Preparing for the Relationship You Want

Black Woman Looking Up
Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

I spent years having conversations with friends and my therapist and my parents about how to find a partner who was a good match. My friends and I discussed the pros and cons of online dating, dating apps, meeting someone through friends or out and about. We discussed what we wanted in our partners; the degrees we wanted them to have, the careers they were pursuing, their political and religious beliefs, and personal characteristics. We vented our frustrations about the emotional ups and downs of dating; matching with someone on a dating app, chatting for a week, getting excited about a date, only to be disappointed when meeting in person. We cried together about relationship disappointments and how we might be able to choose better next time. What strikes me now, is that through all of these conversations, rarely did we discuss how we wanted to be as partners; the question of whether or not we were ready for the type of relationships we longed for was rarely asked or addressed. When I got into my relationship with my current partner I realized that I had spent far too little time preparing for the kind of relationship I wanted and reflecting on what it would look like for me to be a good partner.

When I started dating my current partner, I was caught off guard by how honest and straightforward he was. I was pleasantly surprised that he proactively planned dates, communicated that he liked me, expressed his desire for a committed relationship, and generally did what he said he was going to do. I was so used to not getting what I wanted in relationships that I struggled to be present and just enjoy our budding relationship without looking for things that were wrong. Upon reflection, I began to understand that I had become so accustomed to working to get past partners to commit that I was not used to just relaxing into a relationship. What I have concluded after growing in this relationship for over a year is that I had not spent enough time preparing myself for the kind of relationship I really wanted. I had been overly focused on trying to find the right partner and had not spent enough time thinking about how to be the kind of partner that would enable me to have the healthy, deeply committed, and intimate relationship I was longing for.

Is my story similar to yours? Have you spent a lot of time thinking about how you can find the right partner and what you want that person to be like, while neglecting to think about how you want to be as a partner? Have you failed to consider whether you are ready for the kind of commitment and relationship you are looking for? If this feels familiar to you I hope you will find my suggestions below, about how to prepare for the relationship you want, to be helpful. One thing that I have learned over the last year and a half of my relationship is that being the kind of partner you want to be is an ongoing process. I am continuing to grow and learn about myself as a partner and to identify ways that I can be a better partner to my fiancé. The suggestions below are intended to be ongoing practices that you revisit throughout your time dating and in a relationship. Continue reading “Preparing for the Relationship You Want”

Saying Goodbye

Black Woman Blk and White
Photo by Tess on Unsplash

I recently said goodbye to a job I had for more than 4 years, a place where I did some of my initial training as a therapist and developed as a professional. As I said goodbye to colleagues who have become friends and work that I loved doing sadness, welled up in my chest. I felt the gravity of what I had experienced and done at that job along with the almost overwhelming gratitude for the love, joy, laughter, and growth that I experienced while working there. As I was saying “farewell” to my colleagues I understood why my clients so often avoid their emotions; our feelings can seem like too much to sit and be present with. I think this is part of why goodbyes can be so challenging for many of us. I am grateful that I was able to be present to these waves of emotion and to feel my feelings all the way through as a way of honoring the experience I had and the work  I did. Saying goodbyes in healthy ways allows us to appreciate the experiences and relationships we’ve had, reflect and learn from what we have gone through, and move forward unencumbered by the past.

All of us say numerous “goodbye’s” throughout our life; when we end relationships, when we move, when we change jobs, and when people we love die, we are forced to let go and acknowledge that something is over. In Stillness Speaks Ekhart Tolle says that “every ending is like a little death.” I think this is another reason that people do not like to say goodbye because it can feel like a part of you is dying; goodbyes force us to acknowledge that despite our best efforts to hold on to things, nothing lasts forever. As Black people, some of us may have a difficult relationship with saying goodbye because of the trauma we have experienced. Whether it is a loved one dying unexpectedly, someone being locked up in prison unfairly, or the legacy of separation of families during slavery, it can be difficult for Black people to say healthy goodbyes while processing the trauma we experience. Continue reading “Saying Goodbye”

A Case for Black Self-Compassion

Black Woman Locs
Photo by Nick Owuor (astro.nic.visuals) on Unsplash

As technology advances nationwide, and we view ourselves through the lens of social media and social comparison, many of us have become overly self-critical. Further, Black people have had a history of being particularly hard on ourselves as we’ve worked to survive in a racist society long before the rise of digital platforms. It may have started generations ago, when the whippings from slave masters continued in the form of whoopings from parents, who were scared that if their children did not obey orders they would receive far worse punishment–even death, at the hands of White people. This fear of what will happen if Black people don’t obey the orders of White people continues today as parents try to prepare their children to survive encounters with police. This anxiety and fear can manifest as harshness instead of as a communication of the deep love that family members have for their children. Many of us have internalized this harshness and turned it on ourselves. Further, Black people in America receive constant messages that we don’t deserve to be treated well or with compassion. The school-to-prison pipeline, the trauma-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, the criminalization of addiction, and blaming Black women for the plight of Black families are just some examples of the lack of compassion shown towards Black people in America.

One consequence of surviving terror is learning to be tough all of the time. The hope is that if we are tough and avoid being vulnerable, we will be able to protect ourselves from emotional pain. As we learn to be tough we cut ourselves off from intimacy with other people. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much when a family member was killed if we didn’t express how attached we were to them. And, we cut ourselves off from intimacy with ourselves. Maybe we could better handle abuse and mistreatment if we just suppressed our emotions so we couldn’t feel them. The reality is that the pain of loss still hurts even if we had a strained relationship with someone (and sometimes it’s more difficult to process) and suppressing emotions may help us to avoid feelings temporarily but ultimately emotions come out in ways that can cause problems for us and our relationships. suppressing difficulty emotions also limits are ability to feel and express positive emotions. Not having safe spaces to learn to honor our pain and to be vulnerable has left us without life giving self-compassion.

Whenever I talk to clients about self-compassion the first objection I hear is that if people are kind and compassionate to themselves they will never improve, they will be stagnant. We have confused criticism, internalized stereotypes, and feeling like we are not good enough with healthy striving for growth and development. Being compassionate to yourself does not mean giving yourself a pass or letting yourself off the hook for mistakes. Self-compassion actually helps us to face and take responsibility for the things that we have done wrong. It is much easier to reflect on our problematic behavior and consider how we want to move forward when we have a foundation of self-compassion. Let’s use a metaphor of two teachers; one teacher is very harsh and critical of their students. Constantly calling students out for mistakes and telling them that they’re stupid and will probably never learn. The second teacher encourages students to take their work seriously and also provides comfort when students don’t do as well as they hoped. They acknowledge that what they are asking the students to do is difficult and help students to think about how they can improve their skills and increase their knowledge. Which teacher do you think will be more effective with students? Which teacher is creating a safe learning environment for their students? Which teacher would you prefer to have? I’m guessing you’d rather have the second teacher. It is hard to learn, grow, and love when we are in an overly critical environment; even if that environment is just in our heads.

You might be protesting against this case for Black self-compassion by thinking that Black people don’t have time for compassion. We need to be fighting police brutality, mass incarceration, and infringement on voting rights among other issues facing our communities. You might assert that these issues are more pressing than learning to be compassionate with ourselves and others. I agree that these are all pressing issues and I challenge you to consider what our communities will look like if they are not infused with love and compassion. Racist institutions in the US have systematically attempted to erode love and compassion in Black communities. Thankfully these efforts have not been completely successful but it is time to intentionally rebuild Black love and compassion in our communities. Black self-compassion is radical, it is personal and political. Black self-compassion challenges the stereotypes that we are just hard and tough, that we are not fully human. Black self-compassion pushes back against any racism we may have internalized. Black self-compassion helps to break cycles of violence and trauma. Black self-compassion allows us to honor Black humanity.

The following is my conceptualization of what Black self-compassion looks like. It combines established components of self-compassion (mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity) and two other components that specifically address traumas and other experiences that Black people commonly experience.

Continue reading “A Case for Black Self-Compassion”

Overcoming Loneliness

Blk Woman btw Pillars
Photo by Savs on Unsplash

Loneliness is painful. It often involves feeling disconnected, feeling outside of the circle, feeling forgotten. Loneliness has been a frequent companion throughout my life. I grew up as an only child and while my parents are wonderful, they established clear boundaries between their relationship and me, which I think was great for their marriage (they’ve been married for over 38 years!) but did not feel great for me as an only child. Starting at an early age, I felt somewhat on the outside in my family. This feeling continued for me at school and church. While I think I was generally well liked, I always felt like I was different and didn’t quite fit in. There were times when I actually was left out or teased (never badly) and then there were times when I was hypersensitive to the experience of being left out and looked for evidence to confirm my assumption that I was being excluded. There were also probably times when I held back in friendships and relationships fearing that I would be rejected and ended up feeling disconnected. One of the ways that I adapted to my experience of loneliness was to make myself useful. To be the friend that people call when they are going through a hard time, to be the one who bakes cookies from scratch and brings them to the gathering. I unconsciously believed that if I did enough people would include me regardless of whether or not they really wanted me to be there. While I will probably always enjoy doing things for people it’s been interesting for me to push myself to unlearn this tendency especially in the context of doing therapy where just being present can be powerful and healing.

I wish I could say that I was over this loneliness, this fear of being left out but I’m not. While I have come a long way and I’m much less sensitive than I used to be, I continue to struggle at points. Even as an adult I have struggled with being left out by my friends questioning what I have done wrong, how I could be better/different so that I could be included.

Your loneliness may look different than mine Loneliness can involve being in a crowd of people and feeling all alone or it could be spending a night at home alone scrolling through social media wishing you were out with friends. Loneliness can feel like wanting to call a friend but feeling like they won’t answer or want to talk to you. Loneliness often accompanies feelings of self-criticism and even shame as we assume that we are lonely because something is wrong with us.

Despite our increasingly connected world and ability to access other people at any time, many of us are feeling lonelier than ever before. This growing prevalence of loneliness is not something to be laughed off as a silly problem affecting millennials; it is a serious issue. Loneliness can negatively impact our health with some research studies connecting loneliness to dying earlier. We are social creatures and when we do not get the social connection we were designed for, our immune system can break down and we are more likely get sick. If you struggle with loneliness, consider the following strategies for overcoming loneliness, which I have found helpful in my own life.

Continue reading “Overcoming Loneliness”

Living Your Best Life from the Inside Out

Blk Woman Smiling in Bed

When you think about living your best life what comes to mind? Do you imagine yourself jet-setting to fabulous locations around the world? Do you picture what you would be doing once you finally make the salary you deserve? Do you imagine yourself getting married and building a life with a doting partner? Often, when we think about living our best lives we focus on the external. For many of us, living our best life is about the way we look, where we are traveling, the parties we are going to, our relationships, the jobs we have, how much money we make, etc. While these external things can certainly help us to live our best lives, I’d like to propose that the most impactful way to approach living your best life is from the inside out.

Have you ever found that after the first few months of having a new car or kitchen appliance the excitement wears off? Have you gotten tired of the pattern of partying and recovering? Have you ever noticed that two weeks after returning from your vacation you were longing for the next one? I think if we’re honest with ourselves the positive effects of these external things that make it look like we are living our best lives wears off fairly quickly. We often overlook the fact that we need to live our best lives from the inside out in order to have the lasting joy that many of us are longing for. We may go on a vacation hoping for peace only to find that we’ve brought our harsh and critical mind along with us. We may find ourselves distracted and disengaged when we are doing things we enjoy. We may find that our obligations to other people keep us from living for ourselves. The following are my recommendations for ways to live your best life from the inside out. My hope is that these approaches to living your best life will help every day to feel better and also enhance your enjoyment of the fun, instagram-worthy activities that you engage in. Continue reading “Living Your Best Life from the Inside Out”

Gaining Peace through the Wisdom of No Arrival

Path through trees

I have been dealing with minor but fairly uncomfortable and frustrating digestive issues since last summer. If I’m being honest I would say that I have been dealing with minor digestive issues throughout my life. My initial approach to addressing my digestive issues was to struggle against them, to figure out how to fix the problem so that I could move on with my life. I worked with an integrative health coach/nutritionist (who was very helpful), I restricted my diet (no grains, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol), which in turn restricted my social life. I started to feel like I couldn’t fully live my life until this issue was resolved. I love cooking and trying new restaurants and felt like I wasn’t able to engage in activities that brought me joy. I was doing everything that I could to get rid of the problem (natural methods, western medicine, etc) and it just wasn’t working.

Then around early May I began to accept that my digestive system is working very hard but struggling to digest food in the way I wanted it to. I stopped thinking about my body as a problem and started appreciating it for what it was trying to do. I reflected on the fact that I have had a sensitive stomach since childhood and accepted that I will likely always have a sensitive stomach. I transitioned away from trying to find the solution to my digestive issues and began to move towards figuring out lifestyle habits and types of food that my body prefers. This is my life, this is my body, and I can struggle against it and treat it as a problem or I can continue to practice accepting it and treating it well. I moved away from seeking to arrive at a place where I would not have digestive issues and could eat whatever I want, to accepting that there will be no such arrival. Since making this shift I have felt much more at peace. I have stopped complaining as much about my symptoms or telling people about all of the foods that trigger my symptoms. I have stopped searching for a magic cure. I have accepted that sometimes I’m not going to feel great physically and I know how to take care of my body during those times. I have gotten back to focusing on living my life instead of waiting to live my life once I’ve arrived at a solution to my problems. I still have days when my digestion feels better and days when it feels worse, the biggest change is how at peace I feel with it all; this peace has come through applying the wisdom of no arrival to my life.

Continue reading “Gaining Peace through the Wisdom of No Arrival”

Cultivating Unconditional Self-Worth

I gave a TEDx Talk at DePaul on May 1st, 2018 on the topic of cultivating unconditional self-worth. I shared my own struggles with self-worth as well as my recommendations for practices that we can all engage in to cultivate unconditional self-worth. I hope you will check the talk out and share it with people you think might benefit from the message. You can find the video here. I have also included the video below.