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The Self-Help Trap: The Illusion of Choice

I’m guessing many of you have been around the block in the self-help world. We self-help junkies can be easily identified. We are the “sensitive” ones, the hippies, healers, light-workers, and spiritual seekers (or any combination therein) with years of personal growth work under our belt. We’re into inner reflection, meditation, spiritual awakenings, and have extensive knowledge about the micro-nutrients of kale (organic, of course!), goji berries, maca, cacao (otherwise known as chocolate to the unsophisticated), and, of course, red wine. We know all about taking responsibility for our own feelings and may have embraced the notion that we create our own reality. Maybe we’ve even “manifested” something we thought we wanted — oh joy! We know all about our destructive patterns and limiting beliefs. We definitely do yoga, maybe even with goats. (Well, most of us do yoga. I’m a yoga rebel. Although I do enjoy a good corpse pose now and again.) We’ve read all the books, been to all the seminars, know all the theories, cleared our chakras and meridians, received gong baths, aromatherapy, reiki, and other energy therapies we can’t pronounce or remember, let alone understand. We may even pretend to be therapists ourselves. And, most of us are profoundly bored with our own story and our own suffering.

As I’ve journeyed on the self-help path, I’ve found along the way a lot of potential for confusion. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds due to the many contradictions, lack of clarity, and incomplete information prevalent in the personal growth and new-age spiritual arena. As our (*cough*) beloved President would say, “There’s fake news everywhere!” It’s also very easy to fall into what I lovingly refer to as “the self-help trap.”

The self-help trap has many layers. I’m going to discuss just one aspect here, but in general and as an overview, the self-help trap is a trap of self blame and lack of self acceptance. This shame and lack of self acceptance is already present in us, but it is amplified by some of the confusing aspects of self-help teachings. It is a blaming of ourselves for our own suffering and results from a confusion between the notion of responsibility and choice. It arises when we mistakenly believe we have choice when we do not. The self-help trap is subtle because this particular flavor of self blame often feels justifiable and necessary for any sort of growth or change for the better to occur in our lives.

Last week I wrote about a time recently when I went extra crazy. I described how rage had consumed me, that I had expressed it in a hurtful way, and how that rage had then turned inward, transmuted into extreme shame and self-hate. Part of the shame (self blame) came from a belief that “good people” don’t feel such rage, let alone express it, and the fact that I felt and expressed it meant I was an all around bad person. After all, shouldn’t these destructive patterns and feelings be gone by now after all this personal and spiritual growth work?

Anyone who has been in the personal growth world long enough has been inundated with the idea that the only place we have true choice is in how we respond to what is happening in our lives. We come to learn that our reactions are our responsibility and that outer circumstances are not the cause of our inner experiences. We can see this truth easily enough when we notice that two different people often react and respond to the same circumstances in drastically different ways. This realization of responsibility is critical in moving from a place of victim consciousness to a place of empowerment.

The problem is not that this principle of responsibility is wrong or bad. The problem is where we take it next:

    1. We conclude that the next step toward being a happier, more fulfilled human being must be to create shiny, new, loving belief systems so that over time our destructive patterns will no longer arise. Indeed, this is what countless self-help programs are all about.
    2. We confuse responsibility with both blame and choice.

When a pattern that we are very well aware of gets triggered, and none of the personal growth work we’ve done related to #1 above has changed the fact that it is arising (yet again), this is the moment when it is very easy to fall into the self-help trap. Oftentimes these patterns are made up of old belief systems and autonomic survival reactions which we know at a logical level are not relevant or helpful in the current situation. So, part of what can happen is that since we are now consciously aware of the pattern, know logically that it doesn’t “make sense” in the current situation, and know we are solely responsible for it, we conclude (often unconsciously) that we are therefore to blame for its arising. After all, if we are responsible for our reactions, then why wouldn’t we blame ourselves? There’s no one else to blame!

In addition, we can also believe that because we are responsible, this means we suddenly have conscious choice as to whether or not these patterns arise. More specifically, we believe after a pattern has arisen that we should have been able to stop it, or that it shouldn’t have arisen in the first place because we “know better by now” or because we’ve done affirmation or other work to create new belief systems. After all, we are consciously aware of the pattern, and with awareness comes choice, right? Indeed, this is exactly what we are told over and over again. It is repeatedly pounded into us that the only place where we have true choice is in how we respond to what is happening in our lives, and that that choice somehow magically appears due to conscious awareness of our responses and patterns.

Can you see the walls of the self-help trap now? The truth is that we do not have a conscious choice as to whether or not an automatic pattern will be triggered (although we can certainly do our best to control our outer circumstances in ways that allow us to avoid situations we know trigger us in order to give ourselves the illusion of control). In the end, the triggering process is automatic, which means by definition it is not under our conscious control. And certainly once a pattern is triggered, we no longer have a choice in the matter. It is done. The beliefs, thoughts, sensations, and feelings associated with that pattern will inevitably arise. But what happens for many of us is that, due to a misunderstanding of what responsibility actually means, we believe we had choice in these situations when we did not. The inevitable result is self blame, frustration, and shame. We blame ourselves for allowing the pattern to be triggered, or for not being good enough at this self-help stuff to be able to make it so the pattern doesn’t arise at all. This self blame increases our suffering tenfold by adding an additional helping self loathing to the mix.

It gets worse when the pattern then propels us into some kind of action that is destructive or hurtful to others. If, for whatever reason, we are taken over by the intensity of the experience in such as way that we experience what is arising as all that we are — as our very identity — then we do not really have much of a choice in how we behave either. This was my experience when I went extra crazy recently. In order to have choice in our behavior, some sort of witnessing consciousness — that is, the ability to differentiate our thoughts and feelings from who we think we are — has to be online and engaged as a mediating factor. Sometimes we simply do not have this capacity because our system is overwhelmed, and therefore we run on automatic pilot, acting out unconsciously what we’ve learned to do in similar situations in the past. Then, later, when things have settled and we are no longer triggered, we often look back at how we behaved and think we could have and should have done something differently when, in fact, given our state at the time, we did not have a choice in how we behaved. The shame and self-hate that can arise here is devastating. Not only is it prevalent in the self-help world to think we should always be able to control our behavior, it is also prevalent outside the self-help world. This is not to say we aren’t responsible for our behavior. We are. But there is a difference between responsibility and choice, which is my entire point here.

Perhaps you can see by now the main confusion is that, on a very subtle level, we think we have choice when we actually do not. We end up berating ourselves because we believe that since we have realized we are responsible for our reactions and behavior, this means we suddenly have the capacity and ability to consciously choose our reactions and behaviors from that point forward. And that is utter nonsense. We have to get out of the cycle of shaming ourselves for something that was never in our control in the first place. This is the only way out of the self-help trap and into true healing.

The good news is that we do have choice, just not in the way we may have thought or been told. In general, the patterns programmed into our nervous system are complex survival strategies which worked in the past to get us through situations that our system interpreted as life threatening. When our strategies work (i.e, we survive), our system remembers (programs) these strategies into our nervous system and will automatically (without conscious thought) respond similarly when it perceives threat again in the future. It also changes what we perceive as threatening, as our system now becomes biased to perceive more situations as threatening as a protective mechanism. As a child, we rely heavily on our caregivers for our survival and to help us regulate our distress. Situations that feel life threatening can be not only the obvious traumas such as abuse and neglect, but we can even perceive life threat if a caregiver is not there to help us regulate when we are in extreme emotional distress.

The strategies that are programmed into our nervous system include belief systems, but they also include powerful physiological, emotional, and behavioral responses. The self-help world tends to focus solely on belief systems, giving us a false sense that we can consciously choose and control our responses by simply changing what we believe cognitively. Another approach is to help us create new belief systems, through processes such as affirmations, which are meant to gradually replace the old “outdated” belief systems. (By the way, these new belief systems often include spiritual beliefs, which is where the new age spiritual world integrates with the self-help world.) Even when these methods include bringing in emotional feeling and physiological conviction to better integrate the new belief system at an autonomic level, this does nothing at all to change what our system perceives as threatening! If we have experienced trauma, very small triggers can be perceived by our system as survival threats, even when we can see and understand cognitively that we are safe. We will therefore still be triggered into our automatic survival reactions when our system perceives threat, and this is beyond our conscious control. And remember, many seemingly innocuous social situations can be perceived as life threatening due to our experiences as a child or due to other traumatic experiences as an adult.

So how do we work with this? Where do we actually have choice? The only way to shift our autonomic survival reactions is to change what we perceive — at an autonomic level — as a threat to our survival. When we are triggered, our system is “remembering” a past threat as if it is happening now (which is the same as saying our system is biased toward seeing threat). Often this is the case because the past experience was so overwhelming that it was never fully integrated and processed. The way to integrate these past experiences and rewire the nervous system is to work to build our capacity to be fully present in the here and now when we are triggered.

Being present means having witness consciousness online and being able to differentiate what is arising (thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions) from “us,” from who we think we are. This allows us to recognize and realize on a deeply physiological level — in our bodies — that we are actually safe right now. When we are able to do this, our innate healing capacity kicks in and our nervous system integrates the past experience and actually rewires our nervous system.

The capacity to be present and inhabit witness consciousness — to differentiate the intensity of what we are experiencing from “us” — can actually be quite challenging due to the overwhelming nature of what arises when we are triggered. We need support, and we need to build internal resources to be able to do this. It takes time and practice to learn to be with our experiences in the way I’m describing, but it is possible. There is no quick fix. This is where we have choice.

If we can let go of continually shaming and blaming ourselves for not being able to control our automatic patterns and responses, then we are freed to be with them and meet them in a new way, with acceptance and curiosity. Compassionate presence with ourselves is what allows for true healing, and the ability to differentiate our experiences from “us” is what gives us the ability to choose our behavior when triggered. In the process, we also build our capacity to shift our attention to the aspect of us that is not suffering, the part that is never affected by our conditioned responses and patterns, the part of us that is more who we truly are on an essential level. As we gain access to our true nature, it becomes our strongest and most powerful resource. We begin to embody more and more fully the creative, joyful, loving, vibrant part of ourselves that we all know is at the heart of who we are.

In the end, this is where the self-help and new age spiritual world is trying to bring us. Despite its confusions and inconsistencies, I am endlessly grateful to be on the path. I’ll be forever proud to proclaim myself a self-help junkie. ❤

Extra Crazy

A few weeks ago, I completely lost it. As one of my favorite integral psychologists (Dr. Keith Witt) would say: I went “extra crazy.” I take some comfort in the fact that we all go extra crazy from time to time, and that I’ve grown enormously as a result of the experience. Plus, my version of extra crazy (at least in terms of outward behavior) was pretty mild and short in duration compared to some other expressions. But still, there’s no escaping it. I went extra crazy, and it wasn’t pretty.

It was rage that consumed me, first directed at someone I respect and love dearly, then later that night turned against myself. It started out as simple irritation. Then I let it fester, and we all know what happens when we let irritation fester. It grew slowly into anger and finally into all-consuming, self-righteous rage. And unfortunately, I unloaded and expressed that rage in a hurtful way.

The grace of the situation was that the woman I unloaded on has enormous capacity to be grounded and present when extra crazy shows up, and even though it was hurtful for her, when I apologized the next day, all was forgiven and repaired between us. She could see I had gone extra crazy and that it wasn’t really about her, because she knows and has integrated that extra crazy part of herself — a part that we all carry.

The truth is the real violence happened within myself that evening as the rage turned inward. The outward expression of the rage was nothing compared to its ferocity when turned against myself. It morphed and transfigured into intense shame and self hate. The violence of my thoughts astounded me even as I was in the midst of experiencing their barrage.

I’m not sure how I made it through that night and showed up the next day to apologize and make repair with the woman who was the original target of my rage. I truly believe part of it was grace answering my prayer for help, as I knew I was out of control. But part of it also was all the work I have done over the years to learn to be present with the intensity of my experience when I am triggered. Even at the most intense moments, I was still in touch with another — and somehow truer — aspect of myself that was not suffering. This aspect was witnessing the whole thing, quietly but insistently whispering in my ear that maybe — just maybe — it wasn’t quite so black and white as I was thinking and feeling, that maybe there was more to me than rage and one hurtful act, that maybe I would learn something through this experience and have more capacity to love as a result. It was the “essential me” whispering truth in my ear. And the miracle was that I had the capacity to hear it and feel it at the core of my being.

In the days that followed, I came to fully accept for the first time that this extra crazy part of myself exists. I saw that I had been living in denial, believing until this experience that I was a purely “good person.” I saw that my concept of what makes a person “good” was completely made up and unattainable by any human being. And when I was finally able to turn toward this part of myself and meet it, I realized why it exists and what it’s trying to do.

This aspect is not often extra crazy, but it has the capacity to go there when triggered. It’s the part of me that has done everything it possibly can to help me survive and be as comfortable as possible in difficult situations. When not extra crazy, it’s the logical aspect, the part that analyzes challenging situations and comes up with solutions based on past experience. It’s the part of me that has figured out brilliant ways to make it through. It’s also my protector. It protects another part of me that finds this journey of life to be unspeakably hard and often doesn’t know what to do, and would simply give up if it weren’t for its protector. And it worked. I’m still here, even if a bit battered for the journey. With these realizations, I was finally able to embrace this part of myself with compassion and love.

Of course, this aspect of myself is also the part that can go extra crazy. It is all about me. It can seem like it’s concerned with others, but it’s really not. It’s manipulative, and it lacks compassion. It can only be in relationship on a superficial level. Connection, compassion, and empathy are not in its job description… although I realize now that before this experience, I expected it to be and do everything.

What has changed now is that I am no longer shunning this aspect of myself. I see where it fits, that it is an important part of me, and I also see where its role ends. I see that I had unintentionally abandoned this part of myself, simultaneously shunning it while expecting it to figure everything out. And at the same time, as I came to these realizations, I also more fully embodied what I might call my essential nature, the deeper aspect that is about love, and compassion, and empathy, and heartfelt connection. This deeper aspect finally showed up to embrace and support the other part that had been abandoned. And somehow through all of that there has been an integration into a greater whole, like there are no longer separate parts inside of me, but rather different aspects working together as a whole being.

So in the end, I suppose I am grateful I went extra crazy that day. It’s that exquisite paradox of both beauty and horror all wrapped up in one experience. I came out of it feeling more whole, more integrated, and more real. And yes, I came out of it with more capacity to love.

AFOG — Another F*&%ing Opportunity for Growth

One day, a little over ten years ago when I was feeling suicidal, I was explaining to my sister and her husband my rationalization for it being perfectly okay for me to commit suicide. I was sharing how I had realized that if I killed myself, everyone would move on and be fine. People die every day, I said. People move past these things all the time, I explained. I was so deep in my own misery that I then went on to say one of the most cruel and hurtful things I ever remember speaking out loud. You see, my brother-in-law’s little brother had recently died in a car accident. He was a teenager or at the most in his early 20s when he died. In my utter narcissistic despair and obliviousness, I proceeded to point out to my brother-in-law that obviously he had moved on from the death of his brother, and that that was the proof of my undeniable logic. A deafening silence followed. My sister glanced at her husband. Then she locked her eyes on mine, and I’ll never forgot what she said to me: “Yes, people move on. But nothing is ever the same again. Their lives are changed forever.”

Those words and the energy behind them pierced through the veil of my despair to shake me awake. Needless to say, I didn’t commit suicide. But more than that, never again did I trivialize the depth and breadth of what we experience as human beings in this life, including the deepest grief, despair, and pain. The experience of loss, for instance, is not trivial simply because all of us must endure and move through it at some point in our lives. In fact, the experience can be utterly transformational in the most horrendous and most beautiful ways. Indeed, we will never be the same again.

Recently I ran across an article written by Mark Sandlin called, 10 Clichés Christians Should Stop Saying. Some of these clichés are said by more than just Christians and are generally used in an attempt to comfort ourselves or others going through a challenging experience:

Everything happens for a reason.

God (the Universe) never gives us any more than we can handle.

We could debate (endlessly) whether or not these statements are even true. But more important is how these statements are often used as a subtle way of trivializing our own or another’s experience. I cannot tell you how often people start to share with me the depth of their pain only to stop themselves with a “but” followed by a version of one of these statements. Another common sentence to follow the “but” is, “I’m seeing this as an opportunity for growth.”

It is fantastic to see that everything happens for a reason, or that we can handle whatever is in front of us, or that every situation is an opportunity for growth and evolution. But when we start to use these ideas as subtle ways of avoiding and trivializing our own pain, then we are bypassing the very path we must travel to grow, transform, and heal in the most profound ways.

What is needed for true transformation and healing is the capacity to hold and feel fully both sides of this coin — both the horrendousness and beauty, the pain and the transformative power, the grief and the love. A friend of mine once shared that she calls these situations AFOGs — another f*%&ing opportunity for growth. I love this because the f-bomb acknowledges the pain of the situation, and “opportunity for growth” speaks to the transformative potential. I find that all too often, we want to leave out the f-bomb. We want to avoid the pain at all costs. But when we do this, we are denying an aspect of life itself. As Vera de Chalambert says:

“We must not send suffering into exile — the fear, the heartbreak, the anger, the helplessness all are appropriate, all are welcome. We can’t dismember ourselves to feel better. Difficult feelings need to be given space so they can come to rest. They need contact. We can’t cut off the stream of life and expect to heal.” ~From Kali Takes America: I’m with Her

The capacity to be fully present with both the pain and the inherent transformative power in these situations is often not easy. It takes an ability to differentiate and dis-identify from powerful energies which can be so overwhelming and all-consuming that we literally think they are us. For me, this is a journey. It is a continual discovery that pain and transformative power are often inseparable. It is a journey I embrace because, in that moment when my sister looked me in the eyes, I decided to live.
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The Gift Within Your Health Crisis

flashlightWhen you are in crisis, the very idea that a gift lies within the experience can seem absurd or even offensive. What is the gift in receiving a life-threatening or debilitating diagnosis? How can there be a gift within being suicidally depressed or the experience of uncontrollable panic attacks? When you are the one in crisis, I have personally found that to be the most difficult time to see the gift. Of course, it is much easier to see the gift as an outsider. In fact, you will no doubt have at least a few people trying to comfort you with age-old clichés such as, “Well, you’re learning something, aren’t you?” or “Every cloud has a silver lining,” or “Don’t forget, everything happens for a reason.” In the midst of a healing crisis, not only can these tired clichés utterly fail to comfort us, often they enrage us because we feel completely unseen in the immensity of our pain by those whose profess to love us.

When it comes to facing a health crisis, whether mental or physical, it is very easy to dwell in fear, despair, and desperation. When you come to the point where your quality of life is seriously affected, or your life itself is threatened, you are in crisis. You will be challenged on all levels. There is no denying the difficulty of this challenge nor the painful feelings and experiences that often arise within it. But I have found that within the crisis also lies a gift, if you but choose to see it and focus your attention on it. This gift has many facets, and many of those facets will be unique to you. Here I wish to highlight some of those aspects of the gift that seem to be common for many of us.

Ironically, one aspect of the gift that lies within the crisis is the opportunity it gives you to notice its existence. No one can turn your eyes toward the gift but you, and that is part of the gift itself. When you make the choice to open to the possibility of there being a gift within the crisis, you are shown and experience unequivocally your own courage and your own power. You realize that it is within your power, and yours alone, to see and embrace the gift which lies there for you. You also experience, without a doubt, the enormous eye abstractcourage it takes to wrench your attention away from the despair and pain in order to look toward the gift, even if for only a moment. Within this profound realization, your power is given back to you (or rather, you see that it was yours all along). You realize you can choose where you focus your energy and attention, and ultimately, this means you have the power to directly affect your experience as you move through and meet your health crisis.

But there is even more to this gift, as if that were not enough. Another aspect of this gift is your own healing. When I say healing, I am not speaking of recovery from disease or injury as we normally conceive of it (although that is always a possibility as well). Rather, the profound healing I am speaking of could better be described as evolution. I just heard an interview with Jean Houston today in which she shared that the new paradigm of healing is not about fixing or curing, but rather about becoming. The gift within the crisis gives you the opportunity to allow your own unfolding into the next stage of your evolution — your becoming. More precisely, the opportunity is not actually in whether or not you will evolve (for that is inevitable), but rather to what degree and to what level you accept, allow, and embrace the flow of the evolutionary process itself. This includes the degree to which you are able to accept and love yourself — all aspects of yourself — as you move through the crisis and your own unfolding.

What will the experience of this healing and transformation be like for you? It will be unique to you. No one’s gift is the same, for we all unfold uniquely, even if we may all be heading in the same direction. It will depend upon where you are in your evolutionary process when you come upon your health crisis. It will depend upon countless other factors which make up the whole of who you are and the particular process you must go through. It will even depend upon your perception of the evolutionary process itself as you move through it. To what degree are you perceiving the process (your health crisis) as a gift and to what degree are you resisting it? This will be a factor in determining your experience of it. How much are you able to let go of the tendency to compare your own healing journey with another’s journey? This will also affect your healing experience. There are countless other factors as well.

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In the end, whether or not you experience this gift within the crisis as a gift or as a curse is a matter of perspective and choice. I believe we evolve through these experiences regardless of if we see the gift in them or not, although how easily, quickly, and consciously we experience that healing is largely up to us. None of what I’ve said here is meant to minimize or deny the challenge and pain in these situations. In fact, part of loving all aspects of ourselves through these times is in acknowledging the enormity of the pain we feel and then choosing to meet those parts of ourselves that hurt with unconditional love (rather than turn away with denial, avoidance, or condemnation). When we come upon these times, we have a choice in where we focus our energy and attention. Ultimately, we get to choose whether or not we see the gift because it exists as a possibility within our own hearts. The gift exists as an opportunity to experience, consciously and openly, our own evolution and healing.

In love & light,
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“There are kids starving in China.” Huh. Yep, I still hate peas, but now I feel guilty for hating peas!

As a youngster, I despised peas.  Peas were the enemy.  But for some reason, my parents insisted I eat them.  I accomplished this horrific task by attempting to swallow them whole as quickly as possible so as to hardly taste the awful things going down.  I also tended to drench them in butter and salt, which basically counterbalanced any nutritional value they once had, thus making the whole exercise fairly pointless.  I’m not sure if it was my parents or someone else who then pointed out that there are kids starving in China, so I should be grateful I have food on my plate at all.  We’ve all heard this line of reasoning in one form or another.  The problem was that I still hated peas.  Now, on top of being forced to eat peas, I was also horrified that there were kids starving in China.  I wondered why I was such a bad person to hate peas when those kids in China would be grateful to have them.  Ah, sweet, sweet guilt!

Even though most of us know by now the ridiculousness of that argument, the truth is we still do the same kinds of comparisons every day in hopes that we’ll suddenly feel better and grateful for what we have because someone else is supposedly worse off.  Lately, I’ve been noticing a somewhat disturbing tendency in my friends and clients to dismiss their feelings by comparing themselves to those “less fortunate.”  For instance, a client might spend five minutes pouring her heart out to me about how she just doesn’t feel passionate about her job anymore and is actually quite miserable.  Then, suddenly, she goes on to exclaim in an unconvincingly chipper voice, “Well, at least I have a job!  I know so many people who don’t have work.”  While it’s true that many people don’t have work and that situation certainly presents its challenges, this fact has absolutely nothing to do with my client feeling miserable in her current situation.  So why do we do this?  Do we actually feel better by comparing ourselves to people we think might be more miserable than us?  In the long run, I don’t think so.  I think we actually feel worse.

I believe the reason we feel worse is because all we succeed in doing is adding guilt to our misery, and guilt + misery only equals more misery.  The fact that we are feeling miserable for whatever reason doesn’t change, but now we also think we shouldn’t feel miserable because, after all, someone else would clearly feel grateful (or so we think) to be in our situation.  Sure, for a short time, we might feel better as we realize how lucky we are in so many ways.  That’s fantastic!  Gratitude is a wonderful thing.  Unfortunately, though, the problem is that after only a few hours or even a few minutes we often revert back to our original feelings, only now we are also disgusted with ourselves for not being able to stop those feelings.  I remember many times in my depressed states hating myself because I would look around the world and see the absolutely horrific atrocities happening to millions of people, and then I would look at my cushy little life and feel that I simply had no right to be depressed.  I ended up dismissing my feelings as invalid and had added yet another reason to hate myself.  You can imagine how well that worked out for me!

So the next time you are tempted to perk yourself up by comparing yourself to some poor, suffering soul like Kim Kardashian or Charlie Sheen, remember that being grateful for what you have has nothing to do with what other people lack, and your feelings are valid regardless of your situation compared to others.  For me, this realization was one small step toward loving and accepting myself just the way I am, pea-hater and all.

Aloha & blessings,

Penny