ASK ABDI: WHY DO I OFTEN ONLY SEE STRUGGLE AND HARDSHIP?
QUESTION: I’ve been reading your book, Shadows on the Path, and I love it. It’s just what I need right now, as I’m in upheaval in my life.
I’ve just moved back to the UK, after living in Italy with my family through a tough 18 months adapting to a new culture and life, which wasn’t so forthcoming. It was full of challenges and even dangerous and threatening situations, and I think I learned a lot through that. Leaving wasn’t my first choice, but as I’m a family man and am devoted to my family, I made the choice and went with it. I had deep sadness for the remaining months there, and now that we’re back in the UK, I feel tired and in a kind of sadness slump. In fact, this is the same sadness I felt as a 15-year-old, which led to addictive escape patterns so I could deal with a world that I did not understand. I’m Irish originally.
I’m a sensitive guy, and I can imagine any number of things that could have wounded me deeply as a child. I have a lot of trauma from my childhood, including an ill from birth younger sister that died seven years ago. I realized that my family was, in fact, in a constant state of grief throughout my childhood, and I grew up with very heavy energy, trauma, and the rest. I didn’t get the healing I was looking for though. I was looking to heal that part of me which is the useless good for nothing, despite everything I may have achieved. Sometimes when I’m alone I feel despicable, absolutely no different to how I felt as a teenager, and it’s so exhausting. I am also focused, good at what I do, a loving father, but a bit of a frightened husband, I’m happy to admit here.
I have been on a spiritual path always, I think! I think my sister’s life always gave me some perspective to treat others as equals because anything can happen. But I took some stuff on from my family, for sure. As a kid, I was the one who broke stuff, was ridiculed, not manly, was depressed and self-loathing, a problem teenager, head-down, and not in relationship with my family. I was hurting a lot and felt so inadequate, especially with my father and older sister. In fact, I still feel this inadequacy with outwardly confident or cocky people.
Your story about your brother really struck a chord. In some ways, I feel I did shoulder some burden on behalf of my family and school friends, actually. I was always the one who “took it” - the dissing, other people’s anger and negative charges, I kind of soaked that shit up and gave away my own power. But I always kind of felt okay. I always kind of felt I could handle it and not blame other people for the bad shit they carried around with them. I never really felt bitter, just resigned to it. It’s a huge pattern for me. And wow, it feels great to write this with such clarity.
So when I’m alone, I go to that negative space. When I’m with others I can be completely positive and up for stuff. At home is sometimes the moist challenging part. At work, I know where I’m at, what I’m good at. I’m charming, I bring people together and I make really great things happen. At home, it sometimes feels like I don’t know who I am!
I’ve been to therapy, taken ayahuasca a few times, practiced qigong, I have a regular nature connection practice, I’ve read too many books, been to Tony Robbins, Landmark Forum, and have had loads of amazing life changing experiences. But the overwhelm, the self-hatred, and the uselessness ALWAYS return. I’m not always feeling them, but they always come back.
I’ve had enough of it. After moving back from Italy, I’m in overwhelm again. I’m not sleeping, tired all the time. Feel like I need a new head.
I think my questions are: how can I be okay even with stress and transition? Why am I in resistance so much of the time, like I’m fighting with life? Why do I often only see the struggle and hardship? And do you know of a therapist I can do shadow work with?
ANSWER: You do not “need a new head”, as you say, rather you need to stay out of your head. A tall order indeed for all of us. I can feel your deep anxiety by reading your story. Your “always taking it” is obviously a pattern. It has its gifts to be sure, but also it becomes a problem as it makes us externally referent. You have done a tremendous amount of work and kudos to you for that. But as you are finding, as helpful as that might be, it does not quite scratch the itch. And here you are with life giving you an invitation to go in.
It would be helpful for you to start a regular mindfulness practice every morning, as soon as you wake up. Check the way that you might still be checking out, even with all the practices that you have done. That has certainly been my experience personally as well as what I observe daily. That would help with your transition. The reason we are all “in resistance” is that we have anxiety and don’t trust shit. We can have all kinds of flowery language or solid practices, but it is not until we are down on our knees that we are ready to look at the monster under the bed.
You have to be open to the fact that the reason you “often only see struggle and hardship” is that unconsciously it keeps you in a state of being hyper-mobilized. Being truly relaxed is scary business for those of us with deeper childhood wounds. As much as we might crave serenity, it is truly unnerving not to be in a constant state of being on guard. Even though our conscious mind might hate it, the unconscious mind feels safe there. That was how we coped with our helplessness and ensuing terror. We were always on, so to speak. That is not a switch we can turn off. It takes tremendous work and conscious awareness to ease out of that habit.
I do not know any therapists that you can work with regarding shadow work. But I would advise that you start some kind of daily writing practice that has to do with the little boy and his emotions. Not the adult and his sharp intellect, that is the defense mechanism that will keep the emotions at bay. Really get in touch with that part. And slow down, both inside and outside.