This past week I’ve been struggling with my visceral anger towards Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the ridicule he’s brought to our city. Those of you who know me are aware that I have a history of addiction issues as well, so if anyone should be able to cut Mayor Ford some slack, it should come from people like me, but that is definitely not the case. What I’m most upset about is the complete lack of honesty coming from the Mayor. So, today I thought I’d write my post about honesty and how it is the cornerstone of every “authentic” relationship.
A great place to begin is with a quote from the American writer Spencer Johnson: “Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.” I really love this distinction between integrity and honesty because so often we use these terms interchangeably, but when we dig a little deeper, we see that honesty is built on a bedrock of integrity. I may not respect Mayor Ford’s actions, but as a recovering addict, I do understand where he is coming from. When you spend a lot of time in 12-step meetings with other struggling addicts, you learn to recognize who is trying to make the program work and who is not ready to do the work to make a real change in their life. For lack of a better expression, your “bullshit meter” becomes finally attuned to other addicts who lack the integrity to change from within. You may indeed believe that you’re being honest with those around you, but if you’re not being honest with yourself (integrity), your promises are destined to fall short of people’s expectations.
My wife and I are facilitating a Partners’ Group at a treatment centre for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and during the past 2 months, we’ve been developing the curriculum. One of the themes that we have had to weave into each group session is the need for the participants to be able to lean into uncomfortable, yet authentic, discussions with their partner. This process has been such a blessing in my relationship with my wife because it has given us the opportunity to redefine how we relate to each other and how we can invite honesty into our discussions at home.
I believe most couples strive to be truthful and honest with each other, but whenever a challenge comes into the relationship (in our case it was my disclosure that I had been sexually abused as a child), our natural tendency is to treat the relationship with tenderness, as if it were a fabric that would tear.
In order to facilitate honest conversations with my partner, I need to make sure I’m operating from a base of integrity. So, how do you do that? For me, it’s a matter of asking myself a few challenging questions. (1) Am I approaching this discussion with the belief that “it’s all about me”, or am I actively trying to empathize with how my partner feels? (2) Where is the role of my “self esteem” in this, and am allowing shame to taint my perception of reality? (3) Am I hiding anything, “sugar coating” anything, or underplaying anything? I may not like the answers to these questions, but facing them directly is the stepping stone to being truthful in my discussions with my partner.
It seems so simple, yet we appear blind to the fact that if we can’t be honest with ourselves, we can’t help but be deceitful to those we love the most. So many relationships break down because people are resentful of their partner and because authentic conversations never occur. Any solution to a relationship problem we come up with that has been built on lies and half-truths is doomed to fail because it is not rooted in a solid bedrock of integrity. I’d like to leave you with a quote from the American novelist John D. MacDonald: “Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn't blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won't cheat, then you know he never will."
At this point every year, my stress level typically begins to escalate, and I become a little more introspective as I struggle with regaining some balance in my life. I thought it might be useful this time around to try something different. Instead of simply “reacting” to the symptoms of my increased stress, I’ve decided to dig deeper to discover what triggers this feeling every autumn.
What immediately comes to mind are the physical stimuli behind this stress. September and October is a busy time for marathon runners like me. This is the period known as the the “fall running season”, and I like to cram as many races as possible into this racing window. This year I’m doing four marathons in five weeks, so the cumulative wear and tear on my body is wreaking havoc on my emotional well-being.
A further contributing factor to this annual elevation in my stress level is the start of another school year. As a teacher, I mark my calendar based on the school year, so September means heading back to the classroom and putting my head down for the long haul. It’s pointless to whine about this to non-teachers because the typical response is: “What are you complaining about. I wish I got a 2-week break at Christmas and my summers off.” That might be true, but until you’ve stood in front of a class, you have no idea how emotionally draining teaching is. It’s like being a stand-up comic, parent, and guidance counselor all at the same time.
The most persistent cause of my recurring seasonal stress is the impending arrival of Christmas. For most people, this a time for celebration and a time to get together with family and friends. For me, it’s a time when I’m filled with a feeling of mourning because it reminds me of some very unpleasant childhood memories. My most vivid Christmas memory is of the first Christmas after my mom walked out on us. My father sat sullen at the dinner table, and after we had tidied up the dishes, he grabbed the Christmas tree and threw it out onto the lawn. I’ll never forget how lost he looked, and how I could see in eyes that he thought just maybe, fighting to keep sole custody of my sister and me wasn’t worth it anymore. 35 years later, I no longer speak to, or see, my mother and I’ve lost contact with all but one of my brothers and sisters. Despite my wife’s attempts to turn this season around for me, I still find it an incredibly stressful and draining time of the year.
Now that I’ve gotten to the “root” of all this seasonal stress, just how am I supposed to respond to, and work through it? I recently came across a really helpful strategy for coping with stress by wellness coach, Adelma Lilliston. It’s easy to remember because it goes by the acronym, B.R.A.K.E. “Breathe deeply” permits me to step back from the crisis and stress, and gives me the physical grounding to respond from a healthier, more grounded center. “Reset” encourages me to label the emotion for what it really is—fear, shame, judgment, or uncertainty. “Accept yourself and wherever you are right now” reminds me that feelings and emotions are transient, and recognizing that I’m facing vulnerability is, as Brene Brown would say, a sign of courage not weakness. “Kindness” bolsters me and allows me to turn off that critical voice of self-judgement. Finally, “Evaluate your options” puts me back in the driver’s seat. There are very few problems in life that time, advice, and acceptance can’t alleviate.
By adopting the B.R.A.K.E. as a means to work through my seasonal stress, I can live a more wholehearted life grounded in physical, emotional, and spiritual calm. I invite you to consider how incorporating B.R.A.K.E. into your life may lessen your stress and lighten your burden.