Most of us think trying harder will help move us forward. Aundi Kolber suggests something different, and counterintuitive: try softer.
By Aundi Kolber
Growing up, I learned that though our home was deeply unstable and chaotic, no one would ever know about my hurt inside as long as I looked good on the outside. When my parents' fights became explosive and my dad's anger became terrifying, I learned to pretend I was fine in order to keep functioning. I didn't want anyone to see my pain because I feared it would be used against me. The unspoken agreement in our home was that we didn't talk about the abuse or the pain - so I didn't. Instead, I propped up my achievements and rigidity like a shield. I felt safer when no one knew how much I'd left unsaid or how many tears I'd cried in private. As long as I look strong, maybe I am strong, I reasoned.
But later, as I began to press into my beliefs, story, and training as a licensed therapist, I came to understand that I'm one of the 60 percent of Americans who grew up with some form of childhood trauma.* Naming and honoring this reality has been a vital part of my healing. Now I see that I did the best I could to adapt and survive the chaos of my family by expecting perfection from myself and white-knuckling it through pain. I had internalized the narrative that the only acceptable version of me was the shiny one; the put-together one; the perfect one. Living this way came at a great cost, often requiring me to numb or suppress my emotions and feelings, as though joy were completely out of reach. I thought this was just part of being a normal person, and in many ways, I believed this was what God wanted from me too. Yet ever so slowly - as I let myself feel again and tried softer with healing my wounds - a most unexpected visitor arrived: joy.
How Compassion Births Joy
For many years, I was puzzled by the words of Jesus where he invites us into "a rich and satisfying life" (John 10:10, NLT). At face value, I figured Jesus wanted us to hustle our way into abundance or show God how perfect we could be. Perhaps joy is a reward for perfection, I'd wonder. Maybe if I just try a little harder . . .
But then I would watch my kids giggle or see a gorgeous sunset and notice that in order to feel the goodness of that moment, I had to acknowledge the pain sitting at the edges. They were intricately connected. It also became clear to me that God wasn't shaming me for having big feelings and deep wounds. Instead, he wanted to be my safest resource as I processed my big feelings. While engaging in my own therapy and seeking out safe relationships, I also realized that God was inviting me to be compassionate to myself; to try softer.
It was then that I experienced fullness differently. I discovered that all the armor I'd used to stay safe in childhood was now keeping me from experiencing the connection and joy I longed for. But as Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, "We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions." This was certainly the case for me, and I have found that even folks who didn't grow up with childhood trauma are often influenced when our culture teaches us it's not okay to have feelings or to practice compassion.
And yet I can't help but notice that the economy of Jesus is always turning expectation on its head. We don't experience joy because we're perfect or shiny but because God is profoundly kind and created us for fullness. This same God who honors our pain also longs to meet us with hope and joy amid our messy, in-process lives.
Aundi Kolber is a Licensed Professional Counselor (MA LPC), writer, and speaker in Castle Rock, Colorado. She specializes in trauma- and body-centered therapies and is passionate about the integration of faith and psychology. She is the author of Try Softer: A fresh approach to move us out of anxiety, stress, and survival mode and into a life of connection and joy. She has also written for Relevant, CT Women, and (in) courage. As a survivor of trauma, Aundi brings hard won knowledge around the work of change, the power of redemption, and the beauty of experiencing God with us in our pain. Connect with Aundi at aundikolber.com.
*60 Percent of Adults Report Adverse Childhood Experiences," Medical Xpress, September 20, 2018, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-09-percent-adults-adverse-childhood.html