Robert Strock continues a discussion of the third level of awareness with guest David Knapp. They explore deeper levels of moving toward self-compassion. The process of developing self-compassion is not a one-time experience. It’s a repeated course of thought and action where we continually identify difficult feelings and our response to them. This self-awareness practice involves introspection and learning to listen to ourselves and what we need, rather than ignoring difficult feelings. Without identifying, acknowledging, and bringing our intention to care for ourselves, we most frequently get caught in a fight or flight response to our own feelings. Either response leads to disconnection from ourselves and those around us. The isolation from others and disconnect from our own hearts push us into a place of alienation.
By questioning ourselves in our trying times and asking if we like these feelings, we can get clear that this is a sure sign of self-rejection. This allows us to realize not only the rejection but also can encourage us to develop ways to move toward healing. Strock uses his experience through a years-long challenge through medication reactions related to a kidney transplant as an example, as well as the lessons and examples provided by working with and learning from terminally ill clients. Consistently realizing how we reject ourselves helps us work toward self-acceptance and self-compassion. This also allows us to care in a more empathic way for others.
Note: Below, you’ll find timecodes for specific sections of the podcast. To get the most value out of the podcast, I encourage you to listen to the complete episode. However, there are times when you want to skip ahead or repeat a particular section. By clicking on the timecode, you’ll be able to jump to that specific section of the podcast. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors. For an exact quote or comment, please contact us.
Awareness That Heals, Episode 19.
Robert Strock: (00:03)
It’s easy for someone that’s feeling love or peace to be loving and peaceful. That doesn’t require any effort you just float. Whereas if you’re feeling lousy and you still are able to maintain a life of integrity, honesty, maybe even purpose that’s where you deserve the most credit.
Speaker 2: (00:26)
The Awareness That Heals podcast helps its listeners learn to develop the capacity, to have a more healing response to emotions and situations rather than becoming stuck. Your host, Robert Strock has practiced psychotherapy for more than 45 years. He wrote the book Awareness That Heals, Bringing Heart and Wisdom to Life’s Challenges, to help develop self-caring and the capacity to respond in an effective way to life’s challenges. Especially at times when we are most prone to be critical or to withdraw together, we will explore how to become aware of our challenging feelings and at the same time find alternative ways to live a more fulfilling and inspiring life.
Robert Strock: (01:07)
Welcome again, to Awareness That Heals, Bringing Heart and Wisdom to Life’s Challenges. We’re continuing to talk about something that is very subtle and most often hidden outside of our awareness. And what makes it so important is that it has a tendency to be insidious. And it is how we reject ourselves in ways that because they’re unseen, it freezes us there. So the theme that we’re going to continue with today is moving from self-rejection towards self-compassion. I’d Like to first start off by introducing Dave, who’s my partner at the Global Bridge Foundation and 50 year closest friend.
David Knapp: (02:03)
Thank you for the introduction. It’s great to be here, such an important discussion about all the different things and Awareness That Heals, the book. But particular for me, this one, this one is important to nail down, really important to nail down.
Robert Strock: (02:22)
Thanks for that. So in the last episode, we ended with me trying to highlight these three levels of awareness that are so crucial in moving from self-rejection towards self-acceptance.
Robert Strock: (02:44)
And it started with my reaction to the kidney transplant medications, and a hell of it actually went on for 10 years and how really I survived it, and to a large extent, it started with the awareness of the many different varieties of challenging feelings from exhaustion, anxiety, anger, intolerance, reactivity. I come up to a red light or come up to a light and it turned red and I go, and I, and I really have a, a big shit, you know, I I’d be, I’d be pissed off. And then I, then I’d kind of laugh at my incredible irrational contracted reactions.
Robert Strock: (03:38)
Then I became aware of that, which in addition to the original feelings that I had a reaction to, to the feelings that was self-critical, or I was kind of in an emptiness and couldn’t in a sense, assume my goodwill, couldn’t really sense or even have a place from my inner knowing. And I’m saying that rather than have a positive feeling, because I wasn’t capable of a positive feeling, but I couldn’t even track my inner knowing because I would have a judgment that I hated feeling really lousy. And then I learned that I needed to operate from a different level of defining myself by how I felt that I needed to respond from a place inside. That would be the best I could be. So I started asking the question of how can I really be my best self given how horrible I felt. And that became the guideposts that became my central identity to be that questioner.
Robert Strock: (04:53)
And also to really listen carefully. Sometimes it said, lie down. Sometimes it said, do a session. Sometimes it said receive a session. So whatever it was I learned to trust that kind of questioning as the third level. And that allowed me to really, let’s say, make the best of a horrible situation. And to realize that wisdom in these circumstances is more important than feelings. And that’s a very counter instinctual place because like everyone else I wanted to feel good and my unconscious wanted to feel good. And when I didn’t feel good at first, it was very, very upsetting on a, on another level. And to some extent, I still usually had to go through a level of that, but then the question would come and, an evenness started to occur.
David Knapp: (05:59)
What you said just now is where I wanted to actually ask the question, which in those first months and extended period of time where you weren’t sleeping more than an hour a day, it occurs to me that this is a back and forth and a back and forth between all of these three different levels that it’s not just a flash of insight–it is a ongoing, as you said in the prior episode, retraining, and it takes time and effort, and you did that work.
David Knapp: (06:34)
I was watching and being there as much as I could be as your friend, while you were doing that, can you speak to that perseverance?
Robert Strock: (06:46)
You know, in a way it helped that it was so persevering itself and that I had no other option. Wasn’t like I could go to sports, even though I went to sports, I still felt lousy. Yeah. I guess maybe I could have become a drug addict or an alcoholic that probably would have given me some, uh, some relief at one level and maybe an addict at another, but really what it came down to is I had been very fortunate from 18 to 50, especially in my adult life. Not that my childhood was, uh, that challenging. It had its challenges, but, but from 18 to 50, I had a baseline of recognizing myself as being a good person, fundamentally. So it was easier to make the distinction between how I felt in the present versus how I felt in the past.
Robert Strock: (07:44)
And in a certain way, as I say that, it makes me feel for people who were, let’s say by their DNA or their chemistry or their hormones or illness from their childhood who never had the time to contrast those identities. And so it became a bit easier to dis-identify with the feelings and to look for an alternative as I did with the questioning and the wisdom. So for people that are listening that have been chronically anxious or chronically depressed, my heart goes out to you and for you. The chances are also very good that wisdom will be your path. Now in a certain way, I re, it re, it reminds me of my first hero in college, Victor Frankl, who gets the ultimate credentials of being in a Nazi camp and developed a will to meaning that is another word for wisdom, and he obviously found wisdom and then carried it through while he was at the threat of being killed chronically and being an inspiration for those around him, that he also knew that he was a good person before, so he had that advantage.
Robert Strock: (09:16)
So I would say what helped me persevere was being able to both dis-identify from being my feelings because of having a prior identity. And because my work as a therapist was to identify feelings, I could pretty easily identify the feelings of, of hell that I was in. So, I had a couple of head starts that most people don’t have. The experience of understanding self-rejection actually did come at a much deeper level after the transplant. So that was the big epiphany that occurred because I had never been so internally cruel to myself when I was in a hopeless situation. And it became obvious that I was doing that. And that it was another level. There was a teacher along the way that asked me, it was a meditation teacher, and I was telling him a hundred thousand moments in a row, I’d felt like shit. And what could I do?
Robert Strock: (10:26)
And he was Tibetan and he was going through the translator. And the most important words he said to me was see if you’ve can find a place inside you where you know you’re not your feelings and you know that you want to care no matter how bad you feel. And it, and it shot me into tears. And it was kind of an awakening of that possibility that that yearning to care was still there, even though it didn’t lead to caring. So that was also very, very helpful. So between that and starting to realize that this question that happened probably four or five months after the transplant and the medication effect of questioning myself over and over again, probably questioned myself 2, 3, 4, 500 times a day, how can I best take care of myself? How can I best take care of myself?
Robert Strock: (11:35)
I know you, I know you feel lousy. I know you’re not doing this on purpose. I know this would be hard for everyone. How do you take care of yourself when you feel like shit all the time? Well, you can think in a way that’s empathic towards yourself. You can give your attention to those that are your clients, that, you know, you care for, even though you can’t feel your caring in the same way that you used to be able to feel. So the, the constancy of that being as good as it could get, in some way stabilize me and the thoughts would go through my mind, I’m more proud of you. And I don’t mean it in an egoic pride. I trust you more now than I’ve ever trusted you. If you ever get out of this and you’re just floating and you’re just helping change the world, I guarantee you, you deserve more credit now than you will then.
Robert Strock: (12:36)
I remember saying that to myself over and over and over again. And these last five years have been ones where I finally found a way to be able to sleep eight hours a night, and my chemistry is balanced and the gratitude is immense. And some really great things are happening. And I still agree with myself then what I’m doing now, it’s easy for, for someone that’s feeling love or peace to be loving and peaceful, that doesn’t require any effort, you just float. Whereas if you’re feeling lousy and you still are able to maintain a life of integrity, honesty, maybe even purpose, that’s where you deserve the most credit. And so there’s something about reversing the credit system. That really helped me because my wisdom knew that I was at my best and my feelings felt like I was at my worst. And I did trust by wisdom more than I trusted my feelings.
Robert Strock: (13:53)
So that’s really what helped me get through it. So in speaking to clients then and now, one of the expressions that I start off with everybody pretty much is, of course all of us have difficult feelings and we need to reverse our conditioning and our view that it’s the good feelings I want to show and I want to see, and it’s the bad feelings I want to hide and I don’t want to see, and we need, we need to see that doesn’t mean we want to hide our good feelings. It just means that we need to include our challenging feelings on the same level as we do our good feelings and deep inside, have our wisdom validate that this is harder than it is when I feel good. One of the things that’s been very evident and really helped a part of my work, that was pre-existing work, was dealing with people that are dying. And people that are dying they’re aware of or more accurately they feel, because they may not be aware of, but they feel terrified or depressed.
Robert Strock: (15:23)
And of course there’s some exceptions or people that have faith and they, they, they really are dominantly feeling okay. Even though I would say very likely that subconsciously there’s a part that doesn’t feel okay, but the people that are dying are living in a simpler life where their feelings are really difficult to deal with. And so it requires a lot more silence and being with them. And so asking them the question, how do you feel about being depressed or feeling helpless or feeling useless or feeling like you have no purpose anymore? How you, how you doing with that? And almost always, they would say some version of what are you talking about? I became a little bit more articulate later on after I got enough of those. And then it was, it was more something like, I know it’s incredibly difficult, but can you support yourself at all while you’re in this difficulty it’s more, the more frequent version of that.
Robert Strock: (16:27)
And the answer almost invariably was, no not very much. And then there’ll be questions like, do you think you deserve it? Do you think this would be easy for anyone? And when they became aware that this would be difficult for everyone, it restored a sense of a being joined because part of the difficulty of having very serious illness or dying is the aloneness and not being able to share the inner experience because it’s too dreadful, it’s too horrible. And we usually trick ourselves into believing, well, I don’t want to bring you down to my level of misery, so I’m not going to share it. And so really supporting people that are in this situation, and the reason why I’m highlighting this is because it’s just as true if we’re not dying, but it becomes more easy to see if you see it in the context of dying, because there’s more obvious legitimacy that being able to find a way to connect where yes, I’m feeling useless to my kids.
Robert Strock: (17:37)
I’m feeling like I’m a burden to my wife or my husband. And I would ask something along the lines of how, how are you going to take care of yourself while you feel like a burden? Is there any way you can take care of yourself while you feel worthless or purposeless? And at first the answer was, I’m not sure. And again, it would require hundreds of those questions. And it was quite amazing how simple little things like I could let my close friend know that this is what I’m experiencing and just having that connection would matter. Or I could let my kids, if they’re old enough, know that it’s very difficult, but I still want to be involved in their life right up until the end. I don’t want to just stay in an isolated compartment. I want to, I want to stay engaged with you or the same with your wife or your husband.
Robert Strock: (18:38)
I don’t want to isolate. I don’t, I don’t want to deny my feelings, but I don’t want them to completely take over my world. My wisdom is telling me, I want to find a balance that might mean I need more than normal. It will mean I need more than normal attention, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have a significant minority of me that really wants to do my best to still relate to you, to ask you if there’s a way I can be of support by talking about it, anything, or by doing anything, even if it’s small. So crucial that we see we’re, we’re endeavoring to reverse millennia of conditioning. It’s not just our parents. It’s not just our culture. It’s our whole world. And it’s not just our whole world. Now it’s our whole world forever that is wanting to focus on feeling good, on being in whatever level, useful or productive.
Robert Strock: (19:36)
And so when we’re in feelings that are the opposite of that, literally by example, they were buried. So we’re talking about digging up the grave, taking the casket above ground, above ground and opening it up, seeing what’s there. And then seeing probably our first feeling of repulsion, a horrible smell, aversion, and then realizing boy it’s difficult to be dead. It’s difficult not to judge being dead. And how can I take care as best I can of both of these feelings. And when we remember all three were actually pointing our best self toward our wisdom. And especially when we asked the question with sincerity and it can’t help but remind me of Jesus of saying, ask and you shall receive. It’s like if we remember to ask and especially ask from our heart or ask for our wisdom, no matter what we feel, we can and we will move if we have enough sincerity and persistence.
David Knapp: (21:02)
As you speak and particularly poignantly about this example of end of life deaths and frame it that way. And I reflect back on you saying to yourself in your hardest times, this would be hard for anyone, this would be hard for anyone. And of course the ultimate is that, end of life, this would be hard for anyone. And so, and everyone is going to go through that.
Robert Strock: (21:42)
Yeah, I mean, that’s very important. And the earlier in life, we can start if we do it for a decade or two, and we get a head start on it it’s going to help us. If we have to try to learn that while we’re dying, it may be very, very hard to learn that fast. And, and it’s very clear that it would be very hard for anyone and it’s less obvious. But to me, it seems clear. It’s very hard for anyone to be anxious. It’s very hard for anyone to be depressed. It’s very hard for anyone to be jealous or insecure, very hard, very hard to tolerate. And if we, if we bring it above ground, I like the image of taking a casket and bringing it above ground. If we really realize how difficult, difficult feelings are, it almost can’t help but bring up a bit of empathy for ourselves and for those around us.
Robert Strock: (22:51)
And I guarantee you even the most miserable creatures in the world who let’s say the murderers or the mass killers, they went through a stage of feeling beaten or tortured or abused that proceeded their actions or their chemistry had them wired toward rage. And that even there, they were in a misery that they just simply couldn’t recover, but it helps to see that even the most miserable creatures have suffered immensely and probably were at the peak of suffering. Very likely, not consciously, during and after their terrible heinous acts. I’m in no way condoning any kind of action like that. Even expression of anger without getting permission first from people that you’re close to, but it’s important to see that we’re all suffering. It is the universal condition. Now that brings me more towards what Buddha said, life is suffering. It’s like life is suffering, but we do our best with our ego to make it appear like life is fine.
Robert Strock: (24:15)
Life is good. I’m good. I’m doing really well thanks, standard pat answer. And when we realize that this is really a way of checking out, it’s like in a certain way, it’s another form of homelessness. Where we don’t have a home and reside where we’re living our home is where we are and how we respond to how, how we are. And if we aren’t even where we are, we’re double abandoned. So it’s helpful maybe to see ourselves as emotionally homeless, when we abandon where we are, where we think our standards are more important than our actual experience, and that’s the normal condition for most people. And so the reality is, can you imagine, and I’m really asking you to imagine that your conversations with friends and with family that are inclined or friends that are inclined. To share what it is, is most challenging not to be self-indulgent and to share what your attitudes are about those feelings, and then to help each other question, how can I really be sensitive to you?
Robert Strock: (25:35)
What are your unique needs? Because everyone’s different. One person might like you to touch their shoulder, and another person might want to punch you in the mouth if you touched their shoulder. One person might want you to ask a bunch of questions and the other person will sit down tired of talking about it. So we can’t assume we know what the answer is, the question, and that’s why we need to ask a question rather than be an expert. So one real case study that demonstrates what I was talking about with a terminally ill client was that I noticed that he was really pretty checked out and he had two kids and a wife and his kids really were in a horrible state of abandonment and loss as was his wife. And I, I asked him something along the lines of, do you feel like your life is over in terms of your emotional life?
Robert Strock: (26:29)
I’m not talking about your physical life, talking about your emotional life is over. And he said, yeah. I said, do you feel like, it’s almost no chance for anyone to really understand what you’re going through? And he went, yeah. So I said, well, what are you going through? So he, he went on to tell me that the feelings of uselessness and failing, feeling like he’s failing his kids and that he’s a burden to everybody and he’d be better off dead. So they didn’t have to be burdened for much longer. And I asked him, I said, well, do you think, you know, this would be difficult for, for everyone? And he said, yeah, of course it would be. And do you think you deserve any mercy at all? Do you think you deserve, or do you think that you deserve punishment? I mean, are you particularly bad, you know, that you deserve punishment and he, yeah, he, he laughed, he said no I’m not, I’m not worse than the average Joe.
Robert Strock: (27:21)
And then, so what do you think there’s any way that you can care for yourself? Or is there any way that you could feel even in the tiniest of ways useful? And he realized that he was living in a state of withdrawal and that lot of the reason why he felt burdened, I’m sorry, burdensome was because he wasn’t connecting. He was isolating and that made it be two deaths. It was his physical death and his emotional death. And so in asking him, is there any way that he could be more emotionally connecting? He actually lit up, he actually, just that question itself. And he said, you know what, I could stay more inquisitive with my kids and my wife. I could stay more engaged. And literally over a period of a few days, he started to communicate with all three of them in a way he hadn’t.
Robert Strock: (28:28)
And his feelings of being burdensome reduced by at least 50 to 70% and his feelings of, you know what it takes a lot of effort. But what I’m doing, doing is making the best of the hardest situation that we face. So it’s really important whether you or I are going through a much smaller version of that, where we’re feeling inadequate, we’re feeling alone, we’re feeling competitive, we’re feeling insecure, no matter what it is to recognize all of our challenging feelings are really difficult. And we’ll have a tendency to move us into fight or flight that when we’re there, our normal tendency is to either fight against them or fight against somebody else or flee from ourself and our heart or flee from them. And that oftentimes the difficult feelings, aren’t the worst part of it. The worst part of it is our fight flight reaction from them, because then we’re just angry or we’re just completely out of our heart.
Robert Strock: (29:41)
And that’s what creates another level of alienation. It doubles or triples the suffering, because not only do we feel bad, we feel bad about the way we were responding to feeling bad. And so hopefully this gives you a glimpse that will be a sustaining glimpse that won’t be able to sustain unless you repeat it over and over and over again. So I hope you’ll join me in that repetition. I know, I know having done this for quite a while, that if I don’t repeat it every day, multiple times every day, literally when a challenging feeling comes up, I will forget a challenging feeling is a hypnosis, a very effective hypnosis. It gets to, what no this one’s different than all the other ones in the past. This is more severe if I’m afraid of a medical appointment. No, no, this one’s different. This one’s different. So we trick ourselves. We get tricked. So we, we can’t afford to give up the practice of identifying the challenge, identifying the form of self-rejection and asking ourselves the question of how we can best take care of ourselves or how we can best take care of others or how others can best take care. Thanks so much.
Join The Conversation
Thanks for listening to Awareness That Heals. Please click subscribe, so you won’t miss an episode. If you love the podcast, the best way to help spread the word is to rate and review the show. This helps other listeners, like you find this podcast, we’re deeply grateful you’re here and that we have found each other. We encourage you to download our Introspective Guides at awarenessthatheals.org, they will be helpful to you while listening to our podcast.