“Life begins when you put down the knife that you’ve been holding to your own neck.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love
Elizabeth was addressing the crowd gathered for O Magazine’s 10th Anniversary bash in New York City, using her signature blend of truth, humor, and self-compassion to remind us that in our quest to “live our best lives”, we can easily fall prey to perfectionism, trying to fix everything that we find broken, and holding ourselves hostage to our own ideal images of who we believe we should be.
It’s a challenge in our culture of extremes to find what feels like balance for YOU. We’re being told by a lot of people what balance “should” be, and given formulas for how to achieve it. Go to a retreat center. Get a massage. Hire a life coach. Read this book. Watch this video. Join this community. Listen to this teacher. It’s enough to make you feel so overwhelmed that keeping the status quo seems a whole lot easier than trying to do something about it.
Right now, I’m in a deep practice of rethinking my thoughts, observing how my responses to situations are governed by a few deeply rooted beliefs that I never had an awareness of until my own experience with burnout led me to my training as a life coach. For me, I have noticed that by believing three main thoughts, I experience most of my feelings of stress, overwhelm, and resistance to what life brings my way.
“It’s never enough.”
"There’s not enough time.”
"I am responsible for other people’s pain and suffering.”
As I write them and look at them now, they still cause me twinges of pain. They are the three different knives I’ve been holding to my own neck, to borrow Elizabeth Gilbert’s image. Maybe you can imagine similar thoughts that you’ve had, and how they land in your body as sensations – a knot in your stomach, a crook in your neck, a clenching in your jaw. When taken to the extreme, any one of these thoughts feels like the threat of my imminent demise. It can cause me to freeze up, become silent, and wonder why I bother to say anything at all.
When I first started to notice these thoughts, the first thing I did was disbelieve how powerful they were as forces in shaping my life. “It’s only a thought,” I thought to myself. I blew it off as no big deal. I tried to take big, bold actions to show how free I was of these limiting beliefs. Limits, me? No way! And what happened? The same thoughts came back in different situations, causing me to behave in similar ways and feel similarly to the way I did in previous situations.
The second thing I did was to be a very dutiful student of the process, coming up with “perfect” turnarounds that showed how skillful I was at mastering the tool. To the first statement, I said, “It’s always enough.” I basked briefly in a moment of triumph for stepping into such power with an abundance-filled affirmation about how the universe always provides, etcetera. But, as my coach pointed out, that is a bunch of baloney if you don’t genuinely believe what you’re saying. Until you look for the evidence in your own life that shows how a turnaround is true, it’s only words on a page.
I found this other turnaround to be just as true for me: “I’m never enough for me (my own standards).” Yet another proverbial knife to the neck that I’ve been holding. I can find the truth that I’m never enough for my own standards, and my mind proves that true by preventing me from taking the risk of stating what I really want. If I never set that lofty goal, then I’ll always have a reason to say I haven’t met it. I’ll never be enough for me, as long as that’s what my mind still believes.
For me, the hardest challenge - the thing I think I cannot do - is doing less. And being OK with that being enough for now. Not taking responsibility for other people's feelings or fixing them. Doing my best in each moment, and trying to learn. Now I see that every time I say, "This is enough!", I am one step closer to believing that I can be enough for me. Each time I say, "This is enough!", I am closer to putting down the knife. And it ain't easy!
Who would you be without these thoughts?
When you’ve been walking around holding a knife to your own throat, you don’t just drop it when someone tells you to do so. You may recognize that you don’t like the sensation, but you also don’t know another way. You’ve grown accustomed to “living on the edge”, motivated by the fear of never being enough, running out of time, or being responsible for other people’s opinions of you. These thoughts have gotten you to a certain point in terms of getting a certain job, the approval of family, the image of success, or the apparent ingredients of happiness. To question them may feel like something you might not survive.
Well, you’re right. Part of you – the ego identities associated with those beliefs – will die. But if you’re willing to go through the “death” of disbelieving your painful thoughts, what’s left is the clean, clear mind that gives rise to peace, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in.
So it’s not a new set of instructions, rules, or formulas to follow that will give you what your soul wants. It’s not another idol to worship, or a teacher to please, or a parent to plead for love from. The soul’s nature is to be free and at peace. All you need to do is clear the obstacles.
And put down the knife.
Photo credit (used under a Creative Commons license): Pierre Vignau