One of the weird things about having learned so much about life coaching is that I feel a lot of pressure to be positive all the goddamned time.

As you may have guessed, that’s not quite working for me at the moment and that’s partly why I haven’t blogged in so long. Who wants to hear about a coach who’s been in a bad mood since May?

Funny, though. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked with 3 friends—one of whom is going through a divorce, one who is terribly ill with something mysterious that remains undiagnosed, and one who just celebrated 20 years of marriage with a man she loves—but she couldn’t be sadder about it. Not about her marriage or her husband. Just the passage of time and the feelings of futility about it all.

They said various things. “I feel so guilty. I’m a coach, I shouldn’t be sick, or if I am, I should be able to heal myself.” They said: “I want to be positive during this time. I feel like I should be doing better at being happy.” They said: “I feel so bad. I’m not unhappily married, but I’m so—I don’t even know. It’s just—time passes. But it’s stupid to be unhappy about that.”

I said: “Why do you need to feel positive about being sick? It’s miserable! It’s scary! Maybe there’s a big lesson in it, but who really cares when you’re puking all the time? How about just letting yourself be really pissed off and scared?” I said: “I’m not sure you can get through the dissolution of a 20 year marriage that produced two kids and the usual happily-ever-after dreams and not get a little negative or pissy. Why not just let yourself be miserable?” I said: “What if you just let yourself realize how funny it is to love your husband on the one hand; but to be sick to death of marriage and of getting older on the other.  What if you just let yourself feel bad?”

The truth is, I’ve not been having a good summer myself.  (Oh, even as I write those words, I can feel them wanting to curl up and slink off the page, because that’s not strictly true. I’ve been hanging out with my kids, which is always a profound pleasure; they opted for a mostly camp-free summer and have been enjoying the kind of days my sister and I used to have. Except that where we watched endless reruns of The Brady Bunch followed by Gilligan’s Island followed by I Dream of Jeannie, they simply download whole seasons of Frasier and Ugly Betty on Apple TV and watch them back to back. Heaven.) And—there’s nothing really wrong. No health issues, no sick kids or parents, nothing major. Of course there’s a big long story I could tell you about why I’m feeling so jaded and blue. I always have a big long story. But in order to give you all the juicy details, I’d have to implicate mentors and tattle on family members. And it would all just boil down to complaining anyway.

Suffice it to say that the disappointments stacked up this summer, the minor betrayals and the major ones and oh, it’s just all been a big fat pain in my ass and frankly, I’m weary.

I think I’ve gotten off-track. As I was talking to my friends, I began to think many of us may have gotten off track. I think we’re all trying to live a life without pain. And I think that that is just not possible. 

Let me say that again: I think a whole bunch of us think we’re supposed to be able to live without pain. Or that if we are in pain, we need to get out of it and pronto.

Problematically, then, when things are dreadful and the shit hits the fan—or even when things are just dreary and are making us restless, we add to the pain by feeling guilty as hell. We’re supposed to be self-actualized! We’re supposed to make lemonade out of those lemons!  We’re supposed to think positively! Love what is! Turn it around! Learn something! Change!

Lord have mercy, it makes me exhausted just thinking about it. Whenever a situation requires that many exclamation points, it just saps my energy. 

It’s interesting: When I said to my friends: “Why not let yourself feel like crap? Your situation sucks,” their relief was instant and palpable.  Oh my god. Someone was giving them permission to feel what they were actually feeling.  Someone was saying: “You don’t need to make every lousy thing into something wonderful. Maybe everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Maybe you’re having a truly difficult experience. Maybe you don’t have to change your thinking about it. Maybe just sit here. Maybe that’s enough.” No one was saying or even implying:  “You just need to think differently, you aren’t trying hard enough, you need to turn this around, everything’s for our highest good.” 

Oh, what blasphemy in the self-help world! But—I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I used to think I had trouble with self-help because I didn’t think I had a self worth helping. Now I’m thinking something different, which is that the whole “self-help” and “self-improvement”  industry is predicated on the theory that your self will forever be in need of help, will always need improving upon, especially when you’re feeling completely misused by the world; and with that in mind,  the implication is that you’ll never be whole. (And you’ll always need another book or program offering the fix.) The implication is that your sad self is just wrong, that your weary self isn’t your best self, that your depressed or angry self isn’t valid. But I’m starting to think that your self is your self, period. And that there will be times when life will be impossible and when you might not be up to the task of trying to make yourself feel better. There might be times when a person simply needs to wallow. And she might need to do that imperfectly, without trying to love herself through it all and look for the silver lining.

(Speaking of which, I knew this actress once named Tamu Gray and I remember her talking about her brilliant bright-orange food theory. She said when life gets overwhelming, a person needs to hole up for 3 days with stupid gossip magazines and plenty of bright orange food. Kraft mac and cheese, nacho cheese Doritos, orange soda, otter pops, you get the idea. She said you should ensconce yourself on the couch, don’t answer the door or the phone, don’t play on the computer, don’t shower or change clothes, just sit there and read about celebrities naming their children things like Truffle or Futura and don’t move for 3 days. She said 2 days wasn’t long enough, but by the end of the third day, you’d be so disgusted with yourself that you’d bounce off that couch like a gigged frog on a hot trampoline.)

But what if it takes longer than the prescribed three days? Certainly, the self-help industry makes no room for wallowing. That’s story-fondling! That’s sitting in dirty pain! C’mon, pull yourself up by those bootstraps and get moving! The self-improvement movement seems to contend that if you just tried harder or rested more, or thought more positively, or set more stringent goals, or ate a vegan diet, or said affirmations, or, or, or… you’d be happy all the time. And it goes without saying that you’re supposed to be happy all the time. If you’re not happy, it’s your own damned fault, because you’re just not doing it right. But—that pressure to  be constantly looking on the bright side and to do it right seems to add to a lot of peoples’ misery. Anyway, it adds to mine. It makes me feel worse than I already do.

But then I think: Wait a minute. Surely there’s room in human experience for the shadow side, for the moldy bits, for the slimy underbelly. And I don’t mean that those dark feelings must be there so that we can know what it is to feel better in contrast, though that does happen. I mean that the shadow side should be honored and experienced fully as its own sad mess simply because it makes up a part of the whole, entire, complicated  and chaotic self. There must be a time when we stop trying to improve and just start to live, even depressed, even angry, even ugly and fat and sad.

Anyhoo, as you can imagine, all of this has left me wondering if I can possibly continue coaching anyone. People come to coaches, after all, in order to feel better.  I’m confused, actually, about that. I’ve coached the bejesus out of myself this summer but I still feel soul-quaked. I’m not fixed. I don’t know if “fixed” is even a real thing. I’m reminded of my friend Janet, a therapist who once told me: “People don’t come to therapy to have what’s broken fixed. They come to have what’s broken blessed.” Maybe that’s where I am. In a way, it’s a relief to believe that I’ll never change and so what.  I’ve always been prone to dark moods, and I’ve tried for decades not to be. I’ve pretty much tried everything in order not to feel pain, and I’m smart and insightful into my own character. Yet I’m still one moody motherfucker. Maybe that’s just who I am and no change is necessary. Maybe it’s like the Bruce Cockburn song, “Pacing the Cage” that says: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you. You can’t see what’s ‘round the bend. Sometimes the road leads through dark places. Sometimes the darkness is your friend.” It seems like if my personality were “fixable” I would have done it by now, given my brains and motivation and all the maps I’ve collected in my many years of self-help study. But everything I thought I knew hasn’t helped much this summer.  So maybe there’s only so much improvement a girl can stand. I honestly don’t know.

What does interest me, though is the relief that I saw in my friends when they felt they had been given permission, even just from a friend, to feel unhappy with no caveat that they would soon feel better. Actually, I ironically started to feel the teensiest bit better when I did the same for myself, when I let myself be livid and sad and bitterly disappointed, with no time-frame looming, no threat of having to feel better soon. One of these days, I suppose I’ll feel better. But in the meantime—well, my situation reminds me of Anton. He told me recently that his stuffed animals don’t feel real to him anymore. He used to sit on his bunk-bed, (which had a really cool slide attached, ‘til it broke earlier this year) and stage epic battles with his stuffed bears and dogs and the occasional penguin. He’d be up there for hours, making that AK47 noise all boys seem to be born knowing how to make. He had elaborate sets—boxes and places for the bears to hide. “But I’m a little sad now, Mama,” he told me late one recent, hot, cricket-seared night, “Because they don’t feel as real to me anymore. And now, without believing that they’re magically alive, I’m just a guy sitting in a slide bed, playing with stuffed animals.”

That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. And, yep. I know just how he feels. The magic feels gone and nothing has as yet come to fill its void. And—as unfashionable as it is to say so—maybe for now, that’s just how it is.

This entry was posted on Saturday, August 24th, 2013 at 9:10 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


12 Responses to “Blahg”

  1. Gretchen Goldberg Says:

    Sonja, I think this speaks to everyone.

    We are so conditioned to needing to be happy: “How are you?” “Fine” always, always, always, even when the honest response would be “I got up today, and made it this far. What more do you want?” or more simply “I’m having a lousy day. And you?” Nobody even thinks about it. We must always be “fine” regardless of circumstances.

    And giving yourself and your friends permission to be honest with themselves and you, I think, is critical to friendship and mental health. You shouldn’t always have to be the life of the party due to others’ expectations.

    I’ve never much been into self-help or introspection; I never really felt that someone else knew better than I did how I should feel, or in what way I should improve. But the industry really does seem focused on being happy as a goal, and of course there are times that you can’t be happy.

    And maybe for now, that’s just how it is.

    PS. Always know you are loved by me and many for who you are, dark bits and all. I’m sorry you’re in a dark place right now.

  2. Sonja Says:

    Thank you so much, Gretchen. Your answer really touched me. I forget, sometimes, what comfort there is in having a sister who loves me even with my dark bits. Made me teary and thankful for you.

  3. Katie Says:

    Well, I just love this. You took the words right out of my head. And you arranged them a whole lot better. I just finished master coach training and I learned my job is not always to help my clients feel better. I help them see their patterns and then they can choose what to do with that info. Sometimes, I help them feel better, but that really isn’t my job.

    It’s a hard practice because I think we of the self help ilk want to help people be happy! It’s like it’s hardwired into us. And I think that hardwiring makes it hard when we aren’t as happy as we’re “supposed to be.”

    Your advice to your friends to just feel the way they were feeling, brilliant. What a great coach you are, even when you fill like crap.

    Thanks for writing this.

  4. Lisa K. Says:

    I love this, too. My daily affirmation is “thank you for my life, exactly as it is”. Don’t know if that’s helped or hindered, but it pulls me into reality. I thank the baby Jesus for humor, it gets me through every day no matter how dark. Most days, I feel pretty content, and I try and keep it simple, like my cats. Sonja, you know my favorite Richard Jeni quote about relationships is “You have 2 choices. You can be lonely or annoyed.” It takes the pressure off, immediately. So yes, feel like crap when you need to, wallow like a piglet, and then get together with another living person (even texting, though face to face is MUCH better) and have a snort-fest till milk comes out your nose. Cleansing, rejuvenating, recharge your batteries– and you can start another crappy day.

    Thanks for your words. Love you, Pal.

  5. Karen Albrethsen Says:

    Sonja, you’ve said beautifully what I have often felt, and felt miserably.

    Your job as a coach and mine as a spiritual director and priest have many similarities. One of them is the fact that sometimes life sucks, and often happiness just isn’t there. My job, and yours, often seems to be helping people to acknowledge that they are broken. And sometimes it means acknowledging that we, too, are broken. Fixing that brokenness isn’t up to us. Sometimes it can’t be fixed, because all human beings are broken in some way. I think it’s just that sometimes we feel it more acutely than at other times.

    Although it won’t lessen your disappointments, fix any brokenness, or even make you happier, remember that I love you. I always have. I always will.

  6. Jennifer Blackwell Says:

    “Janet, a therapist who once told me: “People don’t come to therapy to have what’s broken fixed. They come to have what’s broken blessed.” “ This particular part touched me deeply. I believe that she is completely right. I never thought about that before. As a person who has had therapy, and a social worker, I always thought fixing was the goal. Now, I can see how there is no real fix, like you said. The blessing and being heard really is what I’ve been looking for, and what I have given to clients. That’s the part I’m good at. It is such a relief, not having to have all the answers in either role.

    On a personal note, part of what I’ve always admired about you is your ability to embrace all parts of you, light and dark. I am reminded of the video tape that you and Uncle Albert gave me one year. One of the sketches is about getting ready for a date. You start out excited, but by the end you are so self defeated that you turn the date away. The way you can embrace those feelings in acting allows others, and probably you, to embrace those feelings in real life. Your writing has done the same. I carry with me the vivid pictures some of your writing has placed in my head. I have admired you for your ability to express the sucky parts of life, and not sugar coat things. For the way you show up as who you are in each moment. These are some of the qualities I have tried to copy from you since I was a teenager. So yeah, it’s ok to be in a dark place and even express that.

  7. Sonja Says:

    Hi Katie! So glad this was helpful to you. I do think that we are trained to just be compassionate witnesses–but I also think that, like you write, it seems to be hardwired into us to want to make people happy or to be always happy ourselves. Sheesh! Too hard. It is for me, anyway.
    Congratulations on finishing Master Coach training. Such an accomplishment!
    Much love to you.

  8. Sonja Says:

    Hi Lisa! So glad to hear from you, and oh how I wish I could have my snortfest with you! Oh, you make me laugh, even from afar. I think you’re right, gratitude goes a long way, even on the crappy days. Good to be reminded of that. Thank you.
    I miss you like crazy and look forward to the day when we might be old ladies together; if we can remember by then who the hell the other one is, we’ll have a great time.
    Love you, too.

  9. Sonja Says:

    Hi Karen! I think you’re so right–we’re there to help people (and ourselves) live well even with all the broken imperfection that being human seems to entail. I find it hard, sometimes, to just be the compassionate witness and not try to fix everything. Occupational hazard, I guess.
    And maybe it doesn’t fix it, but it does help to remember that you love me. It makes that dark places a little less lonely, that’s for sure.
    And I love you, too.

  10. Sonja Says:

    Hi Jennique! So happy to hear from you here, and that this was helpful to you. I think you’re right–most people just want to be heard and not dismissed for being broken and that’s often enough. And yes! Such a relief not to feel like you have to have all the answers.
    Thank you so much for the insight into acting and writing, too. I do think that’s where I process a lot of stuff and it often feels selfish or foolish; so to know that it’s helped someone is nice to know. I’ll bet you’re a blessing to all your clients.
    Much love to you.

  11. Heidi Craig Says:

    Well, you can’t imagine how terrible I feel that I haven’t been there for you all this time. And not just the past week, where, apparently, I can go for days without checking Facebook and not even notice. Rather, I feel terrible that I haven’t realized how much you have been hurting. First, I must say I find it astonishing how cogently and brilliantly you can write about how your feelings, even the poopy ones. Especially the poopy ones. If it were me, I wouldn’t be able to write at all, much less as incredibly well as you do. As others have remarked, you have (again) hit the nail on the head in that others can relate so well to what you think, feel, and write. Second, I’m really impressed that you’ve been able to reply to others’ comments. Again, I’d just back-burner it all and not communicate with anyone. (Like I always say, If you’re in denial, how do you know?)

    Mostly, though, I just want to add my love and support for you. I just think you’re an incredible person, and I will tell that to anyone who will listen. I wish you didn’t have da blues. I wish I knew how to help you feel better. But I have a hard time thinking you need “fixed.” I think you just “are.” I really liked what you wrote about allowing the crappy stuff to be felt fully without feeling guilty that you can’t (or don’t want to) fix it.

    You think your coaching skills may suffer because you don’t think you can practice what you preach, but look how much your insight helped your friends. I think your coaching skills are enhanced because precisely BECAUSE you have felt the gamut of emotions so fully. It’s just one more way you can relate to others. (Another way: your 10+++ communication skills.)

    OK. I’m stopping this wordy, stream-of-conscious reply now. Bottom line: I love you so much, Sonja. I miss the crap out of you–I’m crying right now just from the missing. And that you’re hurting. I HATE that. And I miss watching “I Dream of Jeannie” with you.

  12. Here’s to the Dark Bits | On Becoming Me Says:

    [...] read this quote from the Bruce Cockburn song, Pacing the Cage in Sonja Alarr’s blog and it sums things up perfectly for me. “Sometimes the best map will not guide you. You can’t [...]

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