I left my taxes until the last minute this year. And last year too, actually.
Finally, this morning I poured a cup of tea and settled in for my intimate and uncertain rendezvous with TurboTax—coming face to face with the anxiety that had kept me from doing them sooner in the first place. How would it go? Would I get a refund? Would I owe a ton of money without knowing how I was going to pay it by the 15th? Hope and fear battled silently inside me, and somehow not just my financial well-being but my sense of self seemed to hang in the balance.
Fortunately, although I was not feeling financially secure at the moment, my relationship with my 11-year-old daughter was paying dividends. Noticing my stress, she asked if she could make me some breakfast and facilitate me on a piece of work (yes, we do that at our house).
I discovered The Work of Byron Katie when she was about 4-years-old. It is a simple form of inquiry that gets to the root of things fast. More importantly, it allows me to use a stressful situation as a gateway to more freedom in every area of my life. I have been doing this work long enough to know that my stress this morning wasn’t really about money, and apparently so did my daughter.
The first two questions were simple:
Is it true that you won’t have enough money? (Yes).
Can you absolutely know that it’s true that you won’t have enough money? (No).
Then she asked, “How do you react when you believe the thought that you won’t have enough money?” Unsurprisingly I discovered stress, anxiety, a sense of foreboding and even more predictably, self-blame. There were thoughts underneath like, “You should have gotten to this sooner,” “You should be more organized,” and my personal favorite, “It’s your own damn fault.”
This last one has been operating silently and menacingly in the background for decades. I have stumbled upon it so many times that we are almost friends now. I actually kind of like how cheeky it is, adding in the “damn” for emphasis. It comes up almost every time I do inquiry.
In fact, every client I have ever worked with over the past 15 years has discovered an underground river running inside them of self-blame. It doesn’t take much digging to find it. Even the well-defended and seemingly most confident people possess it—in fact it’s all the more tender and obvious to an outsider such as myself because it is so easy to see what they are actually defending against: the fear of being somehow bad or wrong.
What I have come to see is that this thought, “It’s my own damn fault,” pretends to protect me. If I hold on very tightly to this thought, finding all the evidence of what I should have done differently, then I will be able to do it better next time—and then I will be safe, secure, and peaceful.
The fact that this internal harassment hasn’t actually resulted in more peace and security after 40-some years doesn’t seem to detract from my devotion to it. And there is a very logical reason for this: self-blame isn’t actually about making us better, smarter or more organized next time—it’s about control.
Control is perhaps the most fundamental mechanism of maintaining an ego, a sense of self.
If I didn’t believe that things were my fault the fear is—amazingly—that I might discover I don’t really exist at all. I might have no impact, no way to make things turn out well for myself. I would be utterly at the mercy of life, of whatever blows through my experience, internally and externally—and, of course, of the IRS.
The fact that I am already at the mercy of all of those things can be safely ignored as long as I hold onto the belief that I can have an impact. And that requires that I continually pretend that I could have done things differently in the past and therefore can do them differently in the future—the two places over which we have absolutely no control.
As my daughter sat there happily eating her grapefruit my mind was getting blown.
This wasn’t about filling out a Schedule C, it was about whether I exist in the way that I have pretended to.
Who would I be if I could never again believe that I had done something wrong, or that I could have done things differently? Damn, I’d be my own best friend. I would treat myself the way I treat my children, non-punitively. What’s done is done. I love you. How can I help?
Without self-blame I would attend to myself just the way that my daughter was doing over breakfast.
I had been investing in her for years and here was the return on that investment: she was mirroring unconditional kindness back to me beautifully.
After so many years of getting to know this thought—that if things don’t go the way I want then it must be my fault—it just popped. This wasn’t merely an intellectual understanding. It was that I finally saw all the way to the root of it, and it dissolved. A weight was lifted off of me. I didn’t care anymore about whether I would get money back this year, or owe it, or wind up on a payment plan. Without the belief that it was my fault this was just another opportunity to love myself, however things turned out.
Byron Katie suggests that we consider what it would be like to look forward to the thing that we have been most dreading. For me that would be, “I look forward to owing tons of money to the IRS.” I often find it pretty radical just to say this kind of thing out loud, by the way—and I wholeheartedly invite you to try it out with your most dreaded thing.
In this case it is easy to see how I can look forward to owing a lot of money. If I had to choose between getting a tax refund or being free from self-blame for the rest of my life, well, there’s just no contest. Besides, without at least the fear of owing taxes this year I would never have discovered the power and freedom of my own innocence.
I am finally getting to see what has really been taxing me for so long, and it has nothing to do with the government.
Fortunately for me, I just found my biggest write-off.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta