Ask the Therapist 

As we enter another new year, I am feeling the pressure to change, improve, and grow. I am exhausted from not only the holidays, but also with the pandemic and daily stress. How do I know what is best, to rest or to challenge myself? 

Dear Reader, 

Thank you for your question and willingness to share your experience.  And let me first say that I do not believe that you are alone in this confusion.  It can be challenging to know how to truly care for ourselves.  It is easy to become imbalanced either toward burnout from overworking ourselves or toward complacency from a lack of drive or motivation.  Much of our behaviors are driven subconsciously.  The various “voices” we have inside us at any given time dictating how we should behave have been learned from societal and familial patterns.  Some of these are useful, others are not as effective as they may once have been, and ultimately, the source of your question indicates a curiosity of “what is authentic and true for me right now?”  How brilliant to notice the internal tension that exists within you right now, as is in many of us.  In this article, we will explore how to address the tension, become more aware of what is informing the belief systems, address the paradox, and decide what is truest for you at any given moment.  And finally, I will end the article with a note on grace, which may be the most important aspect of all.  

Developing Compassionate Awareness 

When I work with clients in my office, one of the ways in which I sit with them is with a compassionate and curious awareness.  In order to find movement and healing, it requires an open space with little pressure to allow any parts within oneself to emerge without fear of judgment or rejection.  It’s like stepping back from a wall that you’ve been trying to move but it won’t budge.  We just take a step back and go, “hmm, I wonder what is here right now” without any agenda to even change a thing.  Consider that for a moment and really breathe into this idea of taking a step back and surrendering to the fact that there is even a tension in the first place, some level of dis-ease or dis-comfort and allowing that as the reality.  I’ve found that when we allow whatever it is that is in front of us to be there, when we open to it, almost immediately the pressure lessens.  When pressure is reduced, then there is space for change.  Like in conflict with another person, sometimes the harder you push your stance, the more the conflict increases, and a stand still occurs.  This is where we often get stuck and give up.  But if one person can have the courage to just take a breath and accept that there is a disagreement without an agenda to be right or force one’s way, often a dialogue and some compromise naturally arises.  Compassionate awareness is the willingness to appreciate that there is more to the story.  It is softening rigidity and letting the heart open to the possibility of what lies within the mystery of our deeper experience.  It is like a warm and curious friend who has all the time in the world for your process.  There is no agenda, no destination.  Only love, acceptance, and an attentive spirit for what is there. 

Address the tension, Allowing for two truths 

Oftentimes when there is a sense of confusion, feeling lost, stuck or frustration; an internal conflict exists within.  After developing a compassionate and curious stance, perhaps some of the pressure has softened and it allows you to gain even just a bit more clarity around what that tension is.  What seems to be at war within. Using the reader’s question as an example, the tension exists around challenging oneself and resting.  In my study as a yoga teacher, I have learned from many non-dualist teachers.  What I have appreciated most about this philosophy is it allows for multiple truths to exist at one time.  Instead of an “this OR that ” we can be with the energy of “this AND that”.  So using the example above, we can identify the two truths as “I am exhausted” and “I wish to grow”.   Just by acknowledging that both can be true and valid and holding that with compassion and acceptance, perhaps the pressure to reach a destination or to choose something right is also reduced.  This allows, again, more space to gain a greater clarity on what decision isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but which feels like it is most authentic for you in this moment.  Remembering that likely, because many truths can exist at one time, there isn’t necessarily one path that is meant to be, rather, many paths that are possible and we make a choice that we feel is best for us at any given moment.  More on that later. 

Slow down and Listen, Notice any parts/fears 

After we have addressed the tension and identified the multiple truths that may be existing in our system at one time it can be helpful to slow down so that one can listen really to what is happening inside.  Oftentimes both the body and the mind are communicating to you at one time.  As a therapist, I am inspired by a theory called Internal Family Systems.  In this theory developed by Richard Schwarz, it is the belief that within each of us are many parts designed to protect us.  Parts that manage our daily life to help us avoid painful feelings or experiences and parts that come in when we experience some level of pain.  These protector parts keep exiled aspects of ourselves hidden away (parts of us that have experienced some level of pain in the past like rejection, shame, overwhelm to name a few).  Oftentimes these experiences happened when we were small children or are passed down to us familial or societally.  It makes sense that one would not want to feel painful or difficult feelings like those listed above.  We can appreciate the protector parts that have been developed and adapted over time to keep us from experiencing them.  But oftentimes, these protector parts are no longer needed or aren’t as effective as they once were.  They keep us from experiencing our truest self and lead life in a way that is empowered.  It can feel as though we are pulled through life by our unconscious fears and avoidance, rather than through the calm center of authenticity.  When we slow down, we can listen or attune ourselves to any parts that may be present.  Parts can come in through the mind as “voices” or thoughts.  They can express through the body as physical sensation, tension or energy, or as visualizations in the mind.  Ultimately, we can be curious – are there any parts that are trying to protect me right now.  Is the exhaustion coming truly from the body, or is it a part that is protecting you from feeling like you might try and fail – feeling shame and guilt for not succeeding?  Is the wish for growth coming from your heart and soul, or is it a part that believes you have to keep changing and evolving in order to be loved and will be rejected if you don’t push yourself?  For some, identifying these parts comes easily for others there can be a total “parts party” in which it can be difficult to discern who is who within.  Oftentimes, this can be when doing a meditation or connecting with a therapy to engage in this work can be helpful.  But ultimately, asking oneself “What is the fear if I don’t listen to this part?”  When we can identify the fear, we can anchor into that compassionate, calm, curious awareness and first validate it, appreciate the part, then address, challenge and reframe any belief system that is outdated.  For example, “I appreciate the part that doesn’t want me to feel shame if I try to commit and cannot.  It makes sense that it doesn’t want me to feel shame or guilt.  And I am an adult now and have a better understanding that I am loved even if I do not succeed in a particular goal.  I am safe to take risks and know that I accept myself despite the outcome.  I have tools to cope with guilt and shame should they arise.  I can take care of myself.”  When we address the underlying fears, it can become clearer what is driving the pressure to perform in a particular way.  It is then up to you, to slow down and feel, truly what your body is asking for in this moment that isn’t based on fear, but rather trust that all will be well no matter what you choose.  

Enveloping yourself in Grace 

Finally, this is where the final invitation comes from for your question.  As humans, we are on an eternal journey of both being and becoming.  Just as the breath is a pulsation, so is our life.  There is a time for rest and a time for challenge.  It is, again, the slowing down with compassionate awareness that allows for one to truly become attuned to the truth within at any given moment that isn’t informed by fear and pressure, but rather trust and surrender.  In all of my work, there is a particular energy or aspect of life that I love to be in contact with.  And it is the one of unconditional love.  Again, as humans, I don’t know if we ever truly get to appreciate the depth of what this really feels like.  As babies we are humans, raised by other humans who have their own tensions and difficulties.  In our religious cultures, many times an unconditional loving God is backed by many rules and conditions as a way to be accepted into the kingdom of Heaven.  In our world, we often want to know that there is a right path and a wrong path.  But I invite you to consider that even in all of that, there is still even deeper, an energy of awareness that says “I have been with you all along, watching you with love.  I see you doing the best you can, and I accept you no matter what.”  This awareness is one that observes the play of life and believes in the unconditional positive regard of each living being on this planet and in this universe.  It trusts the unfolding of all of nature and knows there is always a way back to the truth, even if it looks messy from time to time.  I call this energy “GRACE” and I ask that, ultimately, no matter how you decide to move forward – what parts you respond from – consciously or unconsciously – that you envelop yourself with the understanding that no matter what – you are safe, and you are loved.  

It is so beautiful to be back writing for Siouxland Magazine and I am looking forward to responding to more of your questions in the year ahead.  

With love, 


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