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When Staying in It Is Not More Spiritual
Written by Nancy Colier for Huff Post Healthy Living
We all have people in our lives who have profoundly harmed us. Sometimes the situation with the other person has changed. You may have forgiven them and they may even have taken ownership and expressed remorse for their harmful actions. Other times, the same harmful behavior goes on with no change or responsibility. To your reptilian brain however, it often doesn’t matter which of these scenarios is true. With trauma, the body’s memory of a harmful person can remain frozen at the time of the trauma.
This is not a blog on trauma, however. Rather, it is about our expectation of what we are supposed to do with the people who make us feel toxic. Many people believe that in order to be “spiritual” they need to:
- Be able to open their heart to the people who have done them harm.
- No longer experience a negative reaction in their company.
I am often asked, “What is wrong with me that I can’t feel open, loving and calm in this person’s presence?” “Isn’t being spiritual about being able to love the person who hurt me?” “Isn’t forgiveness the essence of spirituality?”
Firstly, the body’s reaction to someone who has harmed you is simply that: the body’s reaction, something that happens. You don’t choose it. It is not an indicator of your spiritual maturity, nor a gauge of your growth in life or in relationship to the trauma. In many cases, no amount of psychological or spiritual work will change your body’s chemical response to the person who inflicted harm; it is hard-wired into your biology, an aspect of survival. That said, the first thing to take off your plate is the idea that you “should” be able to feel good in their company. Any notion that a negative physical response makes you un-spiritual or un-evolved is, quite simply, hogwash.
Secondly, being able to “open your heart” to someone who has caused you tremendous pain is also not a test of your spirituality. Many people deliberately put themselves in company with family and “friends” who are profoundly painful for them to be with — in an effort to develop forgiveness or compassion — and because they feel they “should.” And yet, if your heart is not open, and the desire to be with this other is not emanating from a place of true compassion, it does you no spiritual good to do what you “should.” Pushing harder does not create more compassion. Like getting through a grueling spin class, there is a sense of accomplishment, of being able to stay in the room without collapsing or fleeing, but this is not the same thing as spiritual growth.
The choice to exclude a person or experience from your life can be the more compassionate choice — for yourself. And indeed, when your heart opens to your own suffering, and your own well-being, that compassion for yourself can open wide enough to include even the one who caused you suffering. But this is something that your heart will tell you — not something that your mind can decide or force.
Spirituality is not a test. Being spiritual is about being with what is. If you feel toxic when in the company of someone who has hurt you, then you earn no spiritual points by forcing yourself to be there, and enduring that toxicity. We behave with spirit when we accept our experience the way it is. Deciding to not be with someone who makes you feel terrible, even if that person is your family or “friend,” is an act of courage — honoring yourself and the truth.
Trust your heart; if it is ready to embrace someone who has harmed you, it will open, without force. Indeed, by giving yourself permission to say “no,” to follow your truth, you are offering yourself the only real chance you have to genuinely want to be with them, at some time. Without permission to say “no,” we cannot find the authentic desire to say “yes.” And if that desire never comes, that too is as spiritual a path as any other.
Spirituality is not about becoming the person that you are supposed to be — not about doing the “spiritual” thing. To be spiritual is to compassionately welcome your truth — what you actually feel — whether you like that truth or not. To be spiritual is to stop trying to be a more spiritual and open-hearted version of yourself, and instead, to open your heart without judgment to who and how you actually are. Perhaps the hardest task of all, being spiritual is about letting yourself — and what is so — be.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, writer and public speaker. She graduated from the University of Virginia, Columbia University School of Social Work, The Focusing Institute and One Spirit Interfaith Seminary. A longtime student of Eastern spirituality, awareness practices form the ground of her work.