I am laying in bed staring at the wall weaving imaginary stories in my mind. I am overcome with a feeling resentment. I have a big feeling of "screw you world" spinning deep down inside of me, and I feel like I could just stay here for hours. Do you know the feeling?
This happens to me from time to time. Someone lets me down, or takes advantage of me and I get resentful and begin building protective walls . I reignite my independence and tell myself "I don't need you anyway, I don't need your help or support. I am independent and strong and I can do it on my own!" Its a familiar story for me. So here I am laying in bed in the same old pattern. But this time it's a bit different I catch myself in the story (must be all that meditation finally paying off!)
I recognize that my little fiction is just there to protect me. It is a story I have practiced many times before and serves an important purpose for me. I know that this story keeps me from connecting with people and feeling vulnerable, it keeps me once removed (which of course is a very safe place for me!) The problem is that connection and vulnerability are two things that are important to me, in fact they are things I am intentionally trying to cultivate more of in my life! And here I am spinning a web to undo all of my intentions just because someone let me down? So now what? What do I do? I have caught myself in a thought train that I know isn't productive.
My feelings are so big I can taste them in my mouth. It feels like a Catch 22, like there is no way out. I know I am feeling it, but I don't know what to do with it... in fact I kinda like it. In a messed up way, my resentment makes me feel safe and I don't know if I want to let it go! I am so tempted to stay in my bed of resentment today and just wallow the time away. But then I have this thought, this idea. I teach my University students that if they want to address complex societal problems then they need to understand the root causes to the problems so that they can build their solutions from a place of compassion and empathy. This allows them to employ the right strategies to address the root issues, not just surface stuff. We talk about the root causes of homelessness, bullying, domestic violence, and addiction recognizing that most of the time we are treating the symptoms not the root causes. I teach them to pull back the layers one at a time so they can understand the problem in its entirety and maybe even come up with solutions that actually meet the needs. So I wonder will this work for me? Can I look at the root causes to my own issues? Will it help me cultivate compassion and empathy and find a deeper solution more than just the surface crap I always do? I don't know where my resentment comes from, I just know that it is there and it threatens me and my plans for living a life of connection.
So I decide to give it a try.
I use the metaphor of a tree to help my students peel back the layers and get to the root cause of things.
Imagine a tree with a complex web of underground roots. Each one grew slowly reaching out in different directions through the soil. Sometimes the soil is nourishing in spots and in other spots it's barren. The roots spread out and become the base, this is where everything begins. As time goes on the tree encounters good and bad weather, droughts, floods, winds, and other challenges. Each year the tree continues on and as it grows the scars of these good and bad stories show up in the rings of the trees. Inside every tree is a little map of rings that chronicle a life history. We each have our own little map, our own rings, our own layers upon layers that tell of good years and bad years, deep scars and times of abundance. At the base of it all is our roots, the things that continue to nourish us. But sometimes our roots were built around toxic little pockets of soil and they continue to feed us unhealthy things. So what is it in my roots that is feeding me resentment year after year? Each year my rings are tarnished with lines of this protective pushing away that I do. So I begin to peel back the layers....
The exercise I teach my students is simple you ask WHY at least 5 times. You start with asking why something is the way it's is, and then you ask why to that response, and then you ask why to that response again and again to each response until you find a root. So I begin.... I ask myself why do I feel resentment? My first response is about me feeling abandoned. This is my first ring.
Then I ask the second why. Why do I feel abandoned? My response leads me to a past relationship where I felt let down and alone often. Another ring.
Then I ask why to this response. Why was I in a relationship that left me feeling abandoned and let down? My response takes me to a story about my worthiness and not knowing that I could expect more from the world or love. Yet another ring...
Then I ask why to this response. Why do I feel unworthy? My response takes me to a lack of love and affection in my life over the years and a sense that to be loved I needed to be independent and strong-not needy and dependent. Another ring, we are feeling closer to the root now...
Then I ask why again. Why did I need to feel independent and strong to be loved? Because this is what garnered me the most respect and affection as a child. My ability to do things on my own and not need help.
Ah ha. A root. A root that has been feeding my resentment and unwillingness to connect year after year in my life. My resentment isn't just about feeling abandoned and let down by others. It is me creating my own conditions for love. I have fused independence with love in my life. This is the problem.
I can't be independent and dependent at the same time. I can't not need someone and need them simultaneously. This is a total set up because love requires me to lean in and rely on another person. I am not just protecting myself I am doing the very thing that I think makes me loveable, only it isn't making me more loveable it is making love more challenging in fact. I am stuck in a pattern of wanting love, affection and support but feeling like it's wrong to want and need it. Feeling like independence and strength is what makes me worthy and then wondering why I can't just flick a switch on and rely on people.
This is the tension that makes me feel so stuck. I want supportive love but I don't want to feel weak. So if I feel like I am leaning and relying on someone too much I want to pull back push them away and find my independence as a way of showing my strength and worthiness. Because at the core (as I have just discovered) this is where I have found love in the past.
By asking why, I have dug through the layers beyond the surface interpretation and made sense of my resentment in a new way. I see what is feeding it and why I have been so unable to let it go over the years.
So now what? What do I do with this? I see my own role in resentment and how it makes me feel alive and worthy. Now I can begin looking at a solution that has empathy and compassion for me and the little girl inside of me trying to do it all on her own so that she can be loved.
Before I just kept trying not to feel resentment and telling myself I shouldn't feel this way. Now I know that the real solution relies on me feeling the weakness, the vulnerability, the sadness, the let down, and the hurt. Feeling all of these things in the context of love and relationship. Knowing that I don't have to do it all. I can ask for help and if it isn't met I can feel sad about that and not retreat into independence in order to feel whole again.
In short I need to start a new pattern, a new ring in my life. I need to do things differently and stop taking in the toxic poison of independence as love and instead staring nourishing myself from the vulnerability and love roots. All this in 5 whys. Each layer pulled back to show more and more of the root. Big stuff from little questions.
Just a little note about this process. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes we will never know our full history what happened that caused feelings for us. That's ok, it's not about being Sherlock Holmes and getting to the bottom of things it is about employing some deep curiosity so that we can meet ourselves with compassion at the more neglected parts of ourselves.
Try it. Think of a struggle you are facing. A feeling, an emotion, something that has been lingering for you and holding you back. Now ask yourself why you are feeling it. Write down your response. Then ask yourself why you are feeling that. Write down your response, do this at least 5 times and see if you can find a root. This can be a really hard thing to do on your own, so have someone you love and trust help you with the questions if it feels too hard. It also may take some time. So begin the process and step away if you need to and then come back. Whatever you discover remember to meet it with some compassion and love. Once we find a root to our suffering it is our job to love it and tend to it so it can heal.
As always please let me know how this process works for you...