a big part of my work over the past year has been to transition from an emotional and intellectual dependence on external authority to a strong sense of living life from an inner authority.
this was a challenge.
it was unclear to me what it would mean to not rely upon something outside myself for guidance or validation. frankly, it seemed like more accountability than i was prepared to handle. who could i blame for things not working if i was responsible for all my choices? what would it mean when i inevitably failed?
when the concept of responsibility was reframed for me as “response-ability,” a sense of enthusiasm and resolve began to replace what otherwise felt heavy and overwhelming.
in the simplest language, to be “response-able” is to have the ability to choose the way you respond to a situation.
seems straightforward enough. or is it?
i thought about my typical attitudes and behaviors, and noticed that many were well-worn unconscious patterns, like a footpath trampled into an otherwise grassy meadow, carved in after many tranquil afternoon strolls.
i didn’t choose those responses anymore, i just did them because i’d been doing them and hadn’t thought about how else they might be done.
i thought about the society of personalities in my head, the cast of characters that embodied those unconscious attitudes and behaviors as they spoke to (or as) me. i could see how tricky they were in their ability to pull my potential responses into themselves, masterfully distorting them into one of two flavors of energy: reactive or repressive. (psst: hey! hey you! come down this footpath….)
every time this happened in my life, it was accompanied by a deep sense of being out of harmony with myself. some response that my self wanted to make had been captured, and resulted in a choice that “i” wasn’t really making.
for example, a pattern i’ve struggled with a lot in my life is the way i manage my energy and maintain personal boundaries. my early upbringing taught me certain things (“deny your needs and help others”, “a woman’s job is to serve”) that led me to suppress the choices i might have made in order to fit into some mold of expectations. as a result, one of two things would happen when someone would make a request for my time or attention, and my true response would have been “i’d prefer not to”:
in the repressive version, it was like taking the footpath that led underground.
the energy of my potential response would collapse in on itself, turning inward and sabotaging my authority. on the outside i might reply to that request with, “sure, what do you need?” – on the inside the society of personalities was activated:
the Critic would roll its eyes at me, mercilessly beating me up: “why don’t you ever stand up for yourself? you’re so weak. you deserve to be exhausted.”
the Servant would shoot back with, “i’m a good person, and i’m capable, so why wouldn’t i help?”
the Slave Driver would crack its whip and laugh, “you’re not good until i tell you you’re good. which i won’t. so just keep your mouth shut and keep pushing through.”
the Victim would hunch its shoulders and sigh in resignation, whispering “this is my duty.”
in the reactive version, the footpath led to a megaphone and a pile of dynamite.
the energy of my potential response would get channeled through to some kind of outward expression of rage or aggression. i might balk at the request in disgust or incredulity. “are you seriously asking me that right now? don’t i ever get a chance to just relax??”
the Critic would cluck its tongue, “tsk, tsk. look at you. totally out of control. way to keep your shit together.”
the Servant would apologize, “ugh, i didn’t mean it. i’m a horrible person.”
the Slave Driver would spur me on, “be more self-righteous! remind them of all the ways you do more than your fair share!”
the Victim would be both helpless and indignant, “everyone’s always trying to use me, and i guess that’s what i deserve.”
at the end of the day, neither of these patterns was what i actually meant to say or do. they were the result of pathways laid down long ago by the desire to meet the expectation of family or cultural conditioning. and apparently they were still calling the shots.
how response-able was that?
i understood that part of the process of claiming my inner authority would be to disentangle myself from these old patterns, quiet my mind from hearing their influence, and listen deeper for my own truth.
the issue here, if we return to the footpath metaphor, is that i was more familiar with being a dayhiker than a trailblazer.
i’d need some basic tools to become effective at choosing my own responses, most of mine were as yet unhoned.
one was my capacity to listen in to all my body’s signals.
i’d relied heavily on conceptual frameworks and my thinking mind as the primary tools for making sense of the world for a long time. i’d dismissed physical and emotional signals as something to be kept under control, and as a result many of those signals were muted or altogether silent.
a second was my capacity for intuition.
just as i wasn’t paying attention to my body’s signals, i also wasn’t developing my intuition. my preferred method of understanding something was to use the mental process of intellect, and any information that didn’t come to my attention through logic and reason made me suspect. the phrase “trust your intuition” always seemed dangerously imprecise, hand-wavvy and magical. i was not aware that intuition is a muscle to be developed just like intellect, and practice builds discernment.
a third was my capacity for perceiving an optimal path.
because of the disconnection from the body’s signals, it was quite a challenge to sense what the best choice for me might look like, and how to coordinate that with the situation at hand. paraphrasing the cheshire cat – ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.’
while each of these capacities are simple, building them was not easy. the process of connecting to an inner authority felt like being a toddler learning to walk: awkward with a lot of fumbling and falling down. i started taking baby steps to build the practices that would strengthen the capacities needed to be more effective, creative and free.
in the next post, i’ll describe the three practices that are proving most useful.