*Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series—lucky you! Follow Tzeli to get notified when the next article is available to read. And check out Toxic Myth #1 here.
“All you need is love,” said The Beatles.
And I see their point, to a certain degree. Nothing is more critical to our well-being and happiness than love.
But something about the phrase “all you need” makes me roll my eyes.
I would argue that this conventionally held belief is (not only) false but downright toxic. Why? Because it’s insidious; it camouflages itself as a virtue. It sounds like such an innocent, benevolent need.
“I’m so low maintenance…all I need is love.” Yet, below the realm of our awareness, it takes away our power to “be love” and rise to love. Just think about how defeated we feel when caught in the “Well, if you loved me, you would…” trap.
And what happens when there’s a gap between our “woulds” and reality? We start blaming love or our loved ones for our pain.
But sometimes, pain jolts us from the trance of illusion so we can finally see the truth about love. Which is precisely what happened to me a few weeks ago. While organizing my greatest life lessons into a series of toxic myths (out of love for you and my work), I lost my first love and greatest teacher: my mom.
My heart broke into a million pieces, and a meteor shower of epiphanies bombarded my mind. But as I work through my pain, I think of you. I want to pull some of those pieces together to tell you what the ultimate loss revealed to me about love.
Why the idea that “all we need is love” is harmful, and how I’m starting to realize that we need to rise to love (and be love) instead.
But first, let’s go back to the day that broke my heart.
It was a beautiful Friday morning in December. I had just returned from Santa Cruz from a little Christmas celebration with my partner and daughter. The house was festive, the Christmas tree was lit, and it smelled like almond shortbread. I was preparing food for a small New Year’s Eve gathering with loved ones. I was looking forward to a short getaway in San Francisco for my boyfriend’s birthday, the first week of the new year.
My work was flowing well too.
I created a new webinar for the Myndzen tribe called “From Chaos to Calm,” a step-by-step plan to make 2023 a happier year. I was getting ready for a podcast interview with a divorce coach I respect. And I was about to open enrollment to the winter session of my Burnout Brain Reboot program.
For a moment, all was all right. I felt content and excited. And that’s when I got the fateful call I’d dreaded receiving my entire life.
On the other side of the world, my mom was hospitalized in the ICU in septic shock.
Time stopped. And suddenly, nothing else mattered.
The New Year’s Eve celebration, my work, and my partner’s birthday getaway all became insignificant. The only thing that mattered was getting to my mom in time. But time was not on my side.
By the time I traveled the 6,500 miles from California to Greece, I faced a brutal reality.
My mom’s slippers were under her bed, her cardigan, smelling like her, was there, and the last book she was reading, The Mystery of Death, was sitting half open on her nightstand. But my mom, my first love, my greatest teacher was no longer there. She had finally escaped the pain and limitations of her health conditions.
She was free.
And I was devastated. Now I know, everyone would agree, grief sucks. It’s hard. But this was something different. An existential crisis of sorts. I could no longer find comfort in any of my core beliefs or life philosophies. I even questioned my mission with Myndzen.
The practical steps that have helped me and many others protect ourselves from getting derailed by life’s events seemed to no longer work. I felt disassembled. I had no idea how to contain the pain that overwhelmed me.
But then I remembered Jon Kabat-Zinn’s advice on how to relate to pain mindfully: “Put the welcome mat out for it.”
So, I resisted my automatic tendency to serve it wine, offered it some tea instead, and sat with it to hear its secrets. It showed me something I was oblivious to before. A “little girl” sitting on the floor in a corner, her head buried in her bended knees, talking between sobs.
I leaned closer to hear what she was saying:
I know you loved me, perhaps more than anyone ever will…you rubbed my back with Vicks vapor rub and made me lemon chicken soup when I was sick.
You taught me how to braid my hair and read the newspaper as a toddler—how to push my limits. You held my hand through my university scholarship application, my first break-up, and my bachelor’s graduation. Even when I gave birth to my own daughter, it was you who came to teach me the ropes.”
But how could you leave me without giving me the missing piece to my puzzle?
I still needed to know that you loved me for who I am.
Not only as the scientist you wanted me to be when I synthesized drugs in the laboratory but as the writer I want to be. Did you ever read my articles? Did you enjoy my perspectives? Did they help you see things differently? Were you proud of me when I left my corporate healthcare career and launched my own business? Or did you think that was a mistake?
I needed to know that you loved me when I made mistakes. When I failed. When I was grumpy. When I was scared, and I needed reassurance. I needed to hear that you valued me for all of who I am. That I didn’t have to sacrifice my voice or my needs to fit in.
That although I didn’t do what you wanted me to do with my life, you loved the real me even more.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was this “little girl” me? Why was she protesting? The grown-up me, with the bachelor’s Ph.D. research, and 19 professional certifications knows that the only approval that matters is my own!
Besides, I’ve done “my work.” I understand human development. I’ve read John Bowlby’s attachment theory and Dr. Felitti’s ACE study, among many others. I’ve processed and released past hurts through years of advanced therapeutic modalities like brainspotting and CRM.
My mom and I have forgiven each other for our past “mistakes.” We’d made peace with the fact that my dream for myself and her dream for me was different. In fact, we hadn’t had a single argument and had enjoyed a healthy relationship over the last decade of her life. There were no grudges, guilt, or resentments left between us.
All that was left was love.
So why wasn’t that enough when we had to say goodbye?
And then it hit me. My internal conflict started unraveling in front of my eyes. I realized that I’d been living my life with a defeating limiting belief hidden in the intricate networks of my nervous system that camouflaged itself as a virtue.
Love was what I did everything for. I believed love was all I needed. But I also believed that love was a byproduct of being of service. Something that we “earn” when we meet others’ needs. I could see that my inner child was not on the same page as the grown-up me. They were constantly fighting—getting in each other’s way. One tried to heal and evolve, and the other still held me hostage, for external approval.
And despite all that, I’d figured out how to work with what we’ve got (our mind, body, and emotions) to train my brain to work for me. Yet, I missed a critical piece:
We cannot outsmart our nervous system.
Healing is not a destination we reach when we check enough boxes. It’s a journey that I now know I’ll be on until I take my last breath. And I could finally see the light.
As it turns out, love is not all we need. What we need is to heal our nervous system. We need to upgrade its operating system from how our past experiences have programmed it. Cultivate our ability to be comfortable in the discomfort of triggers, and get to the bottom of how our unmet needs drive our behavior and life on autopilot without our permission.
Sounds like a tall order? It doesn’t have to be.
We can begin by recognizing the blind spots that create dissonance between our intentions and actions. When past wounds drive the show, so will perfectionism, people-pleasing, codependency, or self-judgment. We can choose to cut the cord from these exhausting ways of being.
How? By offering our brain alternative guiding principles that help it heal and evolve—one thought, one breath, one practice, and one day at a time.
Here are three guiding principles that can catapult our healing journey:
Enlightenment is not an abstract mystical concept of Buddhist monks but our ability to see things clearly.
At some point, my brain mistook my mom’s lack of praise and love for my creative side (and pointing me in a different direction) as disapproval for the part of me I love. That, coupled with the popularity of the “cry it out” parenting method at the time, created a hole in my heart.
My need to be seen, valued, and loved for who I am was unmet.
Healing is impossible until we give ourselves a break for how unmet childhood needs show their ugly teeth in our behavior without our permission.
I’m now learning how to forgive myself for how I’ve lived most of my life being a people pleaser, putting everyone’s needs before mine.
>> I gave a free pass to people who hurt me without holding them accountable for their behavior.
>> I failed to set healthy boundaries.
>> I never asked for what I needed.
>> I’ve had difficulty saying no and carried everybody else’s burdens on my shoulders.
Mindfulness has taught me how to become a non-judgmental observer of my thoughts and train my mind to stay present instead of living in the past.
But in a more practical sense, it has helped me see the root cause of my suffering.
How, without my conscious awareness, my nervous system (my brain) was generating thoughts that were expecting love (or my mom, my significant other, my daughter, or my job) to heal my past hurts and meet my unmet needs.
I wanted something from love and others that I could only give myself.
The love and approval to be me. The reassurance that I have my own back. I could finally understand how futile it was to try to fill the hole in my heart in all the wrong places. I could see why I burnt out a few years ago.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome resulting from chronic uncontrolled stress, characterized by ineffectiveness, cynicism, and exhaustion.” With all due respect to the WHO, their definition is missing something.
Yes, the struggle of workplace stress is real. After all, stress is our body’s response to demands. When life’s demands exceed our adaptation capacity, we’ll burn out.
But have you considered how exhausting it is to live our lives running in circles, trying to meet our needs for love and approval in all the wrong places? Stuck inside the prison of our mind, we fold our arms—fighting, fleeing, or freezing—expecting love and things outside of us to relieve our anxiety, fears, or the internal discomfort of not being on our own side. All along, my burnout prevention framework has been missing a vital piece.
The connection between love and burnout.
Because it’s always been about love: love for our significant other, our kids, our community, our work, our purpose.
>> Kill ourselves at work for the next promotion.
>> Give in to too many demands and conflicting priorities.
>> Try to lose the same 10 pounds over and over and over again.
>> Drain our energy in codependent relationships and sacrifice our needs to take care of others.
We don’t self-abandon and put ourselves last because we’re sadomasochists. We only do it because we think this is how we’ll finally satisfy our need to feel loved. Because that’s what our nervous system has encoded as pathways to love. However, healing is the only pathway to love.
The best description of healing I’ve come across is our ability to rewrite a past painful story so that it makes sense to the person we’ve become. Interestingly, my lifelong dream has always been to publish a book. While hanging out with pain and processing the loss of my mom, I’ve written—are you ready for this?—33,377 words.
I now know that I’m the only one who holds the missing piece to my puzzle and what I need to do to reclaim it. It starts with reestablishing what “good enough” is for me and showing my brain that I love and accept who I am. That I’m finally ready to take care of myself and meet my needs.
It begins with this moment.
Today, I may not have synthesized cancer drugs in the laboratory, but I’m pleased with all the little ways I’ve been able to show up for myself. Despite hanging out with pain, I cooked zucchini lasagna for my daughter and was able to be fully present with her. I chose to step outside of my fear that I’m a burden when I struggle and ask my partner for his support and reassurance, instead of shutting down when I feel insecure and scared. I set a healthy boundary with a longtime friend who not only hasn’t been there for me but shunned me for building a connection with a mutual friend (goodbye codependency). And I’ve been able to pause between a trigger and my tendency to pour a glass of wine and go to the gym to dance Zumba instead.
Instead of hiding until I “figure it out” and returning to tell you about “the hero’s journey,” I’m sharing my pain with you while sitting with it and drinking tea.
These may seem like small steps, but they’re critical steps to healing. The old me with unrealistic expectations would still be beating me over the head for not translating my epiphanies into a best-selling book or the next viral TikTok. Or for not knowing how to navigate the next few weeks, months, or years without my mom. But disassembled, broken-open me is content tonight.
After all, how good can this life be when I love and accept myself? When I have my own back?
I will probably miss my mom for the rest of my life. But in her life and death, this mighty five-foot woman has given me more lessons in love than one heart can ever bear.
And for that, I will love her forever—in this life and the next.
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