I've listened to the most recent episode of NPR's Invisibilia, The Problem with the Solution, three times in three days, crying a little less - and understanding a little more - each time I listen. I believe the emotional impact stems from my experience as a son, a husband, a father and a friend ... and more specifically, how "expressed emotions" - criticism, hostility and emotional over-involvement (essentially, expressions of non-acceptance) - have affected me and those I love.
The Invisibilia story focuses on mental illness, and how the traditional American mindset of wanting to fix problems can be counterproductive in dealing with people who have mental illness, i.e., the problem is [our preoccupation with] the solution. In the town of Geel, Belgium, people with mental illness are boarded by townspeople for, on average, 28 years. Studies have shown that people with mental illness who are placed in community settings (like Geel) after treatment are less likely to relapse than when they return home to live with their own families. This is likely due - in part - to the fact that host families are not related to their boarders, and are thus not attached to or over-involved in fixing or curing their boarders' mental illness. Instead, the boarders are accepted as they are.
As a resident of the Broadway Housing Communities - a project for recreating the culture of Geel in America - so aptly noted in an Invisibilia interiew, "Everybody has a touch of mental illness". Everyone I know has at least gone through periods where they have experienced "an unhealthy condition of body or mind", and many of those I know best have suffered a great deal from chronic unhealthy thoughts and emotions. In fact, it is the revelation of sufferings - and the sharing of how we are working through some of these unhealthy thoughts and emotions - that have formed the basis of the strong bonds I feel with my closest friends. And I have a growing appreciation for the suffering experienced by people I don't know well, and the way that suffering underlies some of the behaviors I find hardest to accept. As William Wordsworth observed:
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
I don't mean to equate the suffering of what some call "the worried well" with the suffering of those with serious schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other types of mental illness highlighted in the Invisibilia story. I just want to say I can relate to suffering emanating from chronic unhealthy thoughts and emotions ... and to the effect of acceptance vs. intervention on that suffering.
I believe a great deal of suffering is caused by emotional over-involvement, and the various verbal and non-verbal ways that family members - especially parents (or grandparents) - try to "improve" us.
Invisibilia co-host Lulu Miller, who included her oldest sister's mental illness - and her family's response to it - as a recurrent theme throughout the story, noted that her older sister "had been quietly accepting this message that she was somehow not good enough" throughout her childhood, and the part that breaks me down and gets me sobbing every time (even now, simply copying and pasting the following text from the show transcript), is her father's candid admission of insufficient empathy in dealing with his oldeest daughter:
She was 2 or 3. And she was having a huge freak out at 3 in the morning, just screaming and yelling in her bed. And I went in there, and I got angry at her. And I sat on her bed, and I was trying to calm her down. And I was sort of holding her shoulders, and I got angry at her. I said stop it, stop it. And I remember in her tears - as I was getting angrier, in her tears, she kept saying I can't help it. I can't help it. And I didn't hear that. It's - it's something I will always regret that my feeling anger instead of empathy - didn't know what I was doing as a father.
This feeling of insufficiency resonates deeply with me, and not just in my role as a father. If I had to single out the unhealthy thought that has created the most emotional suffering throughout my life, it is that I am not good enough. I have written before about my theory of how this inner conviction of unworthiness evolved; here, I'll simply note that I trace part of the origins partly to the effects of growing up in a household in which a family member suffered from mental illness - my father's alcoholism - and partly to the effects of my maternal grandfather's efforts to "improve" me through what I now recognize as "expressed emotions".
As an adult, I have found that some of my wife's well-intentioned efforts to "improve" me have inadvertently only served to deepen the void, and I am sure some of my efforts to "improve" her have had similar unintended consequences, especially when expressed with anger rather than empathy. I know both of our children have suffered from some of their parents' efforts to "improve" them. My son has confirmed that the two times that I exploded in anger toward him - rather than opening to empathy for his underlying suffering that gave rise to the behaviors to which I was reacting - both had a significant negative impact on him, and at least one of my daughter's lingering emotional wounds was inflicted by an angry expression of parental disapproval intended to "improve" her.
Which leads me to wonder whether acceptance always trumps intervention when interacting with family members. We naturally want our spouses and children to be the best they can be, and part of the role of a parent is to teach our children how to thrive. That said, I believe that "expressed emotions" (as defined above) are always harmful to both the senders and receivers of the expressions. I suppose that there are ways to encourage "improvement" that do not involve criticism, hostility or emotional over-involvement - the improv comedy practice of using "yes, and ..." rather than "yes, but ..." come to mind - but and in interpersonal interactions, I find it challenging to seek or promote improvement in another person without at least implying that someone is not good enough. Amid my increasing uncertainty, I am more and more inclined to err in the direction of acceptance rather than intervention.
In my journey toward greater acceptance, I have encountered a number of other sources of inspiration that are well aligned with the wisdom expressed in the Invisibilia episode. Before closing, I want to share a few of these here.
Tara Brach teaches that one of the ways that we perpetuate the trance of unworthiness is by focusing on the belief that something is wrong, something is missing, and the way to break out of this trance is to embrace a radical acceptance of ourselves and others.
Both our upbringing and our culture provide the immediate breeding ground for this contemporary epidemic of feeling deficient and unworthy. Many of us have grown up with parents who gave us messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too demanding, shy or loud. An indirect but insidious message for many has been, “Don’t be needy.” Because our culture so values independence, self-reliance and strength, even the word needy evokes shame. To be considered as needy is utterly demeaning, contemptible. And yet, we all have needs—physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. So the basic message is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.”
Meditation practices are a form of spiritual reparenting. We are transforming these deeply rooted patterns of inner relating by learning to bring mindfulness and compassion to our life. An open and accepting attention is radical because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess what is happening as wrong. We are deconditioning the habit of turning against ourselves, discovering that in this moment’s experience nothing is missing or wrong.
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
And this theme of acceptance is further elaborated in her Prelude to her second book, The Dance:
What if there is no need to change, no need to try and transform yourself into someone who is more compassionate, more present, more loving or wise?
How would this effect all the places in your life where you are endlessly trying to be better?
What if the task is simply to unfold, to become who you already are in your essential nature- gentle, compassionate and capable of living fully and passionately present?
How would this effect how you feel when you wake up in the morning?
What if who you essentially are right now is all that you are ever going to be?
How would this effect how you feel about your future?
What if the essence of who you are and always have been is enough?
There are many other inspiring invitations to practice greater acceptance, but I'll allow myself just one more: Brene Brown's TEDxHouston talk on Wholeheartedness, which evoked a similar response as the Invisibilia episode (I watched the video three times in the span of a few days, each time revealing another layer of deeper emotional resonance and meaning).
The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this "I'm not good enough," -- which, we all know that feeling: "I'm not blank enough. I'm not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough." The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.
when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough" ... then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.
And so, at least in this moment, the kindness and gentleness in me sees the kindness and gentleness in you. Namaste.