A good fit with your therapist is essential. Even with the most brilliant therapist and the most capable client, progress in therapy is limited if there is not a good fit. Sometimes clients are recommended to “shop around” for a therapist, but having to retell your story can be emotional taxing and even turn some people off from therapy. My intention with this blog is to provide transparency in the perspectives, values, and experiences that influence the way I work as a therapist so that you can gauge yourself whether you and I would be a good fit.
- A Child’s Spirit
- Mi-Um Jeong
- The Reset Button
- Evening Ritual
- The Show Must Go On
- Love Keeps Us Kind
- The Trick is to Keep Breathing
- Words have Power
- Compare and Despair
- Sometimes When We Lose, We Really Win
- Morning Ritual
- Juen Hwa We Bok
- New Years Resolution (SMART goals)
- Suicide and the Soul
- Embrace your Anti-Hero
Disclaimer: The contents of this essay may be triggering. Please reach out if you have any safety concerns. 800-273-8255 is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you have imminent safety concerns, please call 911 or go to nearest hospital emergency room.
The wound is the place where the light enters you. – Rumi
When something breaks, it is no longer considered immaculate and becomes adorned with battle scars that make it special and “one of a kind” in its brokenness. At least this my rationalization when things break in my life, such as my phone with a cracked screen, with its unique fractal pattern that gives a felt texture with each swipe and scroll of the finger. As long as things are not completely destroyed, broken objects can be renewed with some elbow grease and some tender loving care, and can continue to serve a purpose in our lives.
However, in our consumer culture, when something breaks, we are quick to replace or upgrade. It hasn’t always been like this. With statements like, “they don’t build it like they used to,” older generations yearn for those halcyon days when things were built to last, and when things did break, the call to action was not to discard but to repair and mend.
This dynamic applies not only to objects but also how people treat themselves, expecting unblemished perfection in every corner of their lives, lines on their resumes, and curves of their bodies. We present picture perfect images of our lives on social media, impose pressures on ourselves to achieve and win accolades, and swipe left on one’s favorite dating app until a perfect match can be found.
Perils of Perfectionism
Voltaire writes that “perfection is the enemy of good” because perfection is unattainable and disingenuous to the imperfect nature of humans, yet we live in a culture that rewards and reinforces the pursuit of perfection.
This critique on perfectionism is not only philosophical but practical. There is an interesting mathematical phenomenon, referred to as the Pareto Principle, that shows up in a wide range of contexts and situations in which only 20% of a cause determines 80% of an outcome, and it takes the remaining 80% of a cause to reach those last percentage points of perfection, highlighting the role of diminishing returns.
Gleanings from the Pareto principle is partly responsible for the soaring success of Facebook’s early years, as their developmental mantra during that time was “move fast and break things.” Their goal was not to create a complete or perfect product but releasing one that was good enough before anyone else, with room to grow. And grow they did into the biggest social media platform that the world has ever seen.
It is important to recognize that our energy, time, and health are not limitless. And so, is it worth expending all our resources to achieve those final percentage points of perfection? The answer to this question is obviously subjective. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin, “it takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything.” This principle is exemplified in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” which is about an elderly Japanese chef many consider to be the Michael Jordan of sushi chefs, whose restaurant has been awarded the most prestigious 3-star Michelin rating. Despite having reached his master level, at the time of the documentary, he continues to spend every day practicing and honing his skills to make the perfect piece of sushi.
Jiro’s singular dedication to his craft is truly inspirational; however, for mere mortals like myself whose passions are diverse and still developing, is it wise dedicating “10,000 hours” to perfecting one craft? And at what point is the pursuit of perfection turn into an unhealthy obsession that creates imbalance in our lives? And when we are mindful of all the starving souls in the world, doesn’t even the perfect piece of sushi become a little less appetizing?
For many, it may be the pursuit of imperfection that is more adaptive. One expression of imperfection is failing to achieve a particular a goal. Despite the fear of failure, there are many benefits to failing. Failing keeps us hungry and humble to keep learning and growing. It forces us to take an honest look at ourselves, including our limitations, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Failing has us change course and look for creative solutions when faced with obstacles and temporary setbacks. And the experience of bouncing back from failure reveals how strong and resilient we truly are. On the flipside, success can lure us into complacency and inflate the ego, so that we are looking over our shoulders or down on others. More than success, it is our bouncing back from failures that should be the metric for progress, “fall down seven, get up eight.”
Aggression Turned Inward
Despite the benefits of failing, it is common for people to fear failure and have such an aversion to it that they go to great lengths to prevent it from happening. This fear pushes people to go beyond their limits and neglect basic needs like sleep and rest; project false images to give appearances of success; and compromise their morals and relationships to get ahead. This fear produces overachieving individuals who place immense pressure on themselves in order to sustain their perfectionistic standards, but at the expense of burning themselves out and losing all motivation and joy in their pursuits. But worse of all, people have tied their self-worth to their performance, such that they only feel worthy under the conditions of achievement. And when failures can’t be prevented, people can shame and punish themselves, as if they committed a heinous crime.
The extreme of self-punishment can be found in those who engage in self-mutilation or cutting. On the surface, it may appear that something is broken with these individuals as the body has a natural instinct to avoid pain. However, on a deeper level, perhaps “brokenness” is a complexity we have not yet comprehended. In my clinical practice, I make it a point to ask clients what they see as the function of their cutting, and the responses are numerous and enlightening.
For some, the pain from cutting focuses their minds and snaps them out of anxious and depressive thought spirals. For others, cutting is a way to feel something, anything to fill the void of numbness and emptiness, like the NIN’s song, “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel.” Those who cut may feel so disconnected with themselves that they do so to remind themselves they still inhabit their body. Cutting can also be a cry for help, especially for those whose cuts are made visible. It is a way to give their emotional pain an expression that is otherwise elusive and invisible. Additionally, cutting may be a way to take back control of their suffering, especially for those whose control was taken away in the face of traumas, like abuse or assault. Cutting can communicate to an abusive other to leave them alone and show how much they are truly hurting. And for some, cutting may be a form of self-punishment, which according to Freud is at the root of depression, “aggression turned inward.”
By sharing these examples, my intention is not to romanticize or condone cutting. It is our responsibility to preserve the sanctity and health of our human bodies, as the body is often an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire between ourselves and our traumas. However, these deeper insights reveal that cutting has a rhyme and reason, and stems from a valid need and desire, whether it be for relief, to feel something, to take back control, and so on. For many, cutting is an adaptive coping mechanism that has helped them get through dark times in their lives.
(For those struggling with cutting, please, please, please seek out professional help. While I encourage healthy alternatives to cutting, please know I do not judge it.)
A Broken Soul
Yet without the insights into the complex ways humans survive their sufferings, we judge, stigmatize, and even lock up those whose unorthodox methods do not fit into the neat box of positive coping. And during a recent visit to a nearby sanctuary, where I frequent to meditate and pray, I witnessed the devasting impact of internalizing these judgments and stigmas. At this sanctuary, I read through a public book that welcomes lost souls to write down their struggles for others to read and in response, provide supportive comments, blessings, and prayers. And what I read penned by a brave anonymous soul brought me to tears and became the inspiration for this essay:
The most heartbreaking part of being mentally ill and having trauma is not the constant struggle. It’s that one moment in which you realize how broken you really are. So broken you don’t have hope for a better tomorrow. It’s like a snowstorm, it starts with a small snowflake, and it grows until it’s an avalanche, destroying everything you know. How do I tell them? How do I tell the world I’m tired of trying? How do I save myself without making others feel bad? I’m desperate, but I don’t want to look it. I’m dying, and I don’t want to make it too obvious. I am trying so hard to keep on going. But I am way to overwhelmed to even know what to fix first. I don’t want to worry those around me. I don’t want to be a burden anymore. So, I’m pretending to smile as I slowly fade away.
This brave soul eloquently expressed their brokenness for others to bear witness, relate to, and inspire love and care. I am touched by the supportive and affirming comments written in response, that show that this brave soul is truly not alone. Yet I am saddened by their need to hide their true self, and heart-broken at their fading away from the internalized misperceptions of themselves as broken and a burden to others, which has them confuse fixing for healing.
(To anyone who has stumbled upon this blog that no one reads, I humbly ask you to say a prayer or offer loving kindness to this brave soul.)
A Broken World
Rather than stigmatizing our responses to our human sufferings as irrational or broken, I am reminded of Viktor Frankl’s sagely words inspired by his survival of Nazi concentration camps, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” From this perspective, perhaps our abnormal reactions are mirroring a broken society, which begs the question, what exactly is in our culture that drives our youth to harm themselves and want to give up on life?
- Broken relationships and families, with a divorce rate that is consistently over 40% every year, resulting in all kinds of attachment traumas.
- A pandemic that has ravaged the physical and emotional health of an entire populace, exposed societal fault lines, and produced immeasurable grief and trauma.
- An opioid epidemic that contributed to 91,799 drug-involved overdose deaths in 2020, compared to less than 40,000 just ten years prior.
- A critical mass of our female population having experienced the trauma of a sexual assault.
- A critical mass of LGTQ youth who have had to hide and feel ashamed of a natural part of their self-identity, especially during their formative years.
- A critical mass struggling with eating and body image issues that previously affected mostly females, fed by unrealistic standards of beauty like the thin ideal, that is now rising for males, especially queer men.
- Our horrid history of racism, genocide, and slavery whose traumas have rooted themselves in the impoverished conditions and minds of those oppressed across generations.
- A society that is addicted to a social media that has us compare and despair to unreal and positively-biased images that make us feel we are not good enough, and our lives suck in comparison.
- Algorithms that keep our populace glued to screens (e.g., TV shows, video games, pornography, online shopping), messing with our dopamine reward system and retreating us from the world of atoms into the virtual world of bits.
- A capitalistic system that reinforces and rewards the greed of those who worship at the altar of ego, money, and status. The same system rigged to make the rich richer and the poor locked into positions of servitude with lifetimes worth of debt.
- An achievement-oriented culture that pushes our youth to overextend themselves and burnout, including kids studying into the evening hours so they can get a competitive edge.
- Mass school shootings that have children killing children, that has directly and vicariously traumatized an entire nation.
- A country so divided along political, social, and racial lines, that any discussions and debates on major and minor issues become contentious and mean-spirited.
- A police force meant to serve and protect, but instead inflicts violence and traumas to our fellow Black and Brown neighbors.
- A government that spends more on the military than the next nine countries combined, whose foreign policy has made us the world’s police and entangled us in all the major conflicts in the past century.
- Wars raging in Ukraine and other parts of the world creating a refugee crisis and traumas that will persist for countless generations.
- A consumer culture that has resulted in the over-consumption of natural resources, and broken down the natural environment to the brink of collapse.
- A climate catastrophe that is not just on the horizon, but already here in the form of entire countries disappearing due to rising sea levels, fires ravaging Europe and other parts of the world, and the largest mass migration of people ever in human history.
A Broken People
As Linkin Park puts it, “we are a broken people living under a loaded gun.” How can we not be given the state of the world? And here in Los Angeles, where there is so much wealth and prosperity, a homeless population has grown to inestimable levels. Fellow human beings whose spirits, minds and bodies have broken beyond repair, and the privileged who can drive by with hardly a glance and inkling to help.
And for my private practice, located near DTLA where homelessness is endemic, the tent encampments finally reached its borders. My first reaction to their encroachment was one of fear and suspicion, privately wishing them to “just leave.” The initial contact with my new homeless neighbors were tense. And after multiple calls from the building owner to the police, a pair of police arrived on the scene, one of whom was Officer Chong, who took our report and clarified that they could not do anything due to city laws, and that the homeless were entitled to the side walk as long as there was enough clearance for people to walk through. He proceeded to act the role of peacekeeper, and brought a group of us to convene with the homeless, and facilitated introductions, encouraged us to be empathic and understanding, and got the homeless to agree that they will do their best to keep the side walk safe and clean.
This conversation shifted my attitude towards my new neighbors. I realized I had been looking at them through the lens of fear and mistrust, and that it was my perceptions that were broken and not them. From this realization, I set the intention to humanize them in my mind, and almost immediately, starting seeing them in a different light. Fellow humans who have faced enumerable hardships, deserving of respect and kindness, and has needs, rights, and dignities like anyone else. From this perspective, I realized that homelessness can happen to anyone, including myself, when tragedy strikes and there is no safety net to catch the fall.
This paved the way to get to know them better. I learned that the leader of this encampment moved to LA from out of State after a series of misfortunes starting with the suicide of a parent, which drove them to a life of using and then selling drugs to get by. And their partner who had lost their professional license and couldn’t get employed despite their best efforts. I started caring for them, and so it was with mixed feelings of relief but also guilt and worry when weeks later, the city came in force with police, public works, garbage trucks, social workers, and even construction trucks to remove the homeless from their temporary home. Even though these individuals with names and life stories are no longer there, I find no peace of mind and it continues break my heart when I think of their plight.
Before anyone politicizes my portrayal of police in a positive light (e.g., black lives matter versus blue lives matter), I have had my own complicated history with police during the phase of my turbulent adolescence. Despite my square, law-abiding adult self, I saw myself as broken during my troubled teenage years, and had multiple run-ins with police, including one time I was paraded around my high school campus by a police officer to both shame me but also as a warning to other trouble makers at my school. The image of my younger sister running out of her classroom in tears upon seeing me in handcuffs is seared into my mind. Like many lost youths in the 90s who gravitated towards gangsta rap to express their disillusionments, a common catchphrase of mine was “fuck the police.”
However, with the wisdom of my later years, I question the approach of “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” For every disgraced officer like Derek Chauvin, there are far more Officer Chong’s who are trying their best to do the right thing. And so perhaps it is not the wholesale condemnation of the police force that will effect positive change, but rather a reformation, one that brings accountability to the misuses of police power, make police less silo-ed and more integrated with social services, and puts into motion the healing needed to bridge the rifts between police and the communities they serve and protect.
The spirit of reformation is found in the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi, an art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The resulting Kintsugi pottery, with its gold lining, is transformed into something beautiful that carries with it the story of suffering but also of healing. Like the shell of an egg breaking when new life hatches, perhaps brokenness is a step that precedes the development of a deeper and authentic sense of self, one that has suffered great pain but also found the resiliency to put things back together.
While I had heard of this artform anecdotally, I wasn’t really moved by it until a scene from the TV show, “The Man in the High Castle,” a show that depicts the alternative reality in which the axis powers of Nazi Germany and Japan won World War II. In this alternate reality exists a high-ranking Japanese man, the trade minister Tagomi, who has the special ability to traverse into our own reality in which the atomic bomb was used to break the will of the Japanese nation into unconditional surrender. In our reality where Japan had lost the war, Tagomi finds that his alter ego is a broken man, an alcoholic who is abusive to his family and abandons them for periods of time. Like a spy, Tagomi takes on the role of his alter ego and learns that during a tirade, his counterpart broke a small cup of his infant grandson, which resulted in tensions between him and his adult son. To heal the trauma, Tagomi engages in the art of Kintsugi, putting back together the small cup using glue and then golden lacquer. He humbly offers the cup to his adult son, asking permission if he can gift it back to the grandchild. His son reluctantly agrees and this act helps heal their broken relationship.
And it was the Kintsugi of rebuilding my life after a traumatic event that launched me towards a career in mental health. Out of respect for the privacy of those involved in this event, the details are not to be disclosed. However, the event left me broken, traumatized with immense guilt and self-hate over my role in the incident. This was the greatest failure in my life.
The incident happened right before I started college and made adjustment very difficult. During that period, I remember feeling desperately lost and alone, frozen and withdrawn from trauma, and insecure why anyone would want to be friends with me. My baseline mood was morose with a guarded demeanor, as if I had a dark secret I needed to keep hidden. I wasn’t interested in the usual socialization events but rather I roamed the libraries and catalogs for books and courses that could provide insights in making sense of what happened and how I could help those involved. I took psychology classes, not in pursuit of a future career, but for my desperate need for answers. And in my search for answers, I found none.
I had no other choice than to suffer the trauma. Being down on my luck, I got to see how cruel people can be, looking down on me from their high places, with their rejections and judgments. My depression made me a downer to my peers, whose priorities were to go out, make friends, and have fun. I failed to keep the vibe positive and chill, and so I was discarded and asked to “just leave.” My social isolation made me desperate for any pittance of inclusion and external validation, and as a defense to the pain of rejection, I put on a thick armor of perfectionism and workaholism, with the mantra, “success is the best revenge.” I put pressure on myself to never get out of line and say only the right, agreeable things, a departure from just a year earlier when I had to the audacity to lecture the police officer who misused their power in that march of shame. But the performance of perfectionism in my academic and personal lives eventually burned me out and made me disconnected with myself.
And while life exposed me to the cruelties of others, it also brought forth kind others who made genuine efforts to provide support and guidance during this difficult time. And on one fateful night, a few dormmates forced me out of my shell to attend a Christian fellowship meeting, despite my agnostic leanings towards a spirituality not bound by religion. I remember feeling socially anxious and not wanting to go, but during the praise song part of the fellowship, something swept through me, and I sang my heart out and got really emotional. With my arms lifted, I felt compelled to surrender my life to a higher power, and remember telling God that I’ve made a big mess of my life, and prayed for Her to take charge.
And take charge She did, not in spectacular fashion, but slowly and gradually. I continued to suffer for months on end, but things started to change. From the cracked edges of my brokenness, the light of healing seeped in, allowing me to be reborn from within. A light that created a sense of belonging within my Self, that now had God as its inner companion. With this new lens, my perspective changed from that of revenge to, “stronger is God that lives within me than what is in the world.” This perspective change had a transformative effect, turning my loneliness into solitude that had me self-reflect and make sense of what happened, guilt into remorse of making amends and paying it forward, and the grandiosity of “saving” others into placing their care in God’s hands.
Much of life is suffering, but not all of it. Rarely is life all bad, there are silver linings everywhere, one just needs to have an open heart and be present for them. These minor bright spots became the Kintsugi glue that put the broken pieces of my life back together. And like a jigsaw puzzle, after putting a few pieces together, it made it easier to find the other pieces which started to bring into focus the image of my vocation, becoming a psychologist.
Even with this image, my future was uncertain and the long road ahead felt daunting. Despite my anxiety, I realized that uncertainty is a neutral state, things can get worse, but things can also get better, and I hinged my hope on the latter. And by luck or divine intervention, happen chance encounters brought strangers, professors, and counselors into my life, who became my friends, mentors, and role models, and opportunities presented themselves that paved the way for me to pursue graduate school. Life is indeed darkest before the dawn.
Putting the Pieces Together
Trauma breaks down connection with ourselves and fragment our memories in the haze of dissociation, numbing agents, and stuck emotions, which makes it difficult to make sense of what happened. And in the form of flashbacks, trauma has us relive these events in terrifying fashion. However, when we are able to consciously guide this process with wisdom and compassion as well as help from others, the reliving provides an opportunity to pick up these broken pieces of our lives to form a coherent narrative. And as the author of this narrative, we have the power to reform the narrative to one that transforms a victim into a survivor.
It’s a cliché that time heals all wounds, which I take to mean that it takes time for things to get better, as traumas are not discrete events but whose effects can last for years, dominating phases of our lives. But phases eventually come to pass, and many years later, with my psychologist training in hand, I retraced the steps of my past traumas, accompanying my inner teenager so that he no longer had to suffer the traumas alone. I physically visited these old sites of trauma, which re-triggered memories and feelings from that time, and in response, I offered empathy, understanding, and compassion to myself, as well as gratitude and prayers for those kind others. Reliving these traumas was like being in the trenches together with my inner selves and companions, and this formed an unbreakable bond within myself. And this secure bond broke down my walls so that I could engage the most natural response to pain, the simple but vulnerable act of crying, which provided a cathartic release to the messy feelings that have been trapped inside me for so many years, allowing my emotions to flow again and returning my body to homeostasis.
We inhabit a mad world that pushes us to the extremes of perfectionism and brokenness, and when we go to these extremes, it leaves us so depleted and lost that we lose the will to carry on. Like the Pareto principle, I realized that balance, not perfection, is the true gold standard of life, so that we have enough reserves to find our way back Home. And in passing through the extremes of life, we resort to “abnormal reactions” to cope with our pain for a period of time, like cutting, drug use, and acting out, which we so often stigmatize and even punish. However, when the pain is too much, is it not natural to find relief in whatever way possible? And these unorthodox ways of adapting to the sufferings create a diversity that is edgy, unique, and hardy. Furthermore, like the body healing after a cut leaving scar tissue, life breaks us down, creating sharp fragments and shattered messes, and in response, we find a way to put everything back together, with linings of gold, silver, and Love, the strongest of bonds. And in the act of picking up the pieces, we have a choice in which pieces to pick-up and which to leave behind, and putting them together in a way that is most congruent with the colorful refractions of light that illuminates within each and every broken soul.
Posted August 22, 2022 by Y. Sue Park. This essay is dedicated to the brave soul in the sanctuary.
A Child’s Spirit
All grown-ups were once children…but only a few of them remember it. – The Little Prince
Growing old is natural, growing up is spiritual. While age is correlated with maturity, spiritual growth involves the integration of all parts of self, including the maturing inner child of the adult. Society judges a childish adult as immature, as it can be frustrating dealing with adults whose arrested development keeps them stuck in a state of self-absorption, emotional instability, and over-dependency. On the other hand, over-functioning adults are rewarded for their industriousness and reliability. Yet it is not uncommon for these responsible adults to have been parentified as children, creating an unfillable void of a lost childhood. For these individuals, the loss is often ungrieved as people are generally unaware of missing something they’ve never had before. In both cases, these childhoods have been disrupted, one stuck from growing up and other having grown up too fast.
The reality principle dictates that we cannot travel back in time and change what happened. However, the psyche preserves the images, memories, and feelings of our child self that is safely tucked away until we are ready to make contact with our inner child later on in life. Connecting with the inner child is not a regressive act but a moving towards a fullness of self. And this relationship with our inner child can be the secure base from which we can heal childhood traumas; satisfy unmet needs, desires, and fantasies; and feel at home in our own self.
The Imprisoned Child
Alice Miller, a psychologist whose writings have had a great influence on me, writes in the Drama of the Gifted Child (DOGC) that connecting with our inner child is like finding home for the first time,
An adult can be fully aware of his [sic] feelings only if he had caring parents or caregivers. People who were abused and neglected in childhood are missing this capacity and are therefore never overtaken by unexpected emotions. They will admit only those feelings that are accepted and approved by their inner censor, who is their parents’ heir. Depression and a sense of inner emptiness are the price they must pay for this control. The true self cannot communicate because it has remained unconscious, and therefore undeveloped, in its inner prison. The company of prison warders does not encourage lively development. It is only after it is liberated that the self begins to be articulate, to grow, and to develop its creativity. Where there had been only fearful emptiness or equally frightening grandiose fantasies, an unexpected wealth of vitality is now discovered. This is not a homecoming, since this home has never before existed. It is the creation of home. (Alice Miller, DOGC).
Under the conditions that Miller describes, this undeveloped true self exists within the psyche in child form. Like Anne Frank hidden in her attic for nearly two years, the attic was both protection from the dangers of Nazi Germany but also a prison. It was not safe for her to show herself, let alone her true self which could only be expressed through her diary. There was no happy ending for Anne, she was killed just a few years later after leaving her safe sanctuary, yet the essence of her true self was preserved through her diary that lives on in perpetuity.
Fast forward to modern times, the emotions of an imprisoned child is painfully expressed in Justin Bieber’s song “Lonely,” in which he laments the loneliness of his childhood and mistreatment by adults, “they criticized the things I did as an idiot kid.” The images in the music video are beautifully haunting: the empty back stage, the white flowers next to his baseball cap, the brief and fleeting swings of his hockey stick, and the frozen pause before he goes on stage, under the immense pressure of performing to a vacant arena full of adoring fans invisible to him. At the end of the music video, the adult Bieber looks upon his true self in child form, with empathy and grief, bringing together the older, wiser Bieber with his child self who before suffered alone.
Given his celebrity, I can only imagine that Bieber was surrounded by opportunists, sycophants, and critics growing up, which only adds to his prison of loneliness, as loneliness is worse in the company of mis-attuned others. Worst still is the depth of loneliness from being estranged from oneself. Many like Bieber had to construct a false self to adapt to the circumstances of his youth: the child prodigy and phenom, the global brand that is an institution to itself, and an idol that endeared him to adoring fans but also made him a target to critics and bullies. This false self is the “inner prison” that Alice Miller speaks of, which despite its protective origins, becomes the prison walls that the true self must hide behind.
Not all prisons are physical, walls and bars would be less confusing. For many, the prison of false self is made up of smiles and pretending everything is alright, saying the right and unoffensive things, and upholding an image of a happy life. This prison in plain sight is captured in Bieber’s lyrics, “Like my house was always made of glass,” which reminds me of Alice Miller’s description of a client who had lost touch with their childhood:
I lived in a glass house into which my mother could look at any time. In a glass house, however, you cannot conceal anything without giving yourself away, except by hiding it under the ground. And then you cannot see it yourself, either.
The “it” that is hidden underground is the true self. For Anne Frank, it was not only her physical presence she needed to keep hidden, the dangers also dictated her child spirit be suppressed – the joy from play and laughter, the cries from fear and grief. Not even whispers of these expressions were permitted. For Bieber, what parts of himself needed to be suppressed to fulfill the duties of his celebrity, to fulfill society’s unquenching thirst for entertainment and sick need for an idol to both idealize and worship, but also to villainize and put down.
Most people may not relate to the horrors of a World War, or the celebrity of a child star, but how common are children who have to deny their childhood – its impulses, emotions, and fantasies – to live up to parental expectations and societal standards, and to conform to a predetermined image not of their own. The irony of the loneliness that stems from a suppressed childhood, including those who delude themselves of having had a happy childhood, is that we all struggle with this issue to some extent or another, and so we are truly not alone.
The Lost Child
The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents. – Carl Jung
Parents try their best with what they learned and how they themselves were parented. However, what if an unlived aspect of a parent’s life was being deprived of secure childhood that forbid them to be fully and truly themselves, not just the good and happy parts, but also the bad and messy parts of being a kid. Or what if resources were lacking, and there was an absence of a consistent and stable environment of belonging, safety, and care. Providing something one never got is near impossible, even for the most well-intentioned parents.
This dynamic of parenting based on how one was parented results in the re-enactment of the same patterns and traumas across multiple generations. As children, these patterns become normalized that hinders awareness that something is not right in this family picture, “it is like the air he breathes; he knows no other, and it appears to him to be the only breathable air” (DOGC, p. 21). Moreover, even when children become aware (e.g., comparing their family to their peer’s), they have no choice than to go along until they are self-sufficient and old enough to leave their family domicile.
It’s so obvious to me now how limited parents are in fulfilling what is arguably the most important responsibility we have as adults. Yet when I was a child, I put my own mother and father on a pedestal and saw them as Queen and King who always knew better, “to ensure the illusion of love, care, and kindness” (DOGC, p. 65). Now as a parent myself, I realize parents are imperfectly human. Parents have more experiences and privileges as a function of their age, but are still growing themselves with insecurities and limitations. It pains me when I disappoint or break promises with my son, or when I lose my temper or displace frustrations onto him, or when I take the easy road of spoiling him and relying on TV nanny so that I can focus on other demands and selfish desires that I rationalize as more important.
Given that children are smaller, weaker, and less experienced, they are dependent on their caretakers for basic survival. More than abuse, the loss of attachment is a child’s greatest fear, “the loss of his mother’s love for a child, can mean the same as death” (DOGC, p. 13). This dynamic leaves the child vulnerable to the misuse of parental power:
The parents have found in their child’s false self the confirmation they were looking for, a substitute for their own missing security; the child, who has been unable to build up his own sense of security, is first consciously and then unconsciously dependent on his parents. He cannot rely on his own emotions, has not come to experience them through trial and error, has no sense of his own real needs, and is alienated from himself to the highest degree. Under these circumstances he cannot separate from his parents, and even as an adult he is still dependent on affirmation from his partner, from groups, and especially from his own children (Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child).
Few parents would admit that they exploit their children for their own good, but there are many ways this can happen, often unconsciously. Parents can displace their anger and frustrations from other areas of their lives onto their children. Insecurities and weaknesses can be projected onto the child, so that parents don’t have to feel vulnerable themselves. Children can be made to revolve their lives around the parent, making parents the center of attention. Parents can make children extensions of themselves so that they can stay in control. Children can be ridiculed and shamed so parents can feel superior. Parents can over-protect and condition dependency, so that children won’t ever leave them. Children’s accolades can be paraded around town, feeding the parents’ narcissism. And children can be neglected as a result of the parents’ own lost childhood. These are just a few commonplace examples of ways parental power can be misused.
Even with my training as a psychologist, I fall prey to these misuses of power. As a remedy, I try to keep myself accountable to the following principle: power is attached to a position or role, but not to the person, such that my power as a parent starts and stops at my responsibility of taking care of my child, and is not meant for personal gain. However, outside of extreme cases of child abuse or neglect in which DCFS gets involved, these misuses of power can easily go unnoticed, even to the parents’ own conscious awareness. Parents, and our culture, can rationalize these behaviors as training and discipline for the child’s own good, but is it really?
A famous study that exemplifies the impact of caretaker power is one from post-war Germany that compared the experiences of children at two orphanages. Because these orphanages were State governed, there were “experimental” controls in place, such as children from both orphanages having the same diet, the same programming, and frequency of doctor visits. The one major difference is the women in charge of these orphanages could not have been more different. Based on descriptions taken from Robert Sapolky’s “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” Fraulein Grun was described as a “warm, nurturant mother who played with children, comforted them, and spent all day singing and laughing,” while Fraulein Schwarz was described as having “minimized her contact with the children” and “frequently criticized and berated them” in public view. Upon comparing outcome measures, the study found significant differences in height and weight, with the children at Schwarz’s orphanage growing at a slower pace. Interestingly, Schwarz was eventually transferred to take charge of Grun’s orphanage, and the study found the growth rate of her previous orphanage promptly increased, while the growth rate of her new orphanage became stunted, highlighting both children’s resiliency but also sensitivity towards caretakers.
In my opinion, the most important subject of this study was left unexamined: the psychological autopsy of Fraulein Schwarz’s inner child that was absent from her approach to child rearing. In an alternative reality, her inner child could have related to the pain of the traumatized and orphaned children, and could have befriended and found joy and laughter in playing with them. But in our reality, what happened to this part of her? And what were the conditions and traumas from Fraulein Schwarz’s own childhood that made her this way?
The Traumatized Child
A common perception of therapy is that it is space for clients to vent frustrations about their parents. While there may be therapeutic value in clients giving voice to and releasing their emotions around parental grievances, the intention is not to villainize parents but to help clients become aware of the dynamics in their parent-child relationship, and with this awareness, establish healthy boundaries and responses, more often for the sake of the relationship than in spite of it.
Furthermore, by gaining insights into their parents’ history, clients are able to better understand what intergenerational traumas are being transmitted in order to prevent future generations from suffering the same fate. Therapy is not only an opportunity to heal one’s own trauma, but to exorcise the demons that have haunted past generations. To this end, it may be helpful to understand the psychological mechanisms that explain how traumas from childhood can have lasting effects into adulthood, and how these traumas get re-enacted when these individuals become parents themselves.
Trauma is often looked at as a catastrophic event such as abuse or assault, but there are traumas with a small “t” that may not seem traumatic for an adult, but may for a child. For example, an insecurely attached child may experience a parent leaving on a business trip as an abandonment, or a child blaming themselves when parents have an argument, or a child fearing grave punishment for not bringing home straight A’s on a report card. What is traumatic is relative to the sensitivities and the developmental stage of the individual child. Because these events are often dismissed, the trauma expert Bessell Van der Kolk has advocated for the inclusion of “adverse childhood experiences” in the DSM, the primary reference for psychiatric diagnoses, so that the impact of these events do not go undetected by the mental health field.
Rather than viewing trauma as an external event (e.g., abuse), Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing Therapy, defines trauma as an internal, physiological event. Specifically, Levine suggests that trauma happens when a person’s nervous system gets stuck in a chronic state of dysregulation in response to a perceived threat. It does not matter whether the perceived threat is a real danger, the perception itself triggers the body’s stress response of fight, flight, or freeze, “the mind creates the abyss, but the body and heart has to cross it.”
A normal stress response involves a completion of the physiological cycle of sympathetic arousal (fight or flight), followed by a period of rest and recovery, which eventually returns our nervous system to a state of equilibrium or homeostasis. As Peter Levine puts it, “what goes up must come down.” However, in the case of traumas and adverse childhood experiences, the body is not able to complete the stress-recovery response, and the body gets stuck in the sympathetic arousal stage, experienced as a constant state of feeling threatened, not just for days or weeks but years long after the harmful event has passed.
For this reason, Bessel van der Kolk titled his seminal text on trauma, the Body Keeps the Score. And when the body is stuck in a state of threat, the mind perceives events through the lens of fear even though there may not be real danger, such as misinterpreting neutral situations as harmful and projecting benign others as out to get them. The mind fixates on threat, and like a Google search, the traumatized individual is bound to find danger if that is what they are looking for. Furthermore, when historical traumas do not get resolved, the trauma repeats and gets re-enacted with current and future others, as if they are reliving the past until a resolution can be found. It is not surprising that up to 81% of parents who mistreat their children were abused themselves, according to this review.
For parents who are carriers of intergenerational trauma, their own children can be the misperceived as threats, such that a child acting out may be looked at as having mal-intent, justifying the need to punish or shame them. In this vein, the child can be unconsciously enlisted to reprise the role of the traumatized child in a sick and twisted re-enactment of the unresolved trauma, but this time around, the roles are resolved. The parent is no longer the helpless child but the powerful adult, who can either use their power to break the pattern or repeat it. And when the traumatized parent identifies with the abuser in the re-enactment, the pattern is repeated, and the child suffers the same abuse from generations prior. The child becomes the sacrificial lamb to the true enemy manifested through generations of parents, the trauma itself.
The Mirrored Child
Like lookin’ in a mirror, tryna steady yourself
And seein’ somebody else
-Justin Bieber, Lonely
Childhood trauma is not only stored in the body, but in the very foundation of a child’s sense of self that is ever so present in future attachments. From an attachment perspective, it is important to note that an infant instinctively attaches to a primary caregiver prior to them developing a sense of self. Having a self-concept, being self-aware, or having positive self-esteem have no survival benefits for an infant, what they need are the basics like food, shelter, and safety that only a caregiver can provide.
Over time, an emotional bond forms between the infant and the primary caregiver, and an internal working model of the caregiver forms in the infant’s psyche, which becomes the secure base not only for the infant to explore the unknown world but also to develop the self. Starting in early childhood, the child begins to develop a sense of self not in a vacuum but in relation to their caregiver’s mirroring and treatment of them. Specifically, the reflected images of themselves become the basis for who they are, such that when a child is treated with care and acceptance, they see themselves as worthy of love. Contrary to the Cartesian notion of “I think, therefore I am,” for a child, it is rather, “I matter, therefore I am.”
This dynamic is eloquently captured in the following passage by renowned psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott:
The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein…provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.
The reliance on the caretaker’s mirroring makes children vulnerable to the dynamic of projective identification, known colloquially as gaslighting. Projection is a common defense mechanism in which a person projects unwanted feelings and impulses, as well as disavowed aspects of themselves, onto other people or things, such as when a controlling person accuses others of being too controlling. When projections are directed to a secure other, a self-aware person is able to see through the projection as hypocritical, not take it personally (“that isn’t me”), and stand up for themselves. However, children have not yet developed their ability to be self-aware and secure in themselves, so they are more prone to identify with and internalize the projections as if they are true reflections of themselves. Given this dynamic, it is not uncommon for children to be scapegoated as the “identified patient” of the family.
Furthermore, attachment keeps the child on the same emotional wavelength as their parent’s, such as “when you are sad I am sad” or “I can’t be happy unless you are.” Being on the same wavelength is great if the predominant emotional connection is one of love and safety, and encompasses a wide range of emotions that is attuned to the child’s. However, a child’s emotional life can be severely limited if the emotionality of their parents is undeveloped and lacking. The unexpressed emotions of the child don’t just go away, they get suppressed and linger on in the unconscious.
The mirroring, projections, and emotional life of the child are the building blocks of one’s foundation of self. And when the foundation is built on an insecure attachment, it is like a house built on a cracking foundation, eventually those cracks will widen and spread, and the structure built on top will fall apart. And even though the insecure attachment is no fault of the infant or child, they have no choice but to stay attached for their basic survival.
The Child’s Shadow
Despite the potential for so much to go wrong in childhood, many bounce back from these childhood difficulties with a surviving ego healthy enough to become a functional and generative member of society. An inventive way that individual’s manifest resilience is by finding meaning in their childhood sufferings, and creatively expressing this meaning in a way that enlightens others. And in the search for meaning, it is the shadow of the lost child that guides the way. One such story is that of J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.
The cultural significance of Peter Pan is paramount, and the inspiration for this archetypal character originated from J.M.’s own childhood. Insights into his childhood were gleaned from the biography he wrote of his mother, “Margaret Ogilvy (1896),” who passed away one year prior to the publication. The biography described the impact of his older brother David’s death on his mother, who was her favorite and golden child of the family. When J.M. was six, David was killed in a skating accident at the tender age of 13. One of a parent’s greatest fear is to survive their children, and this loss spiraled his mother into a deep depression, with the shadow of her lost child haunting her for the rest of her life:
There was always something of the child in her, and her laugh was its voice, as eloquent of the past to me as was the christening robe to her. But I had not made her forget the bit of her that was dead; in those nine-and-twenty years he was not removed one day farther from her. Many a time she fell asleep speaking to him, and even while she slept her lips moved and she smiled as if he had come back to her, and when she woke he might vanish so suddenly that she started up bewildered and looked about her, and then said slowly, ‘My David’s dead!’ (J.M. Barrie, Margaret Ogilvy)
J.M. became an emotional crutch for her mother, trying to “make her the merry mother she used to be,” even keeping a record of her laughs on a piece of paper. Yet his efforts at cheer would not penetrate the depths of her grief. Parentified as a child and petrified as an adult, Margaret could not be without the shadow of her lost child, whose image would be projected onto J.M.:
‘Is that you?’ I think the tone hurt me, for I made no answer, and then the voice said more anxiously ‘Is that you?’ again. I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little lonely voice, ‘No, it’s no him, it’s just me.’
By choice or not, J.M. had taken on the role of his mother’s consoler, but this was not made up of adult responsibilities but taking on the false self of David, whose image remained a boy forever. It may have been more than coincidence that J.M. found himself in a caretaker role. Just a generation prior, Margaret’s mother passed away in her childhood, forcing her into the motherly role of taking care of household duties and her younger sibling:
She was eight when her mother’s death made her mistress of the house and mother to her little brother, and from that time she scrubbed and mended and baked and sewed…I see her frocks lengthening, though they were never very short, and the games given reluctantly up (J.M. Barrie in Margaret Ogilvy).
Due to the pressures and responsibilities of becoming the matriarch of her family, Margaret had to give up her carefree childhood. Yet despite her suppressed childhood, Margaret stayed connected with the shadow of the “little girl,” expressed through “innumerable talks” that “made her youth as vivid to me as my own.” J.M. described his mother as a “great reader,” who would read him stories from her favorite genre of adventure novels, such as “Robinson Crusoe,” “Arabian Nights,” and “Treasure Island.” Perhaps because her own childhood was so restricted, it was important for her to show her child side to her children.
J.M. loved this adventure-seeking child image of his mother, even when facing the impending death of his mother as an old woman. A love that would be a companion to Margaret’s inner child as her adult self suffered through grief and depression, and preserving this image of the “little girl” even after Margaret had long discarded this part of her into the shadowy depths of her psyche.
The fierce joy of loving too much, it is a terrible thing… And now I am left without them, but I trust my memory will ever go back to those happy days, not to rush through them, but dallying here and there, even as my mother wanders through my books. And if I also live to a time when age must dim my mind and the past comes sweeping back like the shades of night over the bare road of the present it will not, I believe, be my youth I shall see but hers, not a boy clinging to his mother’s skirt and crying, ‘Wait till I’m a man, and you’ll lie on feathers,’ but a little girl in a magenta frock and a white pinafore, who comes toward me through the long parks, singing to herself, and carrying her father’s dinner in a flagon (J.M. Barrie in Margaret Ogilvy).
It was nearly a decade after Margaret’s death that the “little girl” of her mother who “wanders through my books” would meet Peter Pan. How much of his mother is in the character Wendy? Wasn’t Wendy “every inch a woman” who the lost boys saw as their mother? And doesn’t the iconic image of Wendy don a pale blue dress, which was Margaret’s “favorite costume” growing up? And like J.M.’s earnest efforts to console her mother’s grief by donning the shadow of his decreased brother, was not Wendy reunited with the “Boy Who Never Grew Up” who showed her the way to Neverland where she can be a carefree kid again?
It is a work of his inner genius that J.M. transformed the complexity of his grief and trauma into the story of “Peter and Wendy,” integrating the fantasies of a child with the adult themes of death found in Tick-Tock the Crocodile and the adult cynicisms and scars of Captain Hook. However, it wasn’t until the fortuitous encounter with the “lost boys” that helped him rediscover the Neverland of his youth.
Prior to this fateful encounter, the biographical movie of J.M. Barrie, “Finding Neverland” depicts him as an accomplished but serious playwright whose works were losing the essence of his vocation’s namesake, the play in theatrical play. It was a fateful day when J.M. crossed paths with the Llewelyn Davies boys, five rambunctious boys whose names all show up as characters in “Peter Pan” including the middle child named Peter. J.M. was taken by their imaginative play filled with adventures on a deserted Island fighting pirates in the backdrop of Kensington Gardens. And from this inspiration, he was able to actualize Alice Miller’s “creation of home” for the lost children in his life.
The metaphorical home for the lost boys became a real home when J.M. adopted the Llewyn Davies boys after both their parents passed away due to cancer. J.M. saved these boys from becoming orphans, but it was the boys who saved him many years prior. With the passing of his mother, J.M. no longer had to play the role of David. And time spent playing with the Llewyn Davies boys helped J.M. reconnect with his own child spirit which guided him to complete the story of his childhood trauma, and finally giving a happy ending to the inner children of those dear to him.
Throughout his life, J.M. lamented that his older brother never grew up, “I became a man and he was still a boy of thirteen,” yet through the medium of story, J.M. was able to give this lost boy a name, special powers, and a guardian fairy angel, saving him from the dark abyss of death and into the innocent hearts and minds of children across the world. Looking back J.M. Barrie was not a children’s book writer, as Peter Pan was the first and only play he wrote for children, but like “the second star to the right” that shined for Peter, the tale of Peter Pan is the brightest of all the stories he manifested into the world.
In the penultimate scene of Finding Neverland, after the first on-stage showing of Peter Pan, a theater patron approaches the boy Peter and asks, are you the real Peter Pan? The Llewyn Davies boy responds by saying it is not him but J.M. who is the real Peter Pan. From my perspective, while J.M. Barrie was the steward of the child spirit expressed through the fictitious character, this spirit does not belong to one woman or man or queer, but exists within all of us.
A Child’s Spirit
The child spirit shows us how to live life truly and fully with heart. When children cry, it is with their whole heart. When they laugh, it is with their whole body, and when they play, it is with their whole being. A simple visit to one’s local playground is enough to witness this spirit in action: children running around in dizzying fashion, laughing and playing, with not a care in the world.
It is the deepest of love that I have for the child spirit of my son, who is six years of age and growing too fast. As much as he is dependent on “mommy and daddy,” his child spirit has blessed our lives with a love that have opened our hearts to the children within us. His spirit keeps us on our toes with its spontaneities and curiosities, and fills us with laughter at its boundless whimsy and silliness. His passion for building things from pretty much anything, whether it be perfectly shaped Legos or discarded scraps, inspires my own creativity. His spirit has taken us on magical adventures across galaxies, eras, and dimensions. The duties of fatherhood humble my ego and teaches me the true meaning of patience and devotion, not only for my son but also for my inner child. It is my responsibility to congruently mirror his true self, absent of any false images. And when he is truly safe and free to be himself, there emerges a vitality that is electric and contagious, an energy that invites my own inner child to come out and play.
As adults we lose this vitality, as the world is not so kind and the demands too weary. As we grow older, we accumulate scars and wrinkles that hardens the heart and ages the body, including memories and feelings from our childhood that fade over time. My barber once shared his wisdom that it is my responsibility to protect my child’s innocence for as long as possible, and I have been mindful of this advice ever since. While cynical adults judge innocence as naivete, for a child, innocence is the well-spring of creativity and imagination, that anything is possible as long as they believe. And have we forgotten our first heartbreaks? Children’s innocence makes them scare easily and hurt deeply, with each harsh reality like a fresh first cut to a heart yet unseasoned with scars. The world will make sure the scars are there, which means children need guidance honing their sensitivities towards such strengths and skills as intuition, self-regulation and healthy coping, rather than invalidating statements like “you’re being too sensitive.” A child’s heart can be easily broken, and needs to be handled with great care and protected at all cost. And in the ageless words of Billie Eilish, try not to abuse your power.
Yet, in the Old Testament of the Bible (Genesis 22), God commands Abraham to lay his only son, Isaac, on the altar to be sacrificed as an offering. The perceptive Isaac detects something is wrong and asks about the missing offering. In his unquestioning obedience, a conflicted Abraham lies to his son and proceeds to place his son on the altar. In the very moment Abraham takes his knife to his son, an angel stops him and provides a ram instead to sacrifice, “now that I know you fear God.” The story goes on that Abraham is “blessed” with “numerous descendants” and “possessions” as a reward for his obedience. While this story is obviously not to be taken literally, if this happened in real life, I would call DCFS on Abraham in a heartbeat. However, how often do we sacrifice our inner child to the altar of fear and obedience? Is it not our responsibility to protect children from fear, not instill it? And what kind of God would punish a father for saving his own child?
Children are among the most vulnerable in our society, not only those small humans found in playgrounds and schoolyards, but also the inner children tucked away in the shadowy recesses of our unconscious. Ghandi says that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” And for the individual, it is not fear or obedience, but how we treat the children around us and the childlike vulnerabilities within us that is the true measure of our character.
A touching story that beautifully expresses this principle comes from a client of mine who gave me permission to share. On an ordinarily busy and hectic day for this client, she came across a stray kitten in a street gutter, frozen in fear, covered in dirt and grime, being eaten alive by fleas. While most people, including myself, would not be inconvenienced, choosing instead to ignore and look the other way, something within my client compelled her to rescue this kitten, spending the next few hours diligently washing the kitten clean of all fleas, treating her wounds, and calling over ten shelters until she found one that would provide refuge. Playing devil’s advocate, I asked why she didn’t turn a cold shoulder, and her reply was that she saw no other choice than to save this kitten from certain death. While the rescue was of another animal species, I can only imagine what this act of kindness had on her inner child who had also suffered an extensive trauma history. Did she see mirrored in the kitten her own childhood suffering? With each gentle stroke, was her own inner child tickled? And did her child spirit not give her a choice because all living beings, however small and vulnerable, are precious and need saving?
Seeing the world as it is, there are just too many traumas that exist, that childhood sufferings are inevitable. When traumas become too painful, the psyche regresses to that of a child, crying out for an archetypal mother or father to take care of us. And when parents could not be there for us, the cries of our inner child are heard by the child spirit who comes to us during these critical times, just like Peter Pan did for generations after generations of Wendy’s and Margaret’s, bringing with him the magical fairy dust of wishful fantasies, disruptive temperaments, and powerful emotions that break down the prison of our traumas and false selves, and flies us away towards the shores of change. Is there not a make-believe quality to hope and faith? When this child spirit shows itself, we must befriend it and heed its call to “come away.” With the child spirit as the guide and vitality our compass, the adult and her inner child can relive and work through the difficulties of childhood together, creating a loving bond within ourselves that has the power to heal the child’s heart and complete the story of trauma, giving it a happy ending. An ending that sees the child released from its prison and given a proper home.
Posted July 19th, 2022 by Y. Sue Park. This essay is dedicated to the inner children of my clients, the true authors of this essay.
Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love… Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the White man, but to win his friendship and understanding.
-Martin Luther King Jr.
A concerning trend spreading across contemporary society is that of cancel culture. While the genesis of cancel culture may be rooted in political correctness and social justice, anything to its extreme creates imbalance and conflict, however noble its intentions. Like the cancellation of a TV show with poor ratings, cancel culture has manifested in many ways, such as individuals shamed, family members disowned, friends ostracized, employments terminated, entire groups villainized, institutions boycotted, reputations smeared, books banned, legacies erased, and statues torn down of disgraced heroes.
I am not alone in these concerns, as noted in the open letter published in Harpers magazine and cosigned by the intellectuals of our time, such as Cornell West, J.K. Rowling, and Noam Chomsky, warning our democracy of the perils of cancel culture to free speech and open debate.
A consequence of cancel culture is that it creates an environment of unsafety for all parties involved, based on the threat of cancellation when perspectives and attitudes are deemed politically incorrect, which is subjective to ones political view (e.g., left may see right as politically incorrect, and vice versa). Its up for debate whether cancellations make a positive difference, especially when the core issues are structural. Furthermore, the person or group that is canceled doesn’t just disappear. Some may receive the cancellation gracefully and make amends, but others may take their grievances underground resulting in marginalized individuals and a divided populace.
This is not to say that we should stay attached to those who harm us. We need to establish healthy boundaries and distance from real dangers, such as abuse, assault, and other traumas. However, it is important to note that while tolerating someone or something you dislike may be uncomfortable, it is not necessarily harmful. When cancel culture is taken to an extreme, discomfort can be the threshold for canceling the other, such as ghosting someone at the first “ick” feeling or quickly dismissing someone whose views don’t agree (e.g., tension of opposites).
A recent example of cancel culture is that of former nurse, RaDonda Vaught, who made a costly mistake of administrating the wrong medication that resulted in the death of a 75-year-old patient. RaDonda immediately acknowledged her mistake and reported herself to her higher ups at Vanderbilt University’s Medical Center. Her apology appeared genuine, “I have lost far more than just my nursing license and my career. I will never be the same person…when Ms. Murphey died, a part of me died with her.”
From her response, it appeared that she had taken her lesson to heart. She cooperated in court, and was criminally charged and convicted for the felonies of negligent homicide and gross neglect. Even though RaDonda lost her license and by proxy her career and livelihood, many continued to condemn and criticize her, such as in this Reddit thread. Behind the cover of anonymity and lowered emotional stakes, the Internet has made it so easy for us to put down one another. The Jewish preacher Jesus is credited for saying, “let him [sic] who is without sin, cast the first stone,” yet our society seems to cast a shit-ton of stones.
Another casualty of cancel culture is comedian Louis C.K., who got canceled both professionally (i.e., cancellation of his show) and culturally after allegations surfaced around sexual misconduct by fellow women colleagues. Details can be found here. To be clear about my personal stance, I support the underlying values of the #Metoo movement, and believe the women who came out against Louis C.K. While I disapprove of his harmful behaviors, if I were to be honest, I am still a big fan of his comedy. His self-deprecating humor has been a kind of therapy for me over the years, a nice antidote to the pressures of perfectionism that surround my life.
Cancel culture would have me disavow Louis C.K., which feels like a kind of betrayal to the levity and laughter his comedy has afforded me. My mere endorsement of Louis C.K. creates anxiety that I myself would be canceled for supporting someone who was cancelled. And this anxiety triggered by cancel culture is a problem. When it feels unsafe to not go along with a cancellation, a mob mentality can easily form. And when we globalize our judgment of a person’s mistakes to their whole personhood, we shame all of who they are, were, and will be. Their past contributions, the good parts of their character, and their humanity are disavowed.
A third example is a historical figure most people have never heard of, Robert Millikan, an American physicist who discovered the electrical charge of a single electron, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1923. Additionally, he was one of early founders and a long serving President of Caltech that has its administration building named after him.
In 2021, despite his invaluable contributions to the field of Science, his statue and namesake was removed from Caltech lore due to his endorsement of the Eugenics movement circa 1920s. A personal aside, I am vehemently against the Eugenics movement. According to this philosophy, my ancestors would have been culled off and I would not exist today. And so I concur his views were problematic. I assume that Caltech also viewed Millikan’s views on Eugenics as problematic prior to 2021, yet his legacy was officially intact until recently, so what changed?
While there may be symbolic value in dishonoring Millikin’s views on eugenics, through educational means that raise awareness and critical thinking on these issues, I question the strategy of cancelling. If we erase the cultural memory of the “sins of our fathers,” how can we be reminded of and learn from them? Will future generations of Caltech students even learn about Robert Millikan, his contributions but also his problematic views? And to what extent is historical context considered?
As expressed in MLK’s ageless wisdom that “hate begets hate,” when we answer centuries of social injustice with canceling whomever and whatever we disagree with, despise or feel threatened by, we play the same game of villainizing and marginalizing the other, perpetuating a cycle of conflict that eventually turn us into oppressors ourselves. It is the same pattern, this time with different actors playing the same roles. Only through the “power of love,” can we break free from this endless cycle of discrimination and exclusion.
One expression of this love is manifested in the Korean concept of “Mi-um Jeong,” which translates to an affectionate bonding (Jeong) with someone you dislike or hate (Mi-um). Consistent with collectivistic nature of Korean culture, Mi-um Jeong connotes the sentiment of getting along with whomever is in our lives regardless of whether we like them or not. Simply put, I don’t like you but I still care for you.
While I grew up hearing about Jeong from my Korean family and community growing up, I did not take professional note of it until I had the honor of meeting Dr. Luke Kim, who has now passed. Dr. Kim was a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC Davis known for working with the prison population at the California Department of Corrections in Vacaville, and pioneered the approach of Jeong-based therapy, as described in his autobiography, Beyond the Battle Line: The Korean War and My Life.
From our personal communication, Dr. Kim defined Jeong as an “affectionate bond” that can form from the simple condition of co-existing with one another. Dr. Kim differentiated Jeong from Western forms of love, in that Jeong is more implicit and attachment-based, whereas love is more explicit and emotion-based (e.g., “I love you,” hugs and kisses). The two are not mutually exclusive. Jeong can be seen as a pre-condition to love, in that Jeong is the bond from which love grows, flourishes, and renews itself. From this perspective, while all love has Jeong, not all Jeong has love. For example, while I may not always feel love or act lovingly towards my wife, there is always an undercurrent of Jeong that is unbreakable even when we are at each other’s throats. It is Jeong that makes me sad and guilty after a fight, and Jeong that pushes me to re-establish love in the relationship.
It is important to differentiate Mi-um Jeong from trauma bonding, which is an emotional dependency that can form between individuals caught up in a cycle of abuse or violence, in which individuals can get addicted to the euphoria that arises from the reconciliation and honeymoon stages that follow the tension building and incident stages of this cycle. Trauma bonding is not Mi-um Jeong, because Jeong like love does not seek to harm or threaten.
While it is difficult to love somebody we hate, Mi-um Jeong cultivates tolerance, inclusion, and connection with those who we may dislike due to individual differences or conflicts. Mi-um Jeong is not a surface level, fake politeness or pretend friendliness to those we despise. From this perspective, Mi-um Jeong is a “both-and” of an acknowledgement that a Mi-um (dislike) exists and yet still caring for the other person. It keeps us from cutting off or “canceling” people because of the bond that connects us.
It is a slippery slope when we cut off those we dislike. The more we do this, our world becomes smaller and insulated, and this has the effect of us becoming narrow minded and rigid in our thinking. Furthermore, we miss out on the opportunity to reconcile differences and repair ruptures when we excessively employ avoidance strategies (e.g., cutting off someone) to deal with disagreements, tensions, and conflicts.
Judge the Behavior, Not the Person
A common trope in therapy is, “judge the behavior, not the person,” such that when a person makes a mistake, their behavior is judged as maladaptive but not their whole personhood. It is my belief that this principle is at the root of Mi-um Jeong, that I can dislike a person’s beliefs and attitudes, behaviors and choices, and even their personality, but still respect the essence of who they are and their personhood. For example, I can disapprove of Louis C.K.’s bad behavior, but still enjoy his comedy, and yet still be in support of the #Metoo movement. Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, states that one aspect of the Wise Mind is its ability to hold two of more conflicting views at the same time.
The emotional impact of judging a behavior versus a person is vastly different, guilt in the former and shame in the latter. While excessive guilt is problematic, an appropriate dose of guilt can motivate someone to take an honest look at themselves and their values. Guilt precedes remorse (i.e., feeling sorry), which is the energy that drives a person to make amends. However, shame often drives a person to withdraw and hide, not just socially but also from themselves (e.g., depression). Shame makes it difficult for people to see themselves as redeemable, and attaches anxiety to the simple act of looking at oneself in the mirror.
It is important to remind ourselves that humans are complex, three-dimensional beings with good, bad and ugly sides, and when we view each other in strict black and white terms, we not only flatten their lives and experiences (seeing others as “all bad”) but also our own self. Seeing oneself as “all good” in relation to the other (e.g., not willing to admit faults) is a trap that inflates the ego, fueling a narcissistic sense of self that has many blind-spots (e.g., inability to see the other’s POV). Furthermore, human relationships are reciprocal, so that when we view and treat others as “all bad,” the other person will likely not see us in a positive light and react in negative ways to protect themselves, such that we get cancelled back, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Mi-um Jeong has the transformative power of turning enemies into friends, and despicable others into teachers. I can think of several meaningful friendships in my life that started off with either me not liking them or them not liking me. However, if I had cut off these people from the get-go, I would have sorely missed out.
Furthermore, the people who we have the most difficulties with, can be our most valuable teachers for patience, compassion, and humility. It’s easy to be kind to someone who is likeable, but a greater growth can come from the challenge of showing kindness to those we despise. When we face this challenge, it provides an opportunity to go beyond feelings of dislike and negative judgments, towards an empathic understanding for why someone is the way they are, which has a humanizing effect.
A story told by my favorite mindfulness teacher, Jack Kornfield, that highlights the transformative power of Jeong is about a monastery that was plagued by infighting amongst its fellowship of monks. Because of this conflict, the monastery recruited a mediator who assessed the situation and came up with the following recommendation. The mediator said that one among them is the living reincarnation of the Buddha, and that it was their job to discover who this was for themselves. In the days that followed, the monks, not knowing who exactly was the Buddha incarnate, treated each other with respect, kindness, and understanding, partly in fear but also in reverence of the Buddha among them. Seeing the Buddha in each other had helped them awaken the Buddha in themselves.
A popular mindfulness practice that cultivates this principle is the Loving Kindness meditation, which involves a part in which affirmative statements are mentally and spiritually offered to a disliked other:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be safe.
May you live with ease.
As exemplified in the monastery story, Mi-um Jeong not only drives the process of reconciling conflicts and differences with others, but also leads us towards self-redemption. It is helpful to recognize that conflicts are often co-created, in that both sides are responsible for contributing to the conflict. When we relinquish this responsibility, we may unintentionally disregard the power we have to impact change in our relationships, and makes ourselves to be the victims. Taking responsibility is a sign of maturity and growth. It takes self-awareness to recognize our wrongs, strength to take responsibility, and courage to admit our mistakes. Taking responsibility paves the way for an apology, a forgiveness, a reconciliation, and a moving on.
Mi-um Jeong drives us to stay with the process of reconciliation because we are bonded to the other person, we are each other’s keeper. Without this drive, we can stay stuck in blaming and resenting others, which is toxic not just interpersonally but also to our interior, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies” (Nelson Mandela). This is not to say the resentment (Mi-um) is not valid, oftentimes resentment develops from past hurts, abuses, and traumas that need to be healed, reconciled with, and released. However, holding onto the resentment is like an injury to an injury, it spews toxicity into our hearts and minds, and perpetuates tension in the body.
When we see all human bonds as sacred, holding onto Mi-um towards another is akin to harming ourselves. And when this Mi-um leads us to cancel each other, we break this sacred bond. Canceling may bring temporary relief or satisfaction, but it is rarely ever-lasting. The people in our lives, and parts of ourselves, we cut off from consciousness don’t just go away. Rather, they get split off from conscious view and communication, and these split off forces can make our inner realities a living hell. To break this cycle, we must find the Jeong in Mi-um so that love can grow in the areas of our lives that have been devastated by fear, hate, and confusion.
To conclude, I am reminded of a social justice townhall I attended while I was a graduate student at UCSB. I remember a young, White female student making a somewhat naïve comment along the lines of why we couldn’t all just get along. I remember the community coming down on her hard with criticisms and disgusted stares, including the White facilitator who urged her to just listen and not speak. I still remember the image of that student shutting down, and I can only imagine how she felt in that moment: unsafe, confused, and silenced. She disappeared the rest of event. I question the effectiveness of this approach to social justice, as learning simply does not happen when we are in state of fear. And if defensiveness is what is triggered by this approach, does it truly move the needle towards a just society?
It’s interesting the various images that symbolize justice in our society. In the legal world, there is the image of blind lady holding the scales of justice. In the realm of social justice, the image of a clenched fist prevails, which connotes both solidarity and strength but also aggression. When I imagine Mi-um Jeong, the image that comes up for me is a limp and reluctant hand-shake. Yet overtime, the Jeong in the Mi-um can transform this handshake into one that is firm and connecting, the conditions needed for actualizing MLK’s vision towards winning the “friendship and understanding” of the disliked other.
Posted June 17th, 2022 by Y. Sue Park. This essay is dedicated to Dr. Luke Kim.
The Reset Button
In the wee hours of October 10th, 2019, a burglar broke into my car parked in the driveway of my family’s humble abode. Our privileged bubble of suburban safety burst at the seams, giving my family a small taste of the unsafety many Angelinos face on a far more frequent basis. We caught the burglar on tape, a lanky figure moving swiftly in the shadows, but the police couldn’t do much other than taking a report. The next few days were hectic, shoring up our home security and taking measures to prevent identity theft. More important was re-establishing safety for my four-year old son who was freaked by the incident and no longer felt safe being alone in his own home.
My emotional experience of the incident was one of fear, anger, and dejection. Vengeful fantasies entered my mind of the burglar getting caught and punished for their crime. Among the items stolen was my laptop which contained years of work that I foolishly had not backed up. My aggression turned inward, while I rarely keep valuables in my car, I beat myself up for leaving my laptop out of fatigue and forgetfulness. When it first hit me that I had lost my data for good, I broke down in tears, feeling self-pity and grief for losing work I had tirelessly toiled for several years.
I’ve learned to take the good with the bad in life, and there were several silver linings from this incident. First, amidst the scramble of that day, my wife was my solid ground, and I remember her forcing me to take a break and took me a local mom-and-pop coffee shop. I wasn’t in the mood but went along. There, we were welcomed by a kind and perceptive store owner who recognized my distress and offered some free pastries along with our order. We shared our story of the burglary, and the owner listened with a compassionate heart and wished us luck. This random act of kindness was a bright spot in an otherwise dark day, and restored back some faith in humanity. While brief, the comfort I felt in that moment has stayed with me. Like Maya Angelou says, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
A second silver lining would not reveal itself until months later in the form of a ripple effect that would forever change the course of my career. Burnt out from years of overworking, I had been contemplating stepping down from a coordinator position that came with a lot of responsibilities. Among the files I lost was a monster-sized, near-complete report that involved me going into office on weekends and working evenings to compile. The mere thought of reconstructing the report overwhelmed me with panic attacks that had me hyperventilating and feeling faint and exhausted to the point of paralysis. This loss was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and I knew without a doubt I needed to step down. After years of indecisively going back and forth, the universe gave me my answer in the most direct way, a person literally came out of nowhere to take my burden away.
Stepping down from my position went against the public image my work place had of me: a “yes” man which was how my Director described me when I was awarded Employee of the Year earlier that same year. Without the distinction of my coordinator position, the social capital I had accumulated at my work gradually diminished. I no longer had access to important people or meetings, my opinions seem to have less influence, and even my office got physically chopped in half. While it was my choice to step down, I felt dispensable and forgotten seeing how easily my replacement was found. I experienced role confusion and felt lost and directionless. Letting go of my role also meant stepping off a career ladder that I had invested so much in but no longer had the energy to climb further.
Being mindful of the fallacy of sunk costs, the incident provided an opportunity to cut my losses. Coming from an immigrant family, I have always been inspired by stories of immigrants losing their homeland, and rebuilding their lives in a culture foreign to them. Like many times before, I embraced the changing tides and unbound myself from depending on my workplace for my career mobility. During this period of confusion, I set an intention of disrupting my usual patterns by engaging in something new, different, and interesting on a regular basis. I got out of my comfort zone and roamed Los Angeles, taking in the sights and sounds, as if I was a tourist in my own city. Some unique and bizarre experiences were had, one of which was coming across a piece of street art on Abbot Kinney, with the words inscribed, “push this button to RESET the world.” Mirroring my intention for a new start, I pressed the button which served as a symbolic expression of my deep desire for change.
And with unbelievable coincidence, the world turned upside down just a few months later in the form of the COVID-19 outbreak. Like many others, my family hunkered down at home per quarantine mandates, scrambled to acquire essentials like toilet paper and masks, prioritized health and safety of our vulnerable loved ones, kept tabs of infection and death rates, and watched in horror as society broke apart along political, racial, and economic fault-lines. Work from home became the new norm. The separation from my physical work environment gave me the space to reflect on what’s truly important. Spending more time with family motivated me to set limits at work, and place a greater value on work-life balance. And letting go of the career ladder afforded me a “nothing to lose” attitude that made it easier to take risks.
With the uncertainty of the pandemic, I recognized the need to build my strength to face whatever challenges lay ahead. I’ve learned that sometimes when one area of life is not going well, we need to find strength in another area. With this intention, I took every opportunity to go on challenging mountain hikes that both strengthened my body and brought peace of mind. Reaching the summits provided a sense of accomplishment and confidence. I regained autonomy over myself, and became more attuned to my body. The wonders of nature inspired me to look at life from a more expansive and congruent perspective. I was reminded again of how big the world is, and realized that the workplace tensions that I would get caught up in were not what really mattered to me. Like an investment portfolio, I realized the value of diversifying my emotional investments and not putting all my “eggs” in the career basket.
Feeling restored, I was ready to take on a new challenge. During my treks into nature, my soul whispered thoughts of starting a private practice, and these whispers eventually turned into a voluminous calling that provided a sense of direction and purpose. Vivid images of me sitting across private clients entered my mind as if I was seeing into the future. I had always dreamed of starting my own therapy practice, but it never seemed like the right time until now, with there being a shortage of therapists to meet the demand for mental health issues that skyrocketed during the pandemic. Furthermore, COVID-19 normalized telehealth, presenting an opportunity to start a telehealth practice that came with less overhead.
The idea of starting a private practice reinvigorated me. My current position restricted my ability to provide long-term therapy due to the sheer number of clients needing to be seen. Furthermore, my center was restructured and subsumed under a large medical system, shifting the focus towards a behavioral health/medical model that didn’t leave much room for in-depth, psycho-dynamic work. Lastly, a private practice would afford me the autonomy and freedom to innovate my approach to psychotherapy, whereas my current setting prioritized pre-established policies and procedures over clinical intuition and individual style.
Furthermore, a private practice presented an opportunity to take care of unfinished business. Years prior, I collaborated with a small team of talented colleagues to create a “Stress Relief Clinic” that employed a strength-based and holistic approach to promoting positive mental health and well-being by offering services such as mindfulness, yoga, and biofeedback. We got the clinic off the ground, and it did well according to the positive feedback we got from clients. Unfortunately, the clinic got lost in the mix when the center got restructured, and I failed to steward the clinic beyond this point. However, I never lost sight of the vision and continued build it out in my mind, waiting for the right conditions to revive it from the ashes.
In many ways, Park LA is version 2.0 of this clinic recreated from the ground up. All the materials from the old clinic were lost in the burglary, but the ideas, memories, and values were stored safely away in my mind. Starting the practice from scratch felt like the beginnings of a mountain hike. Looking up at the uphill battle was daunting. However, I’ve learned that new challenges seem worse in anticipation compared to when actually facing them. With each step, I gained momentum and got into a flow. I focused on taking one step at a time in sync with my body’s natural pace, and began to enjoy the process. I became more present with the experience rather than fixating on the outcome. Like the steps taken to climb a mountain, I’ve learned that small pieces of work here and there accumulated into surprising amount of progress in no time. Like Lao Tze says, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step” (Lao Tze).
In the spirit of Juen Hwa We Bok, I aimed to open my practice on October 10th, 2020, exactly one year to the date of the incident that pushed everything into motion. However, October 10th came and went like any other day. What was supposed to be a grandiose day was spent on my knees, covered in dust and grime, re-caulking my mother’s shower. Another example of “Man plans, God laughs.” On the surface, what prevented me from opening on time was not meeting certain business deadlines; however, the deeper reason was my fear of failure that delayed progress. Around this time, I remember engaging in a thought experiment of imagining myself ten years from now in the same job. Immediately, my foresight revealed how miserable I would be. I realized at that point that fear itself was not the problem, it was that I was fearing the wrong thing. Fearing failure had me procrastinating and playing it safe. What I needed to fear was something greater, the fear of dying a meaningless life. And it was this fear that pushed me forward.
This realization was reminiscent of the scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, where Bruce Wayne, stripped of his mask and armor, is trapped in an underground pit with fellow prisoners who had given up hope of ever escaping. One needed to scale the walls to escape, and a single misstep would mean falling to ones death. A wise prisoner asks Bruce what he fears, Bruce responds that he does not fear and trains his body thinking that physical strength is what is needed to escape. Bruce attempts the climb using a rope that would catch him if he fell, and fall he does becoming demoralized like the other prisoners. Humbled, Bruce speaks to the wise prisoner again and is told that he fails because he does not fear death, which is inherent to ones will to live and survive, a force not to be underestimated. Bruce accepts his fear, and learns in that moment he must attempt the climb without the safety of the rope. Facing his fear of death, he takes the leap of faith and makes it out alive.
On the deepest level, it was this fear of a meaningless life that drove me to take the final leap of faith, and on November 28th, I quietly opened my practice for business. Since opening, there has been plenty of setbacks and growth has been slow. The further I proceed, the more exposed become my areas of growth, especially on the business side of things. It took a few months just to get my first client and weeks until the next and so on. Familiar feelings of fear, doubt, and insecurity returned; imposter syndrome all over again. At times I get entangled with these feelings, but I stay the course in the face of fear not without. I anchor myself to my sense of purpose, and a growth mindset that reminds me that I need to be patient with the process. Failures force me to see my limitations, and humility makes it easier to to reach out for help. And like the kind coffee shop owner, colleagues welcomed me to the world of private practice and helped me learn the ropes. Measured in blood, sweat, and tears, the struggle has allowed me to experience any success, even the small ones, as incredibly rewarding.
The mountain top for my vision for Park LA looms far ahead. In fact, I am just getting started and excited for the journey ahead. I genuinely love all my private clients, and feel so grateful, humbled, and honored that they have entrusted me with their care. And it is for these clients, I must keep climbing. Looking back, this whole process was put into motion by a disruption that turned my life upside down and back up again. The ensuing chaos unraveled stuck patterns and paved a new way forward. Sometimes we need to hit the reset button and allow life to get messy and reshuffle itself. How else do we get unstuck? And in this shuffling, a misfortune becomes a blessing, a falling becomes a rising, and what is lost becomes found.
Posted October 10th, 2021 by Y. Sue Park.
“How can those who live in the light of the day possibly comprehend the depths of the night?” – Nietzsche
Sunset marks the end of day and beginning of night, when light fades and darkness emerges, revealing the moon and stars and the vastness of space that surrounds us. Darkness is the rule, not the exception; most of outer space exists in darkness. Given that photoreceptors in our eyes depend on light to create vision, light is praised for “showing the way” while darkness is often given a bad rap. However, while darkness obscures our view of what’s around us, it shows the way inward into the depths of our psyche by serving as an blank canvass for our inner world to be projected on. To this point, take a moment to contemplate what you imagine lurks inside the darkness of the following photo taken deep inside the Big Horn Mine:
What you imagined inside the darkness is a projection of your subjective reality. Because we cannot visually see what’s actually there in darkness, it is left to the imagination to fill in the blanks. And when it comes to the unknown, its easy to project our fears, conflating darkness with fears that may not be grounded in actual danger. For example, during one of my night hikes in pitch black darkness, I approached an odd-shaped boulder and confused it for a bear. My body reacted immediately in a fight or flight response despite the trigger being a figment of my imagination. The darkness revealed my fear of encountering a bear, but more specifically, a fear of a violent and untimely death.
Perhaps there is an evolutionary value in projecting fear into darkness. In the wild, predators can hide in the cover of darkness. We can easily trip and fall when we can’t see where we are going. For those struggling with anxiety, it is often at night when we get stuck in excessive worrying. On a physiological level, darkness cues our bodies to fall asleep, leaving us in an un-guarded, vulnerable state, which can be terrifying for trauma survivors. Darkness is when most people retreat into the safety of their homes, spending their evenings surrounded by four walls that protects but also confines.
Despite this fear, what lurks in darkness are the same objects, people, and realities that exist during the day time. Evils such as hate, inequalities, and deceit exist in the day just as much as the night. In some ways, daytime evils may be worse because our inaction in the face of visible evils is an evil in itself. Moreover, this article from the Atlantic suggests that people are more likely to die mid-day than at night.
While the unknown quality of darkness lends itself to projections, fear need not be the only projection that darkness reveals. It is often at night, people dream both literally and metaphorically about their aspirations and wishful fantasies. Darkness can be the blank canvass to creatively express our inner world. And for most, it is the time of day when societal demands are lifted, allowing us to be free to engage individual pursuits and needs.
To this point, there has been a recent trend of “revenge bedtime procrastination,” in which individuals stay up late and sacrifice sleep to engage in desirable activities that they don’t have time for during the day. While I do not endorse this strategy, the problem is not so much the desirable activities but how busy and over-worked we are during the day, which doesn’t allow us enough time to recreate and more fully connect with all life has to offer.
From these perspectives, it may be helpful to intentionally embrace the darkness, to reveal and connect with our inner world, including the unexpressed and/or unconscious parts of ourselves. The following are recommendations that can help you get in touch with darkness.
Set boundaries from work. Evenings are a time to release, relax, recover, and recreate. Thus, be mindful when day-time, work demands and activities bleed into the evening without your awareness and/or consent (e.g., working overtime). View your personal, evening time as sacred. You may consider designating spaces where you spend your evenings as “No Work Zones,” changing into a different set of clothes, and establish firm time boundaries marking when the work day is over. Also, be intentional of de-identifying with your work persona, recognizing that your overall sense of Self is more expansive than who you are at work.
Allow space for chaos. In his podcast, Jordan Peterson emphasizes the importance of finding a balance of order and chaos in our lives. Our days are often full of order, such as staying focused and organized, keeping to schedules, working in orderly physical environments, and coordinating plans with others. Chaos need not be destructive, it can be expressed in spontaneity, freedom, and disruption of the status quo. It is often not until the evening when we have the freedom to let our minds wander, engage in something new and different, and connect with parts of ourselves that we can’t express in daytime settings.
Express suppressed sides of yourself. Daytime is often dominated by the superego that has us abide by social norms and standards of appropriateness, requiring us to hide and suppress certain aspects of ourselves, such as unwelcome personality traits, identities, needs, desires, and impulses. The cover of dark affords us the freedom to express these suppressed parts without worry of judgment or consequence from daytime others. For example, you may consider donning funky and/or gender-bending clothing in the privacy of your room to express hidden parts of yourself; or express socially restricted thoughts and feelings through art, such as writing, drawing, singing, and even psycho-drama.
Engage in activities different and/or opposite to daytime activities. Personality tests like the Myers Briggs reveal traits that are not set in stone, but more to what is dominant and non-dominants aspects of yourself, akin to your dominant handedness. Furthermore, the brain is organized in a bilateral way, composing of two sides or lobes. While not as simple as the left brain being more logical and the right brain more creative, neuroscience has shown that different parts of the brain serve different functions. From these perspectives, it may be helpful to engage in activities different from and even opposite to what you engage in the day, to develop non-dominant sides of our personalities as well as cultivating neuro-integration. A simple and concrete example is brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
Move your body. Modern work life is often sedentary and encompasses a small number of bodily movements and postures, often limited to sitting, standing, and walking. However, our bodies are designed to move in so many different ways. Just think of all the poses in such practices as yoga or tai chi, and the different types of dances. One of my favorite ways of moving my body in a dynamic way is dancing freestyle in the dark. During daytime, I would be too shy and self-conscious to dance by myself, let alone in front of others. However, in the cover of dark, I can dance to my heart’s content and also get a good workout out of it. If you lack privacy, you can go into a bathroom, close the door, turn off the lights, put on headphones, and dance away.
Attune to the body and its needs. Given that modern work life directs focus away from our bodies towards the outer (e.g., screens, other people), we often neglect our inner experience of our bodies (i.e., interoceptive awareness). Thus, during the evening, it may be helpful to engage in practices of attuning to and sensing the body, such as the five senses grounding and body scan meditations, drinking chamomile tea, or smelling pleasurable scents (e.g., candle, incense). Furthermore, given how stressful modern work life can be, it may be helpful to be intentional about engaging in relaxation exercises, such as a progressive muscle relaxation, listening to nature sounds, or the simple practice of closing your eyes and breathing slowly. Lastly, it is important to be responsive to our body’s sexual needs and engage in sexual intimacy with a partner or yourself that is not limited to stimulation of sexual organs and/or achieving orgasm, and more on sensual touching and experiencing of the whole body.
Connect with loved ones. One of the great things about companionship is checking in at the end of the day. The simple question, “how was your day?” provides an opportunity to share not only what happened during the day, but your experience of what happened, revealing your inner feelings and thoughts. The confiding of our day-to-day inner lives creates a special, intimate bond with our loved ones. It is not just coincidence that confessionals or therapy offices where people confide their deepest secrets are dimly lit.
Gaze upon the moon and the stars. “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean” is a lyric from Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope you Dance.” Gazing upon the night sky can remind us of how small and insignificant we are compared to the enormity of the universe. Unfortunately, the bright lights of big cities obscure our view of the stars. Thus, it may be helpful to seek out look-out spots, or plan trips to remote areas in nature (e.g., Joshua Tree) to go star gazing.
Engage in quiet solitude. Daytime can be quite noisy with sirens and construction work, small talk and mindless chatter, managers droning on about policies and procedures, and so on. Thus, evenings (or early mornings) may be the only time to find a quiet space to be in solitude. In Anthony Storr’s “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” solitude allows us to take back ownership of ourselves from societal forces (e.g., conformity) that strip us of our individuality. Solitude allows us to re-connect what’s truly important and meaningful to us.
Transition from passive consumer to active participant. Depending on your job, you may spend countless hours in front of a computer screen followed by more screen time after work bingeing TV shows and/or playing video games. Escaping into fantasy world is not bad in itself, but when done excessively through the medium of TV shows and/or videogames, you are consuming someone else’s fantasy and not engaging your own. Thus, it may be helpful to turn off the screen and actively engage your own stories, such as writing or sharing stories of the comedies and dramas of your own life, or creating your own make-believe stories like when you were a child.
Write in a journal or diary. Journals are a repository for our private thoughts and feelings, including ones that are too shameful to share with others. Akin to the confidentiality found in therapy, journaling allows us to be attune to the darker parts of our psyche, as opposed to being blind to the shadows that lurk within our unconscious.
Meditate on your shadow. While Jungian psychology uses the shadow as a metaphor for unwanted aspects of ourselves that are pushed into the unconscious, it may be helpful to meditate on your literal shadow as a symbolic representation of your inner shadow. Notice how your shadow morphs and multiplies as you walk around in different lighting. You may also consider asking your shadow, “Who are you, really?” With open curiosity, turn your attention inward and wait for a response. You may be surprised what answers back.
Keep your bedtime. It may be helpful to not let the night seep into the day, by allowing yourself to go to bed on time to ensure you get enough sleep and offset the nasties of sleep deprivation the next day. To this end, it may be helpful to set an alarm clock for when you go to bed. Ideally, your evening ritual can be engaged in consistently on a nightly basis, so it is important to pace yourself.
Habituate a sleep ritual. It may be helpful to keep a consistent sleep routine to cue your body that it is time to sleep. Nearly every night since childhood, I have had a sleep ritual of imagining a make-believe world, akin to parents reading a bedtime story to their children. These never-ending stories have been so habituated, that I notice my body and mind begin to fall asleep almost immediately once I start imagining my stories.
Write down your dreams the next morning. Freud referred to dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious.” Since dreaming occurs when we are asleep at night, the earliest chance we have to understand our dreams is right after we wake the next morning before amnesia of the dream sets in. Thus, it may be helpful to keep a dream journal next to your bed, and write down whatever you can remember and then contemplate the meaning of the dream.
The evening gifts us with darkness that illuminates the hidden aspects of ourselves as well as neglected parts and/or sensations of our bodies. The cover of darkness frees us from the judgments and consequences that keep us from expressing certain parts of ourselves that lay hidden during the day. Like the moon and stars that remind us of the vastness of the universe, these hidden parts show us how vast our Self is in comparison to the parts we are conscious of. Cultivating a robust evening ritual can help us make the most of what darkness has to offer, making way for a more integrative and holistic sense of Self.
Posted June 9, 2021 by Y. Sue Park.
The Show Must Go On
My entire world changed after my father passed away. My father was the bedrock of our family, the main breadwinner, and the moral compass. He was a gentle but firm man of a few words. Despite his quiet nature, he was a respected leader in the Korean church community. Family came first for my father above everything else.
The story goes that my parents immigrated with a small amount of money to start their new life in the States. His college degree in engineering did not translate to anything in the U.S., and he humbled himself working day and night shifts as a gas station attendant to raise enough money to start his own business. My mother later shared that those initial years post-immigration took a grave toll on my father’s health, which may have resulted in the health problems that eventually took his life. Throughout my life, my father worked tirelessly so that my sister and I could grow up in a safe neighborhood with a good school district.
His dedication and steadfast love for family may have stemmed from the fact that he was fatherless growing up. My grandfather died in the Korean War, leaving my grandmother widowed with two children and another one on their way. I learned from my aunt that my father never got in trouble as to not worry my grandmother, and took on extra responsibilities to support the family, including working alongside my grandmother in the fields to make ends meet.
While my father was too young to remember my grandfather, it was evident that he always had my grandmother in mind, visiting her in Korea whenever he could and sending money back to her so she could live out her years in comfort. During one of our visits to Korea, I remember driving hours into the countryside to confront some great-uncles who had tricked my grandmother into giving up her money. It was the first time I saw my father angry despite his gentle nature. His anger was protective, and this was first of many times that I witnessed my father standing up for what was right.
It is my belief that my father growing up poor from the ashes of post-war Korea made him compassionate towards those going through tough times. Numerous times he was taken advantage of financially, yet he never stopped giving and trusting people. A yearly tradition during winter season was my father taking my sister and I to skid row to pass out socks to homeless people. And while he grew up with little, he provided us with a safe and secure childhood he never had himself.
Despite my father’s good nature, I remember feeling intimidated by him. I felt small growing up in his shadow. His black-and-white morality did not mesh well with my penchant for living in the moral gray. While I struggled with insecurities and many worries, he seemed self-confident and secure in his spiritual faith that everything would work out. While he never put too much pressure on me, I felt like I could never live up to his standards. He was just built differently, whereas I grew up pampered and soft. And so when he passed away due to years of health issues, I was filled with intense fear of how our family would survive. Feeling pressure from the patriarchy of a Korean family structure, I felt ill-equipped to take on the role of being the man of the family.
I vividly remember getting the phone call from my mother on that fateful day of July 19th, 2001. She was concise, trying her best to stay composed over the phone stating that I needed to come home immediately. I remember asking if Ahpa was OK, and whether I should go to the hospital directly given that he had been in and out of the hospital due to problems with heart disease. When she told me to come home instead, I knew in that moment that something really bad had happened. I can still remember what it felt like on that drive back home from my college apartment, seeing the church elders outside my house as I pulled in, and sounds of my mother and sister wailing as I climbed the stairs to the room where the lifeless body of my father lay. I collapsed on the floor, overwhelmed by grief, and holding his cold body onto mine. This was one of the most traumatic moments of my life.
The days and weeks after his death was a turbulent time. Both my sister and I moved back home, and divided our time to help my mother keep the family business afloat while we continued our studies. For whatever reason, it never occurred to us to take time off from school. My family was in survival mode and took on a “all hands on deck” mentality. I remember the three of us hunkering down, waking up super early every morning and working tirelessly as a team to keep things from falling apart. And we made it work. I was so proud of my sister getting into medical school, which paved the way for her to become a gyn-oncologist. For me, I wasn’t much of a student prior to my father passing away, but started taking my studies more seriously with the desire to make him proud.
Although we found a way to survive, the grief of losing my father had taken away the joy from our lives. Food lost its taste and pleasure, and the absence of my father’s table setting had us breakdown in tears. To find reprieve from our grief, we went on trips that did not bring any sense of awe and wonder or escape. I remember believing I could never be happy again, and the thing I wished for most in my life, to have my father back, was impossible. Nothing else mattered.
Yet “the show must go on.” And it was this song from Queen that I would play on repeat over and over again. When Queen worked on this song, Freddie Mercury was facing his own mortality in his battle with HIV/AIDS that took his life just weeks after the song was released. His bandmates worried that Freddie was too ill to perform the song, but consistent with Freddie’s larger than life spirit, he responded, “I’ll fucking do it, darling.”
And the show went on for my family. Starting with putting the pieces of my father’s business back together and then rebuilding our lives. My mother who was primarily a housewife prior to my father’s death demonstrated a sharp business acumen and a ferocity in the face of condescending business men, and grew the business to be more successful than it had ever been. My sister continued to be stellar and made great strides in her career. And I matured, cleaned up my act, and broke free from the fears and insecurities that held me back. The three of us made a mighty team.
During this time period, there was a story I read from a self-help book that had a big impact on me. The story was about a widow who had lost her husband and child. Engulfed by unrelenting grief, the widow went to the village wise person for help. She was asked to retrieve a mustard seed from a household that knows no suffering. She first decides to go to the most well-off family she knows, only to find out they had their own form of suffering. She proceeds to other families, only to find more suffering. With each visit, she shares her grief, listens to their suffering, and provides her support. While she never acquires the mustard seed, she realizes that it was the process of helping others that healed her, giving her a sense of meaning and purpose, and helping her feel less alone in her grief.
Inspired by this story, I engaged in a weekly regimen of packing sack lunches and going to the nearby MacArthur Park to pass them out to homeless people. At first, I just handed out the lunches and left right away, but with repeated visits, these strangers eventually became familiar faces. As I got more comfortable, I would stay a bit longer, have a cigarette with them, and hear their stories of misfortune and trauma as well as learn of their values and aspirations. They shared about their past lives and attachments, the dynamics with gangs and drug dealers, and the bonds they formed helping and protecting each other. I was inspired by their “will to carry on” despite their immeasurable pain and suffering.
Furthermore, the next summer after my father passed away, I aimed to honor my father’s wish to go on a medical missions trip together. I felt sad because we were supposed to go together, but I felt his spirit throughout the trip. A group of doctors, nurses and support staff flew out to Oaxaca, Mexico, where we drove for hours in beat-up and cramped vans into a mountain region to provide medical services to native Oaxacans living in a secluded, rural village. I bonded with our guide and translator, Gabriela, during the trip who spoke proudly and lovingly of her culture and people. Despite our role as missionaries, I realized on the trip that they had more to offer us than us to them. There was a true sense of community and togetherness, the children seemed so curious and joyful despite a lack of material playthings, and our patients responded in kindness and gratitude. For me, what I learned from them had greater spiritual value than our medical provisions. Despite their meager conditions, their “will to carry on” was not even a question.
Despite my privileged position, I let go of the delusion and ego that I had much if any lasting impact on their lives, but what they taught me was invaluable and has stayed with me. I gained perspective on what’s truly important in this life. What is of value to the soul is not our scientific superiority or material wealth, but it is the heart that endures immeasurable pain and suffering and a love and kindness that thrives in the sparsest of conditions.
These experiences helped me know the heart of my father. In some ways, I didn’t really know my father until he passed away. The foundation he created for our family allowed us to feel secure and stable in the face of uncertainty. The values he instilled drove me towards living life in the service of others. His resiliency growing up poor and fatherless in post-war Korea, and as an immigrant facing discrimination and unhealthy work demands showed me what it takes for the show to go on.
I was not an easy kid to love. Spoiled by an easy life that was handed down to me, I was a self-centered, trouble-maker during my rebellious teen years, breaking my father’s heart many times over. A large part of my grieving process was working through the guilt, regret, and remorse for how I had treated my father and taken him for granted. Even though it was no longer possible to reconcile with him in real life, I learned that one way to resolve my guilt was to “pay it forward” by helping and being kind to others, not taking loved ones for granted, and living out the values he taught me.
While helping the family business, I noticed he posted next to his desk the words “sarang-un ohrae chamko” (“love is patient”). I knew right away those words were for me. Even in his death, his love was very present and easily felt. It is strange that I felt closer to my father after he passed than when he was alive. It reassures me that when a loved one passes away, we do not say we don’t love them anymore. A loving bond persists beyond death.
On this note, there is a quote that I love from Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie…
All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on – in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here…Death ends a life, not a relationship.
From this perspective, I realized that my father’s love lives on through me. The love I have for my loved ones, the care I have for my clients and others, and the compassion I feel for the less fortunate, is a continuation of the love my father bestowed upon me.
Like Freddie Mercury, who performed his music until the very end, there is a force that drives us to carry on despite the the most difficult of circumstances, a force that transcends even death. For me, it is the love that I inherited from my father, the same love I hope to pass on to my son and others in my life. For this reason, the show must go on.
Posted on Father’s Day, June 20th, 2021. Happy Father’s day, Ahpa! I love you always.
Love Keeps Us Kind
* This essay is dedicated to the memory and spirit of Chester Bennington. You are my angel’s voice.
When you feel you’re alone.
Cut off from this cruel world.
Your instincts telling you to run.
Listen to your heart.
Those angel voices,
they’ll sing to you.
They’ll be your guide,
When life leaves us blind,
Love keeps us kind.
Winter – Iridescent
In the bone-chill cold of Michigan’s winter season, I ran and ran and ran, believing each step forward would bring me closer to where I needed to go. At the ripe age of my late 20’s, I was going through a quarter-life crisis. My aspirations for academia cracking at the seams, burnt-out from years of over-working, put off by the publish-or-perish culture of academia, and fear that the fruits of my labor would spoil on top the ivory tower.
Up to that point, academia had given me direction and order to my life. I worked tirelessly during graduate school, building my resume, developing my teaching and research skills, and even figuring out how to play the academic “game.” But doubt grew into an existential crisis, questioning whether my work had any real or meaningful impact on others, the reason I entered this field in the first place. Rather than spam journals with publications, which primarily served to boost my resume, and specifically my ego, I became disillusioned with the process.
And it was during my post-doc year in Michigan, my body, mind, and spirit no longer cooperated. Ambition turned into procrastination, getting work done more out of obligation than from a place of passion. Depression overtook me, laying waste to the life I had built. I felt lost and directionless. With no job secured after my post-doc, fear and anxiety tormented me with dreadful fantasies, accompanied by the cruelties of self-judgment and criticalness. The bottle only went so far to numb the pain, and of course, made things worse. The loneliness was suffocating.
The idea of giving up on academia percolated my mind, growing more frequent and stronger by the day. I began to face the reality that the current path I had invested so much in may not be for me. This brought upon grief in letting go of my aspirations and wishful fantasies; guilt and disappointment over leaving work unfinished; and a fear of an uncertain future.
Not knowing where I was going, I approached life one step at a time. I listened to my body’s impulse to run, and run I did. Several miles a day in a freezing cold that woke my body and forced me to be strong. I got into the best shape of my life. Yet, for each step forward, it felt like I was running towards to an abyss that felt both scary and liberating.
Music was a constant companion on my runs. An album that meant a lot to me during this time was “A Thousand Suns” by Linkin Park. I recall the first time I heard Chester Bennington sing the lyrics, “’When life leaves us blind, love keeps us kind,” I felt a deep well of emotion spring up within me. The song mirrored my pain, helping me feel understood and less alone. Its message of love and kindness gave me hope and clarity. My emotions energized my body in a very visceral way, allowing me to withstand the cold and run with vigor.
Even though my future uncertain, there was no doubt that love and kindness would remain central values throughout my life. I placed these words wherever visible to remind myself of what is truly important. “Love keeps us kind” became my North Star, and reoriented my life from achievements to one lead by the heart.
Spring – The Messenger
Life has a way of sending the right people at the right time when we need them. Sometime these people may come in unexpected ways, including people that may appear distant, or even annoy or frustrate you at first, but after getting to know them, you realize that they are also humans struggling just like you. They enter our lives for a reason, and it is up to us to allow them into our hearts.
These strangers who became my friends would check in on me, invited me to things, provided me support and encouragement, and guided me back “home” to a place of belonging, safety and love. I learned through experience that home is not tied to a physical place or time, but can be found anywhere, with others and within ourselves. Letting go of any false pretenses allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin. And learning to enjoy my own company opened up so many possibilities.
And from this secure base, I aimed to overcome anxieties that had deprived me of enriching relationships and experiences in the past. Due to the combination of being in a new place and feeling desperate for connection, I felt less tied down by old patterns. I saw an opportunity to re-invent myself, and to this end, took on an attitude of “going towards my fear as long as it doesn’t harm anyone.”
I ventured outside my comfort zone and engaged in meaningful experiences, such as connecting with nature, going on road trips to parts unknown, discovering new cultures and foods, getting to know my neighbors and befriending strangers, attending community events, finding inspiration through art and music, seeing a therapist and joining alcoholics anonymous, getting my first tattoo, meeting with a psychic and having my tarot cards read, and even falling in love.
These experiences made me feel alive and whole. Previously, my life in graduate school was primarily limited to waking up, going to work, and coming back home to work some more. All work and no play had made me a dull boy. But these experiences made me realize that this world is a big place with so many interesting people and different ways to engage life.
Around this time, a childhood friend and I took a trip to Chicago. The final day of that trip was raining hard and very windy. We drove along Lake Michigan on our way back. Spontaneously, I pulled over noticing a long, concrete jetty protruding out to what seemed more like an ocean than a lake. Defying common sense, a force within me compelled me onto the jetty. Drenched in rain, I inched my way to the end, carefully moving pole to pole when the waves died down, and holding on tightly when the waves crashed down, to keep me from slipping and blowing away. When I reached the end, I wrapped my body around one of the poles, and went head-to-head with what felt like a “Wind Dragon.” At the top of my lungs, I screamed and cried my heart out, letting go of my sadness and frustrations, releasing my fears and grief. The rain washed away my tears, and the loud howl of the wind carried my screams away. The experience was exhilarating.
Something in me died in that moment, and a new version of myself emerged. I felt alive and free. I realized that the true purpose of my journey to the Mid-West was not career but spiritual. I had to leave home to let go of a huge burden that I had been carrying for too long, so I can move on with life. With this purpose fulfilled, I was ready to return home.
Summer – Burning in the Skies
That summer was a time of transition. My post-doc was wrapping up, and I took a position at a university counseling center that allowed me to return home to Los Angeles.
My “extra-curricular” activities was a counterforce to the workaholic tendencies of my old self. I no longer consented to slaving away day and night to meet unrealistically high expectations, often set by myself. With a “good enough” mindset, I set boundaries and stood my ground. This undoubtedly burned bridges but there was a part of me that wanted these bridges to be burnt, so I wouldn’t be tempted to return back. I was at peace with letting go of a path that had stolen away my soul.
In addition, I underwent a process of letting go of emotional baggage that had been weighing me down. Throughout graduate school, I was madly in love with my best friend, but this love was unrequited. This friend came to visit me during my final weeks in Michigan. We had an amazing time, but old patterns of fighting and hurting each other re-emerged. Despite the passage of time, our dynamics were largely the same. I had to let go of the false hopes, wishful fantasies, and expectations of this relationship ever happening. Parallel to only packing the essentials that fit in my car for the drive home, I let go of excess baggage that was not needed for the journey forward. This included letting go of a love that had consumed me for so many years but left me unfulfilled.
My last night at Michigan was special. My neighbor invited me to dinner with his family who were refugees from Bhutan, fleeing first to Nepal and then immigrating to the States. The dinner consisted of a full spread of colorful dishes, rice, yogurt, vegetables, curries, a chicken main dish, and special tea that tasted heavenly. The aroma was intoxicating and the complex spices enticed my taste buds. As we broke bread, they shared their stories of joy, sadness, and trauma. Despite their incredible losses, I was in awe by their resiliency, and humbled by their abundance of love and kindness.
As dinner wrapped up and conversation faded, they insisted I stay a bit longer for a traditional ceremony. A member of the family sat me down and painted a solid circle on my forehead, using rice to give some texture and a red dye for coloring. The family proceeded to offer me blessings on my trip forward in life. I felt so grateful, and indebted to their kindness. The next morning, I drove home with a feeling of warmth, peace, and closure in my heart.
Fall – Waiting for the End
Sitting across a client baring her soul to me, I felt the familiar feelings of nervousness and insecurity around my ability to help her. Despite everything I had gone through, I still felt small in my new role as a therapist. I felt the pull to impress her with my academic knowledge and offer solutions to feel like I had something to give, but I realized that this was more for me and less for the client.
I took pause and a breath, and with intention, leaned into her pain. I reminded myself that the pain had a purpose, and I needed to trust the process. I leaned into my own insecurities and allowed myself to be humbled. I got comfortable admitting I didn’t know things. I relied less on the safety of my book learning, and attuned myself to the client, realizing that the key to her healing resided within her. Additionally, I became a student again, relearning the basics as I studied for licensure. I was starting over again with a beginner’s mind.
During this time period, I went on a mountain hike and stopped to take a break. I admired the view that overlooked the path I had just taken. I looked back on my journey. Starting with the hiking trail, I went backwards as if pressing the rewind button…my adjustment to a new job, my Michigan experience, and even further backwards, all the way to memories of my childhood home. I recalled special experiences and relationships. I laughed and cried in equal measure to both the joyful and difficult memories.
As I reflected on my life as a whole, I realized that the pattern of life is not a straight line but a circle. For so many years, I had approached life as if it was a straight line, going from point A to point B, keeping things predictable and within control. Yet, so much of life is out of our control, with twists and turns, and messy vicissitudes that throw wrenches at our plans, “Man plans, God laughs.”
Just like the seasons, the flow of life is cyclical. Life is a series of starting over, falling and getting back up. Failure and loss are a natural part of this process that we must go through. Ego gets inflated, and then beaten down and humbled. We form inseparable bonds with loved ones who eventually we have to say good bye to, bringing a period of grief and mourning. Uncertainties precede change, bringing self-doubts, insecurities, and fears. Even depression, like a cocoon state for a butterfly, has us turn inward to resolve our inner demons before the metamorphosis can take place.
I realized my ego was getting in the way of living more fully and deeply. Despite the ego’s good intentions of protecting me from feelings of unworthiness and shame, it can over-protect, keeping me from taking risks and going outside my comfort zone. The ego had me worry about what other people thought of me, leading me to compromise parts of myself to gain approval and hide parts that didn’t fit with others’ expectations. The ego always had me seeking more, more accolades, more praise, more esteem, as if I wasn’t enough.
Like the Jungian metaphor that the ego is like a boat floating on the vast ocean of our unconscious, I realized the ego is small part of my overall sense of self. The ego has a function, but beyond that, it over-steps and can make life small and restrictive. To let go of my ego, I surrendered myself to a higher spiritual power. I prayed every morning for God to use me and work through me. With this intention, I noticed words flow from my heart, as well as insights and perspectives arise in my mind that came from a deeper part of my soul. I started developing an intuitive feel for therapy.
Lastly, I realized that life is in service of the soul, not the ego. When life no longer nourishes, the soul can leave us, taking away our passions and creativity, leaving devastation in its absence, as if to remind us who is really in charge. I realized that the soul must go through its cycles of pain and suffering, as well as joy and peace, to grow and evolve. And with each iteration, we mature and grow a bit wiser and bolder. We develop bonds, strangers become friends. Our world expands, and life becomes more interesting. We find home in unexpected places. We let go of what we have been holding, and feel lighter. We heal from love and kindness, and move on.
Posted May 12, 2021 by Y. Sue Park. Thank you Zori, Julian, Ivan, Christine, Sonia, and Indra. You all helped me survive a difficult year.
The Trick is to Keep Breathing
“I can’t breathe,” pleaded George Floyd repeatedly as former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, resulting in death by asphyxiation. Caught on video, the world watched in horror.
It is a tragedy that Black deaths at the hands of police are disproportionately high compared to other racial groups. Amongst the countless cases, the George Floyd incident was particularly egregious. The footage clearly showed that the transgression was done in cold blood. There was no mistaking the incident for an accidental misfire done in the heat of the moment or in the “fog of war.”
George Floyd’s famous last words became the rally cry for racial justice movements. “I can’t breathe” became “We can’t breathe.” While these words capture the suffocating feeling of despair felt by the populace, this expression may also be true in a literal sense.
“Breathlessness” is a common physical symptom of grief and loss according to J. William Worden, the co-Director of the Harvard Child Bereavement Study. Furthermore, hyperventilation is a common symptom of anxiety and panic attacks, which can arise when people experience trauma, directly or vicariously.
The unlawful stifling of George Floyd’s ability to breathe occurred during height of the pandemic, in which the lungs of millions were ravaged by the COVID-19 virus which caused respiratory problems ranging from shortness of breath, pneumonia, and acute respiratory distress syndrome. For a different reason, many can relate to the feeling of losing their breath, for those who survived infection as well as those going through the grief of losing a loved one to coronavirus.
Oxygen is one of the most basic of human needs. According to the Survival Rule of Threes, a human being can survive for 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, but only 3 minutes without oxygen. Thus, breathing is not only critical to our basic survival, it is our life support. For this reason, in many cultures, the breath is ascribed great spiritual meaning, equating the breath as a giver of life. The breath is sacred, and thus it is sacrilegious to forcibly rob someone of their breath.
The Trick is to Keep Breathing
While contemplating the meaning of the breath, I was reminded of the song, “The Trick is to Keep Breathing,” by Garbage, a band that meant a lot to me as a teenager. In an ideal world, to go on living life would be as simple as to keep on breathing, yet for those whose breathing is compromised by inner and outer dangers, the act of breathing can be tricky.
Shirley Manson of Garbage meant the song to be hopeful, “it is that general feeling of just keep pushing and you’ll get through it. I think everybody can connect with that feeling.” In this spirit, cultivating a breath practice may be the counterforce needed to ward off the forces that aim to take our breath away.
The Power of the Breath
Like a constant companion, it is easy to take the breath for granted, despite how intricate and extraordinary the process of breathing is. Breathing is a function of our respiratory system to supply oxygen to our body, and remove waste in the form of carbon dioxide. The breath is a constant from the moment a person is born. It works tirelessly and humbly in the background, without drawing much attention to itself.
The breath has a special role in the autonomic nervous system, whose two branches are reciprocals of one another, the “fight or flight” sympathetic branch associated with arousal and the “rest and digest” parasympathetic branch associated with calmness. Most functions of the autonomic nervous system operate on an unconscious and automatic level, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. However, breathing is both automatic and a function that we have voluntary control over.
From this perspective, breathing is a like a “manual override button” that affords us voluntary control and access to autonomic nervous system that is normally involuntary. This is vital when we face traumatic situations that dysregulate these automatic functions. Specifically, engaging in a pattern of breathing that is slow, deep, and steady can return a dysregulated autonomic nervous system to a state of calm and balance.
Beyond the physical, the breath is also a gateway to the here and now. Because the breath is always with us, focusing on the breath can help us stay anchored to the present moment, which is the only moment in time in which we have true freedom and ability to effect change in our lives, whereas traumas keep us stuck in the past, and anxiety traps us in dreadful fantasies of the future. According to Jack Kornfield, awareness of the breath is the “home base” of any mindfulness practice and has the power to “quiet the mind and open the heart.”
Lastly, the breath connects us to the world around us. Like a fish in water, we often don’t notice the air we breathe because it is invisible and always around us. Breathing allows us to take in the life-giving energy of air, the same air that not only sustains you and I but all other lives, past and present. While this may sound like new-age fluff, this notion is endorsed by Noble Prize winning physicist, Arthur Comptom, who said, “At your next breath each of you will probably inhale a dozen or so of the molecules of Caesar’s last breath.” In this statement Caesar is just a narrative device and irrelevant, but the notion that the breath of air connects us to all living beings, past and present, is pretty incredible.
Breathe for Ruby
I feel most in touch with, and appreciative of, my breathing during my mountain hikes. The high altitudes require me to breathe more heavily and rapidly to deliver enough oxygen to my body. Amidst the quietness of nature, I can hear my breath working hard, huffing and puffing, and the internal felt sensations of my breathing are very palpable.
And it was during one of these moments, high up on a mountain, where I felt an emotional connection with my breath that I’ve never experienced before. I had taken the Jones Peak detour en route to the Mount Wilson summit when I came across a bench in the middle of nowhere, and there inscribed was a plaque that read:
Stop here; take a pause and a breath for Ruby.
Look out beyond. Let your soul be still.
This bench celebrates 28 beautiful hours of life and infinite love for
Ruby Olivia Wilson
November 19, 2019
While uncommon, inspirational quotes like this can be found in unforeseen places on hiking trails, often marking memorial sites of avid hikers, trail runners and nature lovers, most of whom lived full lives. Yet, it was the third line that broke my heart, “28 beautiful hours of life.”
Instantly, I was overwhelmed by emotions. I can’t even imagine what it was like for Ruby’s parents, the despair, sorrow, and breathlessness from the grief of losing their child. While sitting on this bench, I broke down sobbing, flooded with tears. I felt breathless.
I find it interesting that there is a similar breathless quality when we love someone deeply. I am reminded that the intensity of grief and the length of the mourning process is proportional to the depth of love in a relationship. Whether it be 28 days or a full life-time, love is “infinite,” and a loving bond of this kind is unbreakable, even in death.
When my emotions calmed, I heeded the sagely words inscribed on the bench, and took a slow, deep breath for Ruby. And again, and again. Inhaling and exhaling nice and slow. Gentle and loving breaths for Ruby, as if I was breathing for her. And I looked beyond, onto the horizon, and felt the vastness of that spacious horizon holding and soothing my emotional pain, providing a stillness to my soul.
At that moment, a valuable lesson came to me. Breathing for Ruby opened my heart to caring for and feeling connected with a child whom I’ve never met. I felt her parents love for her but also their pain. I realized that breathing is a microcosm of life. We take it all in, the good and the bad, the pleasant and painful, and then we let it all go. And this became the inspiration for me to write this essay.
Breathing for Ruby brought me back from breathlessness. And perhaps this is the way we heal from the pain brought upon by the traumas and losses that have infected our hearts and bodies.
To breathe for Ruby.
To breathe for George.
To breathe for the breathless.
The Trick is to Keep Breathing.
Posted May 6, 2021 by Y. Sue Park.
Words have Power
Broken sticks and broken stones
Will turn to dust just like our bones
It’s words that hurt the most, now isn’t it
Words can injure
“Go back!” shouted a man derisively at me right outside my car window, followed by a trail of laughter as he briskly walked away. My body froze before my first instinct set in to look behind me. With relief, my five year-old son was sleeping in the back seat, his innocence preserved for another day before the cruelties of the world eventually find their way to him.
Moments prior, we were driving down a quiet road in a rural area, where two men stood on the side about to cross. I stopped my car to allow passage. Instead of crossing, one of the men first walked straight towards the front of my car and then to the side of my driver’s side window, shouting the words that would reverberate in my mind for days to come. The raised window of my car did little to shield me from these words that penetrated the boundaries of my mind, imprinting themselves there.
While a short-lived incident, the images, sounds, and the words, “go back!” echoed through my mind, triggering feelings of anger, fear, and emasculation. From my unconscious arose fantasies of retribution, presumably to soothe my wounded ego and give me an imagined sense of power and control over the situation. There was also doubt and confusion. What if it was my fault? What if I didn’t give them enough space? Yet, even so, was the confrontational and mocking tone warranted?
In the ambiguity of the situation, my mind pondered if my son and I were targets of a racial micro-aggression, which Derald Wing Sue and colleagues define as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color” (Sue et al., 2007).
According to #stopaapihate, as of February 2021, there has been 3,795 hate incidents against AAPI’s since the start of the pandemic in the U.S. Given this uptick of anti-Asian sentiments, my mind filled in the blanks, “go back to your country, go back coronavirus!”
Words can mislead
Popular opinion attributes the rise in anti-Asian sentiments, in part, to former President Trump who used the words “Kung Flu” and “China virus” to refer to the COVID-19 virus, despite warnings from the World Health Organization that such language would instigate a rise in xenophobia and discrimination against individuals who identify as AAPI.
Trump’s penchant for twisting words to blame and displace responsibility is reminiscent of another master manipulator, Walter White from the TV show Breaking Bad. The character arc of Walter transforms him from an under-accomplished but brilliant high school teacher to a feared king-pin of a drug empire. As Walter falls further into the abyss, he runs out of ways to mislead his wife that everything he did was justified because it was for the family:
She just won’t understand. I mean, no matter how well I explain it, these days she just has this… this… I mean, I truly believe there exists some combination of words. There must exist certain words in a certain specific order that can explain all of this, but with her I just can’t ever seem to find them.
Walter doesn’t realize at the time that he had fallen prey to the complex web of lies of his own creation, and foolishly thinking more words “in a certain specific order” can somehow save him. It is not only after he has lost everything dear to him, a humbled Walter admits to Skyler that he now realizes he has not been doing it for the family, but selfishly for himself.
Like Walter caught in his own web of lies, words can spin narratives to propagate certain political and social agendas that can engulf not only individuals but a whole country. Given that the U.S. has been embroiled in a trade war with China, that the first known case of COVID-19 was from Wuhan, China, and that the previous administration failed to effectively manage the pandemic, it is no surprise that Asians were an easy target for scapegoating. Furthermore, given how emotionally-destabilizing the pandemic has been, Americans’ may have been more susceptible to being mislead by tactics that manipulate our emotional responses and undermine our cognitive capacity to examine these messages in a critical and balanced way.
Words can condemn
Returning to the incident, I observed my anger and fear triggering a black-and-white mindset, pushing me to condemn this man as a “racist.” However, doing so would go against my psychological training that views humans as complex, multi-faceted and constantly evolving. Who knows, this man may have intersecting identities associated with non-privilege and oppression. Labeling this man as a “racist” would flatten his life into a one-dimensional “bad” that over-simplifies and over-generalizes.
More insidious, labeling him as a “racist” would turn him into an “enemy,” disturbing my peace of mind and propagating a sense of conflict and division with an undifferentiated stranger that can be confused with any other stranger. Nelson Mandela, from the wisdom he gained from healing the deep wounds perpetrated by the Apartheid, stated that “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
To let go of my anger, I made a conscious intention to see this man as a misguided neighbor rather than an enemy, while still recognizing his behavior as problematic, but not necessarily his person-hood. This distinction was helpful to me because behaviors are learned, which means that they can be unlearned. And while we are responsible for our behaviors, they do not define us.
Words can heal
Despite the unreality of ever reconciling with this man in real life, I realized that in order for me to regain my peace of mind and sense of safety, I needed to reconcile with the mental image of this man who exists in my subjective reality, even if it were to be imagined. Our psyche has the unconscious tendency to create mental images of people and things in our lives, and these mental images have a way of tormenting us even though the actual person or thing has long departed, often in critical or fearful voices disguised as our own.
From this perspective, I returned to the site of the incident and purposely imagined reconciling with this man.
Me: Hey man, that day we first met, I was really hurt by what happened. I experienced you shouting at me and that made me feel unsafe. My son was also in the car, so I felt very protective of him. I don’t know if it was my fault, whether or not I didn’t stop my car in time. In that case, I’m sorry. At the same time, I have been questioning if you reacted in that way because I am Asian.
Other: I’m glad we have this chance to talk. The situation has also been weighing on me. I don’t know what came over me, but I appreciate the feedback. I’m really sorry that I reacted in that way and made you feel unsafe. I feel so bad that your son was there. I need to learn from this and do better.
The words “I’m sorry” has a way of making it easier to forgive and move on, releasing the anger and resentment we may hold for one another. Despite the power of “I’m sorry,” many people struggle saying these simple words, perhaps out of fear of the apology being rejected or giving the other person the opening to judge and/or punish them for their admission of guilt. Esther Perel, a respected sex psychologist, says that it is usually the more secure one in a relationship who is able to say sorry first. The vulnerability of being the first one to say “I’m sorry” can be scary, but the courage to do so can make way for forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.
Words can embolden
Weeks after my incident, an unspeakable mass shooting occurred in Atlanta, Georgia in which eight people were murdered, six of whom were AAPI women. The incident shook the country but especially AAPIs whose shared identity was the target of the shooting. The AAPI women who were murdered were not just strangers, they were members of our community, and in them, we saw our mothers, wives, and daughters.
After the incident, adding insult to injury, the sheriff in charge of investigating the incident, rationalized the shooter by saying he was just having a “really bad day” and appeared to victim blame noting that spas that these women worked at were places of “temptation” for the shooter who struggled with “sexual addiction.”
These words by the sheriff mirrored the words spoken by a Judge who in 1982 oversaw the case of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese man who was bludgeoned to death at the hands of two disgruntled White auto-workers who presumably blamed Asians for the declining jobs in the American auto-industry due to competition from Japanese auto-makers. It didn’t matter that Vincent was Chinese and not Japanese. The Judge stated, “they weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” to justify the ruling that these men would serve no jail time and instead be placed on probation and fined $3,000. This apparently was what an AAPI’s life was worth back then in 1982.
Fast forward almost 40 years, the response from the AAPI community in response to the Atlanta mass shooting was swift and forceful. Defying traditional Asian values around maintaining harmony and avoidance of making waves, many AAPI, especially youth, called for the community to “speak up and speak out,” resulting in AAPI’s sharing their stories of non-inclusion, invisibility and discrimination, challenging the stereotypes of AAPI’s being model minorities or perpetual foreigners, and staking claim to our right as Americans to not only have a voice but be heard.
Moreover, AAPI’s and their allies pushed for attributing the words “hate crime” to the Atlanta mass shooting as well as countless other Anti-Asian incidents. While this label does not redeem the tragedy and trauma of the shooting, the words have great symbolic meaning, conveying that hateful actions towards AAPI’s is a crime punishable by law. On a legislative level, this push resulted in the recent passing of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that passed overwhelmingly (94 to 1) with a rare show of bi-partisan support that would expedite the investigations of hate crimes against AAPI’s, raise awareness around hate crimes, and the establish a hate crime reporting system.
Words can enlighten
The clarion call to “speak up and speak out” sheds light on both the contemporary struggles of AAPIs but also the long history of AAPI discrimination and non-inclusion, such as a Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internship, which has been intentionally or unintentionally washed over by the Model Minority stereotype that was perpetuated in the 1960’s, pitting AAPI’s against other minority groups.
On a psychological level, the act of finding words to express our struggles may help AAPI’s gain clarity on their own experiences of discrimination and micro-aggressions that are often ambiguous and confusing. Given traditional Asian values around saving face (e.g., maintaining positive social image), and emotional self-restraint especially of negative emotions, many AAPI’s may suffer through these experiences alone in private, while suppressing and/or ignoring the negative emotions that may arise.
When faced with strong negative emotions, Daniel Siegel, a professor at UCLA, has a popular catch phrase, “you have to name it to tame it.” This suggestion is based on neuroscientific finding that when we experience trauma or some other painful emotional event, our emotional brain (i.e., limbic system) becomes dominant and partially turns off the pre-frontal cortex, which is the seat of our conscious thinking.
This state is akin to being “emotionally hijacked” in which strong negative emotions can take possession over us, leaving us at the whims of emotional reactivity and impulsiveness, as well as our pre-programmed fight/flight/freeze responses that are meant to keep us safe but more likely to hinder a constructive response. However, when we find words to label these emotions, we put our conscious brain back online, which allows us to make sense of the traumatic event in a more coherent way, and respond with intention, reason, and equanimity (Van der Kolk, 2015).
Words have power
Witnessing the courage of the other AAPI’s speaking up and being vulnerable about their struggles inspired me to share with my work community. Previously, I had kept my story mostly private, and tucked away the incident as a valuable learning experience that can help me empathize with clients who have experienced similar and more likely worse incidents of discrimination.
Sharing my story was nerve wracking, having to face the discomfort of having the spotlight on me, guilt over taking up group space, and fear of rejection, judgment, and invalidation. Despite my fears, my community responded with words of understanding and support, which helped me feel safe and protected. These words touched my heart and instilled a sense of belonging and a feeling cared for.
Even though my community is not always around, the words have stayed with me beyond space and time, allowing me to feel safe in my identity as an AAPI in a country that is continually in the process of reckoning its troubled history of racial injustices. I hope this process will make way for a more equitable, just, and inclusive multi-cultural society. Genuine words from the heart, messy and not in a “certain specific order,” can help get us there.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial micro-aggressions in every day: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score. Penguin.
Posted April 29, 2021 by Y. Sue Park. This essay pays homage to the anniversary of the L.A. Riots, referred to by Korean Americans as “Sa-I-Gu” (4-2-9). While a traumatic event, it woke many Korean Americans to the harsh reality of a racialized America, galvanized the Korean American identity and community, and was the precipice for Black and Korean Americans working together to improve their relations.
Compare and Despair
Social media casts a public spotlight on aspects of our lives that in past generations were kept mostly private and/or shared only with those in close proximity. Now, aspects of our lives can be widely broadcasted across geographic borders with or without our control, such as when a person is tagged in a photo without their permission or awareness. This dynamic has important implications to how a person develops their self-concept, especially for youth growing up with social media.
According to the theory of self-reflected appraisals, we have a tendency to evaluate ourselves based on how we perceive others to evaluate us (Sullivan, 1953). We see ourselves, in part, through eyes of other people. This principle can have positive effects in such cases where someone you look up to, like a teacher or a mentor, “believes” in you, which can instill a sense of confidence in your potential to succeed. Several studies have demonstrated this point with regard to findings that teacher expectations have an influence on students’ academic success over and beyond a student’s intellectual ability ( e.g., Rosenthal & Jacobsen, 1968).
Given that self-reflected appraisals are basically a perception of a perception, this process is prone to error even in cases where we see ourselves through the eyes of people we know well. This error may be exponentially amplified on social media as we don’t really know and/or can’t keep track of the sheer quantity of people who may be viewing and/or evaluating your posts. When opinions and judgments are projected, it is often more a reflection of the other person doing the evaluating, yet we may erroneously internalize and personalize these evaluations as if they reflect who we are.
Conditioning a False Self
The deleterious effect of this dynamic is highlighted in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, during a scene where a teenage girl posts a photo of herself on social media. Immediately, she receives compliments on her appearance that make her feel good about herself, but her mood drops immediately after a few insensitive comments that joke about photoshopping her ears. In this mock scenario, I can surmise the friend who posted the joke didn’t mean harm, but regardless of the benign intent, it can have a scarring impact on the self-esteem and body image of person on the receiving end.
I would argue that the positive comments are equally deleterious as negative ones, and perhaps more insidious due to the masked appearance of benevolence. Positive comments like the ones from the Social Dilemma scene, “OMG so beautiful” or “you’re so awesome,” can contribute to an idealized view of self that may translate to unrealistically high expectations which then creates pressure to uphold this particular image. Furthermore, if one attaches their self-esteem to these positive comments, we can become dependent on needing constant external validation from others.
A problem with external validation is that they are often fickle. This dynamic is prevalent in celebrity culture when rising stars, like a Britney Spears or a Lebron James, are put on a lofty pedestal, but the first moment they make a mistake, they are vilified as if they committed the most heinous crime, such as the treatment Lebron James got for the Decision, which basically was a harmless PR snafu. While these individuals possess extraordinary talent, they are still human and it is human to make mistakes. On social media, regular folk can become mini-celebrities with their own following, which may come with the baggage of being judged based on perfectionistic or idealized standards that even the people evaluating may not hold themselves to.
To put these dynamics on overdrive, built-in rating systems appear to be a standard feature in most social media sites, such as tracking the number of view or retweets, or like/thumbs up, or up/down-vote buttons, which are seemingly benign forms of mini-judgments. The danger lies in the repeated frequency of these mini-judgments that over-simplify things in a binary way. Given the nature of self-reflected appraisals, the constant act of judging and being judged may condition a false self: curating an online persona based on how others may judge it. To this end, we may selectively highlight the positives, such as special milestones or happy moments, and hide parts of ourselves that may be judged negatively, projecting an incomplete representation of who we really are.
This positivity bias also makes it difficult to discern whether an online representation is truly genuine, or rather a performance of impression management. For those who know how to work the system, the latter can be monetized on a disproportionate scale in such cases of influencers or “clout chasers” making millions of dollars based on their ability to portray an image or viewpoint that hits on a particular hot trend that goes viral. This is not to say people’s portrayals of themselves on social media are false, but that the portrayals are uncertain and incomplete. Given that we don’t often have direct, in-person access to people we follow on social media, it is unclear whether the words and images posted on social media are congruent with their actual attitudes and behaviors in real life.
Compare and Despair
Another unintended consequence of social media is people’s tendency to use the platform to compare themselves to others. When comparisons are done skillfully, they can provide a general benchmark of where you stack up relative to others, which can be a measure of progress and even a source of motivation.
On the flip side, comparisons can be a trap of envy and reinforce a deficit mindset. Given the positivity bias in what people typically post on social media, this may feed a fear of missing out and a false impression that you are falling short of some illusory standard. The “grass is greener” aspect of envy may mislead us to over-idealize other people’s lives as better than ours and keep us from appreciating what we have, resulting in a deficit mindset. For example, when I sometimes read up on the wonderful accomplishments of my colleagues, I am both happy for them but also a bit envious and insecure, which can spiral into self-criticalness, “What am I doing with my life?, Am I not doing enough?” Yet, from the outside looking in, it is more likely others see that I am doing well enough.
Furthermore, comparisons can be misleading. The positive images portrayed on social media may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. This point is highlighted in the ancient parable, The Sword of Damocles, which tells of a courtier in the court of King Dionysius who showered the King with praise and flattery. To teach Damocles what its really like to be King, Dionysius allows Damocles to take his place for one day. Damocles naively accepts the offer and begins to indulge in the “good life.” Moments later, Dionysus arranges for a sword to be hung over the throne by a single strand of hair from a horse tail, pointing down where a now frightened Damocles is sitting. Dionysus explains that the sword represents the relentless fear and anxiety he experiences in the face of constant threat from enemies conspiring to end his reign. While the highs may not be as high, a simple life may offer a peace of mind that even elude Kings.
We often consume social media in a disembodied state, such as sitting in a sedentary posture and eyes focused on a flat screen that only provides a simulation of the real world. In this state, we may not be paying attention to what’s happening in our bodies, such as hunger cues or our body’s need for movement, fresh air, and natural sunlight.
Communications are often limited to fingers typing on a keyboard, which disengages our body’s intricate system of vocalizing speech as well as neglecting the importance of non-verbals that convey emotions, such as facial expressions, body posture, and hand gestures. Despite emojis, text-based communication lacks the intonation, pitch, volume and pacing that our human voice can produce to modulate meaning and expression.
Moreover, when we engage in social media for countless hours in a disembodied state, we lose touch with our body’s natural defense system. Over millennia, the human body has evolved a nervous system that is wired for sympathetic arousal, popularly known as the fight or flight response, whenever the body detects a threat for the sole purpose of self-preservation. The reaction time for this fight or flight response is generally faster than our minds’ ability to consciously recognize a threat, such as when we instinctively pull our hands away from a hot plate.
When we ignore these bodily signals we may fall prey to the ill-advised assumption that the words or images on the screen can’t really harm us, leaving us defenseless to internalizing negative and/or misleading messages that can complicate our relationship with ourselves and others.
Be mindful of the content you consume. Like a marionette, sometimes I feel an invisible string pulls my fingers to click on sites without my intention. Thus, it may be helpful to be mindful and intentional of what social media content and images you consume on a regular basis, and self-reflect on how the consumed content affects your self-esteem, relationship with your body, and your overall sense of self. If you find yourself having a strong reaction to a particular response or non-response on social media, it may be a sign that you are over-identified with your online persona. Additionally, be mindful of your state of mind at times you automatically gravitate towards social media use, such as feeling distressed, bored, or avoidant (e.g., procrastination). Practice the STOP exercise to disrupt automatic patterns. Lastly, given the overwhelming amount of content on social media that pushes us to consume a lot at a rapid rate, mindfully slow down your consumption, and spend some time processing the content before moving on (e.g., what do I think about this? how does this make me feel?).
Embody social media use. When we get sucked into the blackhole of social media, it may be helpful to periodically check-in with your bodily sensations, reactions, and needs and take breaks to engage in activities that anchor and ground you back into your body, like stretching, a brief workout, or the five senses grounding exercise. When consuming upsetting content, one way to attune to your body is placing your hand over your heart to not only attune to your heart rate, which is an indicator of sympathetic arousal, but also to engender a feeling of being held. The ancients developed yoga to condition the body for long periods of sitting meditation, our bodily needs in modern times are no different when we sit for countless hours in front of a screen.
Gratitude practice. To offset the effects of comparison envy and a deficit mindset, it may be helpful to incorporate a daily gratitude practice, a secular form of “count your blessings,” to remind yourself of the things you may be taking for granted. A commonly recommended gratitude practice is contemplating at least three things at the end of each day of things you are grateful for. Even if you have a bad day, you can look for the silver linings, such as enjoying the warmth of sunlight on your skin or feeling acknowledged when a stranger says hello to you. To provide additional perspective, you may contemplate, “how many people in this world would be grateful to have the day you just had?” For many, these kinds of practices may feel contrived or cheesy, which is understandable. Whenever we engage in a new pattern, it is going to feel unfamiliar and unnatural at first, but given that we are adaptive beings, we will eventually acclimate to it.
Placing focus outside of yourself. By design, social media sites curate content that is of interest and relevance primarily to you, such as sending notifications of images you are tagged in, filtering news stories based on your browsing history, and surrounding you with like-minded people in the form of Facebook friends or Tweeter followers. You are at the center of your social media universe, which can influence you to be more self-conscious and even ego-centric. Thus, it may be helpful to take a break from yourself and engage in activities that help you focus on things other than yourself. For example, usually after a couple of hours of hiking in nature, my ego lays to rest, pre-occupations with myself evaporate and I feel so connected with nature that I feel a part of something much bigger than myself. Focusing outside yourself can also take the form of taking care of another living being like a plant or a pet, volunteering, and contributing to social and environmental causes that are bigger than yourself.
Differentiation. One function of our body’s immune system is to differentiate native cells from foreign cells, like viruses, bacteria, and germs, to identify which invader cells to defend against. Similarly, given the nature of self-reflected appraisals, it is helpful to differentiate your real self from others’ projections of you on social media. A song from one of my favorite artists, Brandi Carlile’s “That Wasn’t Me,” captures this dynamic beautifully. A helpful tool for differentiation of self from projections are venn diagrams, such as “How I perceive myself” on one side, and “How others perceive me” on the other side, as well as your “real-self” on one side and your “online persona” on the other side. This exercise may be helpful if you notice yourself over-identifying with your online persona, blurring the lines between the “world of bits” and the “world of atoms.”
Watch the Social Dilemma documentary. There are very smart people working in Silicon Valley whose job is to keep you hooked on their site for the purpose of increasing profit (e.g., selling ads). If its unclear how a particular site is making profit, the product is most likely your identity and what they are selling is your data. To this end, these sites may employ complex algorithms that manipulate your brain’s dopamine reward system to keep you glued to their sites, not far off from what Casinos do. To raise awareness of these mechanisms, it may be helpful to watch the excellent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. It was eye opening to hear that the designers of these social media platforms would not let their own children spend too much time on social media.
Limit the use of social media. Start by monitoring and taking inventory of the sites you visit frequently, and examine what value they add to your life. Set time boundaries around your social media use, such as scheduling a time for when and how much you intend to use with a clear start and end time. Place a post-it near your computer screen or devices reminding you of these limits. Be aware of any situational factors that may trigger your use. If social media is a coping mechanism, diversify your options for coping by finding other activities to meet your needs. Enlist a trusted friend or family member to keep you accountable for your use. Finally, consider limiting app time by configuring the Screentime settings in IOS or using an app like Appblock on Android.
Mantra. A wise colleague once shared their strategy of repeating the mantra, “compare and despair,” whenever they felt the urge to negatively compare them-self to others. This mantra would be repeated until the urge passed. Mantras are a helpful way of loading substantive meaning into a few words that can be accessed immediately at any time. It may be helpful to develop your own mantra that reminds you of the pitfalls of judging and comparing yourself on social media or a mantra that recognizes that a source of human happiness is to be content with what you already have.
Social media has revolutionized human relationships. The benefits are numerous, allowing us to connect and share across geographic boundaries on a scale never before seen in human history. But for each benefit, there may be a dark side with unintended consequences. Over-connections can result not only in a loss of privacy, but leave us more vulnerable to judgments and comparisons that may unwittingly condition a false self when we over-identify with our online personas. To prevent the mask wearing the face, we must be alert and aware of the effects of social media and stay embodied in the real world that serves as the common ground for real connections beyond projected images.
Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. W W Norton & Co.
Posted February 18, 2021 by Y. Sue Park.
Sometimes When We Lose, We Really Win
One of my favorite quotes is from the movie White Men Can’t Jump, a story about a down on his luck, former college basketball player, Billy, who hustles to make ends meet playing street ball. After a successful hustle, Billy rationalizes his actions to which his wise girlfriend, Gloria, responds:
“Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs.”
Our society is obsessed with winning. Vince Lombardi, a hall of fame football coach, once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Sometimes winning is winning, as in the case of a person or team achieving a goal that truly adds value, such as earning a college degree, winning a fairly-fought sports competition, or securing an investment bid to start a company that benefits society. Small and large victories matter.
Sometimes, however, the “winning spirit” can be misapplied and result in unintended consequences. For example, we often argue more for ego and less on the logic and merit of a particular viewpoint, resulting in a battle-of-the-wills that can escalate into a conflict. In this case, even though argument is won, it is a pyric victory. You win, but the relationship loses.
Despite its pitfalls, one reason why people are so pre-occupied with winning and so averse to losing may be due to the fear of vulnerability and emotional pain. Depending on the nature of the loss, losing can be painful and make us feel vulnerable, triggering feelings of disappointment, frustration, helplessness, self-doubt, anger, resentment, and grief. Some people go through great lengths to avoid their emotional pain, such as distancing through workaholism or numbing with substance use.
When we are resistant to the emotional pain associated with losing, we become less open to learning the lessons that teach us what does not work so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. One definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over again, expecting different results. Thus, we need to view losing as an important part of learning and growing, as opposed to dismissing it without examination. Even the pain has a purpose, it attaches an emotional weight to the lesson so that the learning is not easily forgotten.
Losing also helps us be more resilient by way of humility. Losing is often a humbling experience. A population that endures incredible losses are immigrants. Upon leaving their home country, they lose what is familiar to them, their old attachments, routines, and previous identities and roles. It is common for immigrants to be underemployed in their new country as their education, work experiences, and skills may not transfer over, forcing them to engage in work that is beneath their qualifications. In this situation, while pride keeps us stuck in past glories, humility can help immigrants be more adaptive with regard to doing “whatever it takes” to survive and make way for the next generation to thrive.
The true value of a loss may not reveal itself until later in life. To this point, I am reminded of an old Chinese proverb. In a rural village in ancient China, there lived a family with a prized horse that was the envy of the town. Villagers remarked how fortunate this family was to own such a horse. One day, this horse ran off into the forest and went missing. “How unfortunate,” the villagers said. Several days later, the missing horse returned with a wild, magnificent stallion as her partner. “How fortunate,” the villagers backtracked. To capitalize on their good fortune, the first-born son of this family set out to train the wild horse, only to fall in the process and break his leg. “How unfortunate,” the villagers backtracking again. A few weeks later, the emperor’s army came to town recruiting able-bodied men for a deadly war, but the first-born from this family was exempted due to his injury and so his life saved.
Life is full of twists and turns. You never know in life how things are going to turn out. If you think about good things in your life, your path to get there was likely filled with losses, teaching us the value of letting go in order to make room for change. For example, the windy path of finding your significant other may involve a series of unrequited loves and heart breaks from failed relationships. Discovering your true self may involve a process of shedding identities and false personas that once served you but no more. Personally, a major loss in my career was the precipice for soul searching that eventually paved the way for letting go of previous work commitments and create Park LA.
Lastly, losing may strip us of any falsehoods and attachments to that which is impermanent. The greatest loss in my life was the death of my father while I was in college. His death brought upon many secondary losses, such as losing financial security as my father was the main breadwinner, losing the last remnants of my childhood dependency, and losing any chance of creating new memories with my father. Although fear and pain filled this time period, these emotions eventually came to pass. Dependency was lost, but independence was gained. And while my memories fade with time, what remains is our loving bond.
Sometimes losing something, even temporarily, is what helps us realize what we take for granted in life, it reminds us of what is important, true, and long-lasting. Sometimes when we lose, we really win.
Posted February 5th, 2021 by Y. Sue Park.
A ritual is “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed in a sequestered place and according to a set sequence” (Wikipedia). A robust morning ritual sets the tone for the rest of your day. A colleague once shared a metaphor that a morning ritual is like a rudder to a boat. A rudder sets the direction of a boat, and slight miscalibrations can lead a boat astray from its intended destination. In the following sections, I aim to describe qualities that may be helpful in creating your own morning ritual, as well as providing a personal example of my morning ritual.
Consistency in time and place.
A ritual can be habituated when done consistently with enough repetition and practice. From this perspective, dedicating a consistent time and place in the morning on a daily basis is important, such as waking up around the same time every morning and designating a place that is quiet and free of distractions. Consistency in the morning is also dependent on your activities the night before as well as the quality of sleep you get. Thus, it may be helpful to set an alarm clock, not only in the morning, but also the night before to ensure you are consistently going to bed on time.
Incorporate your values, goals, and priorities.
A common trope in the Rocky movies are the scenes in which he looks at himself in the mirror for motivation, whether it is to overcome his shyness in asking out his love interest, or preparing to face his next big challenge. His mirror, adorned with pictures of his family, are reminders of what is important to him. Like Rocky, incorporating your values, goals, and priorities as part of your morning ritual can provide clarity and foresight into your day, as well as helping you start your day with intention. Borrowing from Rocky, you may consider placing a list of priorities or goals on your bathroom mirror, and read them out loud while facing yourself to make contact with your own “eye of the tiger.”
Evolving according to life circumstances and needs.
My personal morning ritual is constantly evolving based on various life circumstances and needs from those periods of my life. For example, there was a period in which I practiced Tai Chi in the morning to deal with overstress and low energy. It may be helpful not to get too attached to a particular morning ritual. Keeping things fresh will prevent your morning ritual from devolving into a mindless and redundant activity that lacks meaning and relevance. If you ever notice that yourself “going through the motions,” it may be time to re-examine your morning ritual and look for ways to revitalize it.
Flexibility to adapt to life restrictions.
Although the aim is consistency, there are times in which life circumstances or internal factors (e.g., low energy, focus or motivation) make it difficult to engage in your morning ritual. For many, having enough time and space is a luxury that they don’t have, such as an exhausted, single mother having to work extended hours just to make ends meet. Thus, it may be helpful to conceive a morning ritual that is flexible enough to adapt to factors that restrict self-care, such as lack of time or privacy, or even criticism from others that a morning ritual is a “waste of time.” Tara Brach, one of my favorite mindfulness teachers, often recommends a consistent, daily mindfulness practice, but to be flexible with the amount of time, even it is just for one minute of the day.
Centering in quiet solitude.
With modern life, we are more plugged-in than ever compared to any point in human history. Devices and apps have become so portable and accessible, they are like an extra set of limbs or physical extensions of ourselves. We live in an era of the 24/7 news cycle that not only bombards us with content that is often sensationalized, but also opinions and judgments in terms of the comments sections, social media posts, and like/dislike ratings. This dynamic has conditioned us to be more reactive as opposed to responsive, in that it does not allow us to have the quiet space to reflect on ourselves, our lives, and even form our own opinions about the content we consume. Thus, allowing time for quiet solitude in the morning, before the noise sets in, is more important than ever.
My Morning Ritual
Based on the qualities above, I would like to share my personal morning ritual that I have established for the start of 2021 to provide an example of what one might look like. Please note that that a morning ritual is very personal and so what works for me may not work for you. Thus, I encourage you to develop your own personalized morning ritual.
Journaling – keeping my mind sharp and reminding myself of my priorities
Writing in my journal is my preferred medium for self-reflection, such as processing my dreams from the night before, issues and challenges I am facing in life, or notes on some creative ideas that may blossom later in into a writing topic or project. Writing keeps my mind sharp and clear due to the process of articulating my half-formed, muddled thoughts into coherent words. Part of my time journaling is also re-reading a book-marked journal entry in which I have listed my current priorities and goals.
Reading – learning and growing
One of my goals this year is to read a chapter of an educational book everyday to grow in my personal life or career. In the past, my ego has created blind-spots and fooled me into thinking I’ve learned enough about a given subject, resulting in complacency. I want to be better aware of my areas of growth. The more I learn the more I become aware of what I don’t know.
Meditation – anchoring myself to the here and now
The here and now is the only moment in time that in which we have true freedom, agency, and ability to effect change in our life. Musings of the past is just a memory and the future is just a fantasy. To cultivate a mindful presence, I set a timer for a minimum of five minutes and engage in a mindfulness exercise of my choosing, most often it is a mindful breathing or walking exercise in the hallway.
Prayer – getting in touch with my spirituality
There is a ritualistic prayer I have engaged in almost every day of my life, in some variation, since graduate school, it goes like this:
“God, please shine your light on this world: your wisdom, your compassion, your strength and courage, your understanding and patience, your humility and self-sacrifice, your judgment and discernment, your dedication and perseverance, your safety and protection, your health and vitality, your acceptance and forgiveness, your faith and hope, and your kindness and love. Please use me today for your good and purpose.”
While saying these words out loud meditatively, I set my intention to the areas of my life where these qualities can be manifested.
On days I am able to engage my morning ritual, I notice a qualitative improvement in my focus, motivation, energy, mood, productivity, and feeling more self-possessed. There are days of course I am unable to fully engage in my morning ritual, such as when I oversleep or wake up on wrong side of the bed, but it is the effort that counts. You don’t have to be rigid or perfect about it.
I hope these perspectives can motivate you to develop your own morning ritual that, in turn, will help you seize the day in a more intentional way. One of my favorite quotes is, “The end is built into the beginning” (Charlie Kaufman). Like the metaphor presented before, the positioning of the rudder at the beginning determines where the boat ends up at the end of its journey.
Posted January 18, 2021 by Y. Sue Park.
Juen Hwa We Bok
In Korean culture, there is a old proverb, Juen Hwa We Bok, that roughly translates to turning a prior (Juen) event that brought anger (Hwa) and/or danger (We) into a blessing (Bok). In the West, this saying is analogous to, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
A recent manifestation of Juen Hwa We Bok in my life happened at the end of 2019 during a fateful visit to LA’s best hot chicken joint, Howlin Ray’s. While waiting in their super long line, I enjoyed looking at hand-drawn, colorful pictures by children posted on a window of a neighboring store around the theme of anti-smoking. While I found the pictures endearing, due to the inertia of being a smoker since high school, I wasn’t swayed much to change my ways.
An hour or so later, overly eager to scarf down delicious hot chicken with my family, I hastily pulled out my car from the parking lot, only to be met with a loud “crunch!” To my dismay, I had dented the car parked right next to me. Not knowing how long the owner of the dented car would show, I left a note with my contact information.
On the drive home, I recall being filled with anxious and self-critical thoughts, “how could I have been so reckless?!,” “how much is this going to cost?!,” “my wife is going to be so mad at me.” Typical of anxiety, things ultimately did not turn out as as bad as I had feared, my wife was supportive and understanding, and even though I paid a hefty price for repairs, the situation eventually resolved itself. But feelings of regret and self-criticalness persisted.
To resolve my inner turmoil, I decided to use this negative event as an opportunity to embolden my resolve to quit smoking by mentally associating the event with the anti-smoking pictures. Now whenever I have the urge to smoke, I remind myself of the situation, which in turn strengthens my resolve and lessens the urge. I am proud to say that I did not smoke a single cigarette for the entirety of 2020. In many ways, the price I paid for the car repair was a bargain compared to my long-term health and well-being. Juen Hwa We Bok.
My “first world problem” pales in comparison to what many have had to endure and suffer through in 2020: social isolation, disruption of daily life, unemployment/financial hardships, illness, grief and loss due to COVID-19; trauma from centuries old racial injustices persistently instigated by egregious acts of police violence against our Black counterparts; discrimination against immigrants and traumatic family separations due to deportations; signs of catastrophic climate change marked by increasing wildfires, global hunger, and the extinction of non-human life forms; social unrest and political divisiveness; so on so forth.
As the year comes to an end, many appear to bid good riddance to 2020, with disdain towards the problems we faced and a wish for life to return to what was considered “normal” pre-COVID. However, in order for things to truly get better in 2021, I believe we need to see that 2020 was an important wake-up call and a valuable precipice for changes that have bearing on our collective survival.
With COVID-19, humanity faced an existential crisis analogous to the deadly World Wars and the risk of nuclear annihilation in the 20th century. Just as previous generations learned and evolved from these past crises, such as the United Nations and nuclear disarmament, we must invoke the principle of Juen Hwa We Bok in our response to the crises we faced in 2020.
We are literally in it together as COVID-19 itself does not discriminate based on our biology, although structural inequalities place certain groups more at risk than others. Challenging the divisive elements in our society, the pandemic can be a unifying force. Even prior to the pandemic, rates of loneliness has been rising. The UK even appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address the loneliness epidemic there. And as illuminated in the excellent Netflix documentary, the Social Dilemma, we have become glued to web-based algorithms that insulate us from one another, on an informational and thought-belief level. But now we all have this common experience of going through COVID together that we can bond over, by sharing, listening, and caring. I bet there are so many interesting stories to be told about this period, ranging from heart breaking to inspirational, and everything in between.
2020 also revealed and awakened us to major fault-lines in our society with regard to social injustices and systemic inequalities that have gone unresolved for too long. This new-found awareness can move us towards reconciliation and atonement with those who have long suffered under these unjust conditions. This spirit has been expressed in the Black Lives Matter movement, which has provided a voice for those oppressed. I hope that this movement can result in changes on structural and interpersonal levels that translates to actual, concrete improvements in quality of life, beyond empty rhetoric and policy.
Different from loneliness, the solitude borne from quarantine challenges us to confront what’s really important in life. Solitude can help us cultivate a practice of looking inward, which is the first step in making peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and neighbors. One of the books I read over the pandemic is Anthony Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self, which touts the benefits of solitude, spending time alone for self-reflection and examination, and cultivating a positive relationship with oneself, which is an essential source of human happiness. Like Whitney Houston’s classic, “Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.”
Let us not allow the pain we suffered in 2020 to be in vain. Growth requires pain, “all great spirituality is about what we do with our pain” (Richard Rohr). Change is an imperative of life, going backwards to an illusory “normal” before COVID is regressive, we can only solve the problems beset us in 2020 by moving forward.
From this spirit, I hope we can manifest Juen Hwa We Bok and find purpose and meaning in the challenges faced in 2020 to help us grow and evolve into better versions of ourselves, individually and collectively, for the sake of the long-term health and well-being of our common humanity and the world that we inhabit together.
Posted January 1, 2021 by Y. Sue Park.
New Years Resolution (SMART goals)
One of my new years resolution for 2021 is to write more. A helpful framework for goal setting is the SMART acronym, for which there are many resources online:
Using this framework, I fleshed out my goal accordingly:
Write and post a resource and/or a blog entry on the Park LA website (Specific) at least once a month (Measurable) for the entirety of 2021 (Time-based), ranging from shorter posts (Attainable) to longer essays, for the purposes of refining my thinking, building the Park LA website, and helping prospective clients get to know me better and understand the way I work (Relevant).
I like to add another R to the model for Reward. I will reward myself with a hike after each blog post to reinforce my goal, and help generate new ideas to write about. Connecting with nature is wonderful for creativity!
Happy new years everyone!
Posted December 31, 2020 by Y. Sue Park.
Suicide and the Soul
Disclaimer: The contents of this essay may be triggering. Please reach out if you have any safety concerns. 800-273-8255 is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you have imminent safety concerns, please call 911 or go to nearest hospital emergency room.
*Hillman’s quotes in red.
A forgotten classic, James Hillman’s Suicide of the Soul (1964) was introduced to me by a colleague, a Jungian psychologist, during a conversation we had about the current state of how our field addresses suicidal risk, and the missed opportunities to engage clients in deeper work during these critical times.
A major thesis of Hillman’s is that suicidal impulses represent a transformation drive as part of a life, death, and re-birth cycle that brings forth major changes in a person’s life, a process that brings one closer to their true self or “soul,” in service of a more congruent and meaningful life.
Without a dying to the world of the old order, there is no place for renewal, because, as we shall consider later, it is illusory to hope that growth is but an additive process requiring neither sacrifice nor death. The soul favors the death experience to usher in change. Viewed this way, a suicide impulse is a transformation drive. It says: “Life as it presents itself must change. Something must give way. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is a tale told by the idiot. The pattern must come to a complete stop. (p. 68)
Hillman argues that practitioners and clients alike may confuse the symbolic meaning of the suicidal impulse and take it too literally, “the danger lies not in the death fantasy but its literalism” (preface). Specifically, suicidal impulses may reflect a drive towards a psychological death versus a concrete, physical death of a person. From this perspective, the physical body can be seen as an innocent bystander, or collateral damage, in the conflict between the soul and the life it is living.
When suicidal impulses are taken literally, our built-in drive for self-preservation may generate fear and resistance towards the suicidal impulse. From this perspective, we can easily fall into the trap of “killing the messenger,” shutting up the suicidal impulse or the “inner killer” rather than listening to the message it bestows about what kind of transformation the soul is needing.
Paradox of Prevention
Although originally published in 1964, Hillman’s prescient text is more relevant today than ever, especially as more psychotherapies become subsumed under behavioral health models that exist within larger medical systems. Hillman discerns a major difference in a psychological perspective on suicide compared to a physician’s, “the physician’s point of view is bound to the fighting of death, the prolonging of life” (p. 82).
Taken literally, suicidal impulses appear on the surface to be a threat to a person’s physical life. When we work solely from this perspective, Hillman argues that we do “many unpsychological things”:
When an analyst puts concrete death first he does many unpsychological things. First, he [sic] has lost an individual stand and been overcome by the collective dread of death affecting him through the analysand. He thus has fed the other’s anxiety and aided his repression of death. (p. 82)
In contemporary practice, these issues may manifest in scenarios where police code 5150 is enacted, which involuntarily hospitalizes clients to be placed on suicide watch. While hospitalizations are needed in imminent cases, there may be unintended consequences, such as undermining a clients’ autonomy and freedom, rupturing the therapeutic alliance, engaging in formulaic risk assessments and safety planning, eliciting feelings of abandonment and even trauma for clients being forced out of a therapist’s office into an unknown hospital setting, and push clients to hide their suicidal impulses to avoid being hospitalized.
Additionally, when we ignore and/or combat suicide impulses and judge them as wrong or unhealthy, it is a missed opportunity to truly understand the meaning behind the suicidal urge, and what kind of transformation is being called for on a deeper, soul level. Paradoxically, Hillman argues the prevention of suicidal urge can actually increase the likelihood of physical death by suicide as the underlying issue is left unresolved.
[The soul] must have its death, if it would be reborn. If death is deprived in any way of its overwhelming reality the transformation is misbegotten and the rebirth will be abortive. The analyst cannot deny this need to die. He [sic] will have to go with it. His job is to help the soul on its way. He dare not resist the urge in the name of prevention, because resistance only makes the urge more compelling and concrete death more fascinating. (p. 87)
This is not to say that safety measures, such as 5150, does not have its place. Hillman emphasized therapists simultaneously attending to the “inner” and “outer” needs of the client. The “outer” acknowledges the serious risk that suicidal impulses may pose to a client’s physical safety. While the “inner” makes meaning of the internal world (e.g., escape fantasies) of the client in order to identify the transformation that the soul is seeking.
The Death Experience
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself. –Martin Heidegger
In a Biblical sense, being suicidal is akin to walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.” The person is alive, and so separate from death. Because of this separation, we can forget that although we are alive we are dying at the same time, “The moment I am born I am old enough to die” (p. 59). Suicidal impulses wakes us to the dying process and keeps death near. And once the imminence of death enters a person’s consciousness, it pervades the shadowy depths of a person’s mind, allowing the person to experience what it feels like to be dying – the despair, hopelessness, but also freedom and honesty.
Hillman asserts that the death experience is the spark that give rise to the soul’s transformation. The death experience brings a reckoning to our lives, “…a dying away from the false life and the wrong hopes” (p.89). When we are faced with the reality of death, it awakens us to what’s really important in life, it motivates us to engage in activities that are purposeful and fulfilling, and it helps us appreciate and enjoy the limited time we have with our loved ones. It is difficult to put on a fake smile when we make contact with this death experience.
The transformative power of the death experience is demonstrated in the movie, Magnolia (1999) through the character arc of Frank T.J. Mackey, played by Tom Cruise. In the movie, Frank is depicted as an arrogant and misogynistic motivational speaker who disturbingly extolls male dominance, deceit, and even violence, over women to rooms full of misguided men.
Eventually, Frank faces the imminent death of his rich and powerful father, who is revealed to have abandoned Frank and his dying mother, when he was 14 years old, left to face his mother’s death alone. This piece of Frank’s history does not redeem his past transgressions but helps explain his character, who perhaps donned this false tough guy persona to cope with the pain and powerlessness of losing his mother at a young age.
During the father’s death bed scene, Frank unleashes his fury towards his father, first with insults which then dissolves into him lamenting, “I’m not going to cry! I’m not going to cry for you!,” his false armor cracking at the seams, before breaking down with rare show of vulnerability and genuineness. Although the movie does not reveal how Frank’s life turns out, the hope is that the emotional contact with his deeper, true feelings would pave a new path towards leading a more genuine life, but this would first require the dying of his false self.
Death of Me
What is the false self needs to die? A local L.A. artist, Dave Choe, shared his raw perspective to this question during a heart-to-heart conversation about the suicide of his dear friend, Anthony Bourdain:
Here is one hard question people ask me…Tony’s gone now and he’s physically not here with us anymore, and I’m mourning that and so are you, and someone asked me, “if you’re open, can I ask you this question…how much are you mourning Tony being gone and how much are you projecting your own shit onto him of that could be me?” We’re mourning our own death almost…and because of the nature of my work, because how open I am…some kid would reach out to me. “Dave I want to kill myself, I want to kill myself can you help?,” and I always say the same thing, you should definitely kill yourself, and they go “what?” / “No, who are you?” / “Um I’m an artist, I’m a chef, I’m a basketball player.” / “No no no, that’s your profession, who are you? who are you? who are you?” And I go “kill that, whatever you think you are, don’t kill yourself physically, kill your ego of who you think, if you’re going to do it anyways, if you’re’ going to jump off the cliff, shoot yourself, just before you do that, why don’t you kill everything that you believe, and what you thought, and just try something different.” I’ve lived life in such a fuckin bat out of hell just burn it all down, who gives a shit, fuck everything, and the only thing that gave me hope, and hope that’s the thing that gets me through this, and friends and love, is the fact that I can be different tomorrow, I can embrace something I didn’t the day before, that I can change. (Dave Chang podcast Ep 18 1:24 to 1:27)
In the natural course of life, we are able to let go of aspects of our lives that no longer serve or benefit us. However, this is easier said than done. People tend to hold onto what is familiar even though it is detrimental to us, especially when trauma is involved or basic survival needs are dependent on that attachment. Hillman writes that the suicidal impulse enters our lives in these cases of arrested development:
Under the pressure of ‘too late,’ knowing that life went wrong and there is no longer a way out, suicide offers itself. Then suicide is an urge for hasty transformation. This is not premature death, as medicine might say, but the late reaction to a delayed life which did not transform as it went along. It would die all at once, and now, because it missed its death crises before. This impatience and intolerance reflects a soul that did not keep pace with its life; or, in older people, a life that no longer nourishes with a still-hungering soul. (p. 73)
Mourning your Death
Actual suicide is devastating, not only for the person who dies by suicide, but the impact on the family, friends, and community who have to bear the grief, confusion, and self-blame of its aftermath. Our lives are so intertwined such that the act of suicide rarely affects only the person who dies by it.
Paradoxically, we must go through with the symbolic suicide of psychological death in order to prevent actual suicide from occurring, “by being the bridge through whom the patient can enter death, the experience may come before the actual death occurs” (p. 87). Like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn attending their own funeral, we must witness and mourn the loss of our own self.
Parallel to grieving the loss of a loved one, the mourning may involve honoring the past self that once served us, and perhaps even a ritual to say goodbye to this part of our life, such as writing a goodbye letter or burying an object that symbolized the deceased past self. Like the widow wearing black, changes in a person’s outward appearance can mark the transformation for oneself and others, such as changing one’s hair style, getting a henna tattoo, redecorating your room, and even going by a different name.
Perhaps the hardest part is facing the emotional pain of the loss, opening the door for despair and agony to enter our hearts. From the perspective of Kubler-Ross’ (2005) stages model that describes the emotional process of grief, denial may lead us to keep ignoring the suicidal impulse, bargaining may keep us in a repetitive cycle of killing and then reviving the old self as it clings on for dear life, and acceptance may require us to surrender any false hope that we can ever return to our past life. We can remember our past life, but we can no longer live it. Change must happen, and for suicidal clients, their lives may literally depend on it.
To entertain no false hopes, not even that hope for relief which brings one into analysis in the first place. This is an emptiness of soul and will. It is the condition present form that hour when, for the first time, the patient feels no hope at all for getting better, or even for changing, whatsoever. An analysis leads up to this moment and by constellating this despair lets free the suicidal impulse. Upon this moment of truth the whole work depends, because this is a dying away from the false life and wrong hopes out of which the complaint has come. As is the moment of truth, it is also the moment of despair, because there is no hope. (p. 89)
Birthing a New Self
Reinvention need not be reserved only for transitional periods of a person’s life, such as starting college or moving to a new area. The possibility of reinvention can happen in every moment of our life, as each moment is unlike any moment that came before.
Because we are creatures of habit, we must first disrupt and extinguish the old patterns that keep us attached to our old self. One way to disrupt these neurologically hard-coded behavioral patterns is to purposely engage in something new, different, and interesting on a regular basis that takes you out of your comfort zone, whether it be something small (e.g., trying a new recipe) or big (e.g., go on a soul-searching trip). The changes at first may feel artificial and uncomfortable but with enough repetition a new normal can be established.
Once the old self is laid to rest and old patterns are disrupted, the work of birthing a new self can begin. In therapy, the birthing process may take the form of a client getting to know themselves better on a deeper level, such as getting in touch with what truly makes them happy or gives them a sense of meaning and purpose, and then actively imagining in great detail what this life would look like. Often therapists ask clients the miracle question, “if a miracle happened that released you from all the problems in your life, what kind of life would you be living?”
The death experience is meant to be painful, but you don’t have to go through it alone. Just as social support is critical in grieving the loss of a loved one, we are not meant to go through the grief of psychological death alone. I can only dream that one day our society can evolve to be psychologically minded enough to recognize and respect individuals going through this process of soul transformation beset by the suicidal impulse.
While our collective culture has a long way to go, there may be individuals that have the sufficient training and wisdom of life experience to guide and accompany you on this journey. Even though accompaniment doesn’t lessen the pain, having another who is there with you in the depths of your pain has a way of making things more bearable. Accompaniment does not need to come from a therapist, it can come from a partner, a close friend, a family member, a spiritual leader, a support group, etc.. The first step of course is reaching out.
He [sic] gives the person the opportunity denied everywhere. The analyst now plays the true psychopompos, guider of souls, by not breaking the bond of trust at the moment when it is most crucial…The person knows he can rely on the analyst, because the understanding between them cannot be broken even by death. By having entered the other’s position so fully, the other is no longer isolated. (p. 92)
Expanding the Emotional Container
Given our society’s “collective dread of death,” we often lack the guidance, training, and experiences to expand our ability to tolerate and hold the emotions associated with the death experience. Often our emotional container is small, and mostly filled with fear when it comes to death. However, this does not need to be the case.
One practical way to desensitizing the fear of death and expand ones emotional container is downloading an app called WeCroak, which sends you a reminder five times a day, “Don’t forget you are going to die,” along with a meaningful quote about death. This practice is based on a Bhutanese folk saying: “to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.”
Since my father passed away while I was in college, I have gravitated to grief work, first for myself in therapy and a grief support group, and followed by supporting others going through this process. In all the years I’ve run a grief support group, sadness and sorrow are probably the most frequent expression of grief, but second to that is not fear, but love, the love for their loved ones who have passed.
In this spirit, putting to rest ones past self can be an expression of love. Loving yourself enough to be willing to face the fear and pain of letting die the parts of your life that no longer serve or benefit you, and having the strength and courage to make fundamental changes in your life to make way for a more fulfilling and congruent life.
Hillman, J. (1964). Suicide and the Soul. Dunquin.
Kuber-Ross, E. & Kessler, D. (2005). On Grief and Grieving. Simon and Schuster.
Posted August 29, 2020 by Y. Sue Park. This essay is dedicated to my dear friend and colleague who introduced me to Hillman’s text: Dr. Bryce McDavitt, PhD, a true psychopompos.
A simple definition of delusion is a strong adherence to an unrealistic belief that is held despite evidence to the contrary. There is a delusional quality to anxiety in which we perceive neutral or ambiguous situations as threatening, overestimate the likelihood of something going wrong, and underestimate our ability to cope, even when we recognize these anxious thoughts to be unrealistic or disproportionate.
I believe that the same delusional quality that drives anxiety can be used to our advantage, with regard to consciously and deliberately adopting beliefs and perspectives that can inspire positive attitudes, even though the belief may not be grounded in reality (just yet).
A theory related to this concept is depressive realism, which draws the conclusion that a positive bias exists amongst non-depressed individuals, based on studies that found depressed participants more accurate in predicting negative outcomes than their less depressed counterparts (see Alloy and Abramson, 1988).
The quality of positive delusion is easily observable in young children who engage in imaginative play. For example, my four-year-old son loves to make believe that he is an astronaut. Playing with a few toys such as his astronaut helmet and some household items (e.g., garden stones are moon rocks), he is able to transform our living room into a space adventure with lift offs, space exploration, and walks on the moon, eliciting a sense of wonder, creativity, and fun!
While this quality is acceptable in children, adults are often stigmatized as immature or “out there” when they engage in make believe or self-delusion. However, I find that adults also engage in this kind of self-delusion but in more covert and often subconscious ways, perhaps out of shame or self-judgment.
Michael Jordan demonstrated this quality in “The Last Stand,” a documentary about his last championship season as a member of the Chicago Bulls. One story is told about Jordan finding motivation to dominate an opponent who allegedly taunted him after outplaying him in a previous game. Reporters interviewed the other player who denied the allegation. Confronted with this discrepancy, Jordan admitted that he deliberately made up the story to light a fire within him.
I like to refer to this quality of positive self-delusion as “believatudes,” juxtoposing the words “belief” and “attitude.” Specifically, believatudes are beliefs and perspectives that we consciously and deliberately adopt that elicit a desired attitude, even though we know the belief may not be true. Once a believatude is conceived, it may be helpful to distill it into a short phrase that can be repeated like a mantra to cultivate the desired attitude.
A believatude from my life is, “I have already overcome the hardest thing in my life.” Who knows if this is really true, perhaps my worst days lie ahead. Yet when I hold onto this belief, new challenges become manageable because of the deliberate self-delusion I have already overcome something more difficult. I often engage this believatude when I travail challenging mountain hikes. Repeating the believatude as a mantra offsets my impulse to give up and replaces it with an “I can do this” attitude.
I encourage you to create your own set of believatudes, as they are entirely subjective and personal. Here are some guiding questions that may help you get started:
• What is a challenging situation in your life?
• What is a positive attitude that can help you with this situation?
• What is a belief or perspective that can elicit this attitude?
• How can this belief or perspective be distilled into a mantra-like phrase?
• The next time you face this challenge, repeat the believatude to yourself like a mantra to elicit the desired attitude.
I hope this approach can help others develop beliefs, perspectives, and attitudes that may be in service of cultivating a more desirable life. Sometimes a be(lie)f is what’s needed to get us to where we need to go in life.
• Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1988). Depressive realism: Four theoretical perspectives. In L. B. Alloy (Ed.), Cognitive processes in depression (p. 223–265).
• The Last Stand. Directed by Jason Hehir, ESPN Films, 2020.
Posted August 7, 2020 by Y. Sue Park
Embrace your Anti-Hero
Embrace the anti-hero in you. Allow yourself to FAIL – falling 99 times but getting up 100 is better than not failing at all. Allow yourself to be ALONE – it is in quiet solitude we often connect with our deeper inner selves. Allow yourself to be UNPOPULAR – be true to yourself and others especially when it goes against the grain. Allow yourself to be LOST – life is full of unexpected twists and turns but never lose faith that your life has a greater purpose that will reveal itself in time. Allow yourself to feel PAIN – life is not easy and it is often in the face of adversity we grow the most.
Posted August 6, 2020 by Y. Sue Park