Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Muse on Life

I am taking a break this week. My weekends have been full of workshops and another looms in the near distance… I wrote this article last year for The ARC Institute's newsletter (of which you can subscribe for free – see the right hand column of ARC’s home page) but find it fitting in our ongoing discussion on codependence. It is an article on trust, see what you think…

I sit here trying to write something meaningful for ARC's newsletter. Futile effort: my mind is blank. Nothing comes forth. You would think that in as many days (17, 235 in fact) I have lived on earth that something must have happened to be of interest to write about, but nothing comes. I try and I try, pushing, well forcing ideas out that do nothing but fall flat, face forward, in the light of day.

John Milton didn’t have that trouble, he had a muse, visited him most nights if truth be known. She allowed him to compose beautiful verses upon awakening, like this passage in Paradise Lost:

T’whom thus the portress of Hell gate replied;
Hast thou forgot me then, and do I seem
Now in thine eye so foul, once deemed so fair…

Well, okay, that wasn’t one of his more beautiful lines but it is one of my favorites. “Sin”, the portress of the gate as well as the past and, so we see, spurned lover of Satan has just confronted Satan: “Has thou forgot me then?” And what spurned lover has not felt those same feelings … even at the gates of Hell or maybe that is the gates of Hell. Milton’s muse was not only talented but wonderfully ironic. To have a muse like that would be a thing to behold. But she’s taken I am sure and besides, her rates are probably out of this world (just had to say that).

I lay myself down the other night asking a muse (any would do, I was becoming quite desperate) to come and visit me while I slept. I mean, what does Milton have that I don’t? I thought I made a nice offer but who knows, maybe all the unemployed muses out there have certain regulations about visits to prospective client’s bedrooms… who wants to get in trouble with one’s union? Not I. So I awoke with naught in my head but a melancholic longing for words to write.

I can get this way in ARC sessions too. My client has just said something meaty (or not) and my mind goes blank. I have nothing to say. The seconds tick. The pause, at first disguised as a therapeutic moment, begins to feel ten months pregnant. Action is necessary, but what? My mind goes into overdrive. What used to be empty is now full of thought. What do I do now? I have to say something. I don’t know what to say. What did she say last? How long left in the session? Why cant I do this? Why am I so inept?” In this triggered state, I force words out, trying to be creative. Similar to what happens in writing, however, they miss the mark and it is now the client’s turn to look blankly at me.

The core issue in both these examples of blankness is not so much that I am trying too hard but that I am ungrounded: I am no longer deeply connected to the earth, I am in my head. Trying too hard is only a symptom of that state which includes, among other note worthies: doubt, self-negation, tunnel vision, extremism, fear, irrationality and lack of coordination.

When I was in high school, I played field hockey. I was a star full back with a powerful hit – I could place the ball on the five yard line and shoot it through many an opponent back down into the other end. That is, until I began to think about it. I thought about how important it was for the team for me to play well and how important it was for me to play well. I liked the attention and the increasing notoriety so that each time I played, a measure of my self worth was put at risk. Hitting the ball far became a test of who I was and so the value of those shots increased with every game. In other words, I left the game on the ground and entered the world of head games: I was no longer grounded. My body knew how to connect with the ball, knew how to hit it hard and knew how to play skillfully but my mind didn’t trust it. Thereafter, I could barely play let alone scare the opposing team. I was like a clumsy novice in a game I loved. I soon dropped out. If only my coach had said, “Jo-Ann, stop thinking”; “Jo-Ann get grounded” or best of all, “trust yourself” maybe my skill and innate coordination would have returned .

So now we have a third component to the equation: trust. When blankness happens, in writing or session work, can I trust that’s its none other than perfect timing? That perhaps I am not supposed to write or say anything. That perhaps silence is the answer to all I seek. How can I know if it’s the answer? I reconnect to the earth – I ground.

Grounding is rather a simple thing yet a cure for what often ails us in our daily lives. If only I was grounded when he said that, I wouldn’t have reacted that way. If only I was grounded when I left the house this morning, I wouldn’t have forgotten my lunch; and if only I was grounded, my natural rhythm and coordination would return. What a strategy to life: ground and life becomes manageable. With this in mind, I have looked into creating my own muse, one that will remind me to ground. Naming her was a bit of a problem at first as “ground” is not very feminine but she would not have it any other way. I tried luring her with “CC”, centred and connected that is, but she said no, too cute, I like the simplicity of ground. Whatever, I replied, just be there when I call.

And so it is, whenever words elude me or when I get attacked by doubts, find myself being irrational, clumsy or extreme, I call on my muse. “Ground” I silently call, and ground I do. She stands besides me and helps me sink down. She allows my central channel, my core, to sink deep within the earth, finding safety in situations that would normally cause panic. I feel the earth beneath my feet, the outline of my body, the feelings within. I call her to go deeper and my awareness opens: I become mindful. I sink into who I am and nurture awareness of where I am. A comfortable silence enfolds me. In this silence, my muse says trust, if words are to come, they will come; if nothing comes forth, silence is the answer. In writing she brings knowledge that when no words are there I am cultivating and relaxing into ideas that have not yet time to bud. In session work she reminds me that silence is health giving with no need of quick fixes. With Ground as my muse, I know that whatever happens in life, my response is all that matters.

Milton’s muse may not be mine and I am probably not destined to writing lyrical poetry famous several centuries hence. I have a feeling, however, he would have been quite comfortable (and familiar) listening to the techniques and advice of my new but rather aged and wise muse, Ground.

Friday, April 23, 2010


I walked outside today into take-your-shoes-off-and-wriggle-your-toes-in-the-grass sunshine. Feeling the spring air infuse life into my wintery cells I exclaimed: how could anyone feel bad today! God, its so embarrassing when I am so facile. I mean truly, how many times have I ignored my outside reality in favour of the turmoil that is within: colouring the clear blue skies, the blushing cherry blossoms and bright lemon tulips with a filmy miasma of doubt, pessimism and sadness. I have done it so many times now, I actually have to laugh after such declarations. Yes, Jo-Ann, you have, and probably will again, feel bad on such days.

One of the symptoms of codependence that Pia Mellody talks about in her book, Facing Codependence, is a “difficulty [in] experiencing … reality moderately”. As in feeling depressed on a sunny day, codependent parts can create the same scenario by taking a relatively minor event, like a mistake, and elevating it to catastrophe. The result is that life looks bleak where seconds earlier it was full of hope. Rather than saying, for example, that a part of me feels bad about making a mistake and can learn something from it, the codependent part says: I am such an idiot for making a mistake, nothing changes, I am such a loser. These parts ignore context, moderating factors, and both historical and current reality, and have the ability to overwhelm one’s emotional system so that it is difficult to see the bigger picture.

Codependent parts negate the fact that they are only a part of the whole person and try to reassert themselves as the ones, the only ones, who know the truth. In other words, despite the fact that after a mistake is made, the sun still shines, life carries on and that no one is a “loser”, codependent parts force moderation out the window and see nothing good about them selves or their environment. They express reality in extremes rather than in relative terms and are very talented in colouring the world with a dim film.

So, the next time you find yourself beating yourself up for making a mistake (or anything else that derives fault), remember that this is just one part of you that made the mistake. That you are composed of many parts and that mistakes are just that, mistakes, nothing more, nothing less: something to be learned from, corrected if necessary and put into proper perspective.

Another thing I do when I find my codependent parts (in however they choose to manifest) taking over is a meditation by an Eriksonian Psychotherapist, Yvonne Dolan. She calls it the Sights, Sounds, and Sensations meditation.

This meditation allows one to become aware of both their inner and outer environment. It is helpful in coming back to the present, where mistakes are viewed in relative terms and self-compassion and self-forgiveness is more easily found. It can be especially helpful for those who have suffered trauma in their lives, for it takes the coping mechanism of hyper-alertness and uses it as a grounding tool. It can be even used as a way to relax into sleep.

My suggestion is to spend a couple of seconds with each sight, sound or sensation before moving on to the next one

Sights, Sounds, and Sensations Meditation – Yvonne Dolan

Name (aloud or to yourself):
Five things that you see.
Five things that you hear.
Five sensations that you feel.

Now, four things that you see, hear, feel
Then, three things that you see, hear, feel,
Two things …
One thing …

Start over again with five, and keep going until you feel relaxed.

If you only notice one sound or sensation, you can repeat the same one.

Friday, April 16, 2010


I woke up this morning quite bedraggled: tired, listless, unwilling to start the day. As my first commitments were not until the afternoon, I sank into the lethargy, hoping a few more minutes would suffice. Within a half hour of futile indulgence, not only was I still tired but there was fear also: why was I so tired? I had just slept nine hours, shouldn’t that be enough? Why did I feel so weak…was I sick? Allowing fear to run amok in my (now)chaotic mind, thoughts of devastating but unrealistic illness—chronic fatigue and cancer— bulldozed through my psyche increasing the ante. I finally surrendered to this onslaught, stopped thinking and just felt the fear. I let it shiver over me and I hugged myself in the face of its vulnerability. Eventually the irrational gave way to my truth. I wasn’t so much tired (or sick) as I was avoiding, through obsessive and irrational thinking, what was really bothering me, that is, the mundane day-to-day fears that can cloud one’s horizon ever so often. So, voicing these seemingly minor worries, I reassured myself while comforting the fearful parts within me. Feeling better and somewhat more energized I got up and went for a walk.

The sunshine was brilliant, as only a long awaited April sun can be and spring flowers smiled in the promise of longer days and bluer skies. I walked along, feeling less tired and no longer fearful when a silent and insidious critique of others, close friends and strangers, crept over me. The inner harangue went on for some time before the beauty around me made me stop and ask, “Jo-Ann, what it is? This anger is irrational, what are you really feeling?” And, once again, I realized it was fear, although this time it was masked by anger. I voiced my fears again, giving them more expression and more reassurance. I went deeper with my self care this time around, coming to the realization that these “minor” fears were more potent than I had initially judged.

Emotions, especially ones that frighten us, are easily masked by other, shall we say, more convenient ones. People will cry when they are really angry or joke when sadness overwhelms them. For me, feeling tired, expressing irrational fears of disease, and/or angry thoughts are ways to avoid the everyday fears of, for example, social anxieties and financial concerns. Feeling fear is an exercise in vulnerability and, no pun intended, it is not my strong side. I put up masks or defenses to hide from this feeling and, in doing so, deny a part of myself that wants expression. The ironic thing about these masks is that the more one tries to deny or repress the feelings beneath them, the harder the feelings will work to express themselves. The result is that the mask has to become harsher, more extreme; more irrational. Just like this morning: I was incredibly tired, had unrealistic fears of sickness and was unjustly critical of my friends; all in the attempt to distract myself from feeling the normal vulnerabilities of everyday life.

In codependence, a part of us feels we don’t have the right to express. That expression could be anger, sadness, fear or even love, and we feel we lose that right because there is either a lack of safety or we judge ourselves as “lesser than”. When my codependent parts go to these extreme lengths to distract myself from feeling vulnerable, I deny myself a chance to be authentic and open to life. I am creating a false self that not only hides from fears but in doing so, hides from joy. You cannot have one without the other: if we fear dying, for example, can we really enjoy living? If I hide from anger (my own or others), can I fully express love?

Charles Whitfield says that in the recovery of codependence you have to “get down on the floor and wrestle with each feeling”. You have to “recognize it, feel it, experience it, work it through, use it, [to finally be able to] let go of it”. It was not until I gave my vulnerable parts enough space and time to express their fears, could I truly let go of them and enjoy the beauty and abundance the day had to offer.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Wind

Funny how the wind can take it out of you. I woke up this morning, my windows blown wide open; swaying trees beckoning. I could almost hear the waves crashing against the seawall, compelling me to witness the creative forces of nature. I ate a quick breakfast and headed out. It was enough, as they say, to take your breath away. All senses ignited: seagulls calling, laughing, rejoicing; rocks tumbling underneath as waves sorted and tumbled; salty brine in the air, on my face, in my lungs; wind, pushing, pulling, pure, unadulterated play making: rough and tumble kids, searching out every nook and cranny, seeking adventure. And sights! The multihued blues of the ocean: steel grey, aqua, teal, midnight, cerulean, sapphire, deep purple and ultramarine; capped with snowy froths, a waving, rollicking sea of grapes and blueberries and plums, crushed and slurping in a wine makers heaven. I want to drink it all and gloriously suffer the consequences yet the wind restrains me. I push against it, forcing my way forward as its forces it way back into me, ‘neath scarves and collars, zippers and flaps. I want to go forward, isn’t that what we do? Move forward, push through, consequences be damned?

I had a dream the other night. I was fighting with the Grim Reaper. We were in this mountainous region of huge granite cliffs and boulders, towering peaks and unimaginable abysses. It was like being in an ancient Chinese water colour where rugged terrain holds vast beauty, grey green mists, leafy trees tenuously holding on to their rocky mantle and perhaps a butterfly, easily floating above the canyons below. The Grim Reaper wanted me to let go of the rock I was desperately holding onto. He was pushing me off so I would fall, perhaps ever more through the chasm below, perhaps to my death. I was petrified yet I knew that no one, especially I, could defeat this portent. My fate seemed sealed, yet the method, I realized, was yet to be determined. Shall I be pushed to death or shall I go on my own? Pride made me favour the latter and the decision to let go of the rock became my new foe. Just let go, I said, just let go. The hardest part is letting go. But I held on, fear keeping me strong in its grip. Then a distraction came: some men were fighting over on a near by cliff and the Grim Reaper, hearing duty call, scooted over. As soon as he left, the ground closed up beneath me and the abyss was no more. I was safe.

I woke up from this dream, some what disgruntled. Why cant I ever let go? All I had to do was let go and be free. I knew the imagery of death was but symbolic of change, rebirth; new beginnings. Why was I so scared? But then another question came to me, why must I always go for the extreme? Does change always have to be so drastic? Do I always have to force through making life and death decisions; pushing against the forces of nature? Struggling?

Codependence can be a lot like the initial part of this dream in terms of perceiving life as a constant struggle; one of defending rigid boundaries to the death and being for ever on guard. Stillness, allowing and just being are foreign words to our codependent parts. These words denote flexibility and gentleness; acceptance and openness. In my dream I eventually chose to be still, to not struggle nor let go. I chose the middle ground of just being and the ground beneath closed up, encompassing me in calm.

This morning, after fighting the wind for awhile, I realized that life doesn’t have to be that hard. I turned around and let the force propel me (with ease) in another direction.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


I was talking with a friend the other day about heroes. People like Mahatmas Ghandi and Martin Luther King who stood up against oppression, put others before themselves, and who ultimately died for their beliefs. Steeped, as per usual, in the hows and whys of codependence, my radar went up. Putting others before one self? Sacrificial behaviour ? Martyrdom? Aren’t these symptoms of codpendence? Were King and Ghandi codependent?

The answer, of course, is yes, or rather, because they were human, they had codependent parts. But was their martyrdom codependent?

One of my favorite examples of codependent martyrdom is that of the (Stephen B.) Karpman Drama Triangle. It’s a graphic example of how someone can be a rescuer, victim and abuser— sometimes all at the same time— martyring themselves in the process.

Let’s say I am the protagonist of this story. I work in an office with my colleague, Sally. I notice that Sally is not fulfilling all her responsibilities. I worry that the boss will notice and Sally will get in trouble. So, without first checking in with Sally, I start doing some of her work. I rescue Sally.

There are plenty of reasons why I might do this and most of them tend to be unconscious. On the surface I might say: “I’m just trying to help” but underneath I might hope that Sally will like me better; or that my heroic work ethic gets noticed and others will value me more; or that I will become indispensible to Sally and/or the boss thereby fulfilling my “need” to be needed. Any of those reasons underline the belief that I am “lesser than”, that I have to earn my value in what I do and not in who I am.

Sally has her own reasons for not doing her work. Perhaps she is not feeling well or is bored, or maybe she just doesn’t care. The point is, I don’t know because I haven’t asked. I don’t know if Sally needs help or if she even wants my help.
Sally may or may not notice I am doing her work. She may or may not thank me but regardless, she does not change her habits. I start getting resentful. I am not quite sure what I want from my rescuing behaviour—my real needs are unconscious—all I know is that I am bending over backwards to help Sally and there isn’t enough reward. So, instead of backing off, I begin feeling resentful. I become a victim. I start berating Sally with such infamous martyr-like lines such as: “After all I do for you.” I may start spreading rumours about her or telling her to her face that she is good-for-nothing. Hence, I become the abuser. But the abuse is unconscious because it all seems justified: Sally owes me something. In fact, it feels like a lot of people owe me something.

These three roles of rescuer, victim and abuser, can be played out instantaneously or take years to manifest. I could, for example, be doing Sally’s job while feeling like an exploited hero and, at the same time, telling Sally how lazy she is. Or, I could play the rescuer for years before the resentment kicks in and then start acting passive-aggressive towards Sally. This is codependent martyrdom. We’ve all seen it or experienced it – not a pretty sight.

Codependent martyrdom is then sacrificing your self for some inner need or want that is not, for the most part, aligned with the stated goal. For example, I say I am doing Sally’s work because I want to help but the truth is I just want Sally to like me. The problem, however, is that this true desire will never be fulfilled. Even if Sally starts liking me, the relationship will be based, at least in my mind, on my doing things for Sally so that she will continue liking me. It becomes an addiction: never ending; always hungry. I will always be in fear that I’m not doing enough in order for Sally to like me. Said another way, I may just not believe her due to low self-esteem— how could anyone like a “loser” like me? So I work harder, sacrificing myself in hopes that I will eventually do (and be) enough. It eventually leads to resentment and, for some, abusive behaviour.

Heroic martyrdom is different. A hero sees how they can make a difference in the world and strives to manifest that difference. They put their principals above themselves not because they do not place value on their own lives but because they do see their value. Their principals are a guiding light in showing the world that each and everyone of us has value and that we all deserve respect. Heroes don’t rescue others for some inner need but empower themselves and others out of love for all.

So, while Ghandi and King had, more likely than not, codependent parts, their actions were interdependent. They believed in mutuality, respect and community. Tragically, they were also martyred for their beliefs.

To close I give you a quote from Jane Goodall, another hero, although thankfully, not martyred. No longer living with and documenting the lives of chimpanzees in Tanzania, she “tours the globe preaching the need for sustainability, harmony and respect for the natural world.” She states: “You can kill yourself saving forests and chimps, but if new generations aren’t going to be better stewards there’s no point.” (The Guardian Weekly, Feb. 26.10, p.29)