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Power Play: Kindness in (Literally) Dark Times

These are dark days.

The Winter Solstice is still a week away, so the days are literally growing darker.

In the Bay Area, much needed rains, the horrific deaths of 36 beautiful souls in the Ghost Ship fire, the impending doom of the imminent president elect, and the ongoing battle for sacred lands at Standing Rock are combining to create a palpable heaviness and fatigue in my communities, and my clients, and myself.

In response, I keep thinking about empowerment, how to turn toward light.

Part of the work I do with clients is distinguishing forces that are external versus those that are internal. If we unpack a story about how the world is “making us feel,” we often find an internal part of us that is actually doing the “making” (and the feeling).

This is good news. This means that we have some agency, some ability to shape our experience, because those internal parts can be identified and worked with, their stories unraveled.

Just this week a client, in a state of tortured ambivalence about her relationship, expressed the belief that she was a “bad person” for feeling this ambivalence, for not being sure about committing to her partner. The message of bad-personhood didn’t come from her love interest. It was an “inside” voice.

This inside voice also goes by our “inner critic.” Most of us have some version, which can range from irritating to downright cruel and for some, its attacks are debilitating. This is the part of us that says “you should…” and the rest of that sentence can be anything from do more yoga, make more calls to your congressperson and eat fewer potato chips to truly terrible things like you should not exist.

The opportunities for self criticism are infinite. Where this inner critic originates is a rich topic for therapy. For some, it sounds just like mom, for others its origins are more of a composite: The messages we get from society and the media get mixed up with the conscious and unconscious family rules of our upbringing.

What is almost always true, though, is that the voice we turn on ourselves is a lot harsher than anything we would say to someone else.

How does this relate to empowerment and darkness? Well an extraordinary thing can happen when we become aware of the voice of the critic. Often, if we can identify when our critic has risen up, we can choose whether to listen to it or not.

This is one form of empowerment.

Yes, I do want to call my congressperson.

No, I don’t want more potato chips.

Yes, I want to exist!

During these dark days, I’m encouraging my clients to work toward bringing a voice of sweetness and compassion into that internal dialogue. Compassion is critical right now—for folks facing oppression, for the grieving arts community, for our friends and family who are at a loss of how to bring more light forward—and an obvious place to start is with compassion toward yourself.

In this context, empowerment means permission to find and enjoy some joy, some lightness. What would this freedom look like, in this December time of darkness, if you took away the blistering inner critic?

For one client it looked like speaking truth to a parent with different political views.

For another, it meant finding enough groundedness, even in her grief, to volunteer on behalf of those impacted by the Ghost Ship fire.

For another it was booking a trip to visit a dear friend in New York City over the holidays.

For me, well, I’m rereading the Harry Potter books for the first time since the late-’90s.

What would a little more freedom, a little more light, look like for you right now?

Emily Fasten

Emily Fasten

Emily Fasten, MA, MFT is a therapist, group facilitator and writer in San Francisco. With a master’s degree, more than a decade of corporate writing experience, a regular yoga practice and a pretty good sense of humor, she is committed to helping clients be honest—in the here and now—about their experience; to be in self-aware intimate relationships with others; and to cultivate joy, aliveness and humor in everyday life.

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