Yesterday, my therapist and I spoke about control. Specifically, the desire to control people and things outside ourselves. She said exactly what every mental health professional and book I’ve ever come across has said–that the only thing in this world we can control is ourselves. But then she added something I’d heard, before, but never quite understood. She said that when we feel fear, it is because we do not TRUST OURSELVES. That fear is a lack of confidence in our own ability to manage the things that happen or might happen to us.

She went on to say that this lack of confidence is the root of all anxiety. That those of us who suffer with anxiety are constantly looking to control everything external about our lives, because we are afraid that if the thing we deem bad or scary happens to us we will not be able to handle it.

“Every fear has a root,” she said. “Our job is to find that root, because once we find it, we can then address the core need that drives the fear.”

For instance, I struggle with “FOMO” (fear of missing out.) Whenever my partner goes places and does things without me, I become anxious and afraid. But that fear, like every fear, has a root—it’s not about my partner doing things without me, it’s about the fact that somewhere along the way I learned that others going and doing things without me equaled rejection and abandonment. So my core need is to belong and my fear is a lack of confidence in my ability to handle rejection and abandonment.

Here’s the amazing thing about this:

If I walk the fear backward, I eventually get to the root of my own lack of confidence, and that is something within my power to change. To give an easy example, (though not one I’m currently struggling with) if I walk backward through the fear, the statement: “I am afraid my partner will cheat on me,” eventually becomes: “I am afraid of rejection, losing my partner, and losing trust” which eventually becomes “I am afraid that I cannot get over rejection, I cannot get over losing my partner, and I do not know how to trust once trust is broken.”

The difference might seem slight, but it changes everything. In the first statement (where most of us usually stop), the only possible action I have to prevent my fear from becoming a reality is to constantly monitor my partner for signs of cheating and try to control their behavior in an effort to make sure that never happens. With the last statement, however, the solution can be found within myself. I can learn how to handle rejection in appropriate, healthy ways; get over loss; and trust again, even after heartbreak.

And in that tiny, tiny shift, the world suddenly looks a little less scary. I may not yet know how to trust again if my partner cheats on me, but I can learn. And in that, there is a tremendous amount of peace. My job becomes less about making sure nothing “bad” ever happens, and more about making sure I can handle whatever happens. Whether it’s the loss of a home, a job, a relationship, physical health, or the failure of achieving a lifetime goal, my focus changes from making sure these things never happen to building the skills and acquiring the tools necessary to become confident in my ability to travel successfully through everything that comes my way. As Glennon Doyle once said:

“Every time I’ve walked through the mess that I thought would burn me up, I’ve come through unscathed. And after doing this often enough you learn that you can go through anything. The secret is not that I have to avoid the fires, but that the fires will never burn me up.

I have learned that I am fireproof.”

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Breadcrumbs Home

In Jordan Peterson’s book “Beyond Order, 12 More Rules for Life,” he lists rule number two as:

“Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.”

Peterson asks the question “who could you be, if you were everything you could conceivably be?” He makes the point that we are all compelled forward by things that inexplicably grip our attention. He likens these things to lamps along a dark path—part of our unconscious processes which serve to develop our spirits and bring us into the life we are meant to live. He writes: “You do not choose what interests you. It chooses you. Something manifests itself out of the darkness as compelling, as worth living for. Following that, something else moves us further down the road to the next meaningful thing, and so it goes. The adventure of our lives.”

Martha Beck says something similar in her book The Way of Integrity: “Every single choice is a chance to turn toward the life you really want.”

Glennon Doyle calls this “following the ‘next right step.”

Anne Lamott likens it to driving through a fog at night: We can only see as far as the headlights, but we can make it all the way home that way.

What is the life I really want? For almost a year now, I have struggled with this question. I have allowed what others wanted for me, or what others told me I ought to want, to throw me off balance and set me off track. I have followed the voices of those around me–voices of those I love, voices of those I trust, voices of those who have sincerely had my best interests in mind–but whose voices WERE NOT MY OWN. Until recently, when I looked up and found myself deeply lost inside what Martha Beck calls “The Dark Wood of Error.”

Suddenly, I realized that I’d lost touch of my OWN voice, that deep “knowing” that has been guiding me for the past three years. I’d lost my peace, my serenity, even, at times, my capacity for basic human kindness. This realization terrified me. I told someone recently that I feel lately like every single decision I make is the wrong one. And I realize now that this feeling comes from the fact that for the past year, many of my decisions have not been my own.

There is only one way I know to move out of this “dark wood”: One step, one choice, one decision at a time. One slight move toward the life I want. One tiny turn toward the things that inspire me, resonate with me, and bring me joy. One breadcrumb after another until I find my way home again. Regardless of what anyone else thinks. Regardless of how anyone else responds. As Beck writes, and I have found to be true in my own life, “every single choice is a chance to turn toward the life you really want. Repeatedly putting a little less time into what you don’t love, and a little more into what you do love, is your next step in the way of integrity.”

What does this mean for me? It means I choose my own path, which will, by necessity, look different than anyone else’s. It means I suffer the consequences of other people’s judgment. It means I may, and probably will, lose people along the way. It means, as Heidi Priebe wrote in her essay, You Should Choose the Lifestyle You Want Over the Person You Want, “I throw myself into the heart of possibility instead of staying comfortably settled inside of certainty. Because I owe it to myself to do so. I owe it to myself to live the greatest life I’m capable of living.”

Even if that means I have to live it alone.

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What you need to know about your gaslighting loved one

My therapist has spoken to me about “gaslighting” over the last few months, because I have not only been the recipient of this behavior throughout my life, I have also been the instigator. The problem is: until recently, no matter how often he brought it up, I just couldn’t recognize it. I blame this on the definition:

Gaslighting: To manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.

When I read “questioning their own sanity,” I think of myself questioning some big over-arching theme in my life. As this has never happened to me, I assume I have never been gaslighted. What has never occurred to me until recently, though, is that if someone tells me I am a horrible daughter, friend, or partner because I’m not doing what they want me to do, and that makes me question whether I am a good daughter, friend, or partner, I am being gaslighted.
Second, and most importantly for this article, is the concept of manipulation. The type of manipulation that gaslighters engage in is considered psychologically abusive. This makes it almost impossible to believe that someone we love—someone we know to be a GOOD person—could possibly be gaslighting us.

But they can. And they do. Even your spouse. Even your parent (I think it’s especially difficult to recognize this behavior in a parent.)

Because those of us who engage in gaslighting behaviors (I’m talking about me, here) don’t see the behavior as manipulation. You see, for us, the world is a terrifying place. We live our lives in fear of rejection and abandonment, and, like the trauma survivor with PTSD, we truly do think every loud “noise” (a missed phone call, a forgotten kiss good morning, a visit to your parents without us) is a threat—namely, evidence of your rejection of us. According to our understanding, there is no other possible reason for your behavior other than the one we’ve assigned to it (“you don’t care about my feelings,” for instance.) We literally cannot see that it is possible for you to care about our feelings and do the things that scare us. This is beyond our comprehension. So when we manipulate you in ways that cause you to question yourself (ie. “Is she right? Am I not caring about her feelings right now?”), it’s because we truly believe what we are saying.

But there is hope if you love a gaslighter.

First, know that we aren’t necessarily narcissistic. While “narcissism” and “gaslighting” often go hand in hand, the biggest indicator of narcissism is a lack of empathy. If your gaslighting partner/friend/parent is capable of showing empathy this means that, at least in some cases, they will listen to you… eventually. Second, try to remember that we’re not accusing you of things because we’re trying to make you do something (actually, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, we just don’t see it in the moment), we’re accusing you of things we truly believe are happening. Our minds simply cannot come up with any other interpretation of the events that triggered us. We feel deeply, deeply insecure and scared almost all the time, and this can completely skew our perception of the world.

So how do you deal with this?

First, become extremely aware. Any time we start making statements that express your internal state instead our own (“You’re so selfish,” “You don’t care about my feelings,” “I guess that’s more important than me,”) or statements that attack your character (“What kind of person would do that?” “You don’t know anything,” “You have no shame,”) you are being gaslighted. The thing to do then is shut the conversation down IMMEDIATELY. You will get nowhere with us in that moment. Give us some time alone (possibly forced time alone, through hanging up the phone or leaving the house) to get our heart rates down, and then come back to the conversation. Remind us that our job is to explore our own feelings and not judge yours. This process may need to be repeated several times before we get it and are ready to talk in a productive way.

Second, validate our feelings. Please know that our feelings are very, very real and very, very scary to us. When I say “I feel like you don’t love me” please do not say “oh my god, that’s ridiculous!” This is not at all helpful and only adds shame to the negative turmoil of emotions already going on inside. Instead, tell me you understand, remind me of your love, and then point out evidence of this that I am overlooking “Baby, we had a great night last night, remember how connected we were? Do you really think that I stopped loving you this morning, just because I didn’t kiss you goodbye?” (Yes, yes I do, in that moment when I’m terrified. But if we’ve taken the time out that we need, chances are my rational brain is now back in the drivers seat, and I know this thought doesn’t make sense.)

Third, walk us through our story. We are freaking out because we believe that the action you are taking is a threat to our belonging, and we need you to help us understand how you can do this thing and still love and care about our feelings. Help us understand why it is important to you. Help us understand why you need to do it.

This is not a quick, easy process. These steps may need to be repeated many times before we are finally able to see things as they really are (and some of us may never get there.) But know this: THE MOST DANGEROUS THING YOU CAN DO IS GIVE IN, as this only serves to reinforce the behavior. As a gaslighter, I am a master at getting what I want—and, again, this is not because I’m a terrible person, but because it has worked for me so often in the past that I have learned exactly which buttons to push and exactly how hard. I’m not saying there is never a place for compromise, or even for doing what I ask you to do, but the compromise must happen after a productive conversation and must feel okay to you and not rob you of something you want or need in your life.

At the end of the day, know that YOU HAVE THE RIGHT to live your life in a way that feels right to you. And that means going where you want and doing what you want and seeing who you want. That’s not to say that compromise is never necessary, but when all is said and done, you have a responsibility to yourself—and yourself alone—for the kind of life you want to live. Remember that no one can accurately judge your love for them, because your love—if it is true, free love—will manifest itself within the parameters of who you are and how you think and feel and navigate the world.

You can love someone AND say no.

Know that this truth is very, very, very difficult for those of us with deep insecurities to accept. Please be patient with us. And seek professional help. Most of us are good people who have experienced a great deal of trauma in our lives and we are doing the best we can. Stand firmly in compassion. Some of us do get better.


NOTE: While it’s true that some of us get better, I also want to make it very, very clear that most, unfortunately, do NOT. Gaslighting is a serious and abusive behavior that can ONLY be overcome through self-awareness, therapy, and extremely hard work. Make no mistake: the percentage of people who are able to recover and learn new ways of coping is very, very small. What I have written here are insights from my own life, but I am not a professional. If you are in a relationship with someone who participates in this behavior, it is extremely important that you receive help from a professional therapist trained in this field.

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Turtle Shell Security

My therapist recently told me that it is not within my power to make other people feel safe and that safety is something we must each create for ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, lately, especially as it relates to some of my destructive patterns within relationships.

Studies have shown that our feelings of safety are developed when we are very young. If parents manage to create a safe environment for their children and maintain a proper bond with them, those children will eventually come to view the world as a safe place and relate to it as such. (In psychological circles, this is defined as Secure Attachment.) This feeling of safety becomes a core part of who that person is just as solidly as a shell is part of a turtle.

But if we do not have that—if our child selves are not bonded with our caregivers or kept safe by the people who are supposed to keep us safe—we never develop this core sense of safety. As adults, biologically driven by the need to feel safe, we spend our lives searching for it, trying on this relationship and that relationship, this environment and that environment, this new thing and that new thing, all in an effort to find safety in the same way a shell-less turtle might try to squeeze himself into a conch shell. But the thing about turtles is that they don’t belong in conch shells. Turtles belong in turtle shells, and turtle shells are grown, not found.

And this is where things get hard. Because whenever I experience pain or fear or any emotions I deem negative, those feelings hit my soft turtle parts where I’m lacking a protective safe place. My response to this is most often to reach out to those closest to me, begging them to change their actions, meet my needs, do this, do that, go here, don’t go there, say it this way, do it that way, in short: FIX IT. But the thing is: everything anyone does to “fix it” is like squeezing a turtle into a conch shell. It might give me the illusion of safety, but in the end it just won’t work. There are always parts left uncovered, and no matter how many shells are found and no matter how many ways they are configured, nothing—not one single thing anyone ever does—will ever work. Because at the end of the day, the only safe place that will ever truly protect me is the one I create myself.

And this is work that only I can do. This is work that is done through allowing myself exposure to the things that scare and cause me pain, dealing with my own emotions, learning how to self-regulate, creating personal boundaries, developing healthy coping skills, learning effective ways to communicate, etc. And as I do each of these things, moment by moment, day by day, I grow a little bit of shell. And then a little more. Until one day, I have a safe place that I can take with me anywhere I go that will give me the security I want so much, no matter what life brings my way.

Others may be able to help with this process, and support should certainly be sought along the way, but ultimately only I can create my own safe place.

This is my work.

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A Good Day

Someone recently told me that I had ruined their day. My immediate feeling was shame and sadness, and in the past I would have felt guilty and horrible about this. I would have scrambled to figure out how I could fix it and make it better and, if unsuccessful, would have spent DAYS feeling sad and scared and ashamed. But today I am doing none of these things.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been through some incredibly humbling experiences that have made me realize that if I do not figure out some way to start taking control of my own emotions, rather than expect others to change in an effort to appease them, I am going to ruin my own life. I have been thrust into a crisis moment where it has become critical for me to find a way to accept that it is MY responsibility—and mine alone—to regulate my feelings, think through the stories I’m telling myself, and pay attention to how my reactions affect me and those around me. And today I realize with stark clarity that if I am in charge of my own emotions, then I must also allow others to be in charge of THEIR emotions. Rather than enter into the shame cycle or adopt the criticism of others as fact, I must fervently defend my own self-worth.

So today when I was told that I had “ruined” the day, I reminded myself that I don’t have that power. And instead of spending the rest of my day in fear and worry and shame and sadness, I will spend some time honestly looking at the part I played, apologize where/if necessary, and then move on. I will trust the love of the person whose feelings are hurt to enable them to find empathy and understanding, just as they always have. And I will trust in the power of taking ownership of my own feelings to allow me to have a wonderful day.

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Healing Through Revealing


I healed myself through telling the truth all the time.
—Elizabeth Gilbert


“You don’t have to tell them EVERYTHING.”
“Can’t you just do it and not say anything about it?”
“Just lie.”

For the past few years, I’ve been working hard on being honest and transparent in all situations, and the results of this have not always been pleasant. I have made people angry, been forced into difficult and painful conversations, and lost several loved ones along the way. Some of those who know these stories have often given the advice, above, and I’m sorry to say that too often I have taken it. Especially in the last few months, things in my life have been hectic and fraught with the disapproval, anger, and disappointment of loved ones, and I have, little by little, reverted to old patterns of—if not exactly lying, at least slanting the truth in ways geared toward revealing only those parts of the truth I knew wouldn’t result in pain. The funny (not-so-funny) thing is that although this has helped me to avoid pain, it has not brought me peace. The opposite, in fact. It seems the more I have reached for peace over the last few months, the more illusive it has become. I didn’t understand what was happening to me until recently, when I picked up a book by Martha Beck, The Way of Integrity, and the following words practically leapt off the page to settle directly into my heart:

“When we deliberately leave our own truth, we live in a foggy world where nothing we experience feels trustworthy or reliable, because we ourselves aren’t trustworthy or reliable.”

This is what had happened. I had left the truth.

Not in huge ways, not even by deliberately lying, but by hiding. Hiding little bits of truth or slanting truth when I knew revealing everything would result in pain. Brad Blanton, in his book Radical Honesty, says that when we tell the truth, we are free simply by describing what is so. I had built myself a cage.

There is only one way out, that I know of, and that is to do what Elizabeth Gilbert calls an “integrity cleanse.” It is to do what I described in an article I posted over a year ago:

Speak the truth, as kindly as you can.

Every goal (or every goal I can think of that has dominated my life for the past few months) must come secondary to this one. I must lay aside my efforts to keep the peace, make people happy, play by the rules—even the goal of building good relationships must come second to speaking the truth (a good relationship can only be build on a foundation of truth, anyway, and any relationship I must lie or hide to keep is an unhealthy one). In short:

I must be willing to pay the price of whatever truth may cost me.

This means telling people I don’t want to talk when I don’t answer their call, saying “I don’t want to come” rather than making up excuses, letting people in—even just a little—when asked how I’m doing and the answer is not “fine.” It means no longer hiding parts of me I’m ashamed of or embarrassed about, revealing things people might not want to hear, risking the loss of relationships that full disclosure could destroy. It means sharing things I know could cause anger, resentment, pain, etc. and no longer taking on the responsibility of other people’s emotions.

Because I have experienced first-hand the peace that comes from honesty and the discord that comes from hiding. And I am convinced it is only in revealing the truth that God can lead us, on step at a time, in the direction we are supposed to go. I am convinced that truth is the only door that leads to peace.

“Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Christ.”
—Ephesians 4:15


Related Articles:

The Truth Will Set You Free

Be Free


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Learning to Drive

The one complaint I’ve received from every partner I’ve ever had is that they never feel good enough for me. Not only am I an overthinker, I also incessantly worry and battle constant fears that—despite all evidence to the contrary—I am not loved. When these fears rear their ugly heads, I look to my partners to “fix” them for me, constantly bringing every concern I have to them in hopes they’ll change to make me feel better. On the healthy side, this makes me extremely sensitive to my partners needs as well as my own and passionately committed to doing all I can to create the best relationship possible. On the unhealthy side, this can manifest much like obsessive compulsive disorder because of the way I feel that every fear must be spoken of immediately, every negative emotion must be fixed as quickly as possible.

I once wrote a poem about this, which lists actual journal entries from a two year relationship. It includes things like: “She didn’t answer my text; I feel like she doesn’t care. She got off the phone early; I feel so rejected. Why hasn’t she kissed me? Why is she sitting so far away? Why is she so quiet? Why did she make that face? Is she angry? Is she happy? Is she sure? Is she confused?” These are the types of the things that go through my mind, constantly. The things I want to talk about and want my person to fix. Text more often, talk longer, kiss me at every opportunity, hold my hand, sit next to me AT ALL TIMES. No wonder no one ever feels good enough. I’m much like the unwise woman described in Proverbs 41 who “tears down her house with her own hands.” And so, my therapist is now helping me learn an important lesson:

I must allow myself to be uncomfortable.

I’ve written about this, before, but it seems a lesson I keep returning to over and over again in various ways. I must allow myself to accept the feeling of discomfort. To recognize that not every thought must be acted on, not every fear must be fixed. I try to be patient with myself. After all, I adopted this fear as a response to trauma and in an effort to avoid pain, and it is as much a part of myself as all the good qualities I have. But I must also learn that this fear is not allowed to control my life. As Liz Gilbert said in a letter she once wrote to fear:

“I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life and that you take your job very seriously. Apparently, your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting, and may I just say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize that you are part of this family so I will never exclude your from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps, you’re not allowed to suggest detours. You’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

I am learning–slowly, haltingly, and with quite a few bumps in road (and the help of a partner who has been much more patient than I deserve)–to drive.


Related Articles:

What if pain is necessary?

What if pain is a place brave people visit?

Staying On the Mat


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