One of my biggest turning points came in the form of exhaustion. I found myself repeatedly exhausted–not the everyday exhaustion that comes from being busy or frazzled. It was a kind of existential exhaustion that seemed to permeate every cell of my physical and emotional being.
I realized I was exhausted because my underlying approach to life had been primarily formed by the energies of striving and struggle. Struggle, as in the expectation that things would be difficult, that I would have to brace myself for inevitable loss, that I must labor tirelessly for what I desired. Although it was always cloaked in optimism and enthusiasm, I realized this approach to life was burning me out. I reflected on how striving and struggle had helped me achieve so much, however, it was no longer serving me the way it once did. I was against a wall–I saw that my life-force had been muscled into striving and I could not continue that way anymore.
I reached a point where I had basically achieved much of what I wanted in life, but I still felt this impulse to keep striving from a place of lack and a belief that I needed something else to complete me. It was like a motor running. I realized this motor of struggle had been running my whole life. I had an interesting realization: struggle and striving felt good to me, this mode of struggle felt normal and very safe. What felt odd and uncomfortable was to NOT strive, but to simply BE.
This led me on a journey to discover much about what was going on underneath the impulse to struggle.
Ultimately, I realized that struggle is based on a belief in inner deficiency. It reinforces shame and a feeling of “not good enough.” There is desperation in struggle, a sense of having to over-compensate for an inner lack. It implies that we are not safe, not OK right now. There’s a sense of “you have to,” a kind of agitation and chaos.
As children, most of us had to strive very hard to prove our worth, either through academics, sports, or some other kind of competitive effort. However, there is a deeper layer of struggle under the surface, the struggle to survive emotionally intact in our families. Children don’t have many resources as they are completely dependent on adults to survive. What helped many of us get through the challenges of childhood was sheer force of will; every cell of our little bodies unconsciously aimed at survival, which was always some form of pleasing the adults around us.
A belief in struggle is a continuation of the early belief that we must struggle to earn the love of our parents, the love that was our very sustenance.
The impulse to struggle is due to an innocent, heartbreaking belief that if we could just become good enough through effort and willpower, the parent that we need will show up; that he or she is right around the corner, if we only can get it right.
Releasing the need to struggle comes with a deep reckoning that…this is it. There is nowhere to get to. Where you need to get to, you are on your way, and in fact you’re already there.
To a child, striving for the parent’s love is a form of safety. It means that there is hope because you can always try harder or be better. It gives hope that you will one day be good enough to get the love and nurturing that you need. Thus, your own inferiority or need for improvement is like a north star, guiding you closer to the elusive goal of “OK.” For a child, struggling to improve yourself is the only thing in your control.
One of the most enduring developmental beliefs is the child’s need to see the parent as all-powerful and perfect. The most terrifying thing for a child is to be utterly and completely alone, to feel how misattuned the parents are, how imperfect and dysfunctional. A belief in the parent’s perfection and benevolence allows the child to feel safe and to continue developing into an adult. For example, if a child comprehended how truly imperfect or neglectful the parent is, it would devestate the child, potentially enough to threaten it’s life.
There’s a belief within the impulse to struggle that you are not worthy of what you desire, so only through your suffering and effort can you hope to achieve it.
It is a belief that if you can only work harder, strive harder, work yourself to the bone, toil night and day, there is a chance that everything will be OK. As adults, this belief gets projected onto all kinds of people: the disapproving boss, the partner who won’t commit, the emotionally unavailable spouse, etc. It also gets projected onto things and situations: the new house, car, degree, any item that seems to promise to give you a sense of OK-ness.
As adults, in order to finally release the need to struggle, we need to allow ourselves to really grieve for the ways that struggle was necessary for us to survive as children.
When we refuse to engage in struggle, we allow ourselves to feel the grief underneath it. And underneath the grief, is immense energy, creative flow, peace, and an inner source of inspiration and support.
Struggle is the illusion of a future “landing place” that will never come.
When the impulse to struggle is operating, it means that we haven’t fully come to terms with our history. We are defending against the truth of our pain. Once mourned and accepted, we can move confidently into our power with ease and a quiet, undefended joy.
When we release the beliefs that we must “earn” happiness and that life is hard, we create a space to feel our true worth which cannot be earned. It’s already ours, by virtue of our Beingness.
As a parentified child, I had the belief that if only I supported my mother enough, she would one day be the mother I needed. I was striving for approval but didn’t want to be too good or successful that she would be threatened and withdraw. It was a double bind and I could never get it right. To realize this as a child would have been devastating. The unconscious belief was ‘If I stay small, mother will come’, meaning, if I keep myself attenuated and limited, that creates the space for mother to show up in the ways I need her to. I noticed that I hesitated and experienced sadness whenever on the verge of a major breakthrough in my life because I felt the gap of her absence. On a deep unconscious level, I was longing for my mother to show up in ways that I needed her to as a child. The child within me was still waiting. Still hoping.
My life changed when I really took it in on a deep level–no matter how much I struggled and strived, now matter how much I achieved or succeeded, I would never be able to have the mother I needed. This allowed me to see that I no longer needed to struggle or suffer because it wasn’t leading me to anything. It also helped me to see that my mother’s struggles were not my fault or my problems to solve.
This reckoning opened me up to the existential depression and aloneness that striving protected me from feeling as a child, the aloneness that probably would have killed me. However, as an adult, with skillful support and presence of trusted others, I was able to finally feel it thoroughly. To my surprise, underneath that awful sadness, something opened up. The utter despair opened up into joy, the joy of knowing the wealth and vastness of my Being, which has always been with me and could never leave me—because it is who I AM.
It’s worth mentioning that there is a difference between striving/struggling and having the focus to complete the necessary tasks to actualize your desires. The difference is that striving/struggling depletes you and taking centered-action energizes you. Striving is a form of contraction and taking centered-action is synonymous with Being, allowing, presence, resting and expansion.
In releasing the need for struggle, the body opens up immensely and becomes a trusted source of information. You become a living transmitter of the energies of expansion and embodiment that others can benefit from your presence. Things manifest in your life with ease and Being becomes the primary mode of your existence. By being who and what you ARE, you automatically experience the abundance and harmony of your Being. This becomes more subtle and nuanced over time and the challenges that arise are there to assist in this refinement and greater attunement with your inner truth.
Underneath the struggle and the grief lies the beauty and power of your undiluted self.
I invite you to leave a comment below. Thank you for reading!
© Bethany Webster 2013
(art credits in order of appearance: 31 red by Federico Infante, Wide Shut Mouth by Arina Gordienko, Mada Primavesi by Gustav Klimt, 32 red by Federico Infante, Pablo Picasso, Brad Krunkle, Terra Sheridan, Gustav Klimt, Josep Montecada, Meerestille by Ruth Shively)