we’re looking through. As dependent children we have little say over what happens to us. As adults it behooves us to understand how we might have internalized an inner critic based upon outer criticism, shaming, and trauma. Our challenge is heal old wounds, which includes embracing ourselves as we currently are rather than continue to abuse and criticize ourselves.
We begin to heal as we direct a loving mindfulness toward our experience just as it is. We often need support in the form of positive mirroring of our feelings, which we may have missed as children, before we can wrap our own arms around them. Re-integrating these split-off parts of ourselves makes us more whole and resilient.
As we gradually awaken to all that we are, both the light and shadow, we stall the momentum of old patterns that perpetuate our suffering. We tap inner resources that can meet life’s challenges rather than continuing to be a victim of circumstances.
Payne, P., Levine, P.A., & Crane-Godreau, M.A. (2015). Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 93. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4316402/
Interbeing – Thich Nhat Hanh [blog post]. (2008, September 4). Retrieved from https://efipaz.wordpress.com/2008/09/04/interbeing/