The Atmosphere of Our Life Wasn't Working...

I’ll never forget sitting in my therapist’s office moaning about all the things I was mad about (although I didn’t admit I was mad at the time) and complaining people expecting so much of me all the time.


Scott and I had hit a rough patch in our marriage. We weren’t communicating well. That’s what brought me to this visit. Or so I thought.

The life we’d dreamed would be SO perfect was off track. I was stressed all the time, barely sleeping, working too many hours, yet unproductive, and we were as poor as church mice. We couldn’t seem to resolve our struggles without me getting all defensive, eventually spiraling - with either too many unhelpful words or stifled silence.

As I sat in the therapist’s office, running through all the reasons that my unhappiness was everyone else’s fault, I was looking for a little more sympathy than I got if I’m being honest.

I thought he would say, “Oh Emily, you are amazing and doing everything right. Scott is the one who needs to change, along with all those insensitive people in your life who are requiring so much of you.”

But that isn’t what happened. Not even close.

Instead, he kindly and gently reminded me that no one could possibly know what I need until I told them. No one else would ever decide how much was too much for me. I would have to create the parameters. No need to be mad or to make anyone feel badly for asking, I just needed to learn the phrase, “I don’t have the capacity to (fill in the blank) right now, but thank you for thinking of me.”

This whole concept of asking for what I needed and creating space for personal care was totally new territory. It may sound small to some people, but this reality was groundbreaking.

If I didn’t like my job, I didn’t need to wait for a magical career unicorn to discover me. I would have to take steps, start having conversations, and begin making small decisions that would move me closer to a career I would love. It started small, like visiting libraries to read up on subjects I wanted to learn about. Those small steps, one after the next, led to a writing career I truly never could’ve dreamed of.

If I was spending too much time on activities that didn’t make sense for me, I needed to say “no” to those things. Every time I let go of something ill-fitting, I felt freer and learned that I was not nearly as indispensable as I thought. This, too, was shocking.

Our life began to move in a better direction, slowly but surely. It started when we each decided to take responsibility for our life, rather than blaming everyone else or waiting for God to make the consequences of our choices go away. Those consequences were valuable teachers, after all.

At first, it seemed “unspiritual” to take ownership and say “no” to things (and people) that weren’t the best for us. After all, we were taught that spirituality equated to putting everyone else’s needs above ourselves. But trusted voices challenged our small, ego-centric way of thinking.

What a surprising discovery it has been to learn that responsibly managing our time, resources and potential actually grows our spiritual life (and every other area of life) beyond imagination. There’s simply nothing spiritual or healthy about pandering after the fleeting approval of fickle people (or the side serving of resentment we get as a result).

Come to find out…

  • Sleeping enough hours and taking time off isn’t lazy. It’s a public service. We are far less cranky and more productive when our input and output are well-balanced.

  • It is possible to be kind - even loving - to people who hurt or drain us, without allowing them full access to our life, time, trust, or self-esteem. It is not easy, but necessary for creating an atmosphere that isn’t destructive to our souls (and theirs).

  • Pleasing people is very different from loving people. Most of the stuff stealing our time, money and energy wasn’t eternal or lasting, it was about appeasing fickle people in the short term, which is very different from deepening our roots and drawing from the Eternal Source of Love.

  • Reserving significant space for soul-nourishing relationships isn’t frivolous or selfish. It’s sacred. I’m unproductive and ill-tempered when I am not spending enough time with the people who know me, ground me and challenge me.

  • Until we improve the atmosphere in our own brain-space, there will not be significant change in our home, community or world. (Again, would’ve loved one of those magical unicorns, but we aren’t going to get one. It’s on us, friends.)

Creating an atmosphere of love in our lives is a long game. And we’ll never get it perfectly right. But the point isn’t perfection, it’s the direction we’re moving and the intentionality with which we are living.

It’s a little like refurbishing a fixer upper — because aren’t we all kind of fixer uppers? We get a few years on us and realize that the things we’ve not attended to have piled up a bit. We might start with damage control - the big gaping holes and leaks that will only get worse as long as we ignore them.

When we experience how much better it feels to attend to those things, we wonder how much better this place might get if we kept going. So we rebuild a structure or tear out one that no longer belongs, and we fix that squeaky hinge, and, if necessary, rework the wiring on the main floor.

Sometimes - lots of times - we need a hand and have to ask for help. Until, one area at a time, our world feels more livable. The light hits that one corner just right and we like how it feels, and that brings a glimmer of hope. So we keep going.

Slowly there comes a point where there is, finally, more beauty than destruction… more depth than angst… probably some breathtaking moments in between all the ordinary ones. And, while the work may never be fully done, it gets easier to be here.

We’re headed on vacation soon and we typically devote a little time during our days away to talk about anything that isn’t working and how we might better handle those things. Then, when we get back home, we continue to pursue the kind of atmosphere in our corner of the world that we would like to see grow.

That’s what this week’s Love Better Minute is about, which you can view here.