Last week I wrote to you about how gratitude can be a life raft in the middle of adversity. Specifically, I wrote to you about the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic knowing so many of us are exhausted. I hope that shifting to a mindset of gratitude was able to help you find a little joy last week as our nation’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise. I know firsthand, outside of the pandemic, how hard it is to find gratitude during pain. I also know firsthand that it is life-saving. I’d like to tell you more.
Fear or Love?
Around seven years ago I was new to running a business and had been single for a bit. During that time I was settling into my path. This was the beginning of building a spiritual mindset that still carries me today. Gabrielle Bernstein is a spiritual leader I followed who taught (and still teaches) about enlightenment. In her work, Gabrielle guides her readers through their egos back into their spirits. She encourages others to drop fear and embrace radical self-love. It is a hard and worthwhile journey I promise you.
Back to me. At the time, I was light, joyful, and a little naive, if you will. I did give myself a piece of advice that was worth remembering; “Jessie, my love, there is fear and there is love. Both are hungry wolves within your soul-chose wisely which wolf you feed.” Even today, with much more at stake, I often center with this teaching and remember to lean into love, even when fear seeps in.
The Wolves of Fear
I would like to tell you that as I aged into my 30s I became wiser and kinder, that I was a cocoon that turned into a butterfly on my way to full enlightenment. I was not. I was breaking from the inside out. You see, in believing that love conquers all, I got married very quickly after my stint as a single woman. Within one week of becoming a married woman, my ex-husband changed his behavior towards me.
Five years later, in the office of a trauma counselor, I realized that I had experienced domestic abuse. 5 years of domestic abuse. It was only through the work of an amazing trauma team that I was able to quiet the fear, to rest the wolf. Yet, as I progressed through treatment, it was as though new wolves were growling to be fed.
To begin, I had just moved back home to Ohio. I had grown up incredibly close to my father’s family. I knew my family and I approached the world differently but I still loved them despite our differing beliefs. What I was unprepared for was what came when I opened up to my family about my experience of domestic abuse and what would come next.
Feeding the Wolves
Within two weeks of opening up to my family about my experience with domestic abuse, my father’s family decided to side with my abuser because I was not submitting to my husband. I was told by a cousin I loved dearly that because I wasn’t being physically beaten that I was making it up. When my wonderful, kind, and bright father stood up for me, one of my uncles explained that an exorcism might be helpful (seriously). Another uncle, my favorite, sent me information on a retreat I could attend to learn my role as a wife so that God would restore my marriage (seriously).
In leaning into my family I was exposed to a radical belief system that men are the head of the household and strong women need only to submit to make any abuse stop. To this day my ex-husband spends time with my father’s family and to this day my young sons are exposed to them on a regular basis. I just tell my little lions, “boys and girls are the same,” to hopefully plant the seed of equality amongst a field of bigotry.
You may wonder why I haven’t shared this before or why I am sharing it with you now. I’ll tell you. I didn’t share this earlier because I was afraid of the court system. I thought if I spoke out it would be used against me. I guess it still might. I’m just not feeding the wolf of fear today. I am sharing it with you now because I want to let you know that I’m not just talking, I’m action. You see, leaving domestic abuse and going through a divorce combined with the exposure of and loss of a portion of my family is a pain I never saw myself dealing with.
Yet here I am on a Monday morning, snuggled with my dogs, happily planning a quiet day on my farm. How? I remembered my own wisdom and, through the healing I embraced last winter, I also embraced gratitude. My experience with domestic abuse and divorce is just that, an experience. I got out and found that the most incredible family and friends were standing alongside me. They reminded me every day I was worthy and reflected love to me unconditionally until I was able to slowly feed my own wolf of love.
I’ve changed my own language from what I’ve lost to what I’ve gained. I haven’t lost a marriage, I’ve gained freedom. I haven’t lost a family, I found my true family. I haven’t lost myself, I’ve found her.
In shifting to a daily practice of gratitude I am not able to stop pain from happening and I am not totally free of fear. Remember the crowds in the stands? They can be hateful and loud. It hurts even more when a portion of the crowd shares your DNA. At least for me, it did. But outside of that noise is peace and knowledge that every human life matters, including mine. I am able to wipe the dust off my knees from whatever battle is ahead and bow in gratitude to the people standing beside me.
I do not know what pain outside of the COVID-19 pandemic you might be facing. But this I know to be true: love is stronger than fear. Dig deep into your soul and coax that darling wolf of love out. If you can’t feed her yet let others help, then say thank you.
The world will always bring adversity but your heart will always offer you love.
In gratitude to my family, friends, and employees for reminding me of who I am.
If you are experiencing domestic violence or abuse speak up, reach out, get out.
Over the past several weeks I’ve noticed a recurring topic of conversation within my tribe; “I’m exhausted from the last year and a half.” Each person that I speak with is talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and is in disbelief this is still our life. I keenly remember the start of the pandemic and how high all our emotions were running in fear of a threatening virus entering our world.
To still be dealing with that same stressor, with case numbers approaching levels from a year ago, exhaustion is an apt way of stating how we all feel. We’re not just dealing with a virus, we’re dealing with living our lives through an active, dangerous virus.
Trying to Find Peace During the Pandemic
With no end in sight, it’s hard to feel chipper and happy, let alone grounded. Peace can feel far away. I’ve heard a lot of “rinse, lather, repeat,” and “same shit, different day” comments in reference to what we are all walking through right now.
In the early days of the pandemic, Brene Brown spoke on her podcast, “Unlocking Us,” that she was just waiting for a checklist of what to do and once she had the checklist her recovering perfectionist could rest. Well, Brene, we have our checklist and the treatment fidelity is low. In scientific terms, this means we are not near containing the virus, which is incredibly frustrating.
As the virus carries on in all of our personal lives it can start to feel hopeless. The heart of the matter is this; we can provide good, accurate information and it’s up to each and every one of us to choose to follow it or not. We simply cannot control other people’s behavior.
Thinking About Others
I am going to pause here to let you know that not being able to convince a person to make a logical, kind decision (even in non-pandemic times) has been the bane of my existence. Truly. I have an aunt and sister who operate the same way. We see the systems for what they are. We see human life as incredibly worthy of equality and get frustrated (OK, sometimes livid) when decisions are made that move us away from equality and logic.
I am still on a journey of realizing that no matter how much I believe in making kind decisions that I cannot control other people and make them drink my preferred brand of logical, kind Kool-Aid. People are, in fact, allowed to make their own decisions and it’s incredibly frustrating when those decisions can potentially cause harm to others (please see the ongoing pandemic).
In light of being given a magical wand of authority, what spell could we possibly conjure in the midst of this climate of adversity? What can we do when a real stressor or danger is presented day after day with high and divisive emotions being publically shared?
It is easy to lash out at others, question their beliefs, invoke shame, or simply shut down into our own little world. I have been guilty of both at times. Neither has provided any long-lasting relief. But something else has and I’d like to share it with you.
An Attitude of Gratitude
I’ve recently written that I have been in the process of divorce, which is stressful enough by itself. The stress from the divorce on top of the pandemic took me to my limit. Early on I started following the work of Lee Harris. At the time I did not have more good days than bad, quite the opposite. Lee recommended a gratitude journal as part of a healing journey.
At first, this suggestion annoyed me. I’ve followed many different spiritual teachers for well over a decade and thought to myself, “I know, I know–an attitude of gratitude.” It felt like one more thing was being added to my checklist while my mindset was basically “what is there to be grateful for as my world is burning down?”
Lee gave a scientific reason, which at the time was just enough, that convinced me to begrudgingly start a gratitude journal. Lee explained that when you have experienced trauma your neurochemistry is depleted and leans more towards negative emotions. He went on to explain that writing five gratitude statements a day can change your brain chemistry. I was in need of rewiring and had already started acupuncture to rewire trauma inside my body. It felt right to rewire my mind so I started the journal.
At first, I wrote very small things like “I’m grateful for a Henry kiss goodnight,” “I’m grateful for Declan belly laughs,” and “I’m grateful for a dinner with my three boys.” I wrote moments each day that started to become a tiny light. As I leaned into this tiny light, I truly did begin to see more things to be grateful for regardless of the world around me.
I was able to move outside of the tiny gratitudes and see bigger things to be grateful for; a huge one being the incredible people that surround me. I call them my tribe but my family and friends are unmatched in their ever-present love of me (and my love for them). I am a lucky woman. In writing gratitude statements I was able to see that even when the world looks like it’s burning down around you, there is still more good than bad. Truly.
Staying Positive & Looking at the Good
My own external circumstances have not changed. I am still living in a pandemic and still dealing with a divorce while recovering from domestic abuse. I am still running a company during a pandemic. I cannot speed up any external circumstances beyond my control. They will stay, just as yours will stay.
I do not know when the pandemic will end. What I do know is that we can take care of our own hearts and minds even in stressful times. Especially in stressful times. I know what it feels like to want to wrap yourself in a blanket and cry the day away. I know what it feels like to scream in frustration at the top of your lungs. It’s OK to ride these feelings out. As they subside noticing what was beside you all along will shift your internal world. I promise.
The world outside is messy but I bet you have a few things to be grateful for. So, maybe even today, instead of arguing with someone for the millionth time about your stance on (masks, vaccines, the economy, etc) you could take a deep breath and call your mom. Tell her you love her. Can’t talk to your mom? That’s OK, call dad, a sister, a brother–make a phone call to someone you love. Say thank you. Then pick up the pen and find what you’re truly grateful for.
Over the past several months I have been writing about moving through anger while I’m doing it myself. Last week I gave you a glimpse into finding peace amidst adversity. The sun peeking through the dark forest, if you will. Personally, it is knowing the sun always rises that allows me to place my hands on the dark, damp, leaves of the forest and breathe in relief during pain.
As humans, we are conditioned to avoid pain for our own survival. As mammals, we have genetic coding to literally keep us alive. Yet as we developed as a social species and created hierarchies we also developed a great big lie (okay, many great big lies). The specific lie I’m writing about now is that the goal of life is to be happy and that happiness is obtained by achieving external desires.
The forever-running list of “if I just have, look, get, or accomplish I will be happy” purrs in far too many minds. It’s poison looping within our own minds telling us to escape anything that feels unhappy, anything that feels painful. I believe this is why so many of us choose what is wrong for us over what is right. Immediate escape to happiness over a lifetime of hard, right choices.
But what if we learned to choose differently? What if we chose to see pain as a powerful teacher and not something to fear? Pain as a phase and not a state of being? Pain as part of the human experience that allows us to live a fully abundant life? Not fully happy, but fully alive.
The Big Lie
I’ve struggled with this lie many times over my lifetime. Personally, I was not chasing external belongings but belonging itself. From this, I created a narrative of not wanting to do anything that caused harm to another person even if that person was hurting me. I thought by saying, “yes,” all of the time I could keep others happy and if they were happy we would all be connected and I would belong.
Then, when I belonged, I would be happy. I was a belonging junkie if you will. It took a very serious and dangerous situation in my own life to realize that I was dying from my own addiction to belonging. This situation forced me to face the pain of saying, “no,” even when it caused hurt to another person in order to truly find belonging in my own heart.
Saying what is right for yourself can be incredibly painful. It’s so easy to get lost in what is right for everyone else. Remember that part about humans being social animals? We genetically don’t just avoid pain; we also look for companionship, for our tribe. Sometimes we desperately want our tribe to be people who were never truly meant for us. Losing them is hard. Sometimes our own limits and boundaries feel life-threatening to those we love.
Don’t Lie to Yourself
I gently think of parents of a child struggling with addiction. You love your child yet through your love you have to let them go as you hold boundaries set by recovery teams. In less severe cases I believe all parents hold boundaries that can feel uncomfortable towards their own children.
Outside of parenthood, we all have a set of boundaries that protect our sacred selves. Boundaries are the lifeboat in the storm of life. The little raft you hold onto as the pain crashes around you and keeps you afloat until you wash up onto the shore of your next chapter.
By choosing what is right for yourself you must be willing to lose everything the world says is right in order to be strong and wise enough to choose for yourself. Each decision that is right for your own heart is one wave closer to the shore. As you lift your weary head, look around, and start to swim towards the shore you will see some people floating behind you while those who have always been by your side are applauding from the shore.
Choosing what is right for you can be easy at times. Other times it will feel like it’s ripping your soul in two. Perhaps it is the ripping that creates the space for growth. Each right (and hard) decision is the only way to live the life you were born to live. Life isn’t about being happy and comfortable all the time. The abundance of human emotions and spirit are all-wise councils. I’m not sure how happiness alone has sat on the throne for so long.
Authenticity is knocking and she wants her seat back.
Over the course of the past several months, I’ve filled my audible account with one healing book after another. If you scroll through it you’ll see writers who supported me as I emotionally held my own heart through the grief and reality I was facing. I hope someday my writing and work can do the same for others.
There are so many inspirational and wise writers, yet one book, Whole Again, by Jackson Mackenzie, gave me a piece of wisdom that helped me understand and unpack much of the shame, guilt, anger, and rage I was feeling. I’d like to share because perhaps the wisdom I learned from Jackson will poke a hole of light in the darknesses another sister or brother is walking.
Whole Again & Judgment
The self-judgment and high expectations I impose on myself have been lifelong struggles. Throughout the years, when something is not working, my first response is to go inward and see what I can change. I also look outward to research because I love knowledge and research. I was learning (still learning) to put down my tendency to inflict self-judgment but when I was facing a divorce I couldn’t resist. I was analyzing my own behavior to try and see what, if anything, I had done so incredibly wrong to have lived through domestic abuse.
To the other victims or survivors out there this one’s for you.
In his book, Whole Again, Jackson recalls a child being punched, kicked, and hit by a school bully. The child who is being hit screams out, lashes out, fights back, and then goes home and thinks “what type of person am I to hit another?” The child hurting them is not having that dialogue with themselves; they are still stuck in taking their anger out on others. This was a game-changing piece for me.
Self-Judgment and You
You see I am not a child being bullied but I have lived through some very unkind relationships. In these relationships when anger, guilt, shame, and the like were taken out on me I was often not very graceful about when I responded. I think many of you have seen the video where I stormed the football field in my new town because my son was facing bullying. I exploded and to this day am a person that perhaps makes that football team uncomfortable. For a long while, I judged myself for that explosion. Now I give myself grace. My son did not deserve to be faced with racism, and my response was valid regardless of its own lack of grace.
Not giving myself grace is also true looking back at my own behavior when I was being abused. This may be true of your behavior if you were or are being abused. My darling loves, when someone is punching you (literally or figuratively) you cannot judge yourself for how you respond. If a person is tied to the stake and fire is sizzling at their feet would you ask them not to scream? No, you are not made to burn and you will scream to the skies.
Self-Judgment & Parenthood
Shifting gears I often hear parents asking if they are good enough in the early days of parenthood. Glennon Doyle reinforces that even by asking that question you are in fact a good parent because people who are not good parents never even consider the question. I have a tattoo (one of many) of the word enough on my right wrist to remind me of this. I am enough. And it is enough.
If we look at this example and apply it to unhealthy relationships and social encounters where you are asking yourself, “was I kind enough,” “did I mess it up again?” Just by asking those questions, you are announcing to yourself that you are a good person. People who are hurting other people are not asking themselves these questions. I hope someday they will but time and fate decide that not me.
I have personally spent a lifetime criticizing my own behavior to make sure that I’m showing up as my best self, that criticism has taken me nowhere but to stress. That criticism was a detour over witnessing what was really happening; abuse. If you are there, wondering what you are doing wrong because of how another person is treating you the answer is this; not a goddamn thing.
Don’t Criticize Yourself When You Think You May Be in an Abusive Situation
If you are in the middle of abuse you might still be screaming at the stake. Scream. It’s OK. I know it hurts. But after you scream, gather the strength you need to gain the knowledge, boundaries, and self-love to stay off the stake. You are not responsible for how others treat you, you are responsible for how you treat yourself.
Choose kindness, choose respect, and tell those harming you to leave. If they return, let it be with kindness and in their time, not yours. You might think you are losing everything but baby, you are gaining your life.
What do you do with anger that’s real? Anger that will burn cities and clear anything and everything in its path? Where did it come from and why is it here?
The very short answer is anger feels good in the moment–it’s the aftershocks that are damaging if they are unleashed without guidance. Anger is a release of pent-up emotions that have no direction to go. The ensuing explosion unleashes this anger and gives us a false pretense of power. Luckily, most of us feel horrible when we get this spot but there are people who abuse others during periods of anger.
Anger & Abuse
For those of you who abuse other people with your anger, know this: there is fear, hurt, shame, guilt, sadness, grief, and other emotions that lie just beneath your anger. While your explosions and “wins” over others may feel like triumphs they are in fact a loss.
When you give in to your anger you abandon yourself and your other emotions. You are also hurting others to make yourself feel better. This is never OK. Not ever. You can heal at any time by choosing to stop hurting others and tend to your wounds.
Onto the rest of us.
Coping with Anger
If you wield your anger like a weapon then feel guilt, shame, or other emotions after an outburst, you are experiencing what most of us experience. We all experience this at some point–no human is perfect (I promise).
Anger is a messenger that you have a lot going on and are either not taking the best care of yourself or are faced with a very challenging situation in life. Anger lets us know that we need love and care. Anger tells us to look at our brave hearts, kind souls, and human feelings and provide care.
Finding the Cause of Anger
Last week I wrote to you about rage. Rage, like anger, is a powerful emotion. When rage is the messenger and not the driver it can be destructive beyond measure. Without direction anger and rage are destructive to you, me, and everyone in our path.
After my first son, Henry, was born I suffered from postpartum depression which was exacerbated by domestic abuse. I don’t have words for the darkness I walked through during that time. I also don’t have words for the shining light of love I found in my son.
I fought my way through postpartum depression with therapy, medication, and a loving community. At the time, I still was not able to identify I was living in domestic abuse. When my son Declan was born less than two years later I was determined to avoid suffering from postpartum depression again.
Looking back at my pregnancy and the birth of my second son is bittersweet because the work and self-care I put in were incredible. None of it involved his father, other than my request to “not attack me while I have the baby.” It didn’t work. What worked was asking my friends and family to wrap me in support, encapsulating my placenta, and taking real maternity leave. I thought I had it down!
This is the point when I started to feel anger, shortly followed by rage.
Avoiding Manifestations of Anger
I remember being stumped when I thought about why I was so angry after my six-week check-up. I am not a quick-to-anger person unless I witness serious injustice. I asked my wonderful OBGYN, who supported me through both births, why I felt anger? She laughed, “you have two children under 2, this is normal!”
While I did not like this answer she was totally right. Henry and I had gotten into our groove over the past 20 months. I knew how to take care of the two of us, but caring for two babies changed our routine. I was also always walking on pins and needles during my previous marriage. My nerves were thin and my children were loud. I was sleep-deprived, nursing, and doing almost all of it on my own. Something felt like it had to give.
Anger told me I needed to find a way to take care of myself so I could cool down as a mama. I felt extreme guilt (as we all do) when I would lose it with my boys. I read this awesome book, How to Stop Losing Your Shit With Your Kids, and started a mom-tribe book club where we all applied the practices of the book while supporting each other as mamas.
I would be remiss to not mention the asshole things kids do sometimes. God I love them and, yes, they are all limbic systems, but this is so maddening when they have no survival instincts.
Not Losing Yourself to Anger
I want to let everyone know that anger is completely normal if you are going through early motherhood while living with domestic abuse. If you let the anger take over, however, you will spend most of early motherhood lost in its grasp. If I had totally given into anger I would have missed so many moments with my sons simply because I was depleted.
Now, two years later, while I still have my moments (don’t we all? Mamas?) I also know when I feel anger around the boys, what I really need is a quiet minute and to be present with them. I don’t always parent perfectly (OK, almost never) but ‘reset time’ only takes a few minutes and prevents anger from dominating my parenting, period. All because I listened to what the topography of my anger map was telling me.
Anger still comes for me, as does rage. When I see injustice against others, my children, or myself I can’t begin to explain the flames that rise within my heart. I do know that I unequivocally do not want to hurt another being. The quick release of lashing out in anger can cause long-lasting damage.
Channel Your Rage to be Productive
Anger can feel powerful. All-encompassing anger feels like it can get you anything you desire. I can promise you that this is a lie. What anger is really telling you is to pay attention to your own heart and world so that you can right a wrong. That wrong can either be how you’re caring for yourself (postpartum depression care or lack thereof) or how others are treating you (leaving domestic abuse).
If we choose to listen to anger and rage, rather than act on them immediately, we can learn they can be some of the wisest guides in our lives. Anger and rage tell us what needs to be corrected. Love tells us how to correct it.
You and I can use this wise messenger to become a warrior of love, create the lives we want to live, and build the better world we all envision. Don’t burn it down. Build it up.