"Why?" Isn't that Important
What I've learned in shifting from narrative to experience
First: thank you all so much for your kind replies, texts, calls, and notes about Gabby. It means so much to me that you would check in, that Gabby touched your life, and that my sharing of my last post meant something to you. Second: it’s been a minute since you’ve received The Overalls! Hello, again! Thanks for subscribing, sharing, reflecting, and joining me in this journey.
We humans are meaning making machines. I’ve discussed this a wee bit in a previous post and the impact that has in shaping White, Western culture, in particular.
But we do this virtually every moment of our lives. We are constantly searching for why. Why did this person send me this email? Why am I reacting this way? Why hasn’t my partner returned my texts on the timeline I want them to? Why did my boss use that tone of voice with me? Why is my cat chasing its tail? Why wasn’t I invited to the social gathering of my so-called friends this weekend? Why can’t congress pass the laws I care about? Why can’t I be on time for once in my life? Why am I so lonely? We absolutely obsess over the why.
And there is a biological reason for this: it’s how we learn to stay alive. A great example of this is how we learn that hot things are dangerous and cause pain. Typically, this involves us burning ourselves as little ones and then applying that lesson moving forward in our lives. When I was in elementary school, my family rented a house in Lexington which had a floor furnace so large it took up virtually the entire vestibule that connected my and my parents’ bedrooms with the bathroom. All of us had to learn not to step on this barefooted (or even sock footed!) in the winter. This lesson was almost always learned in the middle of the night, when we were sleepy eyed, fog brained, and possessing full bladders. The shouting that would follow was loud. The grill patterned blisters covering our whole feet that would last for weeks was an excruciating cost of this mistake, but served to teach us the lesson we needed. In this way, the meaning we make of our experience helps to change our behavior, and our brains and nervous systems then become vigilant (and sometimes overly so) for similar conditions, wherein our brains deploy the same response (move away from the hot thing) to keep us alive.
Keeping ourselves alive is a good thing. I’m not going to argue against that. The challenge is that, in modern times, we haven’t built a culture that teaches us to bring discernment to our brain's automatic reactions. We unconsciously accept whatever it’s doing is generally right and good for us. We get caught up in our reactivity constantly, and we act as if this is necessary, right, good, and the way to move forward.
A fairly common, and generally low-stakes, example from all our lives these days: the “ok” text. Consider that your brain reacts differently to when you get its different forms: “okay!” vs “ok.” or “okay…” vs “k”. I’d estimate that right now, as you read this sentence, there are millions of people on this planet consumed by interpreting this text. “Are they mad?”, “Do they agree, begrudgingly, or are they really good with what I just said?”, “Is this their way of opting out of this decision?”, “Do they not like what I’ve proposed?”, “Do they not like me?”, “Are they trying to be a jerk right now?” and on it goes. We’ve all gotten this text, we’ve made meaning of it (and often this meaning is wrong, by the way), and then we’ve immediately reacted. Sometimes that’s been by withdrawing and not responding; other times, it’s been by getting our danders up and being crotchety back; still other times, we’ve employed some form of passive aggression. But we haven’t learned that the meaning our brain made of the text and the reaction it started to put in motion for us, in far less than a second, wasn’t usually helpful or even productive. If we were to slow down, and instead allow it to simply be letters constructed from binary code that arrived to the super computers in our pocket, we could discern and choose a different response. One that’s likely to be more based on what we really want, versus our automatic defensive reactions, which continue the same patterns in our relationships that we’ve always had.
At the end, though: something happened, we made meaning of it, we reacted, and we do this over and over and over again.
Layered on top of this survival mechanism in our brains that consumes nearly all of our waking and dreaming hours is that we live in a society where analysis, strategy, “rational thinking”, intellectual acuity, and decisive action are rewarded; are seen as “the right way” to approach a problem. These preferences are massively out of balance in our collective culture with intuition, sensing, feeling, relating, allowing. How many brunches have you had where you’ve dissected the “okay” text with friends, come up with dozens of possible next steps, discarded some, and then chosen one as the “best thing to do right now” and then acted that out? How many of your organizations are obsessed with strategic plans, operational plans, tactical plans, action plans, KPIs, AARs, data dashboards and more? These are examples of our cultural imbalance in favor of analytical, rational thinking. I could and maybe even might spend an entire future post just on this imbalance, but for now, I’ll say that it’s our culture’s way of amplifying our meaning making mechanisms and then rewarding that behavior over all other options.
Which means: our meaning making obsession is both biological and cultural.
But what if I told you that in most situations, the why doesn’t matter? That releasing ourselves from the drama of answering and obsessing over why questions could be part of our paths to freedom, to liberation? That obsessing over why keeps us in a never ending loop of narrative, where we endlessly recreate recognizable versions of what we already have? That this path - of thinking we have to have answers to why - keeps us from allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, to allow energy to move through and out of us, to allow relatedness and trust, to experience belonging, to experience life?
I’m in a coaching course right now that’s giving me the opportunity to practice this, for myself and my clients. It feels weird (what do you mean it doesn’t matter why I’m angry? I’ve spent decades being able to tell you a thorough, took-me-years-to-discover-via-narrative-storytelling-and-therapy reason why I’m angry! People like to hear it! You mean you just want me to feel and connect with my anger??!?!). It is confronting (feeling the anger seems scary as all hell; talking about the anger is safer; feeling the anger gives me a path to allow it to move through me and for me to exist on the other side of it; talking about it allows me to maintain my identity as someone who is angry because bad things happened to me and this feels safer; feeling my anger requires me to step into responsibility; talking about it allows me to blame others). It is excruciating (it is terrifying for me to open myself to feel this when I’ve spent nearly 40 years numbing myself from it and running away from it). It is healing. It is freeing. It is dissolving (of my drama, my fix-it-ness, the trapped trauma energy in my body).
To move from narrative to experience, I find I have to give up aspects of me that I’ve held as identity. Things that sound like “as a child of alcoholics and drug addicts, I... [do this thing this way]” or “as a sexual assault survivor, I… [react to men this way]” or “as someone who grew up poor, I…[constantly fear the lack of money and other resources]” or “as a woman, I…[think only certain emotions or reactions are allowed]” or “as a white woman, I…[find it difficult to stand up for myself while taking responsibility]”. You get the picture.
It’s not to say those identities aren’t part of me, don’t shape me, have to be lost to me if I want to create something new. It is to say that the clinging to them, the clinging to the narratives they’ve given me as to why I’m so fucking angry all the fucking time isn’t helping me deal with the fact that I’m so fucking angry all the fucking time. The clinging to the stories they generate for me is a barrier to my liberation. They are elaborate, sophisticated defense mechanisms that keep me from dealing with the anger. They allow me / cause me to hold on to the anger.
The reality is that I’m angry. Why I’m angry is interesting, but not powerful for my transformation. Why I’m angry keeps me in the past and doesn’t allow me to create something new in my (or others’) future.
I’m angry. I think it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m full of rage. Allowing myself to feel that - and doing so in the loving presence of others (colleagues, friends, guides, coaches, mentors) - is central to dissolving the grip anger has on me.
I’ve had it for so long that my anger is too much. Too scary. Too unwieldy. Too overwhelming. And so, I must run from it; manage it; mask it; learn strategies for how to operate in the world while it rages like a hurricane-tempest-swall-tsunami-water cyclone in my heart’s center. And it’s that very reaction that keeps it with me. Avoiding my anger - through narrative, through strategy - doesn’t dissolve my anger and heal it. Feeling it, in presence, with others who can help me feel it and love me through the feeling of it, does.
It’s been transformative already. And there is so much of this anger lake left in me to heal. But even feeling the top centimeter has given me such relief. Such spaciousness. Such room to create anew for myself.
If you’re curious about applying this, I’d offer:
Notice when you get stuck in narrative. (hint: it’s going to be virtually all the time; anything after “I feel that…” or “..because…” is definitely narrative.)
[As you move through these remaining steps, I’d encourage you to start with lower-stakes / lower-risk narrative traps, and don’t immediately dive into the heart of your most intense trauma response. Time is abundant; don’t rush.]
Pause. Take a breath. Orient yourself in presence.
Simply state what’s happening, right now, in your body. In your emotional state. [examples: my heart is racing. I feel anxious.]
Notice that your thinking brain will absolutely want you to have a reason why [example: my performance review is in an hour], and allow that your brain is doing that, that it will keep doing that, that it’s your brain’s way of keeping you alive, but resist the temptation to get caught in the narrative as if that’s going to solve or help you slow your heart rate, or give space for the anxiety to move through you.
With someone that will show up for you with unconditional positive regard, share what’s happening in your body and in your emotional state. Keep exploring what’s there for you as you do, right now. Don’t try to fix it or problem solve it. Get curious about it. What does it feel like? What shape does it have? If it has a color, what is it? Does it have a wavelength? A frequency? Where in your body are you feeling it? Ask your person to be with you as you share this. To simply listen and radiate love back to you.
Remind yourself that it’s okay you feel how you feel. You don’t need a reason, let alone a “good” reason, to feel it. You feel it. That is enough.
Without rushing to this point as an outcome, you’ll likely notice that at some point, something shifts in you. As you start to notice a softening or relaxing (perhaps your breath slows down or something that felt intense in your body feels less so), ask your body if there is anything it needs to be with or release the energy you’ve been feeling. Ask what it would take to give your body this and ask for help if you need it.
Breathe. Hydrate. Allow the energy of what came up for you move through and out of your body.
Demonstrate kindness. To your body. To your spirit. To your partner. To the earth for holding you.
We can create new things on this earth. We can create a future where life is sacred, where all beings are loved and valued, where resources aren’t hoarded but shared. We can create a future where we are related, connected, and where each of us experiences belonging. It does require us to stop using the same tools, ways of being, and strategies that got us here to begin with. More and more, I see our obsession with narrative as not necessarily bad or wrong, but as something that needs to take a backseat to our experience of now so that we can heal and create. In presence - where I am connected to all the parts of me, all of us, all of life, and in this moment of experience - is where I find belonging and trust. In presence is where we are a refuge to one another. In presence we can create the world in which we are all free.